More Than Just “Bad to the Bone”

By the time this week is over, you will probably be well and truly tired of hearing about creating characters.

Isn’t it great?

I personally will echo my fellow SWN’ers in saying that I love having the chance to look at and feed off of each other’s ideas.  It makes things so much easier, if not more interesting.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, most of my stories are character driven.  But I’ve recently been reviewing some of my writing and I’ve discovered something:  my protagonists have a great deal of depth, but the antagonists seem to be lacking a certain something (they are mostly one-dimensional, I would say). 

It became very apparent as I was reading one of my longer stories.  The antagonists are these shadowy figures who aren’t given names or even real motives.  Not ever.  Think that might be a problem?

Now don’t get me wrong, an omnipresent threat that looms over the heroes, preparing to strike is an interesting dynamic.  Case in point, Sauron from “Lord of the Rings”.  But, as you have noticed already, that looming threat has a name – Sauron.  He has a back story.  He has physical henchmen (the Ringwraiths) who go around being nasty.  In his case, the bad guy is very much a real threat.

Mine was just the suggestion of a threat, kind of like knowing that there are terrorists out there but not really having anything else to go on.

But isn’t a bad character different from a good character?

Not really.  The antagonists have hopes and dreams of their own too, just like the protagonists.  As has already been mentioned, they might not even think of themselves as bad.  Certainly the old saying that history is written by the victors applies here as well.  The winner is naturally the “good guy” in every story and the loser is the “bad guy”.

You might say something like “but the antagonist does bad things” or “they are greedy and self-centered”.  You might even be right, but I challenge comments like that by asking the simple question:  “haven’t we all done something that we weren’t proud of at one time or another?”  I know I have.

I have seen some good character developments for the antagonist.  One was on “Heroes”.  In it, Peter Petrelli, the proverbial good guy, got some misinformation by the bad guy (Adam).  He started working with Adam because his perception of the situation was wrong.  He does eventually come around learn the truth, but imagine if something bad happened to him.  Maybe his girlfriend is killed or he gets tragically maimed.

Suddenly, Peter no longer wants to do the right thing any more.  He gives up on helping others.  He has a grudge and starts down the dark path.

It could happen, couldn’t it?  It doesn’t, but for a very short while, he is one of the “bad guys”.

Another example, this time closer to life:  a man is feeling a LOT of pressure.  His job is less than steller and he knows that he has to make more money to support his growing family.  The problem is, there’s only so many hours in the day.  He starts drinking to escape.  Soon he starts taking drugs because the alcohol isn’t quite doing it.

While he’s drunk and/or stoned, he accidently hurts or even kills someone and goes to prison because of it.  He loses his family, his friends abandon him and his life is rapidly spinning out of control.  Is he a bad person?  Maybe not at first, but chances are he’s going to become one to support his addictions.

You see how easy it is to build up a “bad” character?  I don’t know of anyone who was born bad (unless you consider Stewie from “Family Guy”).  Most people start life as happy children who want nothing more than to play with their friends and have fun.  Unfortunately, sometimes life takes an unhappy turn and the happy child becomes something dark and terrible.  It’s finding the path they followed to become that… thing… that you, as the writer needs to do.

Now that I’ve come to that understanding, I’m going to rework some of my stories with truly “bad” villains.  What will make it interesting is trying to get the reader to say “there but for the grace of God go I” when they’re finished reading.


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