The Bad Guy

So while I have a few minutes between chores and grading school work, I want to get a thought in before November arrives on Monday. Like subplots, it’s often pushed by the wayside as we struggle to get the basic plot and the main characters settled enough to start working with.

It’s the antagonist. Let’s be honest. Sometimes–and all too often–the antagonist is the most neglected character in a story.

Each main character is different. Sure, many of the traits are similar, but there’s a large amount of variety. Same with the protagonists’ posse. Not so much with antagonists.

Most antagonists are more the same than not. Even in some of my favorite stories: Sauron in The Lord of the Rings; Jadis (the White Witch) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the witches in Stardust; Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. Each has a reason for being evil, but all too often, the character is as flat as failed pizza dough. Complexity levels are low. Personality levels are low. They enjoy dark, gloomy places; they are cruel even to their allies; and they seem to like being bad just for the sake of being bad.

Sometimes a villain should like the scary castle and wear nine yards of black velvet down his back, but not all antagonists should be that way.

I’m guilty. When I started work on my first novel, I was eight. It wasn’t a novel yet. Just a kid’s imagination recorded in a journal. But my villain had the scary castle and was mean to everyone–even his friends–and was evil for the sake of evil. Though not written, I could imagine him doing the typical evil laugh.

As I grew up, he didn’t. He stayed the stereotypical evil king. He was mean, and the people knew it. They feared him but didn’t oppose him.

Then I reread my high school work when I finished college. For the first time, I saw just how stereotypical my villain was (and how uncomplex the story was, and how uncomplicated my main character was…). He had to change. (Along with everything else.)

Now, his motivations drive him instead of my need for him to be the bad guy. He thinks he’s doing the right thing. He sees nothing wrong with his methods. He sees nothing wrong with his deceptions because they help him do what he feels is right. He has a tender side that attracts other characters.

While he thinks he’s right, though, the reader and the other characters see him for what he is. He might be right in some areas, but in other, he’s very wrong. There is still a clear distintion between what is good and what is not. His intentions may have been fine at the get-go, but he crosses a clear line into evil.

So, as you finish prepping for NaNoWriMo, ponder your antagonist. Is he evil just because you need him to be? Does he have his own personality? Do his actions truly reflect his personality and seem realistic for someone in his position? Or is he just like a lump of flat pizza dough in a velvet cape?

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6 responses to “The Bad Guy

  • Rachel Russell

    Definitely true.

    I seriously can’t count how many books I’ve read where the protagonists themselves are also pretty one-dimensional. They’re there because the author plopped them there, and their thought processes are about as complex as a single-celled organism. That’s probably a horrible metaphor, but the point still stands! Of course, I shouldn’t have to say if the protagonists themselves were that horrid, just how god-awfully lame the antagonists were.

    • EverydayEpic

      Unfortunately, the metaphor is probably more accurate that not for some stories. And it deserves a lament of its own. Every story deserves a worthwhile, complex protagonist. Otherwise, who cares? What’s supposed to keep you reading? The thought of a flat protagonist just makes me cringe.

  • Ishana

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, myself, as my current antagonist isn’t very well-defined. Every character should think he is the hero of the story, including the antagonist. The antagonist is only the antagonist because his goal conflicts with the protagonist’s. In most cases, at least.

    If anyone needs an example of a brilliant antagonist, read Gail Carriger’s Soulless. The antagonist honestly thinks he works to benefit society, when in fact he’s doing the opposite. It makes for a very believable character and an especially infuriating antagonist. Infuriating in a “omg-this-guy-better-get-what-he-deserves” kind of way.

    Thanks for the post!
    ~IshanaTM

    • EverydayEpic

      I’ll definitely get my hands on that book…. after NaNoWriMo, of course. There’s nothing like seeing a well-crafted antagonist (or any other element of a story) in action. Helps me think more clearly about how my characters appear. Thanks for the lead!

      • Ishana

        As a warning: Gail does do some head-hopping. It took me a few pages to get used to her writing style, but it’s far worth it. Fantastic novels. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series (or pentalogy actually).

  • Camels and Perspective « The Everyday Epic

    […] This ability is key in crafting stories. Everyone in a story has a unique view of the world. The protagonist sees things one way. A minor character sees it another. The antagonist sees himself not as the villain but as the hero. (And, if he doesn’t, you may want to reconsider your antagonist.) […]

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