I’m deep into a serious rethink of one of my novels as a result of a critique by Lou Aronica, a top editor/publisher. A main focus is a primary antagonist. Lou says he’s not strong enough or smart enough to be an interesting character, and I have finally understood that he’s right.
This WIP is the first novel I wrote (5 novels ago) and I’ll admit that the bad guys were created just to be bad, just to attack the good guys. I didn’t like the bad guys, and I didn’t want my readers to like them either. So all of their characteristics are unlikeable—weak, corrupt, greedy, cowardly, dishonest, arrogant, and not all that bright.
Cartoony, to be honest. I couldn’t see that then, but a light turned on a week or so ago. So here I am, faced with what to do with this cartoonishly nasty, inept, cowardly guy.
An aha experience arrives.
Finally it hit me. I need to treat the antagonist like a protagonist. After all, he’s the protagonist in his story, right? He believes in what he does, and that he’s doing the right thing. It doesn’t matter, at this moment, that I disagree with him or that the things he will do are evil. What matters is that for him they are the right thing to do, and that his cause is just. We’re all like that, aren’t we? Even when we do something we know is wrong, we do it anyway because, at that moment in our lives, it’s the right thing to do. Think of that last piece of chocolate pie you knew you shouldn’t have eaten. . . .
Bad guys don’t think of themselves as bad guys. They’re the heroes. So a narrative that intimates this person is bad and what he’s doing is nefarious isn’t true to character. And it’s character that makes a novel interesting and convincing.
I’m sure I’ve read advice on thinking about an antagonist in this way, but I never internalized it. Once this epiphany finally hit—and I’m sure that for many of you this is old hat—I started thinking again about how to open the scene that introduced my good/bad guy. The way the narrative delivers what he thinks and does shouldn’t signal that he or his actions are evil because they’re not, to him. And if the reader starts out feeling some empathy for this guy and his goals, then the arc of his story will be bigger and more dramatic.
Also, the smarter and stronger my bad guy is, the stronger the conflict, and the stronger my protagonist will be when he finally wins. Greater conflict! Bigger stakes!
The point is, once I viewed the world from inside his (now smarter) head, even my word choices changed. The way he reacts to people and events in his world changed. From his viewpoint, I was able to see my good guy as a bad guy.
On my blog, Flogging the Quill, I critique the first 16 lines of openings of novels sent to me by writers. Well, my first 16 lines are below, fresh out of my brain cells. This is a very raw first draft and will likely change or could even be discarded. My goal is that the person you’re meeting here doesn’t bellow BAD GUY. I’d appreciate your comments.
Kurt Dengler aimed the Colt .45 automatic at Noah Stone’s face, cocked the hammer, and squeezed the trigger.
On the cover of TIME magazine, beneath the headline “Pied Piper of the West,” Stone smiled up at the Colt’s muzzle. The firing pin clicked on the empty chamber, and there was no hole in the enemy of freedom’s forehead.
So much for wishful thinking.
Kurt used his cell phone to call the number only he, the First Lady, and the Secret Service had. The president’s gravelly voice said, “Hey, Kurt.”
“We need to talk about a problem that needs to go away, Mr. President.”
Leo chuckled. “You’re my chief of staff, why don’t you see if you can work you in?”
Not in the Oval Office, not with all those microphones. “Remember when we were kids, plannin’ to run away?”
“All right. The garden. Now’s good.”
Kurt placed the gun back on a plaque that displayed a Bronze Star medal and a brass plate that read, “Major Jefferson T. Dengler.” His grandfather hadn’t made it home from World War II, but his heroism and his sidearm had. Kurt used his tie to polish away a fingerprint, snatched up the TIME and the new polls, and left his West Wing office for the Rose Garden.
After reading just this, would you turn the page?
And tell me this: does this narrative telegraph antagonist, or could he just as well be a protagonist?
I have to say, it’s great to be able to talk to you guys about this kind of stuff because you understand. And talking about it helps clarify my own thinking. If it helps yours, even better.
For what it’s worth.
Art by thecontextualvillains.