On Differentiating Antagonists

We know all characters need to be differentiated one way or another, but it’s particularly important for antagonists. After all, even in standard fiction, villains drive the story enough that it takes a really spectacular main character to make up for a bad one, and—well, since the protagonist in a game’s been outsourced to the player(s), there goes that replacement option. Therefore, if you’ve got multiple antagonists in the same story/game/series (or possibly in different ones, depending on how picky your audience is), you’re going to want to make sure that someone could tell them apart from a distance; it’s nowhere near as fun if they’re all cookie-cutter copies of each other, right?

Visual differentiation is a start, but it’s really not much to go by, particularly when you’re not actually in a visual medium. You can change the backstory all you want, twiddle the hair color one way and the eyes another and so on and so forth, but there’s still a strong chance that someone’s just going to see your standard Dark Blowhard or Seductive Darkness or what-have-you. (Come to think of it, this is just as useful a tip for someone who goes through a lot of PCs or viewpoint characters.)

Modus operandi definitely helps, but it only goes so far. You have your Overlords, you have your Manipulators, your Mad Scientists—heck, if nothing else, there’s seeing what particular string of Villain Tropes this particular baddie embodies, and making sure it’s not a perfect match with any of your prior antagonists. It’s a start, but still not quite there.

Then there’s sub-differentiation within a modus operandi. I find this one pretty useful as well; in fact, my discussion of the various manipulation styles came out of comparing a social-monster antagonist with a social-monster… ummm… whatever the appropriate status for Tsubame is.

One we don’t often think about quite so much is attitude—and that one counts for far, far more than you might think. I saw this in action once with one of my old GMs and his female characters. It wasn’t that they didn’t all have different power levels, power sets, motivations and so on and so forth: we had everything from a going-a-bit-too-far holy warrior to a city crimeboss to one who solved all of her problems (except those ticked off PCs at the end, anyway by undoing her top button or doing/saying something pretty. But with the exception of the homicidally insane crafter/sorceress/bunny-mutator, every last one of them had minor variations on the exact same condescending attitude. Shake it up a little, particularly when working with antagonists who might otherwise be similar. Maybe one’s brusque, one’s perpetually condescending, one’s either genuinely friendly or really good at faking it, one’s either stoic or putting on a very good effort… you get the idea. You’d be amazed at how much that keeps them apart.

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