Writing a novel

One easy way to characterise your antagonist: Shoot the Dog

Your novel’s antagonist is at least as important as your protagonist, if not more so. Every action she makes forces the protagonist to react and move against her. If it’s important for your reader to root for your protagonist to win, they need to be able to root for your antagonist to fail.

One way to encourage your readers along this path is to show your antagonist being bad. Really, really bad.

Characterise your antagonist: villain dance party
Because bad guys know how to boogie: Loren Javier, Flickr

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder’s well-known screenwriting device ‘Save the Cat‘ can help you show your protagonist in a positive light and create an instant connection with the audience. The sci-fi movie Fifth Element, for example, has a tough, ex-military taxi driver as its protagonist (Bruce Willis). On the surface, he’s not exactly identifiable. But in his second scene, the writers give him a pet cat, ‘Sweetie’, with whom he has some adorable dialogue (or is it monologue?).

Shoot the Dog

So how can you translate this for your baddie? Easy. Seek out Save the Cat’s evil twin: Shoot the Dog.

Characterise your antagonist: Incredible Hulk
The big green guy: Pao Alfonso, Flickr

This device is used brilliantly in the remake The Incredible Hulk. We don’t know much about Tim Roth’s character at the beginning of this movie: he’s a grunt special ops guy and he’s hunting down the Hulk. But, he’ll later become the story’s principal antagonist, and the writers set this up right at the start.

Inside Hulk’s apartment is Banner’s dog. Now, prior to this scene we’ve seen Banner talking to and feeding this dog treats. We know that he’s (she’s?) a lovable companion rather than some vicious guard-Doberman. And he, being the helpful little critter that he is, barks at the intruders.

Roth shoots it. With a tranquilizer dart, but still.


He is a Bad Man. He shot Banner’s dog. He deserves a swift and debilitating movie death. This is a very literal example, but the idea behind it can be applied universally: Bad Men do Bad Things. Show your character doing a Bad Thing when you’re writing, and we recognise that he’s a Bad Man (or Woman. Or Insert Gender/Alien Race here).

Eat the Cat (or, How not to do it)

Babylon A.D., quite possibly the worst movie ever made, suffered from an unlikeable protagonist (among the many other things that it suffered from).

In the first of his scenes, Vin Diesel’s character chops up and eats a cat. Eats it. Admittedly, this is dystopian, but cats are usually very dear to the audience/reader. (People love cats. Just look at this amazing catographic on the subject.)

This guy is a cat-eater. When it comes to the point that he’s fighting for his life, you don’t really care. If it had been an antagonist, this would have worked brilliantly – you know he’s heartless. Compare this to Bruce Willis in Fifth Element. Who do you care about more?


Beware of going over the top and falling into the stereotype trap. It’s a little too easy to turn your antagonist into a slick-moustached, cape-toting villain (unless you want to go that way, then by all means, shoot it up). Choose the best path for your character and she’ll pick up the gun/dagger/deadly rubber chicken herself. This technique gives you an opportunity to introduce your antagonist in a way that will help your reader understand who she is (and what she’s capable of).

What do you think? How do you show that your antagonist is as bad as they come?

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