Tag Archives: good vs. evil

The Credible Antagonist #amwriting

We are 21 days into November and NaNoWriMo. To this point, we have been writing a story around our hero. We have an idea of what they must overcome, but it may not be fully formed just yet.

depth-of-characterWho is the enemy, the true architect of that conflict? At this point, we may have a name, but who are they really?

It’s time to consider the opposition. Every hero needs an adversary, the evil that can take many forms. The evil that must be surmounted will be different in every story because it is up to you.

In some stories, an enemy is someone who stands in the protagonist’s way, blocking them from achieving their goal.

Other times, self-deceptions and inner conflicts frustrate the protagonist. After all, we’re usually our own worst enemy.

In this scene from my 2020 novel, Julian Lackland, Huw and Jack have cornered Beau, voicing their concerns about Lackland’s ability to continue as King Henri’s Lord Commander:

Huw refused to let go of his animosity. “It has to be Lackland then, but he’d better have all his wits about him. If anything happens to Culyn because Lackland has lost his mind, I’ll never forgive you.”

Julian_Lackland Cover 2019 for Bowkers“God! You honestly believe I’m stupid.” Despite his anger, Beau kept his voice low. “There’s no reasoning with you. You’re convinced I’m besotted and Julian is barking mad. Get out of my way! I feel like hurting you.” He pushed past Huw, saying, “Go home, since you have so little faith in me.” He opened the door, intending to leave.

“Beau,” Jack’s quiet voice called after him. “Come back. Let’s bury this now. I wanted to hear what you had to say because I’m a father. I worry about my boys.” [1]

The great enemy that Julian Lackland faces is his internal conflict and how his subsequent breakdown affects the people who love him.

If the enemy is a person, they always believe they are the heroes. In your story, what are their justifications for that belief?

When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further, hiding it behind a lie.

This is where I like to get wordy: first, we assign the enemy a noun that tells us who they think they are: Good.

Once we know why they think they are the heroes, we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are: Evil.

The antagonist in a current work in progress is Coran. He is a complicated character. His story begins in abject poverty. Through his desire to climb out of that abyss at any cost, it will end tragically.

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 am going with Coran, allowing him to gradually become the visible antagonist.

Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into an inner demon, which I did in the previous book of this series with my protagonist, Ivan. He had two enemies to fight, one was someone he loved but was forced to reject, and the other was himself.

This time, Ivan and Kai share an inner enemy—the deep desire to return home to their children and the growing fear that it won’t happen.

The MArtian Andy WeirIn other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist. This could be the faceless behemoth of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be goons-in-suits. In hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. Andy Weir in The Martian made the planet of Mars the antagonist.

In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer whose forces/minions the protagonist must defeat. The mind behind the conflict is a person they might not actually meet. How the protagonist reacts internally to the threat posed by the machinations of those distant antagonists is the story.

Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life. To show great evil in genre fiction, we take that which is negative to an extreme and show the emotion of that experience.

I should say that while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly. However, I can speak to the perception of corruption, and the evil humans are capable of that sometimes horrifies us.

For a reader, perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after the lights have been turned out can be terrifying.

The formless monster that lurks in the corner terrifies us until we discover the truth—it is only several toys piled there and 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.

No matter how right the cause, war is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic and shouldn’t be. But sometimes, war, a faceless blob of evil, is the right villain for the narrative.

What single word (and its synonyms) can characterize our antagonist? An example is the word perversion. We tend to think of it as referring only to sexual deviancy, but it has many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.

We view the antagonist through the protagonist’s eyes, so coloring the enemy with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I wish I could remember who—said a few years ago in a seminar 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.

scienceA true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning, and is utterly convinced of their moral high ground. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. As the author and their lawyer, you must know what their narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist.

As always, the reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details. Having this backstory to draw on will make your characters easier to flesh out.

But more importantly, you will know what is at stake for your antagonist and how much they are willing to sacrifice for it.

And every word you write detailing the enemy’s background and view of themselves counts toward your goal of 50,000 words by November 30th.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from Julian Lackland, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2020 Myrddin Publishing Group. Used by permission.

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The well-rounded villain #amwriting

One character archetype that is critical to any story is the villain. Christopher Vogler, in his brilliant book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, shows us how the villain of a piece represents the shadow. They are the character who shows us the energy of the dark side, and whose influence on the protagonist must be fully explored.

The shadow character serves several purposes.

  • He/she is usually the main antagonist and represents the darkness, which opposes the light.
  • The shadow provides the roadblocks, the reason the protagonist must struggle.

The shadow represents our own darker side. Great villains bring ethical and moral dilemmas to the story, offering us food for thought. The hero may recognize the darkness within herself and struggle to take the higher road.

The best stories are when the protagonist must face and overcome the shadow on a deeply personal level as well as succeeding at the quest. This places her in true danger.

The best shadow-characters are multidimensional. Great villains have many layers, and not all of them bad.

Characters portrayed as evil for the sake of drama can be cartoonish. Layers must support their actions, or the villain is not believable.

I think of these two-dimensional villains as little “Skeletors.” Skeletor is a cartoon villain with one of the least believable storylines.

Skeletor has great passion and drive, but it’s all noise and show. His ostensible quest is to conquer Castle Grayskull so he can obtain its ancient secrets. Possession of these would make him unstoppable, allowing him to conquer the world of Eternia.

But his character is hollow, and his storyline is simply one long declaration of his villainy. In reality, Skeletor’s sole purpose is to give He-Man a reason to draw his mighty sword and proclaim, “I have the power!”

It was a fun cartoon, but these characters were originally conceived as a means of selling toys.

From Wikipedia:

In the illustrated books released with the first series of toys, He-Man was a barbarian from an Eternian tribe. The planet’s inhabitants were dealing with the aftermath of the Great Wars, which devastated the civilizations which once ruled supreme. The wars left behind advanced machinery and weaponry, known only to select people. An early incarnation of the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull gave He-Man some of these weapons, and he set out to defend the secrets of Castle Grayskull from the evil Skeletor.

He-Man possessed one-half of the Power Sword; Skeletor had the second half, and used it as his main weapon. When joined, the two halves of the Power Sword will provide the key to Castle Grayskull (this is why the two figures’ swords could combine into one, when the action figures were initially released). In one early illustrated story, He-Man and Skeletor united their two Power Sword halves to form the true Power Sword, defeating a common enemy.

(…) By the time the animated series was developed, He-Man’s origins had been revised: his true identity was Prince Adam of Eternia, son of King Randor and Queen Marlena (an earthling), who ruled the Kingdom of Eternia on the planet of the same name. The Sorceress of Castle Grayskull endowed Prince Adam with the power to transform into He-Man, which Adam did by raising his Power Sword and proclaiming, “By the power of Grayskull…” Once the transformation was complete, he continued “…I have the power!”.

What is your goal? Are you selling toys? If so, a token villain serves the purpose. However, if  writing a memorable story, you need a character with history.

Great villains have deep stories. They may have begun life as unpleasant people and even may be sociopaths, but they become “evil” through a series of formative steps. No one wakes up some morning and says, I am evil. I will now go out, gather some minions, and do evil things.”

Look at one of the greatest villains of all time, a character who represents the worst humanity can offer: Hannibal Lector: (via Wikipedia)

In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Frederick Chilton, claims that Lecter is a “pure sociopath” (“pure psychopath” in the film adaptation). In the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, protagonist Clarice Starling says of Lecter, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”

Lecter’s pathology is explored in greater detail in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which explains that he was traumatized as a child in Lithuania in 1944 when he witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his beloved sister, Mischa, by a group of deserting Lithuanian Hilfswillige, one of whom claimed that Lecter unwittingly ate his sister as well.

Villains must have a back story to explain their villainy or a quest that is as important to the story as the Hero’s quest.

In the Tower of Bones series, light and dark (good and evil) are represented through two different theologies. Both societies believe in the righteousness of their gods. Both have rituals they perform to appease their deities. The people of both worlds believe firmly that their way and their deity is the only true way.

When we write a story, we want the protagonist’s struggle to mean something to the reader. We put them through hell and make their lives a misery. The characters in our stories aren’t going through the horrible trials alone. The moment we begin the story, we are dragging the reader along for the ride.

We owe it to our readers to give them rounded, believable characters, hero or villain.

What turned the villain to the darkness? What events gave them the strength and courage to rise above the past, twisted though they are? What drives their agenda? What do they hope to achieve?

We who write novels can’t offer the reader hollow, cartoonish characters. If we don’t give the shadow hints of depth, we have failed.

We must make their ultimate victory evoke great relief in the reader, joy that all is made right.

The reader has survived, and the victory is as much theirs as it is the hero’s.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “He-Man,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=He-Man&oldid=916702029 (accessed September 22, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Hannibal Lecter,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hannibal_Lecter&oldid=916951188 (accessed September 22, 2019).

Skeletor-spoo: Fair Use, for identification of and critical commentary on the television program and its contents. DVD screen capture from the She-Ra: Princess of Power episode “Gateway to Trouble,” where Skeletor is offered a bowl of Spoo. Wikipedia contributors, “He-Man,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=He-Man&oldid=916702029 (accessed September 22, 2019).

Imogen by Herbert Gustav Schmalz PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons


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