The Ethic of Evil: Realistic Antagonists

I apologize for missing last week’s blog entry, I have been fighting with deadlines to get Dragon’s Teeth finished in time for us to copy-edit it and get it to the printers! The good news is that it looks like we’ll make it, the bad news is that it means I don’t get to sleep. But that’s alright! I’m excited about that book and have enjoyed it and working with the author, Suzanne.

I got an email today that I just have to comment on because it is so grossly irritating that I want to inform authors not to make the same mistake that this individual did. I received a query for an “adult novel” from an individual whose novel was interesting and clearly about a romance affair between two individuals. The author referred to it as an “adult novel” in the subject line of the email and in my (apparently meager) experience, the majority of the time when one specifies that something is for “adults” it suggests erotica. Thusly we have “adult toy stores” and “adult videos” and “adult magazines” and so on. It’s a pretty common usage of the term and since our authors come from all walks of life and experiences, I decided to ask the obvious question: is your novel erotica?

The answer I received surprised me. Not because the answer was that, in fact, the author was not writing an erotica novel, but because the author decided to demean me and insinuate that I am a base, illiterate monkey. That sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because my cat died this morning and at 2am I was burying her in the rain, but making that sort of assumption about someone in a position like mine is rather insulting. I won’t bore you with my credentials and my reading list, but I assure you that the Orestia, the Illiad, the Odyssy, and the entire, collected works of Shakespeare are on it. They rub shoulders with modern contemporaries and other classical giants. The author then proceeded to insult my sentence structure and Divertir.

Now, I will fully admit that I am human and am just as capable of making grammar mistakes at 2am as anybody else. But that certainly doesn’t preclude me from being able to do my job very effectively. And even if I hadn’t read the Orestia or Shakespeare, I’m still the person deciding whether queries get further investigated or go to the junk pile so being rude to the gatekeeper isn’t the best way to get into the castle.

Please, authors, remember that not only are the people reading your queries human, we have reasons for what we do, even if you don’t understand those reasons. I am not a robot, I’m not some sort of corporate toady slurping coffee from my 52nd floor office as I chortle about the “little people”. In fact, as I write and edit, I’m sitting at my desk in the corner of my bedroom fighting with my cats for dominance of my work area and I do, in fact, have a day job that I work at very hard, and I promise it’s not glamorous.

Anyway, on to the meat of what I was going to talk about today: Antagonists!

Many people in the world think that all a good guy needs is some bad guy to hate. And that the bad guy isn’t the focus of the story and isn’t all that important. The truth is that the bad guy is vitally important. Without a good bad guy to hate, you can’t really root for the good guy. And a good bad guy makes the reader feel something.

Some examples of very effective antagonists are:

Loki from Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”
Darth Vader from Lucas’ Star Wars movie series
The Borg from Star Trek (my nerd is showing, I know)
The Hands of Blue from Joss Wheedon’s “Firefly”
Dolores Umbridge from J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series

Now, not all of these antagonists are of the same breed – however they are all good examples of what we look for in a bad guy. Umbridge, particularly, inspires a deep HATRED in me and I just want to reach into my TV (or into the book) and snap her neck so many times… And that’s a good reaction. However, there are several different kinds of antagonists that I’d like to cover:

Cunning Predators: Antagonists that are crafty and keep you worried and guessing.

Tragic Antagonists: They are doing the wrong things for the right reasons, or are unable to really do anything but be the ‘bad guy’ because they’re not given a choice.

Clashing Civilizations: Not necessarily “evil” but certainly not helpful to what the protagonists are looking to accomplish.

Sympathetic Turncoats: They’re the bad guy until the very end when they realize the error of their ways (a la Darth Vader) and decide to aid the good guys.

Unsympathetic Turncoat: A character who is a good guy until a pivotal moment, where he displays his true colors.

Monsters: Sentient or not, these people (or creatures) are simply monsters acting on their most base instincts – this also covers psychopaths and inhuman creatures like aliens.

Evil Overlord: A boss of a large group of people, be it an organization, a country, or a family, who has many resources and avenues of control. And he will use all of those to get rid of the protagonist.

Now, these aren’t the only types of villains out there, some might be mixes of all of the above, some might be none of them. It’s just the way it goes. However, that said, most villains fall into those roles or a mixture thereof. Why is this important? Because the type of villain you have is important to the type of story you’re writing. I’ll use the example of a cop drama since I’m steeped in those (by choice!) and give a few examples.

A cop drama is usually a cop (and maybe his partner) going after “the perp”. The Perp can be a criminal mastermind in charge of a drug cartel (Evil Overlord), a cross-country serial killer with a sadistic, but brilliant mind (Cunning Predator) or could be a grotesque, psychotic killer (Monster).

In addition, his partner might be working for The Bad Guys ™ and could be any mix of the Turncoats and the Tragic Antagonist (maybe they’re holding his family hostage and will kill them if he doesn’t turn on his partner). All of these elements make for an interesting, potent plot.

Beyond mixing the types of antagonists and doing so with an intentional mindset, you have to make sure that the reader cares about the antagonist. Whether they pity for the poor bastard (like Alex Mahone in Prison Break, or Haywire from the same series) or loathe them to the depths of their being (like the aforementioned Dolores Umbridge), the reader needs to have their emotions riled by The Bad Guy ™.

The protagonist, naturally, needs to be the focus of the work, but the antagonists should get equal attention from the author, if not equal screen time. They need to be fully three-dimensional characters with needs, wants, and dreams of their own, even if those dreams are sadistic. If a serial killer is running around wreaking havoc, an author should spend time meditating on his reasons for doing so and have those as complete, and thought-out, as the reasons the protagonist is chasing him to the ends of the earth.

This post is getting a little long so I’ll elaborate on this in further blogs, but I just wanted to start drawing some attention to this much-overlooked bit of literary focus.

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3 thoughts on “The Ethic of Evil: Realistic Antagonists

  1. Joe Mazzola says:

    Good post.

    Three main things I’d like to say. The first is sorry to hear about the cat.

    The second is that I just started American Gods this very morning and, knowing that there were Norse Gods it wasn’t hard to pick Loki out, really. Redhead with the scarred lip that people like to say was the start of his evil in the original mythology, eh?

    The third is that this is actually really relevant to me. One of the things I wanted specifically to fix in my current redraft is that on examination I simply wasn’t buying my own villain. Not enough page-space and not enough motive. He just sort of sat there and did what I needed him to do more or less because I needed him to do it. So after tearing at my hair for a while I decided to just completely rework him. Seems to be going a sight better this run around.

    • E. Harvey says:

      Mr. Mazzola,

      Definitely good to hear that you’re working out some of the kinks. And American Gods has to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read, I love that book to pieces and every inch of it is just fantastic. You won’t regret reading it, that’s absolutely certain! I also appreciate the sympathy regarding my cat.

      As to the rest, villains are a lot of work, almost as much work as heroes are and a lot of people forget that. Just dedicate some time trying to get into his head and it should be definitely workable. Best of luck to you!

      ~E.

      • Joe Mazzola says:

        Well thank you. I’ve always liked mythology.

        Getting into the villains head is often what I’ve been told to do. I’ve also been told it’s harder than getting into a hero mindset because nobody ever wants to admit to themselves that they can put themselves into that sort of mindset. Everyone likes to think about the “inner hero,” but the inner villain gets ignored. Maybe that’s why they’re always so cranky?

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