When I was in my early 20’s, I went to a theatre school in Toronto, Canada. One of the biggest things that stuck with me when fleshing out characters that I was playing was that nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. Whether you’re interacting with people in real life, watching television, or reading novels, nobody goes out to “do evil.” (Maybe Dr. Evil does – it seems to be his MO. But I digress.)
Now, when it comes to writing novels, I’ve tried to integrate this thinking into character development. It’s easy to make the “bad guy” really bad, particularly in fantasy or science fiction. The antagonists are selfish or power-hungry or sadistic, and so they act as a perfect foil to the heroic protagonist, who is none of those things. But here’s the thing: everyone is the hero of their own story, even the bad guy.
What if you looked at your next antagonist as a being with a childhood, a background, and a reason for doing what they’re doing? Why do they want power? Why are they so self-centred? What motivates them? What do they want more than anything in the world?
I’m not saying that your antagonist can’t be motivated by petty things – antagonists are often petty, spiteful, negative people. Think back to antagonists that you’ve viscerally hated – the one that always pops into my head is Jason Isaac’s character, Colonel William Tavington, in the movie The Patriot, which came out in 2000 and starred Mel Gibson (I’m dating myself a bit here). That guy was such a bastard that I cheered (spoiler alert) when Mel Gibson stabbed him in the throat at the end.
Tavington was endlessly cruel, but he was supposedly motivated by the idea of “total war,” where civilians who helped the enemy were the enemy. Tavington and Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, were on opposite sides of a war – Tavington was not a man who committed atrocities in a peaceful era. While not an excuse, his actions are put into a context that makes them both make sense and feel worse to the watchers.
The lesson that can be taken from this is that antagonists need to be motivated and their actions put into context just like the protagonist. While your readers may not feel sympathy for the antagonist, the work you do on the background of the character will give them more depth, which makes your story more interesting.
So next time you’re writing a story with a human (or human-like) antagonist, consider: why are they against the protagonist? What are they fighting for? It might just give you an angle for your story that you hadn’t considered before.
If you’re looking for a great character worksheet, we’ve got you covered – find our free downloadable PDF here.