Character development for bad guys: how to create a great antagonist
The Terminator is the worst.
He’s also the best.
So is the Joker. So is The Wicked Witch.
Is there a character out there that you love to hate? I bet there is!
Great villains are fun to watch. They’re even more fun to crush underfoot.
Heroes need great villains. The relationship between the hero and opponent is the single most important relationship in your story. As John Truby says in his A+++ book The Anatomy of Story,
The main character is only as good as the person he fights.
But the villains in video games are usually not so great. We’ve all played games where the bad guy is a mustache-twirler cackling from the top of a faraway mountain.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
If you want to create a great antagonist for your game’s story, here are three approaches that can help make it happen.
Design a villain that pushes the hero to greatness
You don’t want an opponent that’s easy to beat. You want an opponent that makes you work for it. Athletes would agree. Roger Federer doesn’t want to play tennis against an amateur - he wants to play against Rafael Nadal. (Unless we’re in quarantine, in which case all bets are off and he'll play against two Italian teenagers.)
A villain that’s hard to beat is also villain that is fun to beat. A good video game villain is one that pushes the avatar in the story, and pushes the player in the game. You want a villain that works on both levels.
The best villain, of course, is one that can attack the hero at his weakest point. Which leads us to this next point:
Make the hero and the opponent mirror images of each other
We usually think of hero and villain as polar opposites. But it’s actually better if they have at least a few things in common.
And here’s why: because it makes the story better. When the opponent isn’t all bad — and the hero isn’t all good — the story opens up. More things are possible. You can catch the player by surprise.
Often, the antagonist and protagonist have so much in common that they are mirror images of each other - light side and dark side.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the classic example. Hyde IS Jekyll - much as Jekyll hates to admit that he has that animal side to himself. But there are plenty of other examples. Batman/Joker is one. Harry Potter/Voldemort is another. These are characters that, on the surface, seem to have nothing in common. But when you take a closer look, you see how alike they really are.
This technique really packs a punch in a video game, because as the player progresses through the game, and discovers his avatar and his enemy are two peas from the same pod, it can really capture the player’s imagination. Suddenly his avatar is a lot more interesting. It brings the game’s characters to life in a way the player didn't expect.
Here’s another technique that may surprise you:
Keep the opponent in the same place as the hero
At first this seems counter-intuitive. Don’t enemies want to stay far, far away from each other? But if they’re not in contact, then they’re not in conflict - and conflict is the engine that makes a story run. The trick is to find ways to bring them together.
But how do you pull this off in a game? Don’t enemies usually fight in a game, the second they lay eyes on each other? You need both characters to stay alive long enough for them to start to really hate each other.
One way to bring these characters into the same space, while keeping them both alive - and this is a technique I’ve talked about before - is to make the world an extension of the opponent. Create a world that represents all the opponent’s values, so that when the player fights the world, on one level he’s fighting his enemy too - before even meeting him.
A great example of this is Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts (sequel in 2021!)
So there you have it, three ways to create a character your players will loathe (and remember) for years to come. Now it's your turn. Who's your favorite villain, and why? Tell us in the comments below!
Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.
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