Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Breathing Life into Evil

I was only about a mile into my morning walk, appreciating the cool air sweeping off the water, the tranquil ripple of a leaping fish, the faint cry of an overhead seagull, when I allowed my current WIP to tiptoe into my brain.

You see, although everything's progressing like it should, there's been a slight snag, something just out of sight. Like a floater, every time I tried to focus on it, it eased out of reach. Although we all have different methods, it seems that putting together your novel is often like working on a puzzle. You have all the pieces (though some try to hide in the couch cushions), and you have to figure out where they go.

I, however, had a puzzle piece that didn't quite fit. Oh, it looked like it did. It had the proper shape, the right curves, the perfect indentations. But when I wiggled it into place, it fit askew. I tried to smash it down and pretend that it worked. It didn't. I ignored it.

This morning, however, as I walked along the river contemplating nature, my WIP snag popped into focus. It's embarrassingly obvious, actually. I'm not sure why I didn't see it before.

My antagonist is one dimensional. I've known all along that he wasn't "right" somehow, but I wasn't sure how to fix it. Or how to put it into words. Or, sadly, why he even existed. I had written him into existence so that there would be conflict, so that my protagonist could defeat him, so that there would be a story.

Those aren't bad reasons -- without conflict there's no story -- but left at that developmental stage, they suck. Officially.

So, this is what I've done the past several hours:

1. Explore the bad guy: he has to be human, motivated by the things that motivate all humans, and he has to be believable. Humans are motivated by self-interest: taken to the extreme, that self-interest reveals itself in flares of power, greed, jealousy, etc.

2. Give the bad guy "good" dimensions: the audience needs to be able to identify with pieces of him. In order to be truly effective, an antagonist should be almost likable at some point.

3. Tweak the good parts: when you take those "good" parts of a man, then twist them somehow, you create equal parts empathy and horror. An audience who identifies with a certain act or emotion will begin walking the path with that character. It hurts all the more when the antagonist does his naughty deeds.

4. Allow the bad guy to influence the plot line: Once I realized what was motivating the antagonist, I had to let him guide pieces of the plot. And you know? It didn't mess anything up. Instead, everything felt tighter, more fluid, and ultimately stronger. Today's a good day!

How about you? Who's your favorite bad guy? bad girl? How do you flesh out the antagonist(s) in your novel or short stories? What's the hardest thing to accomplish?


  1. I'm glad to hear the pieces are finally coming together for you. Were you walking alone - I mean, without the distraction of a conversation?

    Actually, what you describe sounds a lot like my own problems with my antagonist. I think it's correct that the antagonist has to have some good elements, and likewise, the protagonist has to have some negative traits, as well. This reminds me of the "Breakout Novel" workbook, which has some exercises for showing inner conflicts within these characters early on in your WIP (for example, the antonist being decent, the protagonist being uncertain, etc.) and it's been helpful to me.

    About two months ago I read a fantasy novel called Tigana in which one of the two antagonists was well-developed. Another character was so well-developed and so "real" that it was impossible to tell whether I was on her side or not - an interesting dilemma for a reader.

    Good luck putting the remaining pieces in place!

  2. This reminds me of Watchmen, the character of Rorscach/ Walter Kovacs. He wasn't a bad guy, but he was FAR from a good guy. Letting us see the horrors he had been through somehow took the grime out of his split second ability to kill another human being. It made sense somehow, and I didn't bat an eyelash. I found myself on "his team". It's a tricky formula, but when it's done well, it works great.

  3. It's funny, I'm working on this right now too, but for my protagonist. My protagonist was too nice. Not believeable, not real. I had to give her a dose of reality.

    As Diane mentioned the "Breakout Novel" approach is great for making your characters more real.

    Another great book is Donald Maass's latest one called "The Fire in Fiction". I got an autographed one at Thrillerfest.

    What's amazing about this book is that it uses an example based approach to teach the concepts. He relates something you should do, then shows a number of examples of how to do it.

    It's one of the best books I have found for developing character. Totally recommend it.

  4. I really enjoyed this post.

    First, paragraph number one. I don't think that you realize how good you are at writing about being in natures. Seriously! People give that kind of writing a bad wrap. You know what I mean. I'm talking about all that, "I hate pointless descriptions of setting" stuff. Well, you seem to give those descriptions a point. Check out an example early on in the newest Maass book.

    Second, the title is just creepy, weird. How could I not read it.

    Third, you've personalized the topic and then presented the info in nice bit sized nuggets. Feels like a "healthy snack" because it's fun and does something good for me.

    One more thing, what you had to say has made me very curious about your story. Maybe I will get a chance to read some when it is ready?

    I don't know if we will ever get a list up of our top posts, but this would be a good one to consider : )

  5. I did a post about this over on The Lit Lab a few weeks ago. I had this exact same problem with my novel, and now I'm on a rollercoaster of fun giving my villain some great depth and reality. And he's moving the plot into some great directions that work so much better than before.

    I don't think all the evil guys have to be multi-dimensional, as I talk about in my post. Some of them are great as a melodramatic element to the story.

    You can read my post here, if you're interested. Combined with this post, it's a great outline method for making an evil character work!

    Know The Complexity Of Your Villain

  6. I have this problem too, but with both my protag and my antag. The big prob with my protag though is probably the scope of change. He starts out as a total brat that throws a five day temper tantrum, but winds up a good kid. I don't think I put enough development in to show how he made the change.

    The antag, like yours, is a one dimensional character. I show a tiny bit of what made him that way in his motivation (he wants to kill the protag to get revenge against a former teacher), but I didn't show why he wanted revenge against his teacher. And he doesn't really have any "good" qualities at all. (He's supposed to be a god of disease and undeath so I'm not sure how to add good qualities to him.)

    Anyway, I see what you mean with the method, and I intend to try your suggestions with both my protag and antag, as well as those listed in the comments to help them become three dimensional. Thanks for the insight.

  7. Wow, great post. These are things I know unconciously, but you put it into words that make so much sense. I do it without thinking, but when it's missing I have a hard time figuring out what's wrong. Thanks.

  8. @Diane Gallant: I was walking alone. In the summer, I try to walk 5 miles every morning. During the school year, I'm limited to evening gym workouts :) Sometimes I listen to lectures (on writing) that i've downloaded to my iPod, but usually I just think. I can tell that I'm going to have to pick up both The Breakout Novel and Tigana. Thanks for the recs & good luck w/ your antagonist!

    @Aimee States: good example --> I hadn't watched the movie yet, but now I'm intrigued. I think it's said that the only difference between writing fact & fiction is that fiction has to be believable?

    @Douglas: okay. i must admit: i haven't read it yet. *le sigh* thank you for recommending it tho -- and i'll pick up a copy, for sure now! (unless you're planning on mailing me your signed copy! :D)

    @Dave: you are too kind -- but thank you! And of course, once I feel it's ready for a reader, I'll search you out. You've provided invaluable insight into the last one, for which i'm immensely grateful. i can't imagine how you'll have time, though: you sound so busy these days w/ the move and new job and everything!! our top post list will materialize. seriously :)

    @Lady Glamis: hmmm...July is blocked somehow on Literary Lab. i will keep checking back though, because I'd really like to read it! thanks for the heads up. Great comments here, tho: you are so right about the melodrama type. There is definitely a time & place for the flat/static antagonist. Glad to hear that you've worked through this issue -- I'm looking forward to reading your post, since I'm sure I've barely scratched the surface w/ my guy :)

    @Ryan: interesting plot line! is this YA, novel length, short story? i think you're right on: showing how/why he made the changes is the story. (Think Captain's Courageous.) And "good" is such a relative term: I think the audience can relate to a bad guy if he feels lonely or there's been some injustice done to him or he's lost someone he loves and cares for.

    @Stephanie, PQW: many thanks. that was my problem: i knew something wasn't right, but i couldn't put my finger on it. even when i determined that, "oh, my antagonist is one-dimensional" I still didn't know what to do about it. Going back and thinking about motivation, etc, helped me to hack out a battle plan, and then things just started falling into place! :)

  9. This was great stuff, Alex. Just wanted to say that. Definitely #3 I identified with most. This reminds me of when one of my teachers, back in the day, asked: Is it Man vs. Nature, or Man vs. Man? For some reason I always tend to use the former, and then try and use your #3 to make it interesting.


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