Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Being Bad is Good: Creating a Great Antagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janie_Hardy

A reader asked...

How did you get in the "mindset" of writing from the antagonist perspectives (assuming you wrote in third-person)? If not, what are your thoughts on how to decide between telling a story in first- or third- person?

For this example, I'm going to say antagonist and bad guy mean the same thing, even though your antagonist doesn't have to be a villain. It's just who or what is between your protagonist and what they want. Often that's a bad guy of some type, but not always. There are multiple kinds of conflict.

In The Shifter I didn't write from my antagonist's perspective (it's a first-person story), but I have used antagonists as the POV in the past. One of my favorite characters was the antagonist from my first book, and he was so much fun my critique group actually asked if it was okay to like him, even though he was the bad guy. They were sad when he got his comeuppance, but they all agreed he deserved it wholeheartedly.

That's the sign of a great antagonist.

Give Them Souls

Bad guys can easily become cardboard cliches, because you often focus on what makes them bad and what they want to do to your protag. They're plot devices to cause the protagonist trouble, not fully developed characters in their own right. But bad guys have feelings too, and even villains have some redeeming quality.

When you're developing your antagonist, flesh him out the same as you do your protagonist, even if the antagonist isn't a POV character. Give him both good and bad traits. A history that shaped him to be what he is in the story. Most importantly, give him motivations for being bad that make sense. Let the reader think, "Well, gee, if I were him, I'd probably do that do." Evil for the sake of evil is boring. But evil with purpose is a lot more fun, and it's a whole lot scarier. Evil you can understand, even if you don't agree, stays with you.

Make Them Likable

I had a writing instructor (back when I was working on my first book) who said the reason she enjoyed my antagonist so much was that he was so practical, and that made her understand why he did what he did. That being inside his mind was scarier because he was rational. He was also funny, and had a dry wit and an interesting take on his situation. This was a guy that if he wasn't trying to do what he was doing, you'd probably hang out with him after work.

An antagonist that's likable is unpredictable. They already defy stereotypes by not being pure bad, so the reader isn't sure what they'll do.

Making them real people with real goals also makes it a lot easier to write from their perspective, because it isn't about what they're doing to the protag. It's about what goal they're trying to achieve and what obstacles are in their way--just like your protagonist. So make them the protagonist of their story. The hero in their mind. Treat them the same way you would your protagonist. Except they don't get to win in the end.

Make them more than a plot device that forces your protag to do what you need them to do. Make them a character who happens to cause trouble by trying to get what they want.

What are your favorite bad guys? What made you like them?

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
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  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Interesting! Any chance of us ever seeing the first book in print? So sad that antags don't get to win in the end, especially when they're so likable - but that's how it's supposed to go!

  2. I doubt it. I still like the idea, but if I re-did it, that character would probably go. Much as I love him, he wouldn't fit the direction I'd take the story. Maybe I can do something with him someday.

  3. Your antag does sound like a GREAT one.

    When I think of memorable antagonists, the first one that comes to mind is Jack Nicholson's character, the infamous Col. Jessep, in A Few Good Men. You keep shaking your head at him. He's despicable. You hate him. But you never forget him! That's what we want: unforgettable characters, antag or protag.

    Excellent post!
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

  4. It was doing this—figuring out why my antagonists were the way they were—which made me realize one book of mine was having problems because it focused on the wrong villain. It also brought to my attention an implication I hadn't consciously realized was in my main plot.

    The implication didn't change the book at all when I flushed it out, because it's between 2 side characters with minimal screen time, but it'll have a significant impact on the sequel.

  5. Thanks for this. I knew my antag was getting way too 2D and I didn't like it, but I wasn't sure how to fix it. Well, after reading this I went back and wrote a new scene and he's way more human now. I have him maybe 90% figured out at this point. My antag has a big impact on the story overall but only minimal screentime, so I'm not sure he'd ever be considered unforgettable. But because of his limited screentime, it's a balance for me to make him evil-enough-to-do-his-bad-deeds but also sympathetic in his own way.

  6. reading your antagonist blog, it's great. Do you think there's any reason why antag can't narrate the protag's story? Mine seems to work...

  7. I've had the same problem as amber at times. My ant is well fleshed out and has good traits, but he gets very little screen time. So the majority of the info we get about him are from the MCs POV, and that makes him look pretty bad.

    Any tips on those situations?

  8. Ann: That's a great example. He's in the protag's way but you totally understand and even agree at times with him.

    Carradee: That's awesome! Antags play such an important role, even if they're not onscreen. When you think about it, they're the reason the book exists. If there was nothing standing in the protag's way, they'd win without struggle.

    Amber: You're welcome, and I'm thrilled it worked so well for you. Not all antags have to be unforgettable, but they can at strive to make the story unforgettable by what they do to the protag :)

    Anon: Anything can work if done right. The biggest snag is that by definition, the antag is the one preventing the protag from getting what they want. If the antag is the narrator, then that makes it harder for the reader to know what the protag is after and root for them to win. I'm sure there's a way to make it work, and I can see someone rooting against the antag narrator and hope he fails. It would be tricky to pull off, but probably very cool if you did.

    Michael: You might try letting the protag see some of the more redeeming traits. If the protag has a moment of wonder about something "good" the antag does, it might let you show those traits a bit more. Like he waits for the crowd of children to go inside before he opens fire on the good guys kinda thing. The protag might judge those actions one way, but the reader can see them for something different.

  9. I love Loki in the Avengers movies. He's funny, with a quick, dry wit.

  10. Angela Applewhite1/23/2019 9:15 AM

    My favourite is Hannibal Lecter, especially in the Hannibal Rising movie with Gaspard Ulliel. Losing his family the way he did is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. I cheered for him throughout the movie.

    1. That's the sign of a great antagonist--when you can actually root for them at times :)