Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Making Antagonists Interesting

I'm continuing the discussion on how to write interesting antagonists. In the previous post on this topic, I griped about the tendency to "woobify" villains -- giving them a sad backstory that excuses their villainy. But if you're not going fall into that trope, how do you make villains and antagonists interesting? Here are some things to try:

1) Do some research
Whether you're writing an antagonist who's an annoying co-worker or a supervillain who wants to take over the world, you can find relevant references that will help you depict this character in a three-dimensional, realistic way. The self-help, family relationships, and business sections of libraries and bookstores are full of books on dealing with difficult people. These books give examples of difficult behaviors and their impact on others, get into how and why these people behave that way, and give tips for how to deal with them. You can get a lot of great material on dealing with annoying family members, backstabbing co-workers, and manipulative frenemies. In the psychology section, you'll find books on more serious personality disorders that can manifest in evil ways. Can you think of a figure from history or current events who has a parallel to the character you're writing? Read a biography, autobiography, or memoir of that person. The parallel doesn't have to be an antagonist type. Even a person who has had a positive impact on the world can have personality aspects that could have turned things in a darker direction if the person had made different choices or had lived in different circumstances, or if you're looking at the situation from the perspective of this person's opponent. Doing this kind of research reading is a good way to break away from the more typical "villain" tropes, and getting close to real life, especially with more ordinary antagonists, makes readers more likely to identify with the protagonists' struggles with these people.

2) Create a more detailed backstory
You can think of past events in your antagonist's life without falling into the "woobie" villain trope. Don't hinge the character's evil on one pivotal event. There's usually a continuum of events that led this person down the path to where she is when your story starts. This is where your research might pay off, if in studying real people you've learned some of the things that might create a villain. You don't have to put all (or even any) of this into the book itself, but knowing this information will affect how you see and write the character. Also remember that it's not the events themselves that turn people down the wrong path. What's most important is the way the person responds to those events, the choices she makes when faced with traumas or obstacles. Another person faced with those same life events might make different choices and go in a different direction. And that brings me to …

3) Find a connection or parallel to your protagonist
This doesn't mean that every antagonist has to turn out to secretly be the hero's father, long-list sister, or former mentor. Sometimes that close connection can raise emotional stakes, but it's not a requirement and has become something of a cliche. But you can show how different choices can lead in different directions by giving your hero and villain a similar background with very different outcomes. The Harry Potter series did a good job of that by showing that Tom Riddle/Voldemort and Harry had very similar backgrounds as unloved and abused orphans who didn't discover that they were magical until they were invited to Hogwarts. But the way they responded to these events was very different. Voldemort craved power over others as a way of compensating for his powerless childhood, while Harry craved love and family and found that in Hogwarts. That gave them an interesting dynamic, as each had an opponent who probably understood him better than anyone else. Voldemort could manipulate Harry because he understood him on a certain level, but at the same time, there was a lot about Harry that he didn't understand at all because Harry had made such very different choices along the way.

4) Think of your antagonist as a character, not just as "the bad guy"
When you're researching your antagonist and coming up with that detailed backstory, don't just think about the "villain" aspects of the character. What else is going on in this person's life? Do the kind of character development you might for any other character. What kind of clothes does he wear? Does he have any traits or mannerisms? What kind of food does she like? What does she love? What kind of home does he live in? What does she do for fun when she's not villaining? Does she have friends? What do they think about her? What about pets? What does he do after a long day of villaining? Throw in one or two unexpected things that don't come from the usual list of villain tropes to keep things interesting. You don't necessarily have to show the villain coming home, changing into sweats, and curling up on the sofa to watch the Hallmark channel with a cup of cocoa (I'm totally going to have to write that), but the more vivid a picture you have of this character, the more vivid your writing of this person will be.

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