Midweek Writer-Rummage - The Antagonist, The Bad Guy, The Arch-villain ...

Batman-Joker ~ Jim Lee

Finally, back to rummaging … The last rummage ended with the arguments that ‘baddies’ needed to be more than two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs. 

This week, I’ve rummaged around in my notes, and dug out more about antagonists ... the bad guys.

In any story, the first point of interest is almost always the protagonist.  And yet, would there be a story without the antagonist?  The antagonist is needed to provide conflict, to set off the action.  And he doesn’t have to be a person, it could be a thing, like an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.  Having said that, for the rest of this article, let’s assume the antagonist is a person. 

When writing, I have a tendency to focus my attention on the protagonist to the point where their ‘back story’ wants for nothing.  As for the antagonists … most especially in the first story, and, to some extent, in my second, they were painfully 2D.  I think it was only in the third or fourth drafts that I started to flesh them out because they were so stupidly ridiculous, and not in the least bit frightening nor did they pose much of a threat.

In the first version of my story, ‘The Cursed Gift', the antagonist was the demon, Bagrath, which seemed an obvious choice.  Yet, despite the numerous rewrites, no matter what I did, he stubbornly remained a villainous caricature who would have worked better in a comedy.  The character of Shalyer was more of a secondary villain, and he didn’t come across as particularly threatening either.

It was only when I decided to make Shalyer the main antagonist, and fleshed out his backstory did he start to transform into a more believable villain.  I also gave him a trait that humanised him – his love for his mother.  It was that love that became the strong, believable motivation behind his ‘evil plan’.

For an antagonist to be believable, he cannot exist purely as a 2D character for no one is purely good or totally evil; everyone has it in them to be both.  It's not only 'bad' people who do 'bad things', 'good' people also do 'bad things'.  Usually there’s a reason or motivation for doing the ‘bad thing’.  And that is what is required for the antagonist – the reason, the motivation behind the ‘evil plan’.  Even in real life, criminals of all kinds, fanatics, terrorists … they all have a reason – in their mind, a very good, rock-solid reason – for doing the things they do.  And it doesn’t matter which category the antagonist falls under …

The most clichéd antagonist has to be the one who’s greedy for power, or riches, or both.  All well and good, but why?  As the sole motivating factor, it doesn’t require much thought, neither does it have much staying power, and soon sinks into the realm of ‘boring’. 

Then there’s the antagonist who is insane.  In a way, that’s an easy explanation because there’s no need to come up with a plausible reason for the antagonist’s behaviour, as there’s almost a lack of need to understand said behaviour.  Yet, if done right, this can be very scary because there is no rhyme or reason for the behaviour … just like The Joker; no one knows his true history, why he is the way he is, and does the things he does.

What about the antagonist who is a fanatic?  Someone who is willing to kill, even himself, for a cause.  That cause has to be rooted in a strong-as-steel ideal so the reader can believe that the person is willing to die for it.  The antagonist could be known as mild-mannered, but, as a fanatic, he transforms into someone who is scary.  And what makes him frightening?  It is his steadfast devotion to his cause, his unshakeable belief that what he is doing is right.  And nothing anyone does or says is going to make him falter.

An antagonist who’s on the opposite side of the cultural divide could be an interesting creation.  Someone from an ‘enlightened’ culture would have real trouble trying to understand someone from a culture where, for example, cutting off the hand of a thief is not only considered the norm, but is enshrined in their law.  Does the ‘enlightened’ character have the right to label all those involved as villains?  If the law, for that culture, has proved to be a real deterrent, and they accept it, who is to say who is right and who is wrong?

Back to ‘The Cursed Gift’, I gave the protagonist, Leah,the same ‘gift’ as the antagonist, Shalyer.  I wanted to show that, despite their different upbringings, at a basic level, there wasn’t much difference between them.  I wanted to show that the only thing, in a way, anchoring Leah to the side of ‘good’ was her family.  Without that anchor, was she really very different to Shalyer?  I hope I managed to convey that idea that the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are basically flip sides of the same coin.  For me, the most obvious example of that is Batman and The Joker.  When their behaviour and reasoning are stripped right down, there’s very little to choose between them.  Same with Charles Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men; there’s a very fine dividing line between their points of view.

From the numerous articles I've read about antagonists, here are some of the things I now think about when creating an antagonist.  Did something happen to the antagonist to make him choose to do ‘bad things’?  Is it something readers can relate to … something to do with anger, fear, heartbreak, a misplaced sense of honour?  They may have noble intentions – for example, saving the life of a loved one, but if the only way to save that life is to cause the deaths of countless others, their actions cannot possibly be justified.

Just like the protagonist, I believe the best antagonist to be someone who is real.  Someone who, despite their ‘bad’ ways, can also be funny, kind, interesting.  Someone whom the reader finds possible to understand, even if only a little.  Someone who has, not only flaws, but also the capacity to do good as we all do … someone human.