If you’re wondering, the headline above is a direct quote from Ocean’s Eleven. And since we’re on the subject, it must be said that those scriptwriters knew how to write a proper villain.
That’s a very good thing considering how antagonists are crucial characters. They’re integral parts of your story, no doubt about it.
In fact, they drive the story. The plot is centered around the protagonist, yes. But it’s centered around how that main character of yours will deal with the antagonist.
Will the Navy SEAL survive his encounter with the terrorist organization, especially the chief interrogator he was sent to kill?
Can the scientist figure out how to mix the formula correctly to defeat the parasitic alien race surrounding the Colony 17 rescue team?
Is the shipwreck survivor going to reach land before the incoming storm hits?
Without the terrorist organization and its chief interrogator, the parasitic alien race, or the incoming storm, there is no drama. No tension.
Therefore, there is no story worth telling.
Now that we’ve established how important the antagonist is, let’s get one other point about them straight.
They don’t matter that much.
That is to say that their actions matter, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true of their motivations. Not unless the antagonist is the protagonist or a protagonist.
Which can happen.
But normally doesn’t.
The antagonist is almost never a main character.
Some writers have a habit of laying bare the antagonist’s entire life history along with every iota of his, her or its motivation for doing the nefarious things he, she or it is doing. This habit can be cheesy, downright awkward or even exceptionally embarrassing.
If the plot or moral doesn’t hinge on readers knowing the antagonist’s entire backstory, then don’t give it. Your antagonist is almost assuredly going to be a secondary character. So treat him, her or it as one.
Otherwise, you could end up with something really hokey on your hands.
And hokey isn’t often a good thing.
Here’s the reason why it’s hokey to give your bad guy too much backstory…
It creates the same basic feel as a cartoon villain spilling out his entire wicked plan while laughing maniacally over the damsel in distress tied to the train tracks.
In other words, it’s oversharing. It’s wasting words and space in an amateurish manner. It’s showing instead of telling in one of the worst possible ways.
It can also either turn the antagonist into an excuse-laden sob story or the utter opposite: some villainous villain of utter villainy. Either way, we’re right back to hokey.
With that said, please, by all means understand your antagonist’s backstory. Know what his “deal” is. Get inside his head. Determine his motivations.
That way, you’ll be able to properly and consistently describe how he’s driving the plot. It’s only a matter of whether you blatantly let readers know all those details.
If they fit with the flow – if it’s the protagonist’s job to figure them out, or the antagonist has a non-hokey reason for sharing them, or there’s some other reasonable rationale for adding them in – then share away.
Otherwise, leave a little mystery to your bad guy. He’ll be much more effective that way.