Some characters are just born bad. Serial killers, werewolves, bankers—evil is in their blood and they are driven by a compulsion to do terrible things.
But not all antagonists are out and out villains. Just because your mother stops you doing anything fun, interferes in everything you do and guilt trips you into giving up your exciting plans to go curtain shopping with her, does that mean she’s a psycho who can’t be stopped? Hmm, okay, bad example.
My point is while there are some types of characters whose motivations don’t need to be explained because they are basically insane and can’t help themselves, most of the time the person acting against your hero needs their own reasons for pursuing their goal in such determined fashion.
The hero of the story has a moral obligation to do the right thing, it’s what makes them the hero. They may struggle with their choices, but ultimately they act from good intentions and wanting things to be better.
The bad guy, or at least the person in your hero’s way, may also believe they are acting from the best of intentions, but sometimes it can feel like they make life hard for the hero because that’s the role they’ve been assigned. You’re the antagonist, so antagonise.
In some cases all that brings these two parties into conflict is that they’re after the same goal. A love interest, the Ark of the Covenant, the right to wear the crown—whatever it is, the fact they want the same thing is enough to put them at loggerheads, but is it enough to keep them there?
If two guys are interested in the same girl, if she’s dating the captain of the football team but showing some interest in the class geek (who knows, he could be a billionaire in the making), why not just dump her? If the captain has genuine feelings for her, won’t he be offended by her disloyalty? If he just considers her a pretty adornment, he can find a replacement in the cheerleading squad.
If the plan to assassinate the President is running into a few setbacks due to that ex-Navy Seal running around the White House, maybe take a rain check. You can always shoot the President another day, not like you won’t know where he’ll be. Since when did cold-blooded killers insist on sticking to a schedule?
Obviously, in order for the story to not end on page 22 you need the bad guy to persevere in his efforts, but often the need to keep the conflict going ignores the mechanics required to enable that to happen. He’s the bad guy, he won’t give up, right?
In some cases things go very smoothly for the bad guy, all the way until the third act when the hero suddenly pulls himself together and out of nowhere blows up you Death Star (Oh, no, not my Death Star!).
There are also various conventions you can use to provide a purpose to the villain’s actions. If the cop is closing in on the bank robber planning a heist, you know the robber isn’t going to pack up and go home. He needs the money to pay for his kid’s operation, to pay back the mob, to feed his gambling habit.
But these kinds of reasons, while perfectly legitimate, can feel narrow and forced. Yes, that might be how it started, but as things change wouldn’t the villain’s priorities also? Just as the hero goes through different states of mind as he faces challenges, shouldn’t the antagonist also reassess his approach as circumstances change?
What can help push the story past these sorts of issues is to make the central relationship between protagonist and antagonist more than just about wanting the same thing, but something more personal.
Once people form an emotional connection of some sort their actions become far easier to understand.
But hate at first sight is as unsatisfying as love at first sight when it comes to getting people together. They looked into each other’s eyes and they knew they loved each other is something used in a lot of stories, but like any cliché it lacks any real substance. Similarly, just having two people become instant enemies because it’s their destiny to do so is pretty cheap and cheesy.
Whether it’s Hannibal Lecter’s fondness for Clarice, or Voldemort’s obsessions with Harry, when the villain’s desires goes beyond what they want to who they want it from, and we get to see that relationship develop, then the refusal of either side to back down will feel real and inevitable.
Even your mother’s endless criticism of everything you do and everything you like becomes understandable once you realise that she’s trying to help. She isn’t helping, of course, and usually making things worse, but her (misguided) belief that love means never leaving a thought unspoken explains why she won’t ever stop. Ever.
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