I’ve talked to you about mavericks. I’ve talked to you about the down-to-earth sidekicks. Now it’s time to talk about those villainous villains and their villain-ness.
It’s probably not clear, but I’m being sarcastic. Today, I want to talk to you about antagonists… and how villainous they shouldn’t be.
You see, all characters should be well-developed. They should seem like real people to your readers. So why should the antagonist be any different? Why should the antagonist be demonised?
The demonisation of the ‘bad’ characters can often be seen even in absolutely brilliant books. Take The Evolution of Mara Dyer, for example. I won’t go into details of who the antagonists in that book are for the sake of those fools who haven’t yet read it, but, while at least one of the bad guys is well developed, he doesn’t have any likeable characteristics. Now, maybe this is something that will be changed in the third and final book — perhaps the clear sense of evil was for tension’s sake. But Michelle Hodkin’s wonderful trilogy isn’t the only place that this can be seen.
Take my most favourite of TV shows, The Vampire Diaries, for example. Klaus is often seen as the bad guy. Again, he is a well-developed character, and always has a reason for what he is doing. But he is portrayed through the eyes of our protagonists as evil. A casual glance at my well-stocked bookshelf gives me villains galore who may seem real but in fact are just shown as evil sons of bitches. They’re allowed a motivation, of course… but that motivation isn’t allowed to be even partially understandable for the common reader.
So perhaps I’m not here to talk to you about developing villains. Perhaps I’m here to wonder about making an antagonist sympathetic.
All people are people. No matter whether your character is the bad guy or the good guy in the story, they are a person. No matter what you’re writing, your reader is always going to be the ‘common reader’ I mentioned above. Because there is no such thing as a common reader. All readers are people and all people are different. We’re similar in many ways, but all people are a mash of all sorts of different things.
I’m going off on a tangent as usual, but the point I’m trying to make is that, as a person in their own right, your antagonist should have an understandable reason for being evil. You don’t have to make your reader root for your antagonist and what they want, but, in my humble opinion, you do have to make your readers wish that the antagonist had gone about this the right way.
Take Klaus from TVD, for example. Klaus, surprisingly, does actually have good reasons for what he does — they just get covered up by his selfishness, inability to work with others, and the other characters’ disdain for him. Klaus, in one of the serieses, wants to make a load of vampire-werewolf hybrids. Why is that? Because he’s lonely. His family always stabs him in the back (or he stabs them in the back because they displease him, but let’s gloss over that fact for this example’s sake), and he feels like he has to make a new family — one that has to be loyal to him.
Understandable enough, right? Throw in a few life lessons about treating people the way you wish to be treated in along the way and you have a protagonist, as long as he goes back to his own family and reconciles with them. But, if he stays on the path he’s on, ignores or doesn’t get the life lessons… well, he’ll become the antagonist.
And doesn’t that make for a more developed character and a much more interesting novel? It does in my mind.
In short: having an antagonist who could easily be the protagonist if they just went about acting on their emotions the right way will make your story a lot more interesting.