Stories thrive on conflict. There’s conflict at the core of any novel, whether it’s immediately apparent on not. Naturally, with the structure of conflict, we expect to find a protagonist and an antagonist, the typical dichotomy of opposing forces. However, haven’t we all read stories and novels that we enjoy where there is no obvious antagonist, no dark lord, no cruel mastermind? How can we explain the success of these tales if conflict is the core of a good tale?
Being a writer isn’t easy. The biggest obstacle to writing something people accept as ‘good’ is, well, the readers themselves. Everything is subjective to that audience and they are the ones you need to get to invest in the world, the characters and the story you have to tell. That means we, as authors, can’t skimp on any part of creation because any lapses could trigger an onset of disengagement that will make the readers turn away. Which leads, meanderingly, to today’s Looking at Character article, which is devoted to the bad guys, the antagonists, in literature, more specifically in making your villains something the reader will want to invest in.
Much like your protagonists, your antagonists need to have a ‘real person’ at their core, at least in most cases. They need to have understandable motivations for doing what they are doing. If you don’t bother with providing your bad guys with reasons for doing what they are doing, they become something more akin to a hurricane or thunderstorm, threatening but impersonal. The reason to use actual people as villains is to explored that characterization so you better bother to actually do it!
Closely related to this ‘why’ of the antagonists, you should closely consider the ‘who’. Who are they? What are their origins? What are their capabilities? What do they look like? These are all components of the greater ‘who’ of the antagonists and is their core characterization, something vital to all your major characters and important to the minor ones as well. It’s all about building a realness, something the readers can understand, even if the antagonists themselves are inhuman.
Once you’ve put some thought into the ‘why’ and ‘who’ of your antagonists, it may be smart to consider the ‘how’. How do the antagonists fit into and help move the plot along? How are your antagonists threatening to the protagonists? How can they be overcome? These, and others, are vital questions to consider, as the lack of an answer to any of them can cause you to paint yourself into a corner in your writing.
If you don’t know exactly how the antagonists move the plot forward, they may feel ‘tacked on’ to the actual story. If you don’t know how they threaten the protagonists, they will be seen as ineffectual at worst or nebulous at best. If you don’t know how they can be overcome, any victory you write for the protagonists will seem like sudden or cheap, as you haven’t established the means to that victory before hand. All of these things press hard against the suspension of disbelief and threaten to break it and, as we all know, once that is broken, the entire story tends to collapse.
Really, this is a topic that could be an entire book in and of itself. Still, I hope that this basic look at the creation of good antagonists will be a big help to all of your writers out there. If you want to add more do’s and don’t’s, add them in the comments!
Until next time, good luck and good writing!
Hey folks! Yes, it’s been a few days and I’m usually stickler for daily posts but the Muse has struck hard for the finale of Incorruptible. Still, I have broken away from writing and taking care of myself to get a new edition of Looking at Character out for you loyal readers. In today’s article, we’re going to look at something that comes up from time to time in writing, especially when writing dynamic characters in a piece, and that is the Heel/Face Turn (or it’s evil twin, the Face/Heel Turn). To explain, the terminology comes from the professional wrestling world, where ‘Heels’ are villains and ‘Faces’ are the heroes. A ‘turn’ can then be inferred, correctly, as a change in status. The Turn is when a protagonist becomes an antagonist or an antagonist becomes a protagonist.
The thing that is vital about wanting to incorporate such a shift in a major or minor character is to remember to properly characterize such a big shift in a character’s motivation and (often) morality. In all things, the characterization that you provide as the writer is king. Sure, you can make a character’s attitudes flip like a coin with no explanation, but you risk breaking (say it with me, everyone) suspension of disbelief when you do so. Once you lose that, well, you lose the war and you lose the reader.
So, with that in mind, how can you make a villain a hero realistically? Well, it’s easier than you might think. If you’ve already been trying to create fully realized characters with relatable personalities, you probably have all the tools you need. However they act, be it antagonist or protagonist, you’ve given them motivation and reasons to do so. All it often takes is for that motivation or reason to be altered or to change in the course of the story. It might be even easier, depending on those motivations, if all it takes is for some important fact to come to light to alter the perceptions of the character in question.
Let’s take a very basic case. The noble bandit (like a Robin Hood type) is the protagonist and one of his antagonists is the chief of police. His/her motivation for opposing the bandit is his/her dedication to the law. Simple. What if the noble bandit is fighting a hidden corruption by being an outlaw? Again, pretty classic Robin Hood. If, in the course of the tale, the chief of police is opened to the corruption hiding in the midst of things, you could logically write a Heel/Face Turn for him/her, drawing on the motivation of dedication to the law causing him/her to join forces with the noble bandit to clean out the corruption.
Basically, it’s as a simple as going ‘Does this make sense in regards to the character, their motivations, and the actions depicted in the story?’. If the answer is yes, go with it. If the answer is no, you need to drop the idea or look at why it doesn’t work to fix the story elements to continue with the Turn. That question, by the way, is probably the best litmus test to use for many decisions about what to do with characters in general.
So, if you want good guys to be bad guys or bad guys to grab a white hat, make sure you have relatable fleshed-out characters so that their choices are understandable, then make sure to properly show the process and the choices that the character makes for their Turn. I hope that helped and, until next time, good luck and good writing!
I thought it was time once again to get back to Looking at Character and correct a deficiency in these articles so far: lack of antagonist analysis. We’ve talked about heroes of various permutations, but not one look at the other side of the conflict fence. For today, then, I decided to bring up one of the most relatable villain archetypes, the Punchclock Villain.
For the Punchclock Villain, whatever morally questionable actions they perform are just part of their job. They aren’t into crime, murder, theft, smuggling, or whatever other activities they do for personal reasons, political motivation, or mental imbalance … the Punchclock Villain is just collecting a paycheck. Outside of work, even inside it, the Villain might be polite, professional, and seemingly a decent sort, but that won’t usually prevent him/her from completing the dirty deeds that his/her job requires.
It’s this basic dichotomy of ‘decent person’ vs. ‘villainous scum’ that makes the Punchclock Villain both refreshing and relatable as an antagonist (or even a protagonist, depending on the tale). After all, we all have to work to make our livings and often we are forced to take jobs we don’t want to make ends meet. We may even find we have a real talent for a line of work in which we absolutely hate. Still, we swallow our pride and do what we must to keep a rough over our families’ heads and food in the pantry.
The Punchclock Villain takes those normal, natural actions and feelings and simply pushes them a bit further for the sake of drama. Instead of making some small compromises to make ends meet, the Villain makes more substantial ones, but their motivations and actions still remain understandable. The reader may even be able to sympathize to the point where he/she questions what to do if he/she were in the Villain’s place. This can especially be driven home if the author includes situations where the Villain has to make increasingly harder choices and compromises as the conflicts in the novel escalate.
What can make a Punchclock Villain dramatically interesting, beyond the potential for interesting internal conflicts as I mentioned above, is the ability to contrast them versus more traditional types of villains. The Punchclock Villain isn’t necessarily traditionally ‘evil’ or ‘crazy’ or the like; he/she has as much in common with the protagonists as with a archetypical megalomaniac supervillain. That uniqueness can make for a whole new web of drama and plot points, spurred on as much by the Villain’s similarities to the protagonists as their conflicts. It’s certainly a time-tested set-up to have a traditional ‘evil’ master villain with a Punchclock Villain serving as his/her second-in-command, letting the author explore the relationships and dramatic impact of both traditional ‘hero vs. villain’ conflicts, but the more nuanced ones between all three parties.
The potential stumbling block, of course, is balancing the sympathetic points of the Punchclock Villain versus the conflicts with the protagonist. If you make the Villain too sympathetic and too ‘good’, you begin to stretch the suspension of disbelief of the reader. If this guy/gal is so morally good, how can he/she continue to make such drastic compromises? Likewise, if you make them too unsympathetic, you begin to loose the differentiation between the Punchclock Villain and a more traditional antagonist, leading to a loss of the dramatic tension you introduced that kind of villain to produce in the first place.
Have you ever used such a character in your writing? Did you find them an interesting element to add to shake up the usual conflicts in a piece? Do you have any advice, questions, or criticisms? Put it in the comments below!