by, Alex Yuschik
What better way to talk about villainy than with a quote from the fantastic Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE:
He sounded so sincere, so reasonable, less a creature of relentless ambition than a man who believed he was doing the right thing for his people. Despite all he’d done and all he’d intended, I did almost believe him. Almost.
I gave a single shake of my head.
He slumped back into his chair. “Fine,” he said with a weary shrug. “Make me your villain.”
Wow, am I right? (I strongly encourage you to read SHADOW AND BONE, the Grisha trilogy, and really anything that Leigh Bardugo writes because this is just a small sampling of her awesomeness.)
Stories always have more than one side–triumph for the hero and tragedy for the villain– but what makes a good antagonist? Here’s some ideas from me on how to give your bad guy some added punch.
Insanity not as a defense or catch-all, but a twist on a common or relatable fault. Okay, so antagonists as avatars of pure evil aren’t my favorite. They’re not that compelling to me. Voldemort isn’t even one of these– he starts as a normal person whose desire for power overrides all other feelings, and then he just does the sensible, Machiavellian thing of protecting his horcrux investment and trying to live forever. I mean, I’d dig living forever. Ars longa, vita brevis, guys. Rowling takes humanity’s very real fear of death and twists it– what if you could live forever as long as you were willing to do some pretty horrible things? I’d think about it.
Other ways to do this involve exaggerating faults (or strengths to when they become detrimental)– one of my favorite ways to do this is via obsession. I love obsessive characters, people who get fixated or devoted to things they can’t shake. What are ghosts but obsession, either with a violent/traumatic event or a place (or both)? An innocent crush can spiral into stalkerdom, a strong work ethic can go to neglecting loved ones or thirst for power, striving to be most efficient can become eliminating those without a use. Madness is a two-way street: you show us how warped an demented these people have become, but you also show us how close we all walk the line of sanity and insanity.
Antagonists as characters. Sure, you can have antagonistic things like trees or weather or social constructs, but when your antagonist is a human being, have them act like one. And unless they’re an avatar of pure evil, they have good sides and dark sides. Like I suggested above, it’s real fun turning something beautiful into something twisted (try it!), but it’s not like anyone real is one hundred percent bad. Everyone has something that is precious to them. What about your antagonist? If you were writing your story from the villain’s point of view, what scenes would you write to up the pathos for them? Think about what makes you like your antagonist– what are their most admirable traits?
I love the Darkling (because how can you not, I ask) because of this. Bardugo doesn’t pull any punches with this guy– she shows you his good sides and his bad sides, the loneliness and how devoted he is to his task, as well as the blunt evidence that he’s ruthless. You get told all the time not to make your protagonists perfect– the converse applies for antagonists. They’re not all bad. They’re just humans, caught on the wrong side of the story, and it’s incredibly sad for them.
The relationship between antagonist and protagonist isn’t unlike a romance (or strong friendship). Someone is probably rolling their eyes out there– and that’s okay, because this is wacky and kind of a special case of villains. Let me explain myself. Your protagonist and antagonist are two people who get to know each others’ strengths and faults pretty intimately over the course of your book. Remember all that time you put into writing your protag’s love interest? Consider spending an equal amount of time on their antagonist, because protag-antag is probably the most emotionally charged relationship in the book (also, you can make a cool argument for love interests as foils).
You have two human beings driven together in an inescapable conflict because neither are willing to give up. Both of them believe so strongly in something that they’re going to tear each other apart. If they weren’t fighting, maybe they could be friends or lovers. Holmes and Moriarty would probably be best friends or good rival friends if they were on the same side. I love it when people who start out as antagonists are defeated by the protag and then team up with the good guys to take on some other, bigger evil (people who come to mind: Artemis Fowl in The Arctic Incident, Artemis Entreri from the Drizzt series, and gosh I’m holding out for the Darkling).
Villains as mirrors. The antagonist is also a great way of showing character growth. Your protagonist has to overcome the antagonist to win. What in your main character changes in order to beat the villain? Antagonists in a lot of ways act as catalysts for positive change– if a protag gets beaten up, maybe they take martial arts classes, if the antagonist shows them up in class, maybe the protag studies more. The antagonist can also function as a mirror of your main character. Maybe, like Harry Potter or the Grisha trilogy, your protagonist and antagonist are connected through their powers. Both Harry and Voldemort as well as Alina and the Darkling have pretty substantial amounts of power, but it’s the reasons why Harry and Alina use their magic and the differences in their choices that that makes that sets them apart from their antagonists.
Villains can also function as cautionary tales. Voldemort is a wizard who’s sacrificed parts of his humanity for power. For Harry, magic is a way out of a life where he’s beaten down all the time, a way for him to finally have power and control over his destiny. Throughout the books, Harry gets presented with a lot of the same choices that Tom Riddle was, but he chooses differently.
To sum it up, your protagonist and antagonist are locked in this crazy dance called your book and they have one of the most intense relationships in it. They’re as inseparable as a person and their shadow are– two sides to the same story with good and bad on each side, not just either. A good villain is hard to come by; make yours an awesome one.
Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing and, when she’s not talking about who isn’t the villain in Hamlet, she can be found on twitter @alexyuschik.
I love this! Writing gurus often say every character in your book is the hero of his or her story — and that goes double for the villain/antagonist. They think they are doing the right thing for their goals. That adds a lot of layers to a character.
You make a lot of great points here — I especially like the part about antagonist and protagonist having a relationship that is almost lover-like. I’ve been studying romance writing the past year in order to boost my urban fantasy fun quotient, and in most romances, yes, the antagonist IS the lover — and he’s usually not very evil (-:.
Absolutely! I just had to revamp my own manuscript’s villain because he wasn’t compelling enough. I’d pigeon-holed him as being a jerk without realizing that he’s much more of a mirror of the main character than I’d thought he was.
And yes! The villain-hero almost-romance is probably my favorite representation of their relationship– in a lot ways, they’re slowly moving closer to each other, and the boundary between lovers and enemies are always weirdly thin. (:
Thanks! I’m glad you liked this. Best of luck with your urban fantasy!
This is an excellent analysis and it can be applied to real villains. For example, it’s dangerously illogical to suppose that noting attractive, humane sides to Hitler (for example) undermines understanding and feeling how much evil he did. Evil is not done by totally bad people and if you think it is, you may fail to see and fight the evil of your time.
To return to fiction, I’m reminded that “Wuthering Heights” was criticised because Heathcliffe was too human and at times it seemed you were meant to feel sympathy for him. Readers wanted a devil and not a tortured human.