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 Exercises

Exercise: From the Other Side

For this exercise, we’re taking a look at some non-fiction writing. There’s no need to go digging for an autobiography or grab that reference book on nineteenth-century swords. Rather, today we’re getting into some personal writing. I hope you’re ready for an uncomfortable exercise.

Today, your challenge is to write about someone you don’t like. Maybe that’s an old schoolteacher who always seemed a little too harsh on you. Maybe it’s a family member who clearly favored your sibling or your cousin. A former friend that ultimately ended up not being such a great friend.  Someone you know personally and perhaps have known for some time.

To start, take a few minutes and write about one incident with them that firmly reinforces your feelings towards them. Write it from your own point of view and try to recapture every detail you can remember about that particular incident or person and how awful it was.

Finished?

Now, write about that incident a second time from their perspective. This time you should try to keep in mind that they had a reason for what they did. No one believes themselves to the villain, so try to find a reason they would use to say they were in the right. Think back to those details that made that experience awful for you and think of how they might have shaped that moment for your chosen person. What in that scenario makes you the antagonist?

The whole point of the exercise is actually to help you figure out how antagonists and perspective work, and to force you to write from outside your comfort zone. This is one piece you don’t have to share with anyone, but really dig in and see what makes your chosen person tick. Why do they act the way they do towards you?

Also keep in mind while doing this that what people believe can skew how they feel about things. Whoever you’re writing about has a reason—but that reason doesn’t have to be a good reason, just one they believe in.

When you’re done, take a short break if you need to. Come back later and compare the two pieces. They should be about the same moment in time, but how different are they from each perspective? Think about how hard it was for you to see it from the other person’s eyes. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do need to understand that they have a reason for what they do.

This is not intended to be an easy exercise. It’s intended to force you to look from another perspective, from another view.