By Deborah Halverson
There I was, sitting on my couch with my computer on my lap, desperately trying to focus on the piece I was writing, when the neighbor’s dog started barking. Wildly . . . and for an extended period of time. A really long extended period of time. The neighbor’s dog rarely barks, especially for long stretches. This was not a normal event.
But then, this was not a normal day. It was crazy rushed day, and a particularly hot one so my window was open and thus the barking seemed particularly loud and distracting, which was particularly frustrating because I had a particularly unyielding deadline and my sons were due home any minute and I really really had to make this deadline and I just couldn’t take the barking anymore and, oh my gosh, for the love of Pete, “Lilo, shut up!”
No, I didn’t say it out loud. I certainly didn’t put my face to my window screen and holler it like I’d wanted to at that moment. I just thought it. And then I froze.
Wow, I thought. I’m a perfectly nice person. And that’s a perfectly nice dog. Yet for an instant there I could have been perfectly happy doing something very not nice to that sweet animal. How in the world does that happen?
Because perfectly nice people sometimes have bad thoughts, that’s how. They just don’t act on those thoughts. Normally. But what about on those abnormal days, under those abnormal circumstances, when all the right buttons are being pushed or they feel threatened in some manner or stressed out or they’re particularly hot or they need or want something very, very badly? Indeed, sometimes, when all the factors are just so, nice people can and do act on bad thoughts.
Which is precisely why nice people can make such great antagonists in fiction.
Think about it. Some antagonists seem perfectly nice when you first meet them. They can have very obvious moral centers. They might even be friends with the protagonist—or would be, under different circumstances. But in the circumstances you devise to get and keep your story rocking, that character provokes your protagonist, challenges him or throws roadblocks in his path or pushes him into situations of actual physical peril. The antagonist causes wonderful, juicy conflict even if he still seems inherently nice otherwise.
This duality makes that antagonist intriguingly complex, and intriguingly complex antagonists are tremendous fun to read. These are the Bad Guys you remember long after you’ve finished a book.
If you want your antagonists to be stick with readers, they should be drawn as deeply as your main characters. Never settle for stereotypical antagonists, or those who antagonize simply because it’s their job to do so. You’ve worked hard to populate your story with rich characters; don’t let a cardboard cutout villain slip in. Strong antagonists are layered, unpredictable, and even sympathetic characters. They give readers something to chew on.
How can you make your antagonist believably sympathetic? Here are five ways:
Give your antagonist goals and dreams.
The best antagonists are those who hinder not because they’re stereotypes with jobs to do but because they’re pursuing their own dreams and struggling with their own inner conflicts. They’re not necessarily trying to crush anyone; they’re simply trying to attain their own goals. The protagonists are just in their way.
Let your antagonist think he’s being good.
A good bad guy needn’t be despicable; he may just have conflicting or intrusive goals that pit him against your protagonist. A well-meaning father, for example, may want his son to join the safe, financially rewarding family business, whereas the son wants to be a rock star. Dad’s no ogre—but he is a powerful antagonist.
Give your antagonist a higher purpose.
Maybe Bad Guy thinks being harmful to one person is okay because he’s acting for the sake of the greater good. Consider a cadet in a military prep school who wants to weed out the “bad eggs” for the sake of his school and his fellow loyal cadets. It’s good to uphold your school’s values and reputation, right? Only if you’re the one doing the weeding.
Skew his values.
Maybe your antagonist has a different value system than other characters and doesn’t see what he’s doing as wrong. That doesn’t make him a criminal. It does, however, make him a detriment to the protagonist. Consider the young lady in the first-class cabin who runs her young maids ragged through the entire voyage. To her, that’s just how you treat the help. To your maid heroine, that spoiled brat is a force of evil.
Let him give in to the Dark Side.
Antagonists often embody traits that readers struggle with themselves, allowing readers to see what would happen if they were to give in to the bad impulses and emotions. Like, say, hollering ridiculously at the sweet dog next door for barking about a bunny in the bushes.
Not everyone can keep their halo straight all the time. And honestly, sometimes it feels good to give in to the bad impulses. Sometimes it serves our ends. Only, for some people, “sometimes” can become “always.” It’s powerful to watch an antagonistic character degenerate morally through the course of the story.
Antagonists are valuable tools for pushing your protagonist toward triumph or a new shade of wisdom. Both readers and writers can come learn as much from these so-called bad guys as they do from the star—and have a particularly great time along the way.
Deborah Halverson is the author of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies and founder of the writer’s advice website DearEditor.com.
Deborah edited children's-YA fiction with Harcourt Children's Books before picking up a pen to write the award-winning teen novels Honk If You Hate Me (Delacorte, 2007) and Big Mouth (Delacorte, 2008).
Deborah’s new book Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies hits stores July 5, and articles include "Cynthia Leitich Smith on Paranormal Fiction: More Than the Monsters."
Deborah is celebrating the release with a seven-day virtual book launch on DearEditor.com starting today.
From June 29 to July 5, she’s offering daily “Free First Chapter Critique” giveaways, free downloads, excerpts from the book, and profiles of the 13 authors (including Cynthia Leitich Smith), editors, and agents who contributed sidebars to the book.
As the grand finale, she’s giving away a “Free Full Manuscript Edit” on the final day of the launch.
Click over to DearEditor.com to check it out.
Enter to win one of two signed copies of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies. To enter, comment on this post, and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with "Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies" in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: July 15. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.