In this guest post, writer Margaret Yang talks about why a book’s antagonist needs to be as fully fleshed-out as its protagonist. Bad guys need love, too. Take it away, Margaret!
When I was in 5th grade, I went to girl scout camp for two weeks, and ended up in a cabin full of 7th grade girls who all went to the same private school, and had already formed their own clique. These girls cared more about hair and clothes and makeup than swimming and hiking. These girls were also pigs. Clothes, magazines and snacks littered the floor of our tiny cabin, since even though they’d completely overpacked, they’d neglected to bring along their mothers or maids to clean up after them.
I weathered the days fairly well, and was even a provisional member of the club until I made the fatal error of cleaning up. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, except that I put my cabinmate’s People magazine in the wrong place, putting it away in her cubbie instead of leaving it on her bed.
Once it was discovered that the magazine was missing—even though it was soon found—the other girls called me a thief and stopped talking to me.
I didn’t try to defend myself, and maybe that was my second mistake. But really, what was there to say? I thought it was obvious that I didn’t take the magazine and in fact, the other girls should have praised me for picking up stuff off the floor! But from everyone else’s perspective, I was a villain, even though I had done nothing wrong and everything right.
The same thing is true, of course, of fictional villains. They have reasons for what they do, and those reasons have to make sense not only to the bad guy, but to the reader. The antagonists do what they do not only for their own selfish reasons but for what they perceive as the greater good. Even Hannibal Lecter killed people who were (he thought) worse than he was, thus lowering the world’s total quota of evil.
When I was a brand-new baby writer, I once got back a critique from a writing contest. The judge said of my antagonist, “What’s his motivation? Is he just evil?” I thought, um…yeah. Isn’t that what villains are?
Well, no. A good antagonist has motives as strong and as worthy as the protagonist’s.
The reader, and even the hero must—just for a moment—almost believe that the villain is correct. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass calls this “Making the Antagonist’s Case.” He even suggests that you outline the entire novel from the antagonist’s point of view.
Although I’ve never quite gone that far, I’ve found that time spent developing my antagonist benefits every other aspect of the book. After all, no one, not even Hannibal Lecter, intends to be evil.
Sometimes, they just want to tidy up the cabin.