Your Baddies: Are they all they can be?

It feels like I’ve written about this before, but it’s still a topic that weighs on my mind – and, I think, should weigh on the minds of every writer, at least a little.

We spend so much time getting our protagonists just right. Their sidekicks, too. Hair and eye color, height and weight. What kinds of clothes they wear, where they live, what they do for a living. Background – education, parents and family, where they’ve lived. How they talk and walk. How they act. How they react to certain situations and certain people. Are they trusting? Outgoing? Happy? How do they get into the situation in which they find themselves, when your book opens? How do the secondary characters get involved? How long have they known your MC? How do they feel about him/her? On and on.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But how many of us truly spend a lot of time thinking about our antagonists in as much detail as we do our protagonists?

Think about it for a second. Think about some of the greatest antagonists in literature. Hannibal Lecter. The man eats people. But . . . he’s not a typical ‘villain’ who cackles maniacally as he sautees someone’s liver. He is a real person on the page. In fact, if you Google him, you’ll find he has an incredible, detailed backstory that explains how he came to be what he is. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re drawn to Silence of the Lambs.

In another post, I made the point that your ‘villain’ (antagonist) has to be evenly matched with your MC, so that the reader finds it believable. Are they in a cat-and-mouse game of espionage during the Cold War? Then they’d better be the top agents the CIA and KGB can send at each other. One reason Voldemort is so good is that we’re not sure, even up to that final page, whether Harry really can defeat him or not. And we’re afraid he can’t.

But there’s more to it. Your antagonist shouldn’t be a storybook villain. What’s the fun in that? And if you’re having trouble with your novel, maybe you should think about it from your antagonist’s POV. What do they want? Why are they trying to stop the MC from getting what they want? What’s their background? What’s their motivation? Remember:  your antagonist believes he’s the hero of his own story. Is yours? Really? The way you’ve written him? Or is he a caricature, a cardboard figure put there so your MC has something to go up against?

Rowling did a great job of this with Professor Snape. I know I wasn’t the only one blown away by his big revelation. He seemed like a caricature villain, didn’t he? Hating Harry because he hated Harry’s father James. It was believable because that’s precisely the sort of thing a middle-grader would think – and, let’s face it, because we all know people exactly like that. But wow. What she did with him in the last two books went beyond anything I expected.

Sure, there’s lots of best-selling novels that have caricature ‘villains.’ But where do those novels end up, eventually? On the remainder table, or lining the shelves at your local thrift shop. No one re-reads them.

Look to history. Look to all the great ‘villains’ of history. Hitler. Stalin. Genghis Khan. Caligula. Trump. Stalin believed he was absolutely doing the right thing for the Soviet Union; Hitler believed he was absolutely doing the right thing for Germany. Trump believes he’s absolutely doing the right thing for himself. Read biographies of these guys.You’ll find them far more complicated than your high school history class made them out to be. (Except Trump.)

OR . . . think about common historical heroes. Read their biographies. And find out how flawed they really were. Think Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator?” Think again. He was just as racist as anyone else; the Emancipation Proclamation was a last-ditch effort to undermine the South by taking away their slaves. (It was also illegal, and – since it applied to a foreign nation – was totally worthless. It also didn’t free all the slaves in America.) Love electricity? Think Thomas Edison is responsible for it? HAH! Edison made a career of hiring top minds, stealing their ideas, and then firing them. Nikola Tesla found that out the hard way. Edison also alienated his 16-year old daughter when he went off to Paris and returned with a 17-year old bride. He also murdered thousands of animals in his efforts to design and build one of the most controversial inventions ever – the electric chair. Why did he build it? So he could ‘prove’ that George Westinghouse’s alternating current was too dangerous, and his company would be given the right to bring electricity to New York City.

Yeah. Not so heroic now, are they? 🙂 Tell this story from Tesla’s POV, and who’s the baddie?

Your protagonist must be flawed. But your antagonist must have redeeming qualities to make them human, to make them believable. I struggle with this. I’m putting my 14-year old rumrunner up against a guy that is as cold as the day is long – or is he? Meanwhile, I’ve got my romance novel heroine struggling to protect herself and her farm from a kitten-drowning rapist – who also happens to be a proud patriot and leader of the Sons of Liberty. And my urban fantasy series? The two antagonists I have there are not only against my protagonists, but against each other. Once I sat down with one of them and started working on his – its? – story, I quickly fell in love with this urbane, witty, well-spoken, self-deprecating demon.Even though he’s trying to kill one of my MCs and . . . yeah. But I totally get where he’s coming from, now.

Bottom line:  Your reader should be almost as invested in your antagonist as they are in your protagonist. If that means you need to create as an elaborate a backstory for him as you do your MC, do it. If you’re not sure of their motivation, figure it out.

Studying history is a great way to figure out how to create characters that are real – because you see it from both sides. Next week, I’ll look at a couple of incidents in history where you’re not entirely sure who the baddie should be. Until then – happy writing. 🙂

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Dear First-Time Teachers . . .

I’m nearing the end of my first semester as a full-time instructor. It shouldn’t be earth-shattering; after all, I was an adjunct for ten years before this. Teaching at three different schools, teaching between 10 and 14 classes a semester (that translates into 30 – 42 hours, in education-speak). This should have been nothing to me, really. It should have been easy. 

But it hasn’t been easy. It’s been a HUGE transition. A transition that’s not done yet. It’s not even really a rite of passage, because at least that ends at some point. This doesn’t. Every week, there’s something new to learn, something else I didn’t know I was supposed to be doing. So let me share some thoughts:

1.) If you don’t say something, no one will ever know. I know it sounds so simple, but communication is so difficult. You feel like you SHOULD know, and you’re afraid that if you ask a question, you’ll be seen as incompetent or stupid, or that someone will say, “Yeah, that was in an email last week. Duh.” We tell our students all the time that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but we don’t believe it ourselves, do we? The other day, another new teacher and I both admitted that it feels like there’s things we aren’t doing because we don’t know we’re supposed to be doing them. Sometimes it’s hard to put the questions into words. Sometimes (again), you’ll feel like you’re stupid if you ask. You need to ask anyway.

2.) Your office will NOT feel like home for a LONG, LONG TIME. No matter how many knick-knacks and photos you put up, no matter how many books you put on the ugly metal shelves,  no matter how many scatter rugs you put down – it just won’t feel right. And more to the point . . .

3.) You probably won’t feel you belong there. You might stare at yourself in the mirror every morning and think, this is the day they find out they made a mistake and they’ve hired the wrong person, and I’m a fraud. There’s actually a term for this:  it’s called Impostor Syndrome. I have it. No matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary – see, I said may be, not is – I feel like I have no business being there, and that if I make one wrong move, they’ll discover the horrible truth – I’m a fraud, a charlatan, a con artist (except, you know, I can’t pull off really elaborate, high-dollar heists).

4.) To quote Elle in Legally Blond:  First impressions are not always correct. I had a student who, when I first met him, seemed to have zero respect for me. He was rude, always questioning, insulting to me and the other students, and I woke up every day praying for an email from the school saying he’d dropped the course. But as I got to know him, I realized that he’s incredibly bright and hard-working; his mind works in a very specific fashion (he’s an engineering student); and what seemed like disrespect is simply how he deals with others. In truth, he ended up being one of my favorite students.

5.) Nothing will be perfect the first time out. I’m a perfectionist, and this one is SO HARD FOR ME. I want it all perfect, at once. But here’s the thing:  you’re probably going to be teaching at least one course (maybe three, like me) that you’ve never taught before. Never even had coursework in before. What do you do? You prep the best you can. Every semester is another chance to tweak things, to change what you didn’t like, to add something new, to change it up. Because . . .

6.) That first semester is all about survival. I had a meeting with my VP of Academic Affairs this week, and he asked if I had ever thought about doing xyz in the classroom. I think I took a smidgen too long to answer, because he said, “A perfectly acceptable answer is, ‘No, right now I’m just trying to survive!'” 🙂 It is, in fact, the only answer you can give sometimes, and everyone will understand, because everyone has been there. That’s why no one will really mind if you ask questions. That’s why no one will mind if your courses aren’t perfect that first time out. They know you’re doing your best.

7.) Your colleagues are your lifeline. Maybe you’ve been teaching for a long time already. Or like me, you were hired at the school where you already work. Either way – the learning curve is steep, my friend. I know there will be days when you want to shut your door and have a good cry at your desk. It’s okay. Do it. But don’t do it to the exclusion of have good conversations with your colleagues. I, for one, would not have dared pitch an entirely new degree program to my VP of Academic Affairs last week had my colleagues not pushed me forward. They’ve been there. Done that. And they (probably) want you to succeed.

8.) Keep your nose clean, kid. There are things that just have to be done, and you have to do them. Get grades and attendance in on time. Attend in-service. Don’t skip out on office hours. Answer your students’ emails. GRADE THINGS. Within a reasonable time frame. Attend required training sessions. You don’t have tenure. You don’t get a break. Not yet, anyway. And one more thing:  don’t make more work for yourself than you can handle. You may think that volunteering for this and that will endear you to your school, but – no. You will kill yourself. Just don’t do it. Remember:  survival.

9.) Be kind. Yes, there are deadlines, and yes, the college will back your play if you adhere to them and don’t allow late work. Yes, the student who comes to you during finals week (and you think, wait, are you in my class?) and says “Yeah, I haven’t been here and I haven’t done any of the work but I need to get caught up” is going to be up a creek without a paddle. But the one who has an emergency and can’t get to a final, or turn in a paper on time, needs kindness.

10.) Accept it:  not everything will get done. And I don’t mean at work. I mean at home. I had to choose priorities. Bottle-feeding my surprise kittens was a priority. Continuing to run my vintage shop was a priority. After that . . . let’s just say the house is a pigsty and I haven’t written on my novels in a month. And reading? I wish. My daily walks are just a dream. What will you have to give up? Sleep? Time with your family? Just do me a favor: don’t give up too much. Don’t give up the things that make you, you.

No, the transition is not done yet. Maybe it won’t ever be done, I don’t know. Too early to say. I’m just now beginning to take ownership of my position, to think of myself (sometimes) as ‘not an adjunct.’ And I’m hoping next semester goes easier for me. Hopefully, some of these things will make your first time out easier for you.