Article of the Month
Bad Guys Need Love Too
c. 2004 by Alicia Rasley
When I remember the film Silence of the Lambs, I don't think first of Jodi Foster holding her own against the serial murderer. I think of Hannibal the Cannibal, chortling as he delivers his punch line about "having an old friend for dinner". You can't help liking a guy who gets such a kick out of being evil.
Hannibal's creator liked him too, enough that he gave him a happy ending. That's one reason why Hannibal lingers in our imagination– because the author liked him as much, if not more, than he liked his protagonist, and so made sure he was a three-dimensional character with flaws (of course) but also great strengths.
Villains and antagonists are important characters because they move the plot action by creating conflict. So we writers should treat them with the respect due to prime plot movers. I'll go even further, however. I think we should love them, warts, psychopathic tendencies, and all. (Just don't join them for dinner!)
Bad Guys Defined
Antagonist: Anti-agonist... the one who acts against the protagonist. This is not necessarily a bad person, and in fact, might be a force for right in the story. The only requirement is that the antagonist act against the protagonist's goals; for example, if John wants to stay single, and Mom keeps trying to fix him up, then she's an antagonist. As far as she's concerned, she's just trying to secure the dynasty and get her some grandkids, but from his viewpoint, she's an obstacle to his goal of staying free. In a case like this, it's possible the reader will side with the antagonist– if the antagonist is actually right about what's best for the protagonist.
Villain: An antagonist who is also a bad guy, at least as far as the reader understands. This person doesn't need to be evil. In fact, villains often have heroic traits– they are determined, effective, and sometimes idealistic. But they use their power and skills in a way the reader will find offensive, or in the furtherance of a cause that the reader doesn't like. In other words, the villain will do bad things, or have bad goals, or both. The reader is not going to side with the villain (if she does, maybe you've loved Villain a bit too much!).
The purpose of the antagonist or villain, structurally speaking, is to provoke conflict for the protagonist. And the prime purpose of conflict is to make the protagonist grow and change. So in a perverse way, the bad guy is beneficial for the protagonist, who might otherwise fail to grow and change. That's another reason to love the villain, because whether he knows it or not, he's a force for good in the protagonist's life.
In fact, the antagonist is useful for embodying the external conflict, making it concrete and combatible. Sometimes that's what's needed to turn an amorphous "conceptual" conflict into something sharp and immediate, as it's hard to come up with truly striking events when the conflict is just a concept. Consider a young woman who is fighting against conformity. Her fight would be made more focused and clear if conformity was embodied in her grandmother, the perfect lady who never wears white after Labor Day, even in Florida.
So if you're worried that your conflict is too nebulous or unformed, see if you can find one member of "the opposition" to serve as an antagonist, taking a front and center role interfering with the protagonist's plans. An antagonist might be all you need to embody the conflict, especially in a lighter book with less-intense issues. No need to use a serial murderer when Grandmother and her prohibition against winter white will provide plenty of friction for the heroine.
Villains Have Their Place
But consider a young man fighting against "oppression". Oppression is the sort of deep issue that might be better embodied by an actual villain, someone willing to commit real evil. Consider that young man as a slave on a plantation, waging an intensely personal, and very dangerous, secret war against the brutal overseer. All of a sudden that conflict has shape and power– and this conflict embodiment is going to hit and hit back, reacting to the actions of the protagonist.
A real villain is also useful because he can force the protagonist to make moral choices. Ruthless disregard for moral rules is, after all, a characteristic of the villain. But heroes and heroines can't be like that, no matter how much they might want to be. Once again, the villain becomes a force for good, by challenging the protagonists to come up with a way to defeat evil without becoming evil themselves. The villain is part of their journey to heroism.
This is important because many of the best villains have heroic qualities and sometimes even heroic motivations. A villain has to be effective, even powerful, to provide enough of an adversary to bring out the best in the protagonist. And so what, in the end, makes the hero a hero? It's not just that he's the one standing in the end, but that he has won the day without resorting to the sort of evil the villain is willing to use.
But a villain like this really needs love to come to life. We need to think of villains as people who have their own value systems, motivations, and inner needs. Villains, in fact, see themselves as heroes– and for just a moment, not long enough to become morally corrupted, we ought to see them that way too.
In Their Own Evil Words
A good bad guy isn't just a robot playing out some destruction program. Being a "killing machine" might be good enough for the shark in Jaws, but your own villain has a reason for doing what he's doing beyond mere malice. Let him talk, and he'll justify what he does. You don't have to agree with his justification, but you ought to know what it is.
And a good villain doesn't spend the book committing random acts of chaos. She's acting on a plan to achieve her goal. The villain's actions are "the story behind the story". This hidden story includes not just the crime or evil deed, but the motivating events leading up to it and the protective events resulting from it. You should know this story even if you never feature it on the page. The villain's actions must make sense from her viewpoint. So just as you identify a motivation and goal for the protagonist, identify a motivation and goal for the villain– and make sure she acts in furtherance of that goal.
That's why it's enlightening to write a summary of the villain's story in the villain's
viewpoint that explains how and why the malfeasance happened, and how the villain tries to evade the consequences. Just ask– she'll tell you why she does what she does. Let her tell you what humanizes her. Let him reveal his secret little vulnerability, his hidden vanity, his suppressed virtue– whatever secret aspect within that makes him more than a killing machine. Try free-writing from the villain's first-person viewpoint, answering this question: So, (name), tell me what happened and why?
Here's an example. (You'll probably recognize this villain!)
I am the younger brother. You know what that means. My big brother got it all– the money, the inheritance, the woman we both loved. Naturally I resented him. Wouldn't you? His success was just an accident of birth. He wasn't any better or smarter than I am. He was just born first. The resentment grew. He and his wife– the woman I loved first and best– had a son, so I wasn't even sure I'd ever inherit anything at all. It wasn't till the boy went away to college that I realized I had to act now, or I'd lose my chance.
I poisoned my brother. I made it look like he'd just died in his sleep. I told you I was smart. I mourned just as long and loudly as everyone else. But I also took advantage of his wife's grief, played on her fears of abandonment, her terror at being alone, and confessed– this is the absolute truth, by the way– that I'd always secretly adored her. I guess you could say I swept her off her feet. I'm sure people were scandalized when we got married– maybe that was a mistake on my part, but I couldn't help it. I had to have her. Besides, once I was married to the widow, I got control of the family business. My nephew came home to a fait accompli– he didn't even get a chance to take over. Unfortunately, that just meant he hung around sulking for the next few months. What a little drip. He wasn't really man enough to stand up to me anyway. He started to lose it. Acting crazy– I still don't know if he was acting or he really was going a little nuts. His mother was all worried, and started feeling guilty and saying maybe we should have waited. I tried to be tolerant, but then I started noticing... he'd started suspecting me. I don't know where he got the idea, but pretty soon he was following me around, spying on me.
Then he tried to trick me by writing a skit for the annual company dinner, which showed a man killing his brother. I didn't handle it well, I admit it. I should have just sat there and watched like the others, but I couldn't stand it. I made them stop the play. Afterwards my nephew used this to try to convince my wife that I was the murderer– in fact, he tried to get her to confess she was involved! (She wasn't– trust me on this.) I'd arranged to have a trusted aide– his girlfriend's father, as it turns out– eavesdropping to find out how much the boy actually knew.
Unfortunately, the boy heard him moving and stabbed him. Well, then even his mother agreed something had to be done. So I had himkidnapped and taken somewhere else. I knew the owner there, and he owed me a favor, and he was supposed to make sure the boy never came home...but that damned kid figured it out and next thing I knew, he was back like a bad penny. He was madder than ever now, because his girlfriend had killed herself. She just couldn't deal with him killing her father. It was his own fault, but guess who got the blame for it? That's right. Me. Well, her brother came back– he'd been abroad– mad as hell, ready for revenge, and I realized he could do the job for me. No one could object to a brother avenging the deaths of his sister and father, after all. But I wasn't taking any chances this time. I laid in another supply of poison....
(I'm sure you recognized Hamlet's evil uncle/stepfather Claudius.)
This isn't easy– putting yourself in the head of an evildoer, expressing his twisted motivations and rationalizations. It's like giving your Id free rampaging room. But that's how you come to understand him, why he does what he does, what his favored methods and vulnerabilities are. See how much he's told us about himself:
Goal: Prevent revelation of his crime.
Motivation: Keeping the wife and kingdom he killed to get.
External Conflict: Hamlet is trying to avenge the murder.
Internal Conflict: Resentment of brother and guilt at killing him.
Vulnerability: Love for his wife.
Preferred method: Delegation (Ophelia, Laertes), and if that's unavailable, deniable murder (poison, boat trip to England).
This gives the plot events a coherence they would otherwise lack, because both villain and protagonist are engaged in a cause-effect relationship, each taking actions that affect the other. We understand why Claudius must kill Hamlet– not because he hates him, but because he knows Hamlet will avenge the crime if he gets a chance. We can have confidence that his actions are well-motivated (by his own value system, that is) and that he is a worthy adversary for our hero. Indeed, we can almost sense that he's embarked on his own journey, whether he likes it or not, from envy to sin to punishment, with Hamlet as the external conflict that drives him down the road.
I'm not advising that you need to tell the villain's story from his perspective in your book, only that you know it and provide enough glimpses of it that the reader can discern a real person behind those dastardly deeds. Look at it this way: Your protagonist needs a real challenge, and a villain strong enough to provide that challenge– and that means someone capable of countering the protagonist's moves and forcing the occasional change of tactics... and thus growth.
The Hero... From the Villain's POV
So go back to your protagonist, and see if you can provide the villainous challenges throughout the plot to test her and teach her what she lacks, and force her to grow. For example, let's go back to Claudius's– I mean, Hamlet's– story. Who knows better what Hamlet needs to learn than his adversary? So ask:
Hey, Claudius, what does Hamlet need to learn?
Well, I guess he needs to learn to stop dithering and act. At first it's only sensible to wait and make sure that what the ghost said was true, but once that's established, he should have done what he was supposed to do and avenge his father. He spends too much time worrying about whether he's doing the right thing or not, whether he should even exist or not– he's too much the intellectual and not enough the man of action. He ought to learn from my example. I mean, did I sit around and moan and groan about how terrible my lot was? No. I acted. Evilly, yeah, but I seized the day, didn't I? Took the old bull by the horns. Horns, get it? You know, cuckolding the old bull. My brother, I mean. Hamlet needs to do that– needs to stop thinking and start acting.
A real villain would not stop his villainy just because the protagonist reacts. Rather he'd try to escape the consequences of his evildoing. This is another example of accepting the reality of your characters by giving them the potential to act in response to plot events. The villain acts, the protagonist reacts, and the villain responds. Each adapts to the actions of the other– a symbiotic dynamic of cause-effect.
So how can your actions force Hamlet to change?
Not sure why I should tell you. But okay. I keep delegating to others, see, the task of spying on Hamlet, and I'm learning you just can't get good help these days. Polonius and Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern– I thought they'd be good spies, but noooooo. They all screwed up. And they all ended up dead. What Hamlet ought to figure out is that the longer he dithers, the more he insists on certainty, the higher the body count goes. Yeah, I suppose you can lay all those bodies at my door, but you know what? If Hamlet would have done what his daddy ghost told him, what any red-blooded son would have done, and killed me right off, all those people would still be alive. It's his inaction that killed them. And he's not going to kill me, the real cause of his pain, unless he decides he can live with a bit of guilt. Hell, I've lived with a lot of guilt. But Hamlet's not the man I am.
Hoist on His Own Petard
You can also use the villain's confessed weakness to discover the way to conquer him.
So, Claudius, you said that delegating has been a problem for you. How come?
Oh, you know, I've had to rely on people who weren't competent. I mean, Ophelia. Pretty girl, but what a ditz. And some people have their own agendas. I thought I really chose well in Laertes. Talk about red-blooded. This kid, hey, I tell him about how Hamlet killed Laertes's father and drove his sister to suicide, and he's all hot to do my bidding, that is, kill Hamlet. And I made sure of it, by poisoning his rapier. Well, who would have figured Laertes for the honorable sort? Soon as he finds that out, he tells Hamlet, and Hamlet uses that rapier to kill me. I'm telling you– you can't count on anyone these days.
The Villain as Tragic Hero (Well, Sort Of)
Villains are a lot like heroes: They are active, powerful, dynamic, and capable of change. They are not always willing to change, and that's where you might find their eventual downfall. Aristotle observed of tragic heroes that what makes them great, brings them down. The same can be true of villains– that what they're best at, what they hesitate to change, might lead to their defeat.
For example, they might face the choice to evolve into a new strength, but choose to stick with the old one, and the hero can defeat them because of that. Also consider that while the hero will usually make the morally-appropriate choice in the end, the villain will probably make the morally-inappropriate choice, and that might give the protagonist an opening, as when Claudius, always resourceful, added dishonor to murder, and offended the honorable Laertes.
But to know this much about the villain, you have to love him. Here are a few villain-love tips:
- Humanize your villain first by getting to know him or her, especially the motivation.
- Find the vulnerability, what he's afraid of, what she's ashamed of.
- Show this character making moral choices, not just automatically doing the bad thing, but choosing to do that bad thing for "good" reasons (good according to HER measure, anyway!).
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author.
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