The antagonist is that person or thing that stands between your protagonists and their goals. Great stories always feature great antagonists, because the villain determines the course of the story as much or more than the hero. Whether you’re going into the third edit, or you just sat down to start your first draft, it pays to reexamine your hero’s greatest problems.
Nasty, wicked folks out to destroy the universe, your character, or all that is good in the world are the first thing you probably think of when someone mentions an antagonist. You can probably think of a dozen right off the top of your head. There is Darth Vader, Voldemort, Green Goblin, and Hans Gruber. We love them, but we love them because they’re so nasty. Although these traditional antagonists often get a bad rap for simplicity, you have the power to complicate them. Give them believable goals, and remember that those goals don’t have to be purely evil to make problems for your hero. All the villain really needs to do is stand between the hero and their desire.
Not all villains wear black cloaks or blood red armor. Some are actually good people. They just make it impossible for your hero to be happy. These antagonists of inconvenience often appear in romantic triangles and slice of life vignettes. If your world doesn’t need a super villain, then look for the neighbor next door who clicks just a little too well with your secret crush. Look for the lunch-stealers at work, and even consider your character’s closest friends. Sometimes the people we care about the most hurt us the deepest.
Fighting against ‘the man’ means fighting something much bigger than any one individual. Protagonists who face oppressive regimes, racist social standards, and powerful corporations that do not have the public interest at heart face huge odds. These villains may be faceless, glimpsed only by their effects in the character’s life. Maybe, like Gatsby, an ominous advertisement will be the audience’s only concrete glimpse of the all-seeing eyes of God and society looming over the story.
You may have a protagonist who behaves something like an antagonist. To flesh out this character, you’ll need to understand them. What doubts hinder their work? Do they misunderstand their world? Are they ill-equipped to deal with the simple things in life? Never underestimate the power of the human mind to create its own obstacles. This goes for more than just literary prose, too. Antiheroes fall into this category. Even if they face a truly villainous villain, antiheroes often become their own greatest antagonists. The complex nature of their morals and actions may be their ultimate undoing. Human flaws create the chance for character evolution and a truly engaging plot. It’s a good idea to create at least one or two good personal obstacles.
The best stories usually use multiple antagonists. Characters fight with their own confidence while dealing with the culture that gave them those issues. Rude classmates make it harder to see the subversive aims of the protagonist’s best ‘friend.’ Get creative, and use your antagonists liberally.