Saturday, March 21, 2015

You've Got To Change Your Evil Ways, Baby

In writing, one of the issues with which I endlessly struggle is creating sympathetic antagonists. Most of us are taught, especially in early grades, that the bad guys are the personification of evilthe wicked witches and Freddy Kreugers of our nightmares.

As we get older and appreciate the nuances and complexities of literature, we realize our evil characters often are just regular folks with a bad side. Take this quote, for example:

“…in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude, 
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;

That sounds like someone ranting about leaving an overbearing lover. Most of us, especially when you consider teenage romance, can relate. We get it. Nobody likes clingy partners. You want to tell them to grow up and get some self-confidence, for Gods sake. 

Yet this quote actually belongs to Satan in Paradise Lost. He (or she, as the case may be. No one knows Satans gender. As a man, I lean toward she) is complaining about God and Heaven. And yes, I do believe I have just invented a foreshadowing punin the previous paragraph.

In Othello, Iago is a manipulative, conniving jerk, but he has some of the funniest lines in the play. Who isnt charmed by funny?

The quite talented Mr. Ripley? Hes dapper, charming, powerful, and a world traveler. But hes a con artist extraordinaire, the talented Mr. Ripoff. Why? Because It is better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody. 

My challenge is, I want to hate my evil characters. Wife beaters can stop. Child abusers can avoid abusing. Drunks can refrain from getting behind the wheel. Rapists can stop themselves in their tracks. There is no pathological need to commit these acts. These characters have choices. They just choose unwisely and to punish them in the closing chapters, Ive got to dehumanize them. 

Minus these bad acts, though, the characters have wives and children. They go shopping with their friends or lend a hand where they can. They take their buddies fishing and buy a round for their coworkers at the bar. They are deacons and lawyers and bank managers.

The issue in writing is that making a personality too evilor too good, for that matterresults in a two-dimensional character. It becomes a caricature rather than the layered, complex protagonist or antagonist you hope for. Its that third dimension I struggle to find an answer for. 

To quote the great philosophers of the bumper sticker, Evil people suck.I just need to find a way to make them suck less.

How do you develop your bad guys?


Jim Jackson said...

I was teaching a course on revision/self-editing for the Kiss of Death Chapter of RWA and one of the participants made mention of a "Save the Cat" moment.

I bought Blake Snyder's book by that name because it sounded useful (it was). So the idea is to give your antagonists a “Save the Cat” moment: early on, show them doing something that makes you want to go aww and cross your hands over your heart. It shows they are not all bad -- perhaps even redeemable if things had gone a bit differently.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

I look at motivation first. Usually people have weak spots. Perhaps they've lived exemplary lives up to one point when they decide it hasn't been enough. Good behavior hasn't gained them what they wanted. They may have good values, except for one thing that tempts them. Once they take that first step closer to going over the line, that's when they stop being a good guy/gal and bad things happen in offense or defense actions/behavior. The interest is in that breaking point when the character changes.

The problem is that in a whodunit, the criminal isn't explored much because his identity is unknown. Perhaps the protagonist postulates about the motivation/situation, which is part of the investigation. When they deduce correctly and match it to reality, then the identity of the criminal is revealed.

Shari Randall said...

Nothing irritates me more than those over-the-top evil serial killer characters. They're soooo evil that they become cartoons, and cartoons are funny. Not what you want in your evil serial killer antagonist.

Kait said...

I try to write my villains as likable characters and make them part of the storyline. They always have interactions with my heroine, and many of them are positive.

I believe that every one of us has the ability to turn evil, it's just a matter of which button is your kill button. Most of my villains have a blind spot. That's where the evil comes in. They can't see that his/her behavior is antisocial or that the act is reprehensible. and except for that one thing, everything else is normal.

Gloria Alden said...

I write a bio of my murderer so I know why he/she felt murdering the victim was the only way to get what they wanted or to hide something they didn't want known. Most of my murderers are nice people until they make the decision to eliminate someone standing in their way. Sometimes it's revenge for something the victim did. Like Kait, my villains are likable characters while most of my victim are not. I've only had two victims that didn't deserve their death, and they were not well-developed characters.

KM Rockwood said...

I think we're all capable of committing homicide, if the right circumstances were to develop. And I think that most people are doing the best they can in life, given the situations in which they find themselves.

That said, those who chose to make disregard others and make choices that benefit themselves at another's expense tend to be my antagonists. A good dollop of rigid self-righteousness helps, too.