I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.
Authors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.
Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.
Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.
When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.
First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.
Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.
So, in an overly simplistic example, the antagonist gets two nouns: Good/Evil. We hide that perception of evil behind a lie, a falsehood. This lie is the antagonist’s belief that they are the hero.
One of my antagonists in a current work in progress is Kellan. He and his younger sister were born into an abusive family. When their parents were murdered, they were adopted by a family who raised them with kindness and understanding. At the age of ten, Kellan’s basic character and gut reactions were already formed.
Kellan is a complicated character who believes he is the hero. His story begins as a member of the protagonist’s inner circle and ends tragically.
The people who love him describe him this way: Ivan saw Kellan as two people. One lashed out at the people he trusted and loved most, was filled with jealous anger, and the other was sweet, gentle, and mesmerizing. Rage sometimes owned him, a flaw the earth-mage might never overcome.
Life is complicated, and the relationships in a good novel should also be complex. Often, a protagonist faces a second antagonist: themselves. In real life, who is usually our worst enemy?
It is us, our own fears, the little voice whispering doubt, indecision, and impulsiveness into our subconsciousness.
So, to further complicate life for our hero, we can go two routes when creating the antagonist. One way is to allow one of the characters to make choices that ultimately harm them, which is how I went with Kellan, turning him into the visible antagonist.
Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into self-hate, which I have done with Ivan. He has two enemies to fight, one is someone he loves but must reject, and the other is himself.
In other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist—the faceless giant of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives, who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be thugs-in-suits, and in hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer, or both.
In that case, how the protagonist reacts internally to the threat these formless antagonists pose is the story. Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life.
To show great evil in genre fiction, we take the negative to the limit of human experience. And while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly.
What I can speak to is the perception of corruption, which sometimes horrifies us.
Perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after mother and father have turned out the lights can be terrifying.
We are frightened of the formless monster that we perceive as lurking in the corner until we discover the truth—it is only something that was piled there and was never put away.
As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.
War is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic, and shouldn’t be. Sometimes a faceless blob of evil is the right villain.
However, I seek out stories that delve into the characters as people and show their motivations. Word choices are the key to success in showing the darkness a character embodies without going over the top. Think about the word perversion, a word with many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are: corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.
Coloring an antagonist with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.
Someone—and I don’t remember who—said in a seminar a few years ago that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.
This is an important distinction. Credible villains become evil for sympathetic reasons. They care intensely, obsessively about something, or someone. It is our job to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.
Therefore, a true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. You as the author and their lawyer, must know what that narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details.
You need to know why they feel justified in doing the sometimes-heinous things they do.
The greater the risk for the hero, the more interesting the story is. A strong protagonist requires a stronger antagonist if the risk is to be believable.