For those who don’t know what an antagonist is, an antagonist is your bad guy, your villain, who wants to smash the world for her own gain, who wants to dominate mankind to fulfil his evil ambitions. They don’t have to be a human being; a robot, an alien invasion, a giant gorilla, even a plague can be your antagonist. The protagonist, your heroine, is the person who is trying to stop them. Without a protagonist, all that would be left would be no drama, no plot, and a very short story. The rest of this article will focus on human antagonists.
If your antagonist is a human being, she needs to be a rounded character, just like your protagonist. She needs to have believable motivations for her actions, even if they are world domination … WHY does she want to dominate the world? Does she want to stop world hunger, and feels she is the only woman up to the job? Was your villain very poor as a child, and never wants to be that poor again? Is he a Luddite, who thinks that the rise of technology will rot the pillars of society?
A good villain can be someone we love to hate, or someone we secretly sympathise with. Just like a good hero should have some flaws, your villain should have some virtues. If you can relate those virtues back to his motivations, even better. It gives your characterization the complexity to make your villain a believable personality.
Do not confuse your antagonist with the sexy bad girl or sexy bad boy, often a secondary character used to confuse and muddy the romantic subplot, or sometimes the hero’s-sidekick-in-disguise. They are a Steampunk staple, and are often an Airship Pirate who is secretly a rebel – think of the equivalent of a Steampunk Han Solo or some such. The real villain might do an about face if they can be made to see reason, but the Airship Pirate is only ‘naughty’ and never the inventor of world-smashing bombs. Nor should you confuse an antagonist with an antihero, like Verne’s Captain Nemo, Captain Mal from ‘Firefly’ or Avon from ‘Blake’s 7’. Antiheros blur the lines between what defines a protagonist and an antagonist, but they are still not villains.
The Steampunk Antagonist can be pro-Science or a Luddite, but some association with the new technology should be made. In my Steampunk Work-in-Progress, I have a father-son team as my antagonists, and both are talented scientists. They support the idea of eugenics, and are kidnapping all the greatest scientists in the world to create the kernel of a new super-race. They don’t feel the need to wipe out the rest of the human race, as they are expecting the human race to wipe itself out. They see themselves as noble saviours of the best of mankind, while at the same time being kidnappers, thieves and thugs.
If you are writing into the Steampunk genre, you have to keep the genre markers in mind. Your villain should exist in a Steampunk setting, like a factory or a laboratory or a submarine city … have fun with making their lair. Your antagonist needs to be a child of their time, and so keep the Vicwardian Aesthetic for their dress and decorative features, and should have values that fit in with that era. But these aren’t terrible restrictions … so let you imagination go to town.