I got pulled aside at a recent conference by someone who was agonizing over her story idea. We talked about it—she had a great idea, just didn’t quite know how to execute it. We discussed plot, ending, characters. The way she discussed her antagonist prompted this post. He’s a bad guy. Evil. Horrible. Awful.
She forgot that he’s a hero.
Everyone has a back story. Everyone. Even the antagonist. And you not only have to know the back story, you have to be able to climb under his skin and justify his actions based on his back story. To present a convincing bad guy, you have to be the bad guy for awhile.
How bad of a bad guy is he?
- He’s not really bad, he just doesn’t agree with the protagonist.
- He’s definitely a bad guy, and he’s deranged.
- He’s a bad guy retrospectively, like in the story I discussed with the young author.
In the historical plot we discussed, the bad guy captained a slave ship. I’m not sure there are too many things worse than that. We discussed who this guy was, though, and humanized him:
- He’s a guy with a ship and a crew, doing a job in an era when slavery was controversial, but not illegal. In the South at the time, it was a way of life, and no one thought anything of it.
- He did his job at a time when slaves were chattel, and the commonly held opinion was that they were inferior. Evil idea to us now, but just a way of life then.
- He probably had a wife and family at home to whom he was very loving. Probably had friends all over the world with whom he hoisted a pint when he was in port. He probably tithed to his church.
Because he was just a regular guy with a distasteful job. The only thing making our antagonist a bad guy is his job, a job that financially supported his crew and family.
When things are “just a way of life,” no one looks at them as evil—few give the status quo a second thought. Eventually, more people came to their senses and fought a war to bring the South in line and end slavery, but in the era of the story we’re discussing, there might have been a few folks shaking their heads, a few denouncing the practice, but it was still “just a way of life.”
So, you can present your antagonist as just a regular guy with a despicable job. Or, if you want to make him really bad, you can also illustrate how he treats his “cargo,” which is also how you turn him from a bad guy to a good guy, because now we’re talking about motive and integrity. If he’s the protagonist, he finds his job revolting.
But, keeping him a bad guy and to illustrate him as being totally despicable, we’d have to alter him a bit. With my scenario above—loving wife and kids, friends, church attendance—we’d have a fairly likeable guy that shocks readers once they discover his job. That would be fine if we wanted to turn a good guy with a bad job into a good guy activist trying to abolish that job. But it’s not fine if we want to keep him bad.
So, how do you round him out? Make the monster human? You don’t want to have him too sympathetic, so what do you do?
Here’s where the “save the cat” idea comes in. Give him one thing he loves, one act of kindness, one moral tenet he adheres to, and you’ve changed him from a 1920’s silent movie villain to an interesting antagonist.
- While they’re loading the “cargo” onto the ship, he can let a little boy play at the wheel.
- He can carry his scruffy dog because it’s afraid to go down the ramp to the dock.
- He can tip his cap respectfully at older ladies because they remind him of his precious ma.
Or, you can illustrate why he believes what he’s doing is right. It’ll be warped, to our minds, but it’ll fit the era:
- ain’t enough workers in the South to harvest cotton. Without that cotton, the entire United States would run around nekkid.
- ain’t agin the law, and I gotta family to feed.
- I gotta feed my crew.
- my Sara ain’t gonna grovel like me ‘n’ Sadie do. She’s gonna be a lady.
Who is your bad guy? How well do you know him? Is he a bad just for the sake of being bad? How does he justify himself? How does his situation/setting/era help justify him? How bad to you want him to be? How sympathetic?
It’s okay to make him bad, but you also have to make him human. Obvious, mustache-twirlin’ villains are for the ’20s.