I went to see X-Men: First Class last night (which I enjoyed a lot). 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 even relatable.
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, well, neat-o.
This is a villain that is so human (ironically enough considering he’s a mutant), so relatable, so sympathetic that you almost want to take his side. He survived the Nazis, watched his family killed, his people tagged and 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 kinda agree with him. History has taught us that humans do pretty horrific things to those who are different and those they can’t control.
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.
Next time you’re crafting an antagonist, try thinking about:
What happened in their life to make them this way?
Like Magneto and the Nazis, is there a defining event or series of events that crafted why he feels as he does? Is that something that others can understand and even relate to? Is there a way to make readers sympathize with him because of this?
Can you add some honor or nobility to their actions?
Magneto is trying to protect his people – the mutants. Can your antag’s heart be in the right place? People do the wrong thing for the right reasons all the time. Maybe your antagonist is trying to do something noble on the grand scale, but they’re choosing to get there in a less than honorable fashion.
What tough choices have they had to make?
Have there been sacrifices? Losses? Odds are your antagonist didn’t win every battle, thwart every foe and have a life on easy street before they met your protag. Are there key moments in their life where a choice shaped them into who they are? And better still, are there places in the story where you can exploit that?
What about their “evil plan” is worth pursuing?
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.
Naturally not every villain in every book needs to be like Magneto. Sometimes you want the crazed killer or unrelenting force. But it’s worth a few minutes to think about how rounding out your antagonist might make your overall story better and richer. My personal rule of thumb:
The more personal the conflict between protag and antagonist, the more developed that antagonist should be.
A great villain can take a story to a new level. Think about your favorite stories (books, movies or TV) and what sticks out in your mind. You probably remember a lot villains, don’t you? Great bad guys that 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.
What are some of your favorite villains? What tricks have you used to make your antagonists more interesting?
More articles on antagonists:
When Being Bad is Good: Creating a Great Antagonist
The Four Classic Conflict Types
I'm Not Evil: Writing From the Antagonist's POV
Being Evil: Plotting From the Antagonist's Perspective
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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