Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB
In Tuesday, Sept., 10, 2013’s Writer’s Digest online, editor Brian A. Klems posted a guest newsletter written by Laura Disilverio, entitled “6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys.” Disilverio claimed to have received an anonymous email, which read:
“Dear Author: We antagonists, villains, bad guys, femme fatales‑call us what you will‑don’t get no respect. We’re overlooked, underdeveloped and squeezed into a space that would cramp your average gerbil. When we get short shrift, your books aren’t nearly as good as they could be. They lack tension and depth. They’re forgettable. Not that I’m one for pointing fingers, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s your fault. Who was given pages and pages of backstory in your last novel? That’s right‑the protagonist. Whose motives and character arc were fully fleshed out? Right again‑the so‑called “good” guy’s. Who did you “interview” and construct a character bible for? Yeah, him again. Well, I don’t mind getting second billing, but I have to point out that if you gave readers a chance to truly know and understand me, your books would be a lot more memorable and engaging. We might even get a movie deal, like my idol, Hannibal Lecter.”
After thinking over the short shrift given “bad guys” by otherwise competent writers, Disilverio recommended 6 methods for sprucing up your evil‑doers shenanigans:
“1. Remember that Antagonists are people too.” I agree. They need to be fleshed out and seem as real as the protagonist, MC (Main Character), or hero/heroine. Spend as much time constructing his/her background as you do on any other major character. Let us see that this character is human, has motives, feelings, abilities. And it’s always nice to have him/her do something good—the earlier, the better.
“2. Eschew the totally evil antagonist (except, possibly, in some horror or monster stories).” I had the lead in a major, main‑stage production of The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman when I was in grad. school. The character I played was really a despicable character: a selfish, greedy woman who played sycophant to her equally appalling brothers, ignored her loving daughter and, at one point, actually said to her seriously ill husband, “I hope you die. I hope you die soon, because when you do . . .” and she began to outline her plan of avarice which would be called into play upon his death. My director said to me, “She would not think of herself as evil. You must find things about her which you admire.” After the initial shock over such a directive, I gave her much more thought. I realized she was a driven woman, in an era (late 1800’s) when women had very little to say about family finances and expenditures, when they had little or no power. She was strong, forceful. She was determined. She knew what she wanted, and went after it. All of that, I found admirable. And the audience, in this case the reader, will find such a character relatable, even if flawed and wounded.
“3. If you’re tempted to say your antagonist is a corporation, disease or war—don’t.” Those would be such a cop‑out. Your strong hero/heroine deserves to face an equally formidable foe. An abstract concept—business or disease or war—needs somehow to be personified. If The Big Boss stands for the corporation or business, the hero has someone to fight against. The reader has someone to root . . . against. The evils of World War II were not abstract. And who is often the symbol of that evil? Hitler. Immediately upon seeing the name, most readers would have a very specific picture in mind: the dark sweep of hair across the forehead, the mustache, possibly the arm raised at an angle, with answering echoes of angles below in the crowd. That’s a powerful picture, a powerful “bad guy.”
“4. Make your antagonist at least as smart, strong and capable as the protagonist.” A must, or where is the tension? Think of skills which would complement or complete the hero: where the hero is smart, the villain may be strong. Where the hero is quiet and introspective, the villain may be a powerful and moving speaker or leader.
“5. Keep the tension strong when the antagonist is a friend, ally or loved one.” Close, seemingly benign and sympathetic characters are tricky: treat with Care! The author suggested thinking of characters who might say “It’s for your own good!” That can come from a mother, a leader, a boss, a best friend. And yet, does that other character really have “your own good” in mind? Or are there ulterior motives?
“6. If your antagonist remains hidden for much of the story (as in a mystery), give him proxies or let him work behind the scenes.” Evil side‑kicks, or seemingly minor characters, can carry the load for a while. Let them. It can up the tension—this minor character is really evil—yet the bigger evil may be even worse. That anticipation will serve you well. For instance, how many characters did Harry Potter have to overthrow before the final battle with Voldemort? Who did Katniss oppose before she got to the head honcho?
See you day-after-tomorrow for Sunday’s Snippets!