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.
But 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. 🙂