Can you relate to your antagonist?

This past week, I’ve been deep in the bowels of rewrites – and just printed the draft yesterday! I’ll be going through it this weekend, making changes and edits next week, and hoping to get it to my betas soon. 🙂

But let’s be honest – that’s not all I’ve been doing. 🙂

There were a couple of things this week that provoked some deep thoughts. (Besides Trump thinking it’s okay to murder an endangered species.) Both had to do with how we think about our antagonists, and how we can humanize them.

Writing books, conferences, tutorials – they’ll all tell you the same thing:  you can’t have an antagonist/villain who’s completely bad. Sometimes, that comes across (and I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking this) as your antagonist has to do something great like rescuing kittens, or donating 30% of his ill-gotten gains to charities and orphanages, so the reader, you know, has to sort of root for him.

But it’s not really like that. What all these tutors and books really mean is this:  you need to make your antagonist relate-able. And here’s a couple of examples of making your antagonist human, without necessarily making them heroic. 

The first came with my 134th watching of Ever After. If you’ve never seen this movie, do go watch it, please. It’s a historic retelling of the Cinderella story, and fairly historically accurate as well (to those who say that Leonardo da Vinci was never in France – well, he was!). Drew Barrymore plays the title heroine, Danielle du Barbarac, who will catch the eye – and heart – of Prince Henri. Now, in the original fairy tale, the wicked stepmother is just that. Wicked. She hates Cinderella for reasons we don’t really understand, dotes on her horrible daughters, and makes Cinderella’s life a living hell. She’s a villain.

9302f59bf71b5164267079b635e71deaBut. In Ever After, the stepmother, Rodmilla de Ghent (played masterfully by the incomparable Anjelica Huston), is a woman widowed and having to do whatever it takes to raise three daughters – well, two daughters and one stepdaughter  – alone. There is one revealing scene in the movie in which Danielle is brushing her stepmother’s hair, and Rodmilla allows her – for a brief moment – to ask about her father. “You look so much like your father,” she says . . . and when Danielle asks if she loved him, she replies, “I barely knew him.” Yet it’s clear that his death shook her to the core; she could have married again, and in fact it would have been much easier if she had. But she didn’t. Now, this could be because no man in his right mind would take on a total witch who’s already been through two husbands, sure. But it might also be that, having been married twice, she has chosen a different path. At any rate, though it’s a small – very small – scene, it gives the ‘wicked stepmother’ a hint of humanity. We can identify, in a way, with her. And when she finally gets her come-uppance, we almost feel a little sorry for her. (Almost.)

Then, last Sunday, I was listening to The Moth Radio Hour (which, if you’ve never listened, you HAVE to!). One story in particular had me spellbound. A young musician, living in LA and working as a super in an apartment complex, was called by the FBI and asked to identify a couple of photos. The woman, he said, didn’t look all that familiar. But the guy, sure. That was Charlie. He lived upstairs with his wife.

Only Charlie was really – Whitey Bulger. Yeah. THAT Whitey Bulger.

Here’s a link to the episode:  https://themoth.org/stories/call-me-charlie But as you listen, you’ll understand why this one made me think. The musician, Josh, didn’t know Charlie as the FBI’s Most Wanted. He didn’t know him as a ruthless mob boss who has since been convicted of money laundering, extortion, and nineteen murders. Josh knew Charlie as the guy who came downstairs one day, listened to him play his guitar, and then gave him a Stetson. He knew Charlie as the guy who gave him Christmas presents, and then – when he forgot to write a thank-you note – gave him a box of stationary. He knew Charlie as – Charlie. Not a murderer. And when the FBI wanted Josh to participate in taking Charlie down, that’s how Josh thought about it –  not that he was helping arrest a wanted criminal, but that he was helping arrest someone he considered a normal, quiet tenant who might even be thought of as a friend.

In this case, it’s all about perception. Could a notorious mob boss be – a nice guy? To someone who had no idea who he was, maybe. Take author Ann Rule. In the early 70s, she famously worked a late-night shift on a suicide hotline with none other than Ted Bundy. They became friends – and even after he was arrested and charged with the murders of thirty women, she remained friends with him because he was charming and – well, to those he liked, he was nice. In a jailhouse interview, he apparently once told her, “I liked you. I would never have hurt you.” (Here’s a story from the Washington Post about her relationship with Bundy:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/28/crime-writer-ann-rule-and-killer-ted-bundy-were-friends-before-they-were-famous/?utm_term=.b8ed8134155a )

So maybe this is all there is to it, then. Make your antagonist someone your reader is able to relate to. That makes it harder for your readers to know what they want to have happen. And it makes it harder for your protagonist, maybe, to do what they have to do. Ann Rule is the one who tipped off police about Bundy. Imagine the doubts and second doubts she had to go through before she placed that call. What if your antagonist is someone that, under other circumstances, your protagonist could actually like? How much inner tension could that add?

This is part of the revisions that I’ve been making. My antagonist was – well, to be honest, he was sort of what we call a ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Motivated by greed, he was callus and dismissive of Erin’s concerns, and clearly didn’t care about the ghosts he hunted. I also never liked him and never felt comfortable with having him in my story. It didn’t seem like that’s really who he should be.

So – I hit the rest button. What would add more tension? For Erin, going up against a jackass is just par for the course – that would never keep her up at night! But what if he wasn’t an ass? What if he was actually a halfway decent guy who just truly didn’t understand that the things he was doing were actually harming the ghosts he was after? A bit bumbling, a bit stubborn, and a bit clueless. We all know someone like that. That’s easy to relate to. We can’t hate this guy, because he’s not really a bad guy. We can be aghast at the things he does. But even Erin, as much as she wants to, can’t really dislike him. That puts her in a bind. That adds a little tension.

I encourage you to at least listen to the Moth segment. 🙂 But also, to think about these things if you’re in the middle of your own rewrites, or if something seems slightly off-kilter about your antagonist. Sure, we like to hate villains. No one minds hating Jafar, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Trump. They’re evil. We get it. But in fiction . . . sometimes, just evil doesn’t quite get the job done.

Sometimes, being able to relate to your antagonist is what you need.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s