Monday, March 16, 2015

The Villain as the Failed Hero: Humanizing Antagonists

So here's the thing: villains are not villains just so they can twirl their mustaches and say, "Ha! See? I'm evil!"

Just like your good guys, your bad guys have a history. Just like your good guys, they have reasons for doing things. The difference is, the reader tends to not see many of those reasons. Sure, they might get the Sparknotes version eventually, but even then it'll be watered-down; most of the roots of the villainry are trapped below the surface.

Which means they're doubly hard to write.

Villains and antagonists don't sit in the dark corners of their bedrooms plotting ways to be evil. In fact, the most convincing and realistic-and thus terrifying-villains are those who believe that they're the ones doing good; if you told your novel from their point of view, they'd be the good guys.

So when you're writing them, imagine they're the good guys.

What are they fighting for? What do they care about? What do they hope their actions will do? Who do they care about most, if anyone? If they're doing bad, and they know that it's bad, then why? What changed? Try writing a few hundred words of the most pivotal moment of their life. How are you looking at them differently, now?

Bad guys are only human (unless your bad guy is literally not of the human species, but still). They have flaws. They also have feelings. When you're writing your novel, make sure that you're doing them the respect they deserve and show them, and you'll be on your way to humanizing them, because every character exists on a blurred line: nothing's ever black or white.

Think of it this way: villains are the heroes who were never saved. While that's only one possible trope for characterizing your villains, antagonists, and overall baddies (of whatever caliber), it's a good place to start.

So I kind of already gave ya'll my own way of getting to know my villains: write something from their point of view. How do ya'll go about getting to know your bad guys?

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Crafting a believable bad guy? Try imagining they're the good guy. Blogger @Rae_Slater talks humanizing antagonists (Click to Tweet)


  1. I'm working on building the back story of my "Bad Guy" as we speak. I suppose it was a bit of luck that I stumbled upon your post today. It helped spark a few things. :)

    I often think back to my childhood when I develop my baddies. When you're a child, adults tend to come off as either good or evil. Only when we get older do we understand that most people are actually grey. So I resort back to my childhood to dig up the scary old people - then use my adult brain to give them a realistic back story.

    Does that make any sense at all? I skipped lunch so.....

    1. That is an insanely cool way to go about imagining the baddies...I might have to try that sometime (although my memories of my childhood are somewhat blurry; maybe that would make it more fun?). I'm so glad this post could help you spark some things, and thanks for stopping by!

  2. "Bad guys" are my favourite characters to write. Excellent blog post, and you give very good advice!

    1. The bad guys are always interesting; their psychology is both twisted and (a scary thought) sometimes even makes sense!

      Thank you, I'm glad you think so! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I no longer think of good guy versus bad guy. Everyone is complex, a blended cocktail of decades of living, with happiness, fear, desire, skills and abilities, loves and disappointments, shames, sorrows and regrets all mixed together in the sticky mess we all are.

    When the author guides the good guy versus bad guy narrative, they insult my intelligence and cheapens the experience for me because they make a moral judgement about the protagonists, a judgement I reserve for myself.

    1. That's basically my point whenever I think of "bad guys" (more appropriately named antagonists, but I always just switch between the both of them). The complexity of a "bad guy" is often overlooked (by new writers and professionals alike, so I'm not really pointing fingers), but they deserve the attention of the author in the same way that every other character does. They need to have a past, a background, and a reason to be doing the things they're doing. Because while from the perspective of the protagonist it appears black and white for multiple reasons, it's often overlooked that the antagonist has real, concrete reasons for doing the things they do.

      I think the best authors are the ones who, by the end of the book, can blur the lines of good versus bad; they can make the reader uncomfortable with the deeds of the protagonist and even sympathize on some level with the antagonist :)

    2. I think the very good authors not only make you feel the antagonist's pain, but also make you realize it could have been you.