Changing the world's opinion… as soon as we finish this math homework
There’s something about antagonists that, I think, inherently fascinates us as readers. We all get at least a little curious about what leads someone to become “evil,” why it is they do what they do, and so on. And considering we live in a world where right and wrong is all about perspective, well-done antagonists can be especially exciting. I think this is where my love of Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo comes in. The Darkling is one of the greatest villains I’ve ever read. He’s evil; he’s terrifying; he’s complex. And you know what, on top of that, makes him so great? The fact that he feels uniquely human. (Well, okay, this is a fantasy so technically he isn’t human, but you get the point.) Bardugo does this incredible thing where she gives him emotions and fears and goals and even a bit of romantic longing, and this helps the reader to understand and connect with him, because at the heart of it all, she shows that he is still a struggling guy. He is still a normal person, just one that is immeasurably angry and unpredictable. This fact, I’d argue, makes him all the more terrifying to a reader–I mean, how can you be afraid of someone if he doesn’t feel real?–thus adding lots of tension to the story. Plus, making the villain have his* human moments adds a layer of intrigue for the reader. After all, you don’t want to write a villain so pointlessly evil that the reader cringes whenever he enters the scene; you want to write a villain so intriguing and complex and wicked that he makes the reader’s heart pound instantly, but at the same time, they can’t look away.
Recently, I heard someone on Twitter give advice that went something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “you haven’t succeeded in writing an antagonist until the reader knows why he or she [the antagonist] is the hero in his or her own story.” I couldn’t agree with that more. Take it from me, because I’ve made this mistake before; you don’t want your villain to be all evil. You don’t want them to do the bad thing every time for no apparent reason, because that’s boring. Not only that, but unless you give your villain a real character and real motivations, the tension in your story will be significantly lacking. Think about it. If the reader doesn’t understand your antagonist, they won’t be afraid for your main character. They won’t have those moments where they’re reading at 1 a.m. with their heart pounding because the prospect of the main character meeting the villain terrifies and excites them all at once. And you want those moments. Those moments are key to making a good story become great. So you have to make sure your antagonist feels real and layered and exciting. Give him goals. Give him drive. Give him weaknesses. Give him a unique backstory and an interesting personality and possibly even romantic longing. Make sure his dialogue isn’t always centered around being pure evil. (Maybe he’s apologetic at times. Maybe he’s reminiscent. I don’t know. But even the bad guys say more than just endless threats.) Don’t get me wrong; your villain doesn’t have to be a nice guy. He doesn’t even have to have redeeming qualities. But he should feel real. He should feel unique and human. And to get this across, here are three key** aspects you need to make sure are clear, or become clear, in your story:
1) Motivation. What makes him do what he does? What is his endgame? What in his past brought this about, and why does he think doing [X thing] will help? What are the lengths he will go to achieve his goal?
2) Justification. Why does the villain think what he’s doing is just? Why does he believe the main character deserves it? Why does the villain, like I mentioned above, see himself as the hero in his own story? After all, nobody is all evil. Sometimes people will do bad things because they feel it’s for the right reasons, and you have to convey that in your antagonist.
3) Fear. Let’s face it: everyone is afraid of something. This means your villain has to be afraid of something, too. He has to have a weakness. He has to have a past he doesn’t want revealed, or a person he doesn’t want harmed, or a world he doesn’t want created, or something. Show what this fear is, or at least hint at it.
*I’m just using “his” because The Darkling is a guy, but you can obviously have villains of all genders.
**Please note that this is all my opinion. You may be able to write an incredible villain without any of this. I have yet to read one, but I’m sure it’s possible. These are mostly just guidelines that can always be broken, and if you disagree with any of it, feel free to bring it up in the comments! I love discussing antagonists, lol.
Good luck, guys! Let me know if you have any questions/you disagree with anything I said. And for those of you waiting for the blog chain–yes, there will be one in January! I’m going to announce it on the 26th. 🙂