On Villains Real and Imagined

Got antagonists, anyone?


A while ago, I was pretty annoyed with Someone. I was going over my mental litany of everything that really irks me about this person when my sweet daughter said out of the blue, “Mommy, isn’t Someone just so wonderful?” And I was like, what? Yeah, sure. Wonderful. I walked down the hall mentally muttering.

But this exchange didn’t go away in my mind like I wanted it to. I began to try to think about what my daughter saw in this person that I was missing. There are good things. There are annoying things, too, I reminded myself defensively. But there really is good. And there are reasons beyond my knowledge for how this person behaves, just like they only know the tip of the iceberg about me. Things have happened to them that I have no idea about. Things have affected them in ways that just wouldn’t affect me the same way because of personality or past experience. It’s not an excuse, but it sure helps in dealing with people when you can remember this. And it helps you as a writer, too.

As writers, we notice things. And sometimes, being the perceptive breed we are, we especially enjoy noticing other people’s faults and our own glowing attributes. In her blog post “The Moral Villain,” Becca Puglisi offers this suggestion for developing your antagonist: “Unearth his backstory and show readers that, at one point, he was human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves.”
Read the whole fantastic article here: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/12/moral-villain-giveaway.html

Characters that are pure evil or pure good are neither believable nor interesting because they’re not realistic. Even the young Hitler, villain of villains, was crushed by his mother’s death from cancer and his own failure at achieving his dream of being an artist. One of my favorite antagonists is Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey, because there are times when I have so much compassion for him and want the best for him, even though he’s slimy and devious and conniving. He’s human. And didn’t we love Sybil because she knew that?


We loved and identified with Tris in “Divergent” even when she wouldn’t forgive Al, even when she beat Molly to a pulp, because as a protagonist and heroine, she was still human like us. Good people mess up. Bad people got bad for a reason, even if we don’t think it’s a very good one. It’s true in real life, which is why it has to be true in fiction, too.

I would suspect that as writers, the reasons our characters sometimes fall flat is that we fall flat. Our heroes are too perfect because we put so much of ourselves into them, thinking WE’re perfect. Our antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil because we fail to see the backstory possibilities in the antagonists in our lives. Admittedly, it’s all much easier in fiction. After all, after we round them out, we can give our antagonists what they deserve, making sure they’re properly humiliated, imprisoned, or dead.


It’s harder in real life, when we’re usually stuck putting up with them indefinitely…but that’s where it counts! Let your quest for rounded-out, believable characters help you to notice more about the real people in your life. I want it to make me more compassionate. Your writing life should help you live your real life better – that’s the point, right?