Before we dive ankle-deep into this steamy pile, I need you to recognize one thing about yourself that you’re likely blind to: You discriminate.
Sure, I probably should add a clause in there because not everyone does it, but the vast majority does. And so chances are that you’re guilty of discrimination.
I know I often am.
But I’m super open minded. I’m the opposite of a bigot!
Good for you!
Look at the antagonist you’ve written. Does your antagonist reflect your claim on un-bigotrated-thinking? (Made that word up if you didn’t notice. Totally makes sense. Just accept it.)
Here is a quote (long, but worth it) originally found here.
Dear Author: We antagonists, villains, bad guys, femme fatales—call us what you will—don’t get no respect. We’re overlooked, underdeveloped and squeezed into a space that would cramp your average gerbil. When we get short shrift, your books aren’t nearly as good as they could be. They lack tension and depth. They’re forgettable. Not that I’m one for pointing fingers, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s your fault. Who was given pages and pages of backstory in your last novel? That’s right—the protagonist. Whose motives and character arc were fully fleshed out? Right again—the so-called “good” guy’s. Who did you “interview” and construct a character bible for? Yeah, him again. Well, I don’t mind getting second billing, but I have to point out that if you gave readers a chance to truly know and understand me, your books would be a lot more memorable and engaging. We might even get a movie deal, like my idol, Hannibal Lecter.
Sincerely, Eva N. Carnate
If you think of the antagonist as the bad guy, you’ve already put him/her in a box they can never escape from because you will write from a place of judgement.
How do I stop being a bigot?
I’m glad you asked.
After you drop by and chat with your priest at confession about judging the bad guy, here are a few points that help me when I lean towards “the bad guy” label.
1. Think of them as a protagonist
With my current novel, I was having a really difficult time making my antagonist relatable. All I had in his character arc was “fear of becoming like his father.” While that is a great starting place, that’s not a character arc. I ended up scratching that character completely, and making my protagonist the antagonist. I then came up with a new protagonist. The result was two highly complex characters who anyone can empathize with. After all, there is no such thing as an evil character, only characters who do evil things.
2. Think of your personal antagonists
It might be a sibling, parent, partner, neighbor, co-worker, friend, or a complete stranger. But there are people who rub you the wrong way, or if you’re dramatic about it, maybe an arch-nemesis. Whatever the case may be, these real people are so much more complex and easier to relate to than fictional characters on a page. Bring that depth to your antagonists.
3. You’ve been an antagonist to someone
At some point in your life you’ve been someone else’s antagonist. Maybe you cut someone off in traffic, got ahead in life at someone else’s expense, or just a sibling rivalry. Relive one of those experiences. Why did you do it? How did you justify it? Because we don’t need sympathy for an antagonist, but the reader must have empathy or the character is not complex.
4. Evil for evil’s sake is bore-tastic
I’ll keep this one short because it’s self-explanatory. Evil is one dimensional. Emotionally hook the reader and make them identify with the antagonist and any evil they do becomes so much more powerful because the reader understands the why behind the actions.
5. Over or under-ly capable is also boring
If your character is indestructible or impossibly intelligent, it overshadows the protagonist and eliminates hope to overcome (and you want to keep that alive.) The same is true for the other end of the spectrum. An antagonist that’s too easy to defeat is boring because there’s no tension because we already know the protagonist is so much more capable. Within the hazy middle ground is where the blood is shed.
6. Make them likable and relatable in some way
Self-explanatory. You’d better know this already.
7. Hitler thought he was a great guy
Hitler thought of himself as a reformer, a world-changer, a power of good to rid the world of a “disease.” It might be hard to imagine, but Hitler probably slept soundly thinking that he was helping humanity. A lot of great people have tried to solve actual diseases. Few took such a horrific path as Hitler did, but the motivation was similar = a better world. Hitler’s perspective was darkly twisted.
I think of myself as a genuinely good guy. I try to give back to my community, I’m affable, and I try not to stay in the left lane if I’m driving slow… But, as point two suggested, when I thought about my own life and how I can be an antagonist to someone else, I started to see similarities between evil characters and myself. Here I think I’m good, yet my perspective can be twisted. And it freaked me out to see those similarities.
Contrast yourself to someone you think of as pure evil, and it can be unnerving when you see similarities. That unnerving sensation is what you need to bring to your readers when they experience your antagonist.
Question(s) of the day: What’s your greatest challenge in creating antagonists? Who is an antagonist in your personal life?