How NOT To Write An Antagonist: A Creative Writing Cautionary Tale

931853_crow_sillhouetteVillains. Antagonists. They come in all shapes and sizes and in all genres. For an author, they can be among the most difficult characters to write.

As part three in my series on antagonists (to follow up a series on heroes/ protagonists) I wanted to discuss the failed villain from my first novel, Life’s Little Jokes, as a bit of a cautionary tale.

I love the book, and I love the characters, and the project taught me a lot about writing. Still, Life’s Little Jokes isn’t something I could ever send out into the world, largely because the villain just…. doesn’t work.

THE TRAPS YOU CAN FALL INTO WRITING A VILLAIN

The Duke of Kinsley is as stereotypical a villain as they come. Cunning, selfish, cruel, with megalomaniac aspirations of taking down the king and taking over the kingdom.

There’s nothing wrong with a selfish, cruel, megalomaniac villain if he’s consistent and has a background that explains why he is the way he is. The Duke of Kinsley wasn’t, and didn’t.

So I can assure you, you’ll do well to watch out for these pitfalls when creating any antagonist, especially one closer to the “evil” end of the villain spectrum.

  • HE’S GOOD AT HIDING WHO HE REALLY IS, BUT ONE CHARACTER CAN SEE THROUGH HIM: FOR NO EXPLICABLE REASON. In my novel, the Princess Cassandra is the only person who doesn’t fully trust Kinsley. Part of it is jealousy that her father treats him like a son while more or less disregarding her entirely, but her loathing is deeper than that. It comes from  intuition, an intuition never explained. (Naming a character after mythology’s Cassandra and having her spout “prophecies” no one believes isn’t enough by itself to justify her seeing through the baddie. Kinsley doesn’t start to let his defenses down until well late into the novel, but Cassandra distrusts him from the start when no one else does: including her intelligent, astute best friend, the Lady Catharine.)
  • HIS BACKGROUND DOESN’T REALLY EXPLAIN HOW HE CHANGED INTO SOMEONE “VILLAINOUS.” Kinsley’s backstory is that he fell in love with a peasant girl who died in an influenza epidemic. Upset that he couldn’t marry her and bring her into his family’s home, he believes societal norms of separating nobles from commoners led to her illness, so he then: decides to destroy the king and work with an enemy army to topple the kingdom’s structure? Really? That doesn’t make sense, especially since the novel makes clear that Kinsley, at one point, was more or less a decent person. There are ways to effectively evolve a villain over the course of his life. This isn’t it.
  • HE NEVER CHANGES IN ANY WAY THROUGHOUT THE COURSE OF THE ENTIRE NOVEL. Kinsley’s evolution is all backstory. From the first page to the last, Kinsley’s plot is in place and he brings it to fruition (or tries to) with no remorse, no second guessing, no doubt: no anything. He’s pretty wooden, which means he doesn’t read like a person of flesh and blood. At the end, Cassandra does make him doubt how his dead love would view him now, but he reacts as a villain would: lashes out in violence and anger. Cliche. Boring.

When writing Life’s Little Jokes, I told myself Kinsley was a human character because his villainy was wrought of grief and a response to him feeling wronged by the social structure of his kingdom.

In truth, that backstory was incredibly weak. People lose loved ones all the time; that’s a horrible fact of life. We all die at some point. We all grieve. We all feel the anger and the powerlessness that grief brings.

As a general rule, we don’t become megalomaniacs as a result.

A HAPPY ENDING FOR AN AUTHOR

I still laugh and shake my head a bit when I think of Life Little Jokes, but I’m glad I wrote it, as awful as it is.

It gave the me insight to create a villain named Zalski in The Crimson League, my next novel, who is solidly and undeniably human and a reader favorite according to reviews. He’s one of my favorite characters too.

After the Duke of Kinsley, I knew I had to make my villains inherently human (I wrote yesterday about humanizing a villain), and I focused on doing that.

I don’t know why constructing villains out of cardboard, wood, marble, or whatever other non-organic material you can name, is so tempting and so simple.

I hope, though, that this post inspires some thought about crafting human villains. Just remember:

Not every antagonist tries to hide who he really is, but when one does, if one character can see through him, there better be a good explanation for that.

If your antagonist borders on the psychopathic, best not to assign him a backstory that has him being a normal person at some point. JK Rowling got this entirely right: Voldemort was ALWAYS Voldemort, even as a child in an orphanage.

If your antagonist isn’t a psychopath, then a bit of development and demonstration of emotion beyond anger and hatred always helps.

What cautions would you give about crafting an antagonist (whether he’s a “villain” or not)? Feel free to comment below.

And don’t forget that if you’re interested, you can follow this blog by email and enter a giveaway for my writer’s handbook at the right.

Advertisements

22 responses to “How NOT To Write An Antagonist: A Creative Writing Cautionary Tale

  1. Thanks for this post, Victoria. It made me reflect on my experience with writing the villain of my WIP. It was difficult to create the proper backstory for the villain, one that realistically turned them into the baddie they have become.

    For my WIP, I have separate files for the backstories of all my major characters, and I’m tweaking the backstories as I go along. It wasn’t until I was writing the third draft of my story that I discovered the villain was blood-related to one of the other major characters. That one little change created a whole new way of viewing the villain that stripped them of the melodrama otherwise inherent in their backstory. Where they had previously been rather petty and vengeful, they were now committed to righting a perceived wrong. It just took one change to their backstory. Of course, I had to modify the story to propagate the effects of that change throughout the tale. But it was worth it. I knew something was wrong with the villain, and my subconscious kept working on the problem until it came up with the solution. I love it when that happens.

    I think no matter how unrealistic a writer thinks a character is, there’s something at the core of the character that can be salvaged, or the writer wouldn’t have thought the character worthy of being written about to begin with. If you have a solid core for a character, you can tweak the character’s other traits and facts until you have a realistic character. That goes whether the character is a villain, a hero, or a supporting character.

    • That’s really AMAZING how that little change made so much difference for you! Character sheets are a great idea and I could probably benefit from them, but I’ve never really broken any of that down. I have some idea of what my characters’ pasts are, and if the character is a major one, I develop a history in my head and know all the major things that have happened to him or her, but I’ve never created a sheet like you describe for my characters.

      That’s a great tactic, for sure. I’m glad you mentioned it because like I said, I can’t speak from experience about that.

      I agree with what you say about salvaging something at the heart of every character, too. I think I did that with the Duke of Kinsley in the sense that parts of him that I really liked showed up in other villains I wrote after him. I was always intrigued with the idea of a villain who was able to love selflessly and healthfully, and that began with Kinsley, I think.

      • Oh! Someone I follow, MJ Bush, over on G+ did something similar to a character sheet not too long ago that helped me. It centered on the character’s personality and what motivated them. She broke it down into the Flaw, the Fear, the Desire, the Secret, the Strength, and the Quirk. I don’t know if you mind me linking to another blog on yours…but here’s a link , do with it as you will 🙂 http://www.writingeekery.com/protagonist-personality-experiment/

        • I don’t mind at all! That is a great set up for a character sheet…. thanks for sharing it, Nicola! blogs should always be about sharing info and helping each other out 🙂 This is a great resource!

  2. Some people do lose their minds after the death of a loved one, but it doesn’t sound like you made him go truly insane. He actually sounds rather restrained for a villain.
    My first story had a band of villains, which caused a problem. I introduced all 9 of them at the same time, so only a few got flushed out. The others fell into the background or I struggled too much to give everyone time. So, I think with characters in general a slow introduction of them works best if you go the ensemble route. Also, having other villains hate the main villain requires a reason. I had a few villains in the 9 villain group hate their leader, but it was only a ‘I want to lead’ mentality. Worst part is they discussed this and every scene had a different one claiming to be the best candidate for leader. Yet, they never squabbled amongst themselves.

    • You’re right: Kinsley would have been more believable if he had been actually and genuinely insane. He wasn’t.

      Like what you say about ensembles and introducing characters bit by bit. I tried to do that in The Crimson League as best I could and ended up introducing the League in 2 chunks: the group had separated to scout out the zone. Better than 1 huge chunk, I guess! That’s something that’s always bugged me. My beta readers didn’t claim issues and neither have most reviews, but a handful of reviews have, which makes sense to me.

      • I did a lot better with Legends of Windemere. I started with 2 villains, added a new one in the second book, and most of the others made a cameo at the beginning of the third book. The two remaining villains (main and the bastard) get their big debuts later. I’ve found that I can flush the villains out better like this. They gain their own quirks instead of a group of raging psychopaths that act the same.

        • that sounds like a great way to go about it, especially with a longer series like yours. Readers won’t get bored if there are new, fun bad guys popping up in later installments.

          ! I love learning from the “errors” I made in previous projects to make future ones better. It’s what writing is all about

        • I think I’m at the point where most of my villains have appeared, but a few haven’t had much more than a few background scenes. I’m working with a few villains that are for specific books too. The main ones jump, but they gather minions in every story.

        • Ah, gotta love the minions!!!! 🙂 Minions can be a blast.

        • Some of them are even effective.

  3. Don’t use villains as a mouthpiece for some philosophy that you disagree with. (Yes, Ayn Rand, I am looking at you as I write this.) Too often a writer will use the villain as a way of attacking a particular viewpoint. Instead of a character you get a cliche-delivery system.

    Writers who dislike religion seem particularly prone to this–they don’t bother to make the villain’s action consistent or rational, they just have the villain say something about God and figure that’s enough to justify whatever evil their plot calls for.

    Making the villain a “greedy corporation” is another way writers avoid taking time to make the characters believable. (I wrote a post on that subject: http://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/evil-corporations-a-rant/ ).

  4. Umm, don’t give dreaminess as a trait to a villain unless it truly points to insanity. I don’t know if many writers do this, but I have seen villains with a “if I could do this, revenge would be mine” attitude that doesn’t seem realistic.
    I’m one such writer at times. In my current WIP, I’m seeing that my antagonist is not consistent: one minute she’s smacking the protagonists head against the floor; the next minute she’s waxing lyrical about building her time-energy machine. Definitely going to be one of the things I deal with when I rewrite.

    • Fantastic point! Have you seen “The Incredibles”??? One of the major points of the movie is the danger of dreaminess/monologuing.

      Another, of course: NO CAPES!!!

      • Yes! ‘The Incredibles’ is one of my favourite animated movies because of the humour and tendancy for melodrama.
        It surprises me that in so many murder mysteries the potagonist is able to keep the villain talking about their plan long enough to escape. I do like that, but is it realistic?

        • The tactic can be a lot of fun, but it doesn’t really make sense in the real world, I would think. Now I’m trying to think if I ever get villains monologuing…. I have one instance where a hero asks a villain a question that totally takes him off-guard because it reveals she knows something he wasn’t aware she knew. I guess I’m guilty!!!

  5. Pingback: How NOT To Write An Antagonist: A Creative Writing Cautionary Tale | Tangled Inkspills

  6. There are several types of good villains types I often write:
    -The completely alien and horrific yet posses just enough human-like intelligence to be frightening(think Alien Queen from Aliens)
    -The completely right in theory but completely wrong in execution(ends justify the means)
    -good person pushed over the edge.(rebel leaders who resort to horrible tactics out of despartion)
    _psychopathic, yet not cartoonishly shallow(real life psychopaths
    Far too many though, are cartoonish villians who are evil simply to be evil and it just doesn’t work.

    • this is a GREAT breakdown on common yet workable villain types. I love how you outline their humanity: good person pushed over the edge, the right in theory but wrong in execution. 🙂

      My villains tend to be right in theory but wrong in execution types. I’m so glad you got me thinking about this 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insight, Noah!

  7. How do you get a reader to genuinely trust a character that turns out to be a villain? I want the fact he’s the villain to surprise people, but I’m unsure of how to make him seem friendly without him being too suspicious.

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s