Storytelling: Positive traits of antagonists

A few days ago, I was thinking a bit about the positive traits of ‘bad guys’. These thoughts came to me – how else – when I was lying in bed waiting for sleep to come. Even antagonists can have positive traits – and it’s not about the traits but how they use them that matters in the end.

As with my romance-related posts (#1, #2), the thoughts come primarily from fantasy genre but are not limited to it.

Significant inspiration comes from a post about character traits by M.L. Davis.

Before I go into specific examples, I’ll say that they have all one thing in common. Without having some significant strength, the character would likely never made it to the top of the ‘food chain’ or even near it. To become a mastermind – good or bad – one needs to have the skillset and personality for it. What, exactly, is that strong point also determines what kind of antagonist the character is – a brutal warlord, cunning schemer, unrivaled dark wizard (fantasy), crazed inventor (sci-fi) or anything else that comes to your mind.

Physical strength

This is something that would, most often, fit the ‘warlord’ type of character. Someone who becomes a brutal and fearsome sight needs to have it in his muscles, no matter what type of threat it is – or what twists takes him/her to the dark path. Because the opposition is probably the same type of people (or whatever creature it might be), the way up is usually about the strength of arm (whether holding a blade or being good enough with punches).

Intelligence

Great intelligence is one of the strongest positive traits – and one of the most fearsome when turned bad. There is a reason dark wizards are feared: their knowledge and intelligence are usually what allowed them to master powers that few would dream about. In Sci-Fi, intelligence is what allows an antagonist to create tools and weapons better than his competitors might have. A smart person will know better when to fight directly and when to use his/her mind to outwit the opposition. Or just how to get some cash to fund its efforts through clever manipulation and a twist on diplomacy. Being a step (or more) ahead is what makes them dangerous.

Strength AND intelligence combined

As a reader of fantasy, this is a usual combination in dragon rider books. A dragon rider needs to be intelligent to understand magic and strong to fight in close combat. When this combination turns evil, it creates a fearsome enemy few would dare to oppose.

Determination

Whether their path to the top is through strength or intelligence, it takes determination to get all the way there. Creating the plans and timing them well to get the most of them is something that might need a bit of waiting for the right moment and someone lacking in determination might give up before it comes to it.

Ambition

Similar to the above and likely complementing it. Having a good plan and the will to wait for the right moment is good but if one is to reach the very top, it needs strong ambition. An ambitious person might not even start as an antagonist. It can be a twist that happens later for various reasons – temptation by someone willing to see that put to other ends or finding a way to advance beyond the original plan only to start a downhill spiral.

After all, what kind of person with dreams of ruling the world was lacking ambition, in history and fiction alike?

Confidence

I guess this one is simple as well. For all the plots and ambitions and determination one might have, it’d do little if one would not believe them feasible – let alone outright impossible. It takes confidence, faith in what many might consider outright insane, to become a serious threat.

Would Voldemort become what he is known for if not for believing that he can actually split his soul into several pieces? Would Napoleon Bonaparte start a war across Europe without believing that he can win it? Nope.

Resilience

All of the abovementioned plays a significant part. Yet, it’s likely that many others might have a plan to get their slice of the cake. Those who make it to the top are the most resilient. Why? Because they surely had to overcome the others with their own plans. Face schemes of their competitors and emerge stronger from them. They had to go through their own challenges to get where they wanted to be. All of that was making them stronger with time and ultimately into a threat few would dare to face – partially because they knew how many failed during the rise to power.


Those are the traits that came to my mind. Did I forget something? Let me know in the comments. Know about a good story (preferably fantasy or sci-fi) with a well-done antagonist? Let me know as well.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling: Positive traits of antagonists

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