Monday Motivation: Take a closer look at the bad guys
I’d like to talk about the bad guys today – the enemies your hero encounters over the course of his journey. Of course, not every story features characters who qualify as enemies, exactly. Very often, the enemy lies within, after all.
But many stories do, indeed, boast an antagonist whose presence in the story is justified by the need to test the mettle of your protagonist.
And so, the equation, stripped down to its bones, looks like this: The Protagonist wants something badly. The Antagonist wants to stop him from getting what he wants. After initially succeeding, the Antagonist ultimately fails, and the Protagonist gets what he wants. The end.
So, the antagonist is defined simply, in this take, in negative terms. Fair enough. To the protagonist, the antagonist is simply a hurdle, a barrier to the satisfaction of his needs, a sometimes malign and evil presence who plots and schemes to bring him down. And since you, the writer, are on your protagonist’s side, you might be tempted to demonise the antagonist.
You might, for instance, describe him as a three-hundred-kilogram gorilla with a smirk. Or you’ll give him an evil grin, and a devilish taste for cruelty and torture. If your antagonist is a woman, then she’ll be cold-hearted and crimson-taloned.
But even if you don’t resort to comic-book stereotypes (and of course you wouldn’t!), you’re likely still to regard the antagonist simply as the agent whose job it is to thwart your hero getting what she most wants: happiness, love, fortune, peace of mind.
And that’s a mistake.
I read somewhere recently – for the life of me I can’t trace the source of this idea – that it’s worth reversing that equation. Think for a moment of your antagonist as your hero. How would that challenge your notion of your protagonist’s quest?
During a recent webinar on the Hero’s Journey I explored this idea. Here’s more or less what I said:
Every character is on his or her own Hero’s Journey. But if you consider the story from the vantage point of the antagonist, you have to recast your Hero as the antagonist. Now, suddenly, you have to acknowledge that he is the barrier to the satisfaction of the (original) antagonist’s goals. The temptation now is to turn the tables and demonise him.
The fact is, no one actually thinks of themselves as the Evil Enchanter. We all think of ourselves as the Heroes of our own sagas. It’s the other who’s the enemy.
But if I put myself in my enemy’s shoes, the world is a very different place.
Now, the very least that an exercise like this will do is convince you that comic-book villains belong in… comic-books, and not on the pages of your novel or short story.
If the bad guy is the Hero of his story, then his motives will suddenly seem more reasonable. He’ll have solid grounds for doing what he does – even if we disagree with his assumptions or his agenda. He’ll have goals and ambitions and desires that have nothing whatsoever to do with the original protagonist of your story.
In short, he’ll be entirely more human, a real person with real problems. Readers are much more likely to find him more complex and therefore more interesting. And there’s an added bonus for you, the writer. Because both he and your protagonist are now fully developed characters with a range of real motivations, fears and vulnerabilities, your story will become more complex and more intriguing.