Posted in character

Motivating the Antagonist

Think of your favorite show, or book series. More specifically, think about the villain. Think back on every terrible thing they’ve done.

Now, ask yourself why they’ve done those things.

If your first reaction is to say because they’re evil, or because they’re terrible people, or any reason that can be boiled down to ‘just because’ stop. If you can at least guess at their motivations or reasons such as greed or revenge, then you’re good to go: you have a fully developed character for an antagonist.

Whenever you come across an antagonist in a story—your own included—they should be just as developed as any other character. This means they have a backstory, they have motivations and they have goals. Because antagonists most often show up as the villains of a piece, it’s too tempting to say they’re doing things just because they’re  bad. People don’t like doing bad things, so he or she must be doing these things just because they’re bad, right?

Wrong.

Even someone terrible enough to properly earn the title of villain has a reason for what they do. They may not have the moral high ground, but they do have motivations and reasoning to make them choose the terrible instead of the ethical.

Take a look at your own antagonist. Ask yourself the same questions about them that you would about your protagonist or any of the supporting characters. What are their long term goals? What are their short term goals?

What obstacles do they have to solve to achieve those goals?

Now take it one step further. Ask yourself why they want those things. Don’t automatically assuming their logic is twisted either—your antagonist might be trying to get in the way of your romantic couple because they feel they need to protect one or the other from what they perceive as a bad choice. Similarly, your antagonist might want to kill the king because he feels the king is abusing his power.

Don’t forget backstory is just as important your antagonist as it is with any other character. Consider what their family life was like, where they grew up, what hardships or ordeals they’ve faced.

It’s also worth noting that two of the more common tropes in antagonists is either mental instability or abusive backgrounds. While these are tragic and often difficult topics, keep in mind that they’re common tropes and potentially harmful. Think of the people you know who struggle with mental illness or who have come from traumatic childhoods. They probably don’t go around doing things to hurt people or animals on the regular, which makes using it as a reasoning for your antagonist weak and unrealistic.

What motivates your antagonist? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in character

Using Negative Traits for Arcs

Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.

Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?

Their flaws should impact them in some way.  Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.

As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.

Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.  

Posted in character

Character Development

Characters are a mix of different things. Strengths, flaws and quirks can all combine to make a unique and whole character that readers can connect and engage with. Unfortunately for the writer, getting those mixes to work together isn’t easy.

Strengths are easy enough to understand. These are the places your character excels. This isn’t just in skills either, but in personality traits. Your characters will develop their own personality throughout the course of the story. They’ll show loyalty, cleverness, and even bravery.

Characters also show flaws however. Again, these aren’t just skills where they’re weak, but flaws of, well, character. Perhaps they’re gullible, or they lie a little too easily. Their strengths don’t cover all of their personality traits and what strengths don’t cover, their flaws should.

Both flaws and strengths go a pretty long distance when it comes to character development. There are numerous ways to play strengths and flaws off one another to make a character memorable and unique. In my earlier post on flaws I brought up the Mary Sue character. Pretty, popular and lovable. All positive strengths. But to make her flawed and less of a Mary Sue and more into a rounded character, it helps to make give her weak points. She’s pretty because she’s vain. Popular because she’s a social chameleon. Lovable because it’s hard not to love someone who’s pretty and who compliments everyone, even if those compliments mean nothing.

While both strengths and flaws handle personality however, character quirks can help your readers visualize the character and how they should look and act. Quirks are often little habits we don’t think about. These might be bad habits of nail biting, or shuffling our feet. They can also be other habits, like smiling often or carrying a few extra items on them just in case.

When developing quirks, it helps to consider their backstory. Backstory can also help you flesh out their personality traits. Someone who grew up in a neglectful household might tend to act out more to get the attention they’re craving—making them have a tendency to shout, or to dress outrageously. This lends itself to being the frontal leader always up for a bad idea or a good game of chance. It also leads itself to being temperamental and overly critical.

By contrast, someone who grew up in a supportive household might be more of a social butterfly. They might be a little more likely to compliment others, and be suited to hanging back to provide moral support for endeavors. They’re also likely the ones that know how to cut the deepest and might not be above selling their friends out.