Bad guys aren’t necessarily all bad

Unless you’re dealing with satanic supernatural characters, an easy mistake for new authors to make is to assume that the antagonist has to be the epitome of all evil. In practice, the bad guy may well think he’s his own hero. He just sees things differently from the good guy. Like the hero, he has a back-story that explains why he is what he is; and a goal – which usually brings him into direct conflict with the hero/heroine. The goal might be to:

• feel love, or be respected.
• control, or rule others around him.
• become wealthy.
• possess something, or someone
• satisfy his lust, or desire.
• extract revenge.
• satisfy some deep religious, or political conviction.

Some of these motives are not necessarily all bad. But, unlike the good guy, the bad guy may be prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal – well beyond the boundaries of the law, or acceptable behaviour. The point I am making is that once you understand the goals of the antagonist, his behaviour is quite logical. In the antagonist’s mind his behaviour is justified. They think it’s his victim’s fault for being weak, or for getting in his way, or failing him, or being different. Some antagonists may justify their behaviour by labelling their intended victims as being less than human: they are communists, or fascists, or some racial or religious group that doesn’t meet their standards. And this is seen as a reason to persecute, or destroy them.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist cannot have some redeeming qualities. Even Norman Bates (“Psycho”) loved his mother. And have you noticed that some of the Bond villains have pets; they may want world domination, but they love their pets. Some of the most despotic leaders from history may well have been family men at home, only to be monsters to others.

To fully understand the antagonist role in the story, his story needs to be told. He shouldn’t just turn up in the final scene to be destroyed by the hero. A good example is Anakin Skywalker’s path to the dark side in Star Wars Episode II and III. There are early hints in the movie where Anakin is talking to Pademe about the need for strong leadership that betray his political leaning. But it all starts when Anakin tries to rescue his mother from the Tuscan Raiders. When he gets to the campsite, he finds that the Tusken Raiders have tortured his mother to death. In revenge, he slaughters everyone at the campsite, including the women and children. He later confesses his actions to Pademe. Later, in episode III Palpatine places Anakin on the Jedi counsel, but the Council deny him the rank of Jedi Master. This makes him resentful of his Jedi masters. Then when Pademe becomes pregnant, Anakin has premonitions of Padme dying in child birth. Palpatine convinces him that the only way to save her is to turn to the dark side. Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice, and is re-christened Darth Vader. After which he kills the Jedi children in the temple and his path to the dark side is complete.

It isn’t just movies that detail the antagonist’s story. Dan Brown is one of the experts at giving his evil antagonists a story of their own. Take Silas, the albino religious killer, from the Da Vinci Code. In Chapter ten, Silas experiences a flashback of his father beating his mother to death when he was seven. Silas blames himself for letting this happen, and stabs his drunken father repeatedly until dead. The boy flees to live in the basement of a dilapidated factory eating stolen food. When he was twelve a girl twice his age mocks him and he pummelled her within inches of her life. At eighteen he is caught by two crewmen steeling food. He kills one, and is caught by the police before he kills the other. He is sent to a prison in Andora. Twelve years later an earthquake destroys the prison and he escapes in a railcar. He is found beaten again and wanders to be taken in by a priest. He saves the priest from a thief’s beating. The priest names him Silas. From then on he sees his religious calling and will help the priest build his church and do his every bidding.

So what can we learn from the Dan Brown? If you’re going to have dangerous psychotic religious zealot, like Silas, you need to explain why they are like that. Silas first appears in the fourth paragraph of the prologue killing the curator of the Louvre. But this is not the place to explain Silas’s character. There is too much going on. We see him again in Chapter two phoning the ‘Teacher’ and telling him that he has killed four people; and later he is seen inflicting pain on himself as a religious cleansing ritual. We now know that he is a religious psychotic killer. But it is only in chapter ten that we learn about his background.

In between these chapters there is of the course the story of Robert Langdon, the protagonist, who is brought to the Louvre by Captain Fache and suspected of being the murderer of the curator. By the end of chapter 18, Langdon and Sophie (the grand-daughter of the dead curator) have escaped from Fache and are on the run. The protagonist story and the antagonist’s story have been brilliantly sandwiched together in the first 124 pages. Can anyone put the book down at this point? The Da Vinci code is also a great example of what an author needs to do in the first Act: introduce the characters, and set the story question of what the story is all about.

If your novels are going to have evil antagonists, then it’s important that you understand the antagonist’s back-story. How he/she became what they are today and what is driving them. You also need to think carefully about how the antagonist’s backstory will be revealed, and when it is best to reveal it. In the case of the Da Vinci code, it was the ‘stone towers of the Saint-Sulpice’ that triggered the memories of him in prison and how he got there. There is quite an art to doing flashback scenes and the best way to find out is to follow great fiction writers.

Not all stories have a human antagonist; but those that do need to develop the antagonist’s character and provide a glimpse of why he is what he is.

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