Monday 2 September 2013

Bad Characters Do Bad Things

A well-written villain can make all the difference in a story, but does that mean a complex portrayal of a character who believes in what they’re doing just as much as the hero? Or does it mean a guy with a black hat who’s a horrible bastard?

Intellectually we would probably all claim to prefer the antagonist with depth, but in reality people don’t particularly want their villains to be assorted shades of grey.

The idea of a specific, clearly defined baddie is very appealing. Seeing them get their comeuppance creates a sense of great satisfaction. The more uncompromising the depiction of them as evil, the easier it is to enjoy their downfall or even their death.

In real life it’s never that simple. We can never know what happened if we weren’t there. We can’t be sure if the person getting punished is the one who’s guilty. We never get to lock up evil gang who do all the bad things so we can finally go back to being safe and happy and live happily ever after.

In real life, bad things keep happening.

In stories, however, we have the option of certainty. We can make the bad guy a hundred percent evil, and we can be a hundred percent sure they got what they deserved.

In essence we want someone to blame, and then we want to see them destroyed, one way or another.

It’s very cathartic.

The problem with providing this kind of target for justice is that it often produces one dimensional figures rather than real people. Which is fine up to a point, but eventually it ends up feeling simplistic; which is what it is.

The Evil Stepmother and the Evil Stepsisters behave terribly towards our hero because they’re Evil. Let’s hope they get stuffed in an oven and burn to death. Hey, that’s what they would do to you, only fair you do it to them first. It’s not evil if you thought of it second, apparently.

Most stories won’t have villains quite as psychotic as that. You can give them a human side and some sympathy. But the more sympathetic you make them, the harder it will be to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion. It won’t be impossible, but it won’t be as easy as it would be with a child-murdering puppy-torturer.

So how do you create a fully rounded human being who’s downfall readers can enjoy?

One answer is to write the character so they gradually become the character they need to be.

If you have them turned up to eleven on the baddie scale from the outset, they’re going to feel very broad and theatrical.

Just like the main character, they face obstacles to their goals, and have to make choices how to proceed. You can use these choices to develop your villain’s persona from dubious to diabolical 9or somewhere in between).

There are, of course, some genres where you want the baddie to be pure, mustachio-twirling evil. If that’s an intentional choice there’s nothing wrong with that. And in some stories the rival won’t be bad at all, just a competitor. But by showing how the bad guy, whether he’s a rival in love or a criminal mastermind, has to go to extreme measures as the stakes are raised, you can keep him grounded in the same reality as the hero.

As the hero's fortunes improve, the villain's go the other way (and vice versa), so their character arc has the same potential as the main character's for growth and development. 

Not that you necessarily want to spend as much time on the antagonist as the hero, just enough to show him being pushed into true villainy.

A character you see change because of circumstances is much more  relateable even if what they change into isn't.
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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Your antagonist doesn't even have to be evil or twisted. He can be ornery and just get in the way of your hero. Sometimes that's enough.

J E Oneil said...

I certainly prefer complex villains. It's more important for them to be compelling and interesting than an evil person out to destroy the protagonist.

mooderino said...

@Alex - true, but if you want the satisfaction of seeing someone getting their just desserts you usually have to push them towards a little villainy.

@JE - yet most stories have an out and out baddie, and I think there's a reason for that. Big stakes are easier to grasp than complex ones.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think that Walter White of Breaking Bad is the best written villain I've ever encountered.

mooderino said...

@Mike - a good example of seeing the evolution of a character. Although it makes it a little easier when he's the lead (not many villains get to do that).

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love when a story get me to hope the bad guy doesn't completely lose. Changing Lanes is one of my favourite films because the two opposing characters are protagonists and antagonists, showing the best and worst in each of us. But I do think Disney likes their baddy bad guys, and kids love that.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - the juvenile idea of a villain does seem to dominate.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I agree that if I were to sympathize with the baddie then I would never be able to hate him.

Moody, you have given a wonderful tip that even our antagonists must face obstacles to their goals, and have to make choices how to proceed. And that we can use these choices to develop your villain’s persona from dubious to diabolical. I am sharing this post on my FB author page. Its super.

Maria said...

I like a good baddie, someone who I really want to see get his comeuppance. In fact the badder the better.

Elise Fallson said...

Anakin Skywalker popped into my head just now. I like my bad guys really, really bad. It makes it that much sweeter when they fall.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - Thanks very much. If I was on Facebook I'd Like you or Poke you or Face you or something.

@Maddie - can be very cathartic to see someone get what they deserve. Not so easy in real life.

@Elise - and he was such a cute kid too

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