Lee Dunning: The Multi-Layered Antagonist

The Multi-Layered Antagonist

A guest post by Lee Dunning

Lee Dunning, Author

Lee Dunning, Author

When sitting down to design your characters it’s easy to get wrapped up in your protagonist(s). They’re the good guys, the heroes of your story, and it’s fun to beat them up, and then watch them rise above to overcome the bad guy. What folks forget, though is that your hero is only as good as the adversary he goes up against. Don’t neglect your antagonist.

When I say don’t neglect the antagonist, I don’t mean to simply make them vile and powerful. It’s all too easy to have Reginald the Rapacious wipe out a village or two as a means of establishing his villainy, and leave it at that. Yuck.

Exile's Redemption by Lee Dunning

Exile’s Redemption by Lee Dunning

A complex, multi-layered antagonist is much more interesting, and will serve to bring the overall quality of your story up. Heck, your antagonist might not even be a bad person. She might be fully convinced that Kingdom XYZ is responsible for murdering her son as a means of undermining her rule and putting the royal lineage in jeopardy. She may respond in a brutal manner, and use inappropriate force against people who had nothing to do with the murder, but in her heart she believes she’s doing the right thing to protect her people and avenge her child. That makes for a much more complex and compelling story than Bart the Bloated who kills because he’s evil <insert mustache twirling here>.

That last sentence really is the crux of the matter. Too many stories, too of them fantasy, take the stance that individuals, even entire races of rational beings, are inherently evil. There can be cultural differences that cause so much strife between peoples that they each view each other as evil or corrupt. An investigation of these differences can make for a great story. But to simply label someone as irredeemably evil (and knows it) is the cheap way out.

For an excellent view of how to handle this sort of situation, I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Warbreaker’. It does an excellent job of exploring two lands with differing religious belief systems, and how they see one another. Joe Abercrombie, in his book ‘The Heroes’, does an outstanding job of showing the conflict between the Viking-like barbarians of the north and the expansionist Empire. Both groups contain good and bad individuals, but both believe they’re cause is just.

In the end the main goal is to make your antagonists as interesting to read as your protagonists. You don’t want people skipping through the chapters featuring your villain because they’re so flat and unimaginative it’s obvious their only purpose is to serve as a mirror for your good guy’s ‘goodness’.

Have fun with your bad guys, and your readers will too.

Here’s a sample of Lee Dunning’s book Exile’s Gamble

Exile's Gamble  by Lee Dunning

Exile’s Gamble by Lee Dunning

The demon possessed army of King Oblund has been crushed but at great cost. The people of Teresland, betrayed by their king, face a winter without leadership, manpower or food. The elves, unwilling regents of this devastated human kingdom, struggle with understanding a people foreign and hostile toward them.

Now, the demons which destroyed Second Home have scented the vulnerability of Teresland and set out to draw the elves into more conflict. Conflict which they cannot ignore but are ill-prepared to face. With Lord W’rath trapped within his own mind, comatose, the elves must prepare for battle without his strength.

Raven, restless to prove herself, decides on a reckless plan, one which could either provide the elves with a new weapon, or doom her and W’rath both.


W’rath turned to greet Lady Swiftbrook as she and several First Born guards thundered around the corner. Lady Swiftbrook gasped and the bunch of them skidded to a halt, taking in the blood spattered walls, the bits of torn fabric, and the slowly melting shards of human.

“You did this?” Lady Swiftbrook choked. “You’re here less than an hour and already you’ve killed someone?”

“I’d love nothing more than to banter with you, madam,” W’rath said, “but I fear we have a much worse issue to contend with than your imagined belief in my proclivity for random murder. The man who died here was not wholly human. The demons have breached our defenses.”

“He’s right,” a voice came.

W’rath turned in surprise to find Lord Icewind returned, standing halfway down the stairs, blood dappling his robes. Grief pulled at his lovely face, and he gestured back from whence he’d come. “Lady Swiftbrook, Lady Winterdawn is terribly hurt. I have to check on my wards …” His voice failed him and he covered it by forcing his feet down the last few steps. He drew a shuddering breath. “Please see to her. The wards on my room hold strong still, but she shouldn’t be alone. Please.”

“The wards have failed?” Lady Swiftbrook recoiled. Her eyes tried to take in every direction, every shadow at once.

“Just one,” Lord Icewind said. “The sewers.”

“How …” Lady Swiftbrook began.

“Madam,” W’rath interrupted, shaking his head. No doubt the horrors she’d endured during the fall of Second Home had come flooding back to Lady Swiftbrook, but they did not have the luxury of engaging in such self-indulgent behavior. Even as they stood there, W’rath could smell the filth of demons as it spread.

Lady Swiftbrook shook herself, and set her face in a grim mask. “Right.” She addressed the guards. “You two come with me and help care for Lady Winterdawn. You three accompany Lord Icewind and Lord W’rath to the breach. You two return to the throne room and put our people on alert. Get word to the guards on the gates. Tell Chalice Renoir what we face. He’ll help you with the humans.” Her eyes flickered in W’rath’s direction.

“Madam,” he said, and bowed before turning to head down the hall from where he sensed the encroaching evil.

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