Thrillers need to be page-turners with cracking plots, plenty of twists and great characters (particularly in psychological thrillers). They also need to have exceptional antagonists. However, I would argue that every novel needs an antagonist, even if the bad guy isn’t a guy, may not seem to be bad (at first) and may not even be human.
1. Think about your five favourite works of fiction. Who or what are the antagonists?
2. Think of your five favourite antagonists.
Mine are (and they are not necessarily related to my five favourite novels):
Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs
Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint in The Usual Suspects
Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights
Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness
The monster in Frankenstein
What you’ll notice from this list is that these antagonists aren’t straightforwardly evil, although certainly some of them are pretty nasty. Lecter, a cannibalistic psychopath, grows to care for and mentors Agent Clarice Starling; Heathcliffe is also Cathy’s lover in Wuthering Heights, even if he becomes vengeful after her death; and the monster is, at first, pitiful when he is abandoned by his creator. What they have in common is that one can empathise with their pain, if not their means of expressing it.
3. Now think of the story you are writing.
Who or what is the antagonist?
What are his/her/its key character traits?
What do they need?
What do they want?
What motivates them?
What is their background?
What makes them so dangerous or frightening, and why are they hard to defeat?
Is there more than one antagonist?
Does a character become more antagonistic or are they secretly a villain but they appear to be a friend?
What makes him or her into the villain, or become known as an enemy at that point in your story, and why?
Remember that your antagonist may not be a person, but could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state (for instance, a tornado, a plague, fame, a conspiracy, an addiction, alcoholism or anorexia could all be antagonists). If you’re writing about someone who is battling addiction, the antagonist is the addiction and some of these questions will still apply – what does your character need to fuel the addiction; find out as much as you can about this specific addition: what makes it so dangerous, frightening and hard to defeat? What will happen to your hero if he or she can’t recover from their addiction? And how will they ultimately defeat their inner demon?