A couple days ago, I summed up my feelings on writing antagonists as, “It’s good to write bad.”
From my years behind the Dungeon Master’s Screens around my family’s black marble table to staring at my spiral notebooks deep into first drafts in the middle of the night, I have loved creating antagonists for over 20 years.
At a symposium we put on as part of the Psi Beta and Psychology Club during my associates, the late, incredible Michael Sadusky responded to a question I had after the presentation on evil in our world.
It’s apropos Buffy The Vampire Slayer should turn 20 this year, as a quote from Spike, “I’m evil,” in Season 4’s, Episode 12 “A New Man” inspired me to ask Professor Sadusky if evil people see themselves as…well, evil.
“Of course not.” He said. “No one sees what they do as evil.”
In the writing world, we put words in the mouths of bad guys because they’re the antagonists. The things they say are supposed to get a rise out of our heroes, and the things they do are supposed to be awful–all the better to contrast the protagonist’s heroic actions.
So how then, if our bad guys don’t know they’re bad do we make them believable people? By making them the heroes of their own stories!
Just as you’ve poured over your protagonist, exploring his or her personality, motives, and decision-making, you must invest in your antagonist just as heavily, if not more so.
It’s easier for readers to understand a hero’s motives, so to pull off a believable bad guy, we need their motives to be easily understood–even if they’re hard to agree with. It’s especially hard to make a villain who sacrifices children understood or to get the reader to empathize with him or her, but I’m not talking about irredeemably evil bad guys.
Irredeemable bad guys are just that. Evil for evil’s sake. In a word: Boring.
The fun comes when we look at less objectionably evil villains and explore ways of showing in the story how they’re the hero of their Point-of-View scenes. And writing bad guys truly can be fun.
Making a compelling bad guy is all about exploring ways to twist societal norms, say those wicked things on the page we only wish we could out loud, or to have them do things we just know to be wrong but believe will make good entertainment.
One of my favorite villains is actually the ‘hero’ of my Middle Grade fantasy series. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s the antagonist–or will be in time. He’s brash enough to stand up for himself against anyone, and brave enough to run head-first into a fire, but when it comes to his family, his loved ones, nothing else matters. The decisions he faces and the choices he makes are couched deeply in a selfish love of putting his family first–even at the potential expense of the desert kingdom in which they eek out a living. That’s right, my little Milo loves his family so much, he faces dooming the kingdom save them.
So, what’s your antagonist’s most heroic trait, and how can you twist it to put him or her at odds with your protagonists while they still see themselves as heroes in their own minds?
Take your antagonist for a spin, and I hope you have a lot of fun finding out!
Thanks for visiting today. My words won’t always be great, but they’ll always be mine.
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