Friday, January 15, 2021

A First Class Bad Guy: How the X-Men Can Help You Craft a Better Antagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Nothing says your bad guy has to be bad.

My husband is a huge comic book geek, and after a few years of marriage, I developed an appreciation and enjoyment of the genre myself. We see all the superhero movies, and you’d be surprised (or not if you’re also a fan) by how often I find useful writing examples in those 90 minutes.

One thing the Marvel Superhero folks do well, is create wonderful characters. They’re layered, with real problems and real issues that make their choices believable and relatable—even the villains.

Which brings me to X-Men: First Class. 

The movie follows the story of the two anchor characters of the X-Men: Magneto and Professor X, otherwise known as Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier. The antagonist and the protagonist. The villain and the hero. Like many great and tragic hero/villain pairs, they started out as friends and wound up on different ideological sides.

And that’s where Magneto gets neat-o.

This is a villain who is so human (ironically enough considering he’s a mutant), so relatable, so sympathetic that you kinda want to take his side. He survived the Nazis, watched his family killed, his people tagged, labeled, and gassed for being “different” and “less than human” (Jewish). He was used and abused for his powers.

Jump ahead and you can clearly see how a man with this background would react to folks trying to identify, label, and control mutants for being “different” and “not human.”

And you know what?

When he lays out his argument for why the mutants need to band together and protect themselves against humanity, you agree with him. History has taught us that humans do pretty horrific things to those who are different and those they can’t control.

When antagonists pursue their own goals for their own reasons, they enrich the entire story.

A common problem with antagonists is that they’re often the bad guy because plot (or the author) says so. They have diabolical plans to destroy the world, but they don’t have good motives for doing it. They’re “evil” and all “evil” people want to ruin everything. If you’re writing a monster that’s fine, but a strong antagonist is more than a mindless killing machine.

A good bad guy is the hero of their own story. When you’re crafting an antagonist, remember:

Your villain was not grown in a test tube (unless you write science fiction, then maybe)

Like Magneto and the Nazis, there’s a defining event or series of events that crafted why your antagonist is being so bad. Odds are, it’s something readers can understand and relate to on some level. Maybe you can even make readers sympathize with the antagonist because of it.

What happened in your antagonist’s life to make them this way?

Villains can have emotion wounds, too. Pinpoint what’s behind your antagonist’s goals and behavior.

(Here’s more on Brainstorming Your Character's Emotional Wound)

Good bad guys usually aren’t all bad.

Magneto is trying to protect his people—the mutants. Maybe your antagonist’s heart is in the right place, but their methods are a bit extreme. People do the wrong things for the right reasons all the time. Your antagonist might be trying to do something noble on the grand scale, but they’re choosing to get there in a less than honorable fashion.

Can you add some honor or nobility to your antagonist’s actions?

Just because they’re bad doesn’t mean they don’t want to make the world a “better” place.

(Here’s more on The Secret to Writing Fascinating Villains)

Villains have origin stories, too. They aren’t born bad.

Magneto faced horrors most can only imagine, so it’s no wonder he has serious issues with humanity and doesn’t trust them. Odds are your antagonist didn’t live life on easy street before they met your protagonist. Key moments and choices in their life shaped them into who they are. And there are probably places in the story where you can exploit that.

What tough choices has your antagonists had to make?

Think about the trials and difficulties they faced in their past, and how that shaped who they are in the story.

(Here’s more on Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel) 

The best antagonists often have a good point.

Bad guys who want to destroy the world and kill everyone in it never made sense to me, because, um, don’t they need those things to survive as well? (Unless you’re a Dalek. Their desire to destroy the world makes sense for them).

Bad guys with a plan that has some element worthy of all the nasty things they’re doing are a lot more compelling. You get why they’re acting as they are—such as a former concentration camp victim who wants to protect people like him who are being persecuted and even exterminated (pun intended).

What about your antagonist’s “evil plan” is worth pursuing?

Look for the merits in the plan, whether it’s a wizard to trying enslave the population or a mother meddling in her child’s life.

(Here’s more on Create the Perfect Villain: a 6-Step Master Plan)

Antagonists can be anything that gets in the protagonist’s way, but when you want an awesome villain, I don’t think you can get any better than one your readers can actually understand and even agree with a little. It’s those human qualities that make them more than just a bad guy. They become people, heroes in their own minds and their own stories, trying to do what they think is best—even if that goes against what the hero may want and think is best.

The better the bad guy, the more heroic the hero looks.

Naturally not every villain in every book needs to be like Magneto. Sometimes you want the crazed killer or unrelenting force. My personal rule of thumb: The more personal the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, the more developed that antagonist should be. Readers are going to want to know the motives behind an antagonist they’ve gotten to know.

A great villain can take a story to a new level.

Think about your favorite stories (books, movies, or TV) and who sticks out in your mind. Great bad guys who were the perfect foil to the heroes you love. Because our heroes are always so much brighter when they’re facing off against a devilish foe.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Examine your antagonist. Do they have solid reasons for their actions in the story? Do those reasons come from a real character place, or because they’re “the bad guy?” If you feel your antagonist could use a little deepening, answer the above questions and flesh them out.

What are some of your favorite villains? What tricks have you used to make your antagonists more interesting?

*Originally published June 2011. Last updated January 2021.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers. 

This book will help you: 
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. I saw the movie too. I loved it. I totally agree with you. The characterization of both Magneto and Professor X (Charles Xavier) was excellent...even Raven (Mystic). I was like, "Oh, I get it now." It was awesome to see the characters then, then remember the things they've done in later movies. The writing was excellent and you could look to the future and say truly, "I understand them now."

    Magneto was my fav character - I didn't see that coming. But I agree with you, Janice, his human qualities made him a better villian. There is a lot to learn from all the characters in this movie but his character, I think, exceeded what I'm certain most people expected. He is a great character to model a villian after.

  2. Great post! And so true. One of my favorite villians is Kevin Spacey's character in Seven.

    Towards the end - when he turns himself in and he's riding in the back of the car with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in the front - he's explaining why he committed all those heinous crimes and you can almost...understand.

    It's creepy because he did so many awful things! But what a great villian :)

  3. Great post! I just saw this movie over the weekend and I love it too. I loved seeing the background of the two characters and knowing their past. I agree that the villian needs to have human qualities- not only does it add layers, but I think it make the story even more intesteing when the reader can sympathize on some level with them.

  4. I haven't seen X-Men: First Class but I think I might want to now!

    This might sound weird, but my favorite villain is probably Voldemort. I loved how Harry got to see his entire life story through the Pensieve. I also really liked Draco Malfoy in the later books, especially in the first part of the Deathly Hallows movie when you could see how conflicted he was. :)

    I was thinking about some of my other favorite books, and I realized that a lot of them don't have very good villains. In The Hunger Games (one of my favorite book series of all time), President Snow isn't really relateable or very human. I understand that he wants control over Panem, but not much else.

  5. Great post. I haven't seen First Class yet, but I do like Magneto as a character.

    I enjoy playing with perceptions of a villain. In my own book, one of the villainous characters is fairly sympathetic by the end. If you view things from his perspective, and assume his beliefs about the world to be true, while he's done some horrible things, he has had some understandable (if not acceptable) reasons for them.

  6. I love this post! And I love your rule of thumb for three dimensional characters. I tend to lean on the side of well developed villains then not.

    My favorite sympathetic villain of all time is Prince Nuada from Hellboy. He's right there with Magneto. Heck, I wanted him to achieve his goals (a place for the fey folk) through out the movie, I just didn't want him to kill the humans to accomplish that.

    Sometimes it's really interesting to give the hero and villain the exact same goal, and just change their methods of execution.

  7. Wonderful as always Janice! I think a great villain can make or break a story. One of my favorites is Professor Umbrage. She is so creepy with her pink, cat-loving, and torturous ways.

  8. Thanks for this! I'm working on a new wip and know it's important that I flesh out the antag and his motivations early on.

  9. Hoping to see X-men in the next week or so, glad to hear its well done and sticks to the core backstories.

    I'm going to apply the questions from this post across my current WIP. Pretty sure I already have most of the elements but this will help to deepen them.

  10. Great post Janice, thanks.

    One of my all time favorite antagonist is Al Swearengen from Deadwood. Sometimes he evil, sometimes less, but always unpredictable.

    In Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, he writes about the hidden story, which are basically the things that happen outside the viewpoint characters knowledge.

    This is the best way for me too look at my antagonist and all my major charterers. When I outline I outline their scene and sequel just as I would my POV character and it allows me to be really selective in what scenes I show them coming into conflict with my POV character. It gives me better understanding of when are the important moments in the antagonist's plan, and how to insert that scene so it lines up with when its a important moment in my protagonist's plans, thus creating the most conflict.

  11. Magneto's characterization and motivations are straight from the comics. Amazingly, these things were translated correctly and didn't ruin the adaptation of the character. Xzvier and Magneto both see the children as the future and want a safe world for mutantkind. Xavier believes it can be achieved through peaceful co-existence while Magneto believes it's only possible with mutants in charge. In the first X-Men movie he tried to shortcut that with a flawed device that would mutate the genes of an assembly of world leaders. He wasn't out to kill or conquer. He just had a tool that might've killed his targets, so stopping it became essential.

    There are a number of sharp villains out there. Crafting them well just means taking the time to put them together right.

  12. 1) Completely agree with everything you said about X-Men and Magneto.

    2) Thanks for the great list of questions to consider when writing our own antagonists!

    3) Michael Fassbender = yummy. He's my Hollywood Boyfriend. ;)

  13. Yes! I just saw First Class this past weekend, and I agree completely. By the end, you understand where Magneto's coming from, and like Elizabeth Poole said above about Prince Nuada, you just wish Magneto wasn't looking to kill the humans to make his point.

    I have this idea for my series as well, but it will take the protagonist until the last book to figure out that the antagonist was right - just not his methods. :)

  14. Excellent points about making the villain a rounded out person. So important! And I wanted to see that movie before, but I REALLY want to now! :D

  15. I agree on all points. I myself was left pleasantly surprised by the prequel. And this actually makes me think of my own antagonist and how he's had it tough. See, I was going to adopt someone else who's badder somehow but now I'm going to stick with what I have and work harder. In the end, you have to go with your gut as well, so thanks for reminding me of that. Muchly appreciated. ^_^

  16. I'm a huge X Men fan. I'm glad I'm not the only one who saw the nobility in Magneto's cause after all he'd been through. He's a fantastic villain (sometimes not-so-villain in certain series). Certainly a lot that can be learned from his development. <3 Great post.

  17. Writing good villains is sometimes really hard--harder than just writing good antagonists. In addition to making a character understandable, you must also make the character bad. The audience can understand them, but they shouldn't like them, (At least not more than the heroes). You can't make them entirely noble.

    Think about Magneto in the first X-men Movie. His plan involved using his machine to turn the world leaders into mutants. But it sucked energy. If he used it, he would die. So, instead of sacrificing himself for the cause, he kidnaps another mutant and forces her to do it instead. This is acceptable from his worldview, which is why Magneto is a great villain, not just a great antagonist.

  18. I think understanding villains makes them scarier. They feel so rational, even if their goals are out there and terrible. So much fun to play with!

  19. Villains having reasons for being villainous are not true or genuine villains.

    1. I would disagree there. Being "bad" with purpose, following your nature regardless of who it hurts feels far more villainous than someone who is just "bad" for no reason at all. Maybe those reasons aren't always conscious ones, but senseless evil has never felt as frightening as evil with a goal in mind to me.

  20. "Following your nature" and "being bad with purpose" are contradictory in terms since 1) we did not create our own nature (and nature does not nurture intentions, good or bad) and 2) "on purpose" implies a consciousness initiating or triggering actions.

    However, research has shown that consciousness does not initiate actions so even if apparently "being ‘bad’ with purpose, following your nature regardless of who it hurts feels far more villainous", might feel more villainous but really isn't, it just so appears since we ascribe (villainous) actions to a consciousness initiating them.

    Since thinking and motivation are subconscious (I'll spare you the details:)), reasons are subconscious and because consciousness never initiates actions, the notion of "evil with a goal in mind" as more frightening than "senseless evil" is a confused notion not founded on facts.

    The fact that consciousness does not initiate actions, challenges fiction's implied premise; the transparency of the mind; that everything happening to or inside a character's mind can in some way be explained or laid out.

    "A villain with a cause" is not a villain but a victim to circumstances and bad behaviour could be justified and explained away by referring to exterior or interior circumstances. Every action lending itself to explanation can at some level be justified or excused.

    Therefore, real villains are villains because it's in his or her character, without having to explain or justify the actions by referring to exterior/interior circumstances or reasons.

    On a less philosophical note, let me add that I love your fictional university, particularly the articles on the "between the scenes" (I know how to write perfectly structured scenes, my issues are how to deal with what's going on "between the scenes", since we can't possibly write about everything that happenes to a character every minute of every day)


    1. Ah okay, it looks like you're talking much more about real world behavior science than fiction. I assume your science is sound there, and I don't know enough about it to debate that (grin).

      I was talking purely fiction, and meant "villain" as in antagonist in a novel. Readers typically want to know why the antagonist does what they do, and when evil is just random without any rhyme or reason, it tends to feel flat and uninteresting. (Baring some genres like horror where the whole point is scary and unknown)

      In a novel, evil with purpose is usually more compelling. In life, random evil is indeed a scary thing.

  21. My personal favorite in protagonist-antagonist couple are De Niro and Pacino in Heat.
    The movie builds two characters who are both human. They are each other's villains. But neither of them is depicted as purely 'bad' or 'good'.
    I can think of a few more good villains but only in movies. Maybe I should read more books with good antagonists...

    1. Great example. Seeing the "people" behind the hero/villain is also more interesting to me.

  22. I agree that giving a villain a reason behind his or her evil makes them more compelling as a character, but I don't think it necessarily makes them better as a villain. It's fine for an author to know the reasoning behind the villain's actions, but it isn't always necessary to reveal it to the reader. Giving a villain depth is great when it effects the story or the reader in some way, like in a tragedy. But for the most part, in genres such as horror or adventure, I don't necessarily want to hear the sad backstory that made the villain who he is.
    The first Grudge movie was excellent because we didn't know who she was or what her motives were, making it impossible for us to guess what she did next. That sort of hidden factor terrifies me to no end.
    I also don't think its necessarily a bad thing for some villains to be bad fir the sake of being bad. These can make for a lot of great funny villains who you just love to hate. In the 2012 Les Miserables movie, there were some pretty great villains. Inspector Javert was amazing, having all the depth that you outlined in this article. He'd had a harsh life, he had a philosophy that was difficult to argue with, and he truly believed he was doing the right thing. He was truly an outstanding villain- and then you had the innkeepers (the Thenadiers).
    The Thenadiers were everything Javert was not. They had no real morals to speak of, they were shallow and greedy, and they showed no signs of changing their ways. Yet, I found myself humming along as they sang "Master of the House." They were so bad, it was hilarious to watch. They were no where near the level of character development Javert had, yet they were among the most memorable of actors in the movie.
    Well, my rambling has gone on long enough. You did make a great article, this is just my two cents :)

    1. Thanks!

      Like all things writing, it varies per book and story, and not everything applies to everything. And horror does follow different rules, as the whole point is to scare and horrify.

      But even with the innkeeper and his wife (one of my favorite songs as well from Les Mis), their goals were clear: they were greedy, selfish people who enjoyed ripping off those who had more than they. That's enough to show motive behind their actions. Motives don't have to be noble.

      What I'm talking about is more the villain who has an elaborate plan to summon a demon to destroy the world, but he absolutely no reason to do it other than "he's evil." He gets no benefit from it, has no need to do it, he's just being bad so something bad can happen.

      Does that make sense?

  23. Really a superb rule.

    I've always liked the rule of thumb that "Evil only comes as a reaction to evil... or to loss, or perceived loss."

    If someone robbed you, would you steal from them? I just might, if I went far enough through all the other options that didn't work, and I thought I could pull it off. A character who does this can seem more like a hero than a villain -- at least until the consequences of that revenge get tragic.

    If a hurricane wiped out everything you had, would you steal from someone else to get back on your feet? It's not... impossible...

    And if you didn't get a promotion? To some people, with enough built up frustration, that's "theft" too, and someone has to suffer for it. It's the same principle taken to an extreme. Villains can come from that end too, they're just less sympathetic or need much more work to show how they were pushed that far.

    A good bad guy usually starts with bad things happening to them.

    1. Ooo, I like that quote. So very true. Great examples of how a "normal" person could turn to evil in the right circumstances.