Villainous Heroes: 5 Tips for Writing the Antagonistic Protagonist

By Alyssa Marie Roat a professional writing student at Taylor University

My main character is a mass murderer.

In the character profile for my newest project, one of the questions asked, “What about this person makes you want to be his or her friend?” I laughed out loud. You’re not supposed to want to be her friend!

In general, main characters are good people at their core. We root for them because they fight for what’s right. But what happens when we flip the switch?

I’m not talking about villains, though well-rounded, spotlight-stealing villains are addictively satisfying. And I’m not talking about heroes with flaws. I’m talking about a deplorable main character with evil motives and intentions. Think of a World War II novel in which Hitler is your protagonist.

Such characters can be artistically and psychologically draining to write, but they contribute to the need we have for the full expression of humanity in art. If you’re up for a challenge, here are five tips for writing the antagonistic protagonist:

1. Give him or her a motive.

You don’t wake up one morning and flippantly decide to murder someone. What drives your main character? Revenge? Ambition? Is she convinced she’s making the world a better place? The best antagonistic protagonists make you root for them while also recoiling in horror.

2. Don’t be afraid to let your character act illogically.

We don’t always consider all options calmly and objectively. Let your character crack. Let her emotions run rampant. Dabble with insanity and psychological disorders.

3. Allow him/her to question his/her actions.

All people have some sort of moral code. Some of your character’s actions should make her squirm, even if she rationalizes them. It isn’t reasonable to have a character with zero moral compass. The arrow might be askew and the glass might be shattered, but it’s still there.

4. He or she never has to become a “good guy.”

A convincing redemption story has value, but don’t force it. Not all villains are saved. Nero and Hitler both committed suicide. Al Capone went to jail. The value in your story doesn’t have to come from redemption. Realizing our brokenness is a lesson in itself.

5. Remember, every villain is the hero of his or her own story.

No one is evil for the sake of being evil. The dictator thinks he deserves power. The murderer thinks she has to kill to get what she wants. The traitor believes she is choosing the right side. Your character doesn’t think of herself as the villain. As an objective observer, you shouldn’t either. Let the readers make up their own minds.

Antagonistic protagonists show us who we really are. We don’t identify ourselves with villains, but we identify with protagonists even if they are more evil than the villains we love to hate. We need the antagonistic protagonist to show us our own darkness and remind us how easily we, too, could become the villain.

Who is your favorite antagonistic protagonist? Any tips I missed? Comment below!

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