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 evil—the 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 God’s sake.
Yet this quote actually belongs to Satan in Paradise Lost. He (or she, as the case may be. No one knows Satan’s 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 pun” in the previous paragraph.
In Othello, Iago is a manipulative, conniving jerk, but he has some of the funniest lines in the play. Who isn’t charmed by funny?
The quite talented Mr. Ripley? He’s dapper, charming, powerful, and a world traveler. But he’s 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, I’ve 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 evil—or too good, for that matter—results in a two-dimensional character. It becomes a caricature rather than the layered, complex protagonist or antagonist you hope for. It’s 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?