Your Character Might Be Betraying Your Readers If...

Your Character Might Be Betraying Readers If . . .

This week’s video cautions against having good characters turn bad just to provide an interesting plot twist.

Video Transcript:

As we discussed in last week’s video, authors are always trying to come up with ways to keep readers guessing, particularly as the “unexpected” element of the ending comes into play. We always want to catch readers a little off guard. We don’t want them to have everything figured out before the ending. So we try to come up with surprising twists. One twist we sometimes consider is that of having a seemingly good character turn out to be not-so-good. This could either be the result of wanting to explore the gray areas of morality in a character’s arc, or it could it be an attempt to keep readers from guessing the true bad guy until the very end.

The former is very rarely going to be a problem, especially if it’s done in a thoughtful and exploratory way that gives readers something to chew on after they’ve finished the book. But we have to be careful when we take a good character and suddenly reveal that, whoops, he’s actually horrible and evil. This may well surprise readers—but probably not in a good way. If
you’ve led readers to like a character, they’re going to like the character. Imagine that! So when you pull the rug out from under them and turn that likable character into someone evil, there’s a good chance readers may feel betrayed.

When I was kid, there was a Buzz Lightyear spin-off movie that gave Buzz a funny sidekick/partner. He was kinda Han Solo-ish, so naturally I loved him. He died in a spectacular explosion, it was very sad, and then suddenly it turns out that it was a fake and he was actually working for the evil Zurg all along. I think I threw my popcorn at the TV. So, suffice it to say, that if you’re going to the trouble of making readers like a character, you’re always going to want to think twice about turning him into a baddie. And, if you do, you’re probably going to want to let readers watch his downfall, rather than just springing it on them.

Tell me your opinion: Is the identity of your antagonist evident from the beginning? Why or why not?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This article comes just on time for me. I have a villain who acts as the hero’s best friend for pretty much half of the story and then he betrays him. I must be careful how I will work this out so readers can actually watch his downfall, as you say and it doesn’t appear like ta-dah, he is bad.

  2. I can usually guess a character that’s faking being a “friend” of the protagonist. It’s such a common plot twist that you just expect it sometimes. (One that I didn’t guess was in Tamora Pierce’s “Beka Cooper” series a couple years ago. I did NOT see that coming.)

    In the story I’m working on now, I’m taking a different approach. The antagonist is definitely bad in the beginning, but you do learn more about him as the story progresses. My goal is to have readers identify and feel a little sorry for, rather than hate, the antagonist and his reasons for wanting to thwart the protagonist.

  3. I would love to create a character worthy of you tossing your popcorn!

  4. No, my bad guy isn’t obvious in the beginning but that’s only because my mc can’t see it yet. But it doesn’t take long before she does.

  5. @Al: We sometimes get tempted into the fun of tricking readers with a plot twist. But allowing them to see what’s really going on can often be more rewarding for both author and reader. Seeing the inner workings of a character’s downfall is almost always going to be more interesting than the pure shock value of a twist.

    @Brittany: Authors need to love their antagonists (almost) as much as they do their protagonists. If we’re in a position of hatred and judgment toward our antagonists, we’re never going to be able to bring them to life as real and interesting people. Finding just a spark of redeemability can launch an antagonist from two to three dimensions.

    @Tyler: There is good tossing of popcorn and bad tossing of popcorn. This was bad tossing. ;)

    @mshatch: Antagonists don’t necessarily have to be obvious. In some stories, their secrecy is vital to the plot. The key is making sure the readers’ emotions are always where you want them to be.

  6. In my stories, the antagonists are usually easily identifiable. Occasionally, I may have a “good guy” end up being bad, but in general, I like keeping the good guys and the bad guys separate. ;)

  7. Black hat, white hat? :) Nothing wrong with some gray area, and nothing wrong with keeping a baddie’s identity secret. But if you do find it necessary to fool readers, just be sure you’ve properly foreshadowed the character’s turn and/or used it to shock readers for good reason.

  8. I’ve read a few mysteries that had the guy you least expected to be the killer—the one who was the nicest, the sweetest, the most caring—turn out to actually be the killer.

    I’ve never heard of that Buzz Lightyear spin-off movie.

  9. It’s gotten to be where it’s almost a cliche that the least-expected suspect is always the killer. The nice little old lady comes on stage, and I’m like, “Yep, she’s the one!”

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  11. To tag onto your point in your last comment, K.M., it’s gotten to be a cliche on Castle that the person who is on screen the least is the killer. For some reason, their writers just write it that way, week after week. It’s really frustrating to some of us who discuss the show the day after.

    As for my own writing, it depends on the story whether my antagonists are present/identifiable from the beginning. In one book, they’re present, you see scenes from their POV, but they don’t meet up with the protags until late in the story. In a different WIP, my antagonist is a serial killer, and they are notoriously difficult to ID. I’m probably about 2/3 of the way through writing it, and I haven’t ID’d him yet, even just as a suspect! But, we’ve ID’d the type, and have been IDing other victims.

    Of course, in that last story, both of my protags health is being seriously affected, so it’s as much an antagonist as anything in the story!

  12. Genre expectations have a lot to do with how much leeway we have with twists of this nature. Since mystery readers go into a story expecting one of the characters to turn out bad, they’re not going to be as irritated by a likable character going rogue as would a reader of, say, romances. It’s all about knowing what our readers want and figuring out the best way to give it to them.

  13. Very true. However, countless “how to write a mystery”-type books say you must play fair with the reader. You can’t introduce character Jim on page 300, and reveal him as the killer on page 310. You also can’t introduce him on page 10, and have the last time you see him be on page 11, and have him revealed as the killer on page 310! (This is what some of us Castle-loving writers whine and scream about with their show….)

  14. When it comes to mysteries, I’m much more interested in the main characters than the actual puzzle of the plot. Very few mystery stories have been tricky enough (in a good way) to wow me – which is all the more reason to create true characters and play fair with them.

  15. The downside to watching your good guy slowly become a bad guy is that we now have three Star Wars movies that nobody likes that much.

  16. And the saddest thing about them is that they could have been great. Watching a powerful character descend into evil and then finally rise to redemption could totally be epic. Alas.

  17. Great advice! I have a tendency to focus on the plot and not revealing the ‘who don it’ that I sometimes forget to reveal the character’s evil traits throughout the story. It’s challenging balance, especially when writing a mystery.

  18. If we had to whittle good plotting down to just one thing, that thing just might be foreshadowing. If we can clue readers in on what’s about to happen (without their fully realizing that they’re being clued in), the whole story will go down much easier.

  19. Good way to look at it. Foreshadowing your characters behavior or actions as well as the plot. I like it!

  20. I think it also comes down to ‘fair play.’ I read a book once where the protag was accused of committing these ritualistic murders. It turned out that her best friend was actually the killer. The author spent a lot of time on their friendship, how they were ‘like sisters’ and had been inseparable since kindergarten. When you throw in a twist like that–“in college, Sophie joined a cult”–it’s obvious the author is purposely withholding information from the reader. And they end up creating a character who is unbelievably stupid. Neither of which make anyone want to read more! I think the author has some obligation to disclose relevant facts, to play fair, especially in genre writing. Otherwise, it comes off like a cheap magic trick–pulling a rabbit out of a hat that happens to be sitting on top of a rabbit cage.

  21. @Shannon: Great metaphor. Ultimately, this is entirely a matter of fair play. There are countless well-done stories that don’t disclose the villain until the end and countless more than feature up-to-then likable villains. It isn’t the bare fact of either of these that annoys readers, but rather the attitude of the writer who isn’t concerned enough to properly take care of his readers.

  22. Definitely doing that needs a reason and foreshadowing. Like in my last WIP… my cousin got to actually live my villain! (Thank God the opinion wasn´t shared by the other readers, lol).

  23. The best villains usually have at least a spark of likability – or at least relatability. We hate and fear in others the things we dislike in ourselves.

  24. Yes! That´s exactly what I tried to do. MAke them human

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