Today we’re continuing our discussion of characterization by examining the nebulous antagonist.
In many thrillers and cyberpunk novels, the faceless behemoth of corporate greed is the overarching antagonist. It can be represented by characters who are portrayed as utterly committed to doing their job and loyal to their employer. In many cyberpunk novels, the antagonists tend to be goons-in-suits, enforcers who work for the corporation.
In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer whose forces/minions the protagonist must defeat.
The ultimate mind behind the conflict is a person they might not meet face to face. How the protagonist reacts internally to the threat posed by the machinations of those distant antagonists is the story.
While the true enemy might be a faceless power supporting the intrigues of their servants, their laws and rules are the ultimate evil that must be defeated.
Alternatively, the enemy might be a technological breakdown in hard sci-fi and sometimes in contemporary military novels. The novel Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald was a groundbreaking example of this:
Level 7 is a 1959 science fiction novel by the Ukrainian-born Israeli writer Mordecai Roshwald. It is told from the first-person perspective (a diary) of a modern soldier, X-127, living in the underground military complex Level 7, where he and several hundred others are expected to reside permanently. X-127 fulfills the role of ‘push-button’ offensive initiator of his nation’s nuclear weapons capacity against an unspecified enemy. X-127 narrates life within a deep shelter before, during, and after a nuclear war that wipes out the human species. 
Just so you know, the book doesn’t end well—I read it in high school.
The enemy could be a military coup or a mega-corporation whose “guards” are really an elite military. A few soldiers could represent the antagonist and enforce their wishes. Getting to know those characters and their motives adds depth to the story.
We’ve all seen disaster movies like Titanic and Twister. We know the enemy can be the environment. Andy Weir in The Martian made the planet of Mars the antagonist.
I love the notion of the faceless behemoth that threatens all we love. When a novel has an immense, nebulous antagonist, the possibilities for creating the hazards that impede the heroes are endless. Giant waves, hurricanes, weapons of mass destruction–these are worthy obstacles our protagonists must surmount.
Fear makes the risk feel genuine to the reader. To show great evil in genre fiction, we take that which is damaging and destructive to an extreme and show the emotion of living through that experience.
When we are writing a story where the root of evil is represented by its minions, the perception of corruption and the evil humans are capable of sometimes horrifies us. As a character, the mega-villain can be shown in the actions of certain employees who don’t consider the human cost of their loyalty.
This type of psychopathic antagonist is explored exceedingly well in George Saunders’ brilliant sci-fi short story, Spiderhead, a short story in the award-winning compilation, Tenth of December.
For a reader, perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after the lights have been turned out can be terrifying.
We’re still subconsciously hunter-gatherers, always watching for lions and tigers (oh my). As children, the formless monster lurking in the darkness of our room terrifies us until we discover the truth: several toys were piled there and never put away.
As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark, frightening scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.
No matter how right the cause, war is an evil that is too large to personify and is challenging to make sympathetic. But sometimes, war, a faceless blob of evil, is the proper villain for the narrative. We represent that evil in the actions taken by the characters.
I try to choose a single word (and its synonyms) to characterize my antagonist, even when it is something as significant as a pandemic. That one word becomes the theme, the underpinning of how evil is portrayed.
In one of my practice short stories, I used the word escape as the theme. The first paragraph opens with that word, and every synonym for escape is used to underscore that thread woven throughout the story.
Another example is the word corruption. We tend to think of it as referring only to illegal activities, but it has many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are bribery, debasement, debauchery, decadence, degeneracy, distortion, exploitations, fraud, and immorality.
We view the antagonist through the protagonist’s eyes, so a strong theme that colors the enemy with a perception of corruption drives home the evil they represent.
Someone—and I wish I could remember who—said a few years ago in a seminar that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.
This is an important distinction and applies to villains as much as it does the heroes.
When evil is a behemoth on the order of a mega-corporation or a military coup, the villains who represent it all have reasons for their loyalty. They’re like the hero; they care intensely, obsessively about something or someone. They have logical motives for supporting what we are portraying as the enemy. Our job as authors is to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.
True villains are motivated, logical in their reasoning, and utterly convinced of their moral high ground. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. As the author and their lawyer, you must know what their narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist.
As always, the reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details. Having this backstory to draw on will make your characters easier to flesh out. Hints of their thought processes and motivations will emerge gradually.
But more importantly, once we know what drives them all, we know what is at stake for those who represent your antagonist. You will understand how much they are willing to sacrifice for it.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Level 7 (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Level_7_(novel)&oldid=1132228006 (accessed February 12, 2023).