Welcome back readers! It’s a new week, and with it come new accomplishments and news (that’s a lot of new, I know)! Alpha Reading on Starforge continues to surge forward, with feedback coming in quick and clear. Right now, things are looking pretty good for the second pass, with the consensus being pretty positive so far. Alpha readers haven’t hit the heavy rewrite chapters yet, so we’ll see what happens when they arrive there, but so far the cleaning, polishing, and structural changes seem to have stuck!
In personal news, I was able to spend my Saturday at a local Scottish festival, which was pretty awesomely fun. My friends and I go every year if we can, and this year we were lucky enough to have lots of time and some cash budgeted away to spend on things. Which is why I’m writing this while listening to the album Marigold by The Fire. I listened to part of one set, bought the album, and then jammed out to their evening performance. Good fun, and another album to listen to while working!
Let’s see … I already spoke about new reviews for Colony, Jungle, and Axtara, so that’s no longer the new-new, and there isn’t really much going on writing-wise save the Starforge Alpha 2 (Alpha Readers, I am loving your feedback thus far; keep at it!) so I suppose all that’s left to do today is dive into our topic.
Which may feel a bit familiar to some of you. If you’ve been a long-time follower of the site, or browsed through the archives, you may recall this post from 2014 (wow) concerning Underpowered and Overpowered Characters.
Well, today’s post is a bit of reflection of that. See, that post (which is still worth a look, mind) was largely if not entirely concerned with protagonists, and on considering overpowered or underpowered protagonist characters. But this post? This is going to be a little different. Because this post is, in keeping with what’s almost become an unofficial “theme” of this year, about villains.
Well, antagonists anyway (and yes, there is a difference). Because I realized, while I was up in Alaska reviewing some of the posts made so far this year and thinking back on the entertainment I’d consumed recently, that I’ve seen a bit of a trend showing up. Maybe it’s by chance, or perhaps it’s the shifting of the market and I’m not the only one to notice this lately, but I’ve definitely noted a trend across a lot of media I’ve consumed lately regarding antagonists and villains: that being they tend to be on the overpowered side.
No joke. Whether it’s being literal demigods with the ability to move planets or warp reality, or just so far above everyone else in the setting that no one can stand a chance facing them head on, it feels like I’ve seen a lot of really powerful—often to almost ludicrous degrees—antagonists and villains lately.
Now as a quick aside, this isn’t a bad thing. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have really powerful foes in our stories. Far from it, in fact! Powerful, awe-inspiring antagonists can be great obstacles for our cast to overcome, or even just dance around. There’s a kind of thrill to a story where our protagonists are completely outmatched and must dance around any confrontation with the big bad. This can lead to great tense moments, terrifying hunts, and be ways for our characters to show off how clever they can be.
But … I feel it’s important to make clear to a lot of young writers that not every foe should be a power beyond all understanding, or beyond our protagonists ability to match.
I’ll fess up: Part of the reason this post exists is not only because I noticed that there seemed to be an abundance of overpowered antagonists lately, but also because a lot of the “writing chat” I was seeing happening in various online places concerning antagonists seemed to be fixed around “How powerful can I make my big bad without writing myself into a corner?”
And yeah, if this new trend of unstoppable, nigh-all powerful baddies is “teaching” young writers that the antagonist has to be the BIGGEST BADDIE EVER, hands down … well then we’ve got a problem. Because they don’t need to be.
So, let’s dive into this. First, let’s talk about doing powerful antagonists right (because there is a wrong, believe me), and then let’s talk about the inverse of that coin, and the story strengths that come with having an underpowered antagonist.
When it comes to overpowered antagonists, I do want to point out that I have nothing against powerful antagonists. I’ve used them in my own stories, to great effect. Powerful antagonists, even the really powerful ones are really effective tools for a story.
However, like all tools in writing, how we use it really does matter quite a bit. I’ve seen many a story with a “powerful” antagonist ruin the threat of that antagonist by dragging them out time and time again and having the characters just get away, or worse win. Antagonists that by the third appearance stop feeling like the all-powerful threat the main characters insist they are and instead just start feeling like a roadbump.
This runs contrary to some young storytellers’ ideas on how to have a powerful antagonist. In their minds, they have this very cool, very powerful antagonist that they want to show off, and so they do show them off. At every opportunity, early and late. They pit them against the protagonists time and time again (I’m sure some of you can think of a few TV shows where this happens almost every episode).
The thing is, the antagonist can’t win in those situations, or it’d make for a pretty short story. So the protagonists have to escape somehow, be it challenging and beating the antagonist at their own game (often one where the antagonist is playing by limits for some reason), outsmarting them, or pulling some other trick to get away.
The thing is, every time they do this, they make the “power” of the antagonist less apparent. In fact, after a few times it stops looking like the antagonist is powerful at all, and is instead just incompetent.
Some of you are probably nodding at this point, thinking of stories that you’ve read or seen where this has happened almost to the letter. “Big powerful threat” is trotted out early, faces the protagonists, they get away … and then it happens again … and again … and again …
Yeah, it’s not only tedious, but it ruins any hope of the antagonist force bringing with it tension. Overexposure of antagonists to highlight their strengths can be a serious detriment to our story.
So then, how do we create a powerful antagonist and have them feel like they’re actually powerful to the reader?
Well, for one, we don’t overexpose them. Like a flavor in a meal, if we make the presentation overpowering, the power of the character falls by the wayside. We use them carefully, and precisely, aiming at a sweet spot where our audience recognizes what the character is capable of, and why they’re a threat, but without ending our story early.
However I do want to emphasize a catch with this. Well, two, actually. The first is with regards to “power.” As most of you have no doubt determined, I’m speaking of “direct” power here. Be it insane magic prowess, the inability to die, budget Superman knockoff, whatever. This is the kind of “power” most people, especially a lot of new, young writers, will gravitate towards.
The second caveat is that one reason overexposure ruins these characters is because it’s hard to believe in many cases that the protagonists are a threat in any way to their power. I’ve seen stories like this, where the big bad shows up and the protagonists flee, and even though they get away, one has to ask “But wait, why did they actually get away again?” For example, one story I followed tried to paint the antagonist as absurdly powerful in comparison to anyone else, but where that fell apart for me was despite only being shown off a few times, there was literally no reason given as to why they didn’t just go wipe out the protagonists when they felt like it. No joke, this was never addressed. They just kept sending mooks and talking about how the protagonists were a threat to their whole system and all … but never actually did anything about it.
In that case, it was somewhat questionable how honest they were being, as it might have been a show for their underlings to keep them busy while they worked on their “big plan” but even so it made the threat feel hollow. If a big bad is saying the protagonists are a threat, then they need to act like it. There really was no reason given that the big bad didn’t just end the protagonists, given their ability.
And that made the antagonist feel weak rather than powerful. For all their power when they were in the frame of things, they didn’t actually do much, and so they only felt like a danger when the story required it.
Okay, we’ve ranged on a few things here, so let’s talk about the do rather than the do nots. How can you create a good overpowered villain?
Honestly, it all comes down to “You make them a threat.” Overexposure, having the villain twiddle their thumbs while the protagonists act despite it undermining them, or having the characters always get away? That makes a powerful antagonist not a threat. You counter this by not overexposing them, having the antagonist act in intelligent (to their character) and active ways (repeat after me: a passive antagonist is a poor antagonist), and by making them succeed.
That last one is vital. Too many stories introduce a villain who always “just loses” or never acquires any victories over the protagonist. If you want a powerful antagonist or villain, then you cannot do this. Even if the protagonists succeed, it should come at a cost, a penalty of some kind. Each interaction with the antagonist should show the power they wield by bringing real danger of some kind to the protagonists. The antagonist should accomplish their aims either from time to time or frequently. If our protagonists have a goal of stealing a valuable macguffin from a building and the antagonist of stopping them, then perhaps that macguffin is a trap, or when the antagonist shows up and starts leveling the building the protagonists suffer serious injury, lose half the macguffin, and barely escape with their lives.
This shows the power of the antagonist, and what they’re capable of. Let them have victories. Show how they climbed to their current position of power or menace! Let them be dangerous!
And now, with all that said, let’s talk about the real origin point of today’s post: The underpowered antagonist.
See, so far we’ve been talking about the big, flashy, showy antagonists and villains. The eye-catching wunderkind who is able to remold reality. The big, imposing dark knight who is undefeated in combat and hunting the protagonist as they walk through walls. The all-powerful mad magician who rules the land with an iron fist, dropping fire from the sky at the first sign of trouble. You get the idea.
But outside the flash and pizazz, what about antagonists and villains that aren’t all powerful. Who wouldn’t hold a candle to the protagonist physically, or with magic, or whatever? What about those antagonists.
As noted above, I have nothing against overpowered or powerful protagonists in the classical sense, but I think that we do ourselves a disservice by often gravitating toward that show of “power.” Because in truth, threatening antagonists don’t need to be the biggest and the baddest. Like protagonists, they can be incredibly effective and dangerous in other ways. They can be clever, they can be intelligent, they can be ruthless, they can be determined … the list goes on.
Effectively, what I’m saying is that antagonists can be a mirror of protagonists with what makes them succeed. In the post linked above about overpowered and underpowered characters, it was noted that straight “powerful” protagonists can be pretty boring, and what is a lot more fun is a character with strengths and weaknesses that uses their strengths in clever ways to overcome their weaknesses and their challenges.
Antagonists are the same way. Even as we give them strengths, giving them weaknesses allows us to use them in clever ways (and make for interesting dynamics when antagonist and protagonist clash directly).
What this means is that we can have “traditionally weak” villains or antagonists that are nevertheless extremely menacing and dangerous. You villain or antagonist doesn’t have to be the strongest wizard in the world or have their soul bound to a ring to be menacing. In fact, it’s notable with that first example that more people remember Dolores Umbridge as their most hated villain of the Harry Potter series rather than the big bad overall, because Umbridge was a villain who worked carefully within the rules, a full-on lawful evil, to destroy and tear down from within. Where Voldemort was about as subtle as a hammer and reacted to things by blowing them up, Umbridge (who was, I feel obligated to point out, inept enough a witch to be bested by children multiple times and ruthlessly arrogant) still managed to be a real threat by inflicting self-doubt and deliberately working to turn people against one another. She wasn’t a powerful threat unless given power, but she was careful to worm her way into positions where she had exactly that just to tear down those around her.
With that in mind, her evil comes off as much more terrifying than Voldemort’s classic “blast everything that moves” approach. Both are evil, and both fun in their own way to read and write about, but Umbridge’s hold on the audience is proof that you don’t need to have a “powerful” antagonist to have one that is powerful to the reader.
Or, for that matter, to the setting and story. To take an example from my own writing, let’s look at Syrah Eidre from the UNSEC Space trilogy. The first time the audience even meets her is in the opening chapters of Jungle, the second book in the series, and while she’s not a physical threat, there’s a very real menace and power that comes with her position and the command she has over the forces of UNSEC. Even though she lacks the neural skinsuit and armor of Anna, she’s set things up so there is no chance of a fight, making it quite clear that she is in charge and any dissent will equal death, not only theirs but their loved ones.
Syrah isn’t a “powerful villain” in the way the internet likes to think of powerful villains. She’s not capable of punching through walls, or outshooting the characters. Instead, she’s focused, completely committed to her goals and ruthlessly sociopathic in working toward them. Which has allowed her to climb to massive social power. She may not be able to bend metal with her bare hands, but she commands navies of people that can.
My point is this: As with protagonist characters, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our antagonists have to be really powerful and skilled at everything. It makes for boring protagonists, and it can definitely make for boring antagonists.
Instead, look at building antagonists the way we build protagonists. Yes, they can be very skilled at certain things, but they can also have weaknesses. They can use their strengths to succeed, and these strengths need not be obvious ones.
Let your antagonists be clever. Let them be determined. Or ruthless. Sands, maybe even kind. In its own way, that could be terrifying, especially given what they think that kindness might be (“Oh, I knew the mother would be heartbroken over the loss of her son, so I ordered her killed as well”).
Build your antagonist in a similar way as you would your protagonist. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What will this bring to the story? How will they use their skills and talents to oppose your protagonist? How will they make themselves a threat?
Alongside that, how are you, the story’s creator, going to utilize them? How will you show what they’re capable of and why they’re a danger? How will you let that antagonist harass the protagonist without becoming bland?
All things to think about.
Okay, I know this post ranged a bit. Sometimes, we just have to cover a wide topic. Today was one of those days.
But I hope it was insightful or at least helpful to your work in crafting a threatening antagonist or villain. And again, as I stated above, this whole post wasn’t to say that “traditionally powerful” antagonists aren’t fine for a story. They are. They just need to be utilized in a careful manner, and I’d caution young writers against diving down the hole of “This antagonist has to be classically powerful on all the levels” and creating a villain that’s just capable of punching a hole through a continent just because “well that’s powerful therefore that’s what I need.”
Instead, build foes like you build characters, with strengths but also with weaknesses. Consider looking outside traditional power for your villains and widen the scope of your designs. What sort of “non-powerhouse” villain or antagonist can you make that’s still a threat? How can they use their talents in ways that endanger and threaten the protagonist?
Now, you don’t need to do this every time. Sometimes a really powerhouse villain works just fine. What no one should want, however, is to limit ourselves to one kind of archetype and make it all we write about.
So look outside the box of “demigod villain.” Vary your approach. Mix and match! Try new things.
Our characters shouldn’t be one-note … and our antagonists fall under that umbrella.
So good luck. Now get writing!
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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Underpowered and Overpowered Antagonists”
Underpowered protagonists: With a Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans.
Overpowered protagonists: One Punch Man by One
Both excellent examples.