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Silk’s Post #32 — I love him. I love him not. I love him. I love him not. I love him. I love him not.
Really. I love him not. Or maybe her. I’m not ready to tell you that yet.
I’m talking about my antagonist. My villain. My thing that goes bump in the night.
I spent the entire day today with my antagonist. Cooped up with a twisted character, an evil presence. I’m happy to report that I don’t like my villain very much, and I hope you won’t either.
One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
— William Shakespeare
I’m lying, of course. (I learned that from my antagonist.)
I actually love my bad guy. Or gal. Why? Deeply flawed characters have to be very complex, or at least that’s how I like them best. They’re so fascinating. Delving into the psyche of a villain is like descending into a scary, but fantastic, hypnotic and awesome cave. We keep going down because we can. We just hope we can get back up again.
History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.
— Ian Fleming
Pure evil isn’t really all that interesting. It’s just the reverse of pure good, which is also not very entertaining, as admirable as it may be. It’s the messiness, the illogic, the unique way in which the antagonist is broken, distorted, unpredictable that makes him or her so fascinating.
Things were easier for the old novelists who saw people all of a piece. Speaking generally, their heroes were good through and through, their villains wholly bad.
— W. Somerset Maugham
After all, there are limited ways a character can be “good.” Goodness can be quirkily flawed, but it has to remain within rather narrow moral, emotional and behavioural parameters. I think that’s what makes it challenging to come up with truly interesting, memorable and relatable protagonists, as Helga discussed in her last post, “A Grimm Tale”. After all, we do have to like the protagonist. Otherwise we won’t care what happens to him or her.
But there seem to be no limits to the devious ways a character can be “bad.” First of all we don’t have to like them. That certainly opens the floodgates! In fact, we have to have negative feelings about them. Disgust. Hate. Fear. Anger. All powerful stuff. This gives the writer virtual carte blanche on creativity.
I love to make even villains people you can relate to. When you find out who did it, I think you almost like the person, which is not easy to do.
— Harlen Coben
The most horrific monster is both a victimizer and a victim. We do have to relate to the bad guy, too. That’s where one of the most important feelings of all – pity – comes in to play. When a writer can reveal the painful story of how a villain became so warped, what awful background made the apple rotten, we feel the tragedy more deeply. We see the buried, tortured spark of humanity, the good character that the antagonist might have become if only … if only … and we despair.
Nothing is more dramatic, more affecting, than the fall from grace. It’s so central to virtually every creation legend.
So, no wonder we love to hate our monsters.
In the old days, villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.
— Alfred Hitchcock
But back to my monster. He, or she, has been mocking me all day. Just when I thought I knew why my villain acted in a certain way, every time I tried to connect the story background to the story foreground, some piece would slip out of place. The bottom line is that I “get” my antagonist. I know his or her damaged psyche, motivation, frightening capabilities. But I haven’t yet totally integrated these into the plot.
Red Riding Hood has met the wolf. I just haven’t quite figured out what the wolf’s plan is.
And in the end, maybe his, or her, plan is just to act like a wolf. We think everything has to make sense. (Or I tend to, at least.) But with an antagonist, we can sometimes break that rule.
As for an authentic villain, the real thing, the absolute, the artist, one rarely meets him even once in a lifetime. The ordinary bad hat is always in part a decent fellow.
Remember the famous story of the scorpion who hitches a ride across the river on the alligator’s back? Halfway across, the scorpion stings the alligator and they both drown, but not before the alligator, completely befuddled, asks the scorpion: why, why why? The scorpion says: Because I’m a scorpion. It’s just in my nature.
That’s what I’ve been battling my antagonist about all day today. I keep wanting to make my villain conform to logic. Make sense. He, or she, keeps telling me: I’m crazy, you dumb b*tch of a writer! I don’t have to conform to your girl scout, two-plus-two-equals-four, sappy f*cking logic! You’ve never been down here in hell with me, so stop trying to tell me what to do!
And it’s true.
He, or she, wins.
The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
— Alfred Hitchcock