Why Your Antagonist Needs a Mushy Moment

Why Your Antagonist Needs a Mushy Moment

When it comes to writing our antagonist, we face a dichotomy: we want them to be bad, but we also want them to be three-dimensional, faceted human beings. In short, we want to create bad guys who aren’t all bad, bad guys whom readers will still be able to find a spark of sympathy for, a smidgen of relatability. As a result, we can sometimes end up creating bad guys who aren’t bad enough. As a matter of fact, I’ve written a couple antagonists who ended up so sympathetic I actually liked them better than my protagonists.

As with all things in writing, there has to be a balance. Evoking a realistic bad guy who doesn’t wear a black hat every second of his life doesn’t mean you need to make readers fall in love with him. It just means you need to let us see his side of things every once in a while. It also doesn’t mean that when he tells about his hard-knock childhood, he has to do it in a way that’s warm and fuzzy. He can still be all snarly and disgusting, even as he reveals things that make him seem more human.

A great example can be found in the Andy Tenant’s 1998 Cinderella retelling Ever After. About a quarter of the way into Second Act, he gives us a scene in which our Cinderella is doing the menial chores of helping her wicked stepmother (played by the ever-magnificent Anjelica Huston) prepare for bed. For the only time in the entire movie, they share an interlude in which the stepmother gives Danielle some good, if still snarky, advice (“We mustn’t feel sorry for ourselves, must we? No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse!”), then falls into a melancholy reflection of her own plight in having to marry Danielle’s father, a man she “hardly knew,” who then promptly died on her.

The stepmother is as wicked as ever throughout this scene. She makes Danielle’s day by telling her she reminds her of her father, then rounds it off by saying, “Well, your features are so masculine. No wonder you’re built for hard labor.” At no point in this scene does the director put his viewers’ repugnance for this woman in doubt. But in the way in which the dialogue is spoken, he makes her real. We understand that the stepmother’s nastiness, if only in this scene, is a defensive mechanism to cover up her own pains and fears. Even if we can’t condone her horridness, we are at least given an opportunity to understand it. Every antagonist deserves that much.

Tell me your opinion: Have you given your antagonist a mushy moment?

why you should give your antagonist a mushy moment

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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 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. Leonard Kennard says:

    Absolutely vital I would suggest. No one is “all bad” surely. Some even love a cat. Think James Bond villain.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s the old “save a cat” trope. If someone likes an animal – and an animal likes them back – they can’t be all bad, right?

      • Unless it’s a Velociraptor!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yeah, but the raptor *is* the villain!

          • L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

            From Jurassic Park, raptors always have been my favourite. XD

            But the cat-thing is really inevitable. For example, in the first scene of Godfather (I mean the film), there’s one with the Don.

            As for the villains, there are some whose wickedness needs to be explained, but when they have a good reason to be evil, I can forgive them. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to show what caused the evilness unless it made no big difference or I wanted to have the antagonist turn out to be a poor miserable fellow after all.

            I agree that characters (and people) cannot be just balck or white – still, I like the novels of the romanticism where they are. All good protagonists and all bad villains can create such excitement in the reader.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Don Corleone is a great example. Most of us wouldn’t call him a “good” man. But his appeal, through his personal sense of justice and his devotion to his family, makes him a great character.

          • L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

            Agreed. :)

            And just to clarify, I realized it seemed if I have mentioned him as a villain. It wasn’t intentious. Maybe he has faults and doesn’t always act according to the law, but I regard him as a protagonist. Just the cat-scene popped into my head. :)

  2. While it is true not all villains need to be cookie-cutter, I don’t believe they have to have a “mushy” moment either. The thing about being an antagonist is time has hardened them to where it is harder for them to express whatever it is they are struggling against in the shape and form of the protagonist.

    You sacrifice something when you make your antagonist TOO human, just like you lose something when you make your protagonist TOO perfect, but that’s just me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would agree that we don’t want (most) villains to be too human. We want readers to love to hate them, after all. But we lose a spark of realism and relatability (which often makes villains all the more scary and hatable) if we paint our villains in straight black.

  3. Ok, I do get that this works great when the antagonist is a person, but what if he isn’t? I mean, take for instance your antagonist is a company like in so many Cyberpunk stories. It usually is just a company that sends a bunch of grunts against the protagonist, completely replaceable.
    How would you make it more, realistic in that case?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most of the time, we’ll get more bang for our antagonistic buck if we’re able to put some kind of humanized face on even a non-human antagonist. Who’s the head of this company? Who’s the main grunt tasked with hunting down the protagonist? You can add some humanizing elements by applying this concept to this minor antagonists, even though they’re only proxies for the main antagonistic force.

      • I can imagine how it could be done with a company. Right now, Google is on my bad list. The reason why isn’t important here. Even though, to me, Google is an antagonist, I have to admit that I’ve found some important information using them as a search engine.

        The antagonist in my current story project is a cat. I can’t make this character utterly bad. She does have some good qualities.

    • Siegmar Sondermann says:

      I know, that this won´t add too much depth to the antagonist, but what if the faceless company is doing business in multiple areas?
      If they, amongst others, sponsor the kindergarten the protagonist´s wife is running?
      By the time, our protagonist is starting to battle against the company, that spells marriage crisis.

      • I think this is kinda common to happen, I know at least that I’m using something like this. Basically one of the main characters of the story works for a company that is both good and bad, but he only knows the good part. And here comes the protagonist to show the world just how bad the company can be, with help from that specific character.

  4. Superb example — of a moment that slams home that this villain is human too, without distracting from her evil. And an even better point.

    There’s standing advice to shoehorn in a moment for a hero to “save the cat” or “pet the dog,” or a villain to “kick the dog,” as a conspicuous bit of character. This is the level beyond that, showing off that the villain has at least one level deeper than their main role.

    One rule I’ve liked in my own writing is that every character who’s not living a happy life has been shaped by evil or pain– the pain that’s happened to them. The more they resist the urge to cut corners “to get what they should have had” or take out their frustrations on other people, the more sympathetic they are. And it’s yielding to those (either through weakness, tragic levels of pressure, or both) that makes a villain.

    I like Mateus’s example of the faceless corporation– but there’s still a chance to show the face of the boss who sends the assassins, or one of the killers. You can show they have some sympathetic moment (like love of music), a human motivation in the mix (revenge as well as pay), or that like Cinderella’s stepmother they sometimes remember they’ve been pushed into what they’ve become. It might be more cold than mushy (“If I can’t kill the hero this time, the Board will have my head, literally”) but it can still be there.

    Another example would be Circe in Game of Thrones: an accident no-longer-waiting to happen, but we start to see she’s raging against a world that always keeps her exactly one step away from doing anything. Nasty, but with a proper perspective we can see what MAKES her nasty.

    Everyone tells us to give a villain depth. This is how to make the core statement in one place it won’t be missed.

    • Well, if a corporation is faceless, then why bother showing a human touch in the first place? I mean, let’s pick up the last book I’ve read (last last actually), Virtual Light from William Gibson. In there we have Chevette that stoles a pair of goggles, those goggles were special because they showed something the corporation was going to do to San Francisco. And that’s it. The corporation sends grunts after them, those grunts are pure evil-money-searching-grunts that are capable of doing anything to get those goggles back. He never even says who are the board, the pure antagonist (to the story, not the book) is this corporation. Does it really needs to show a “human” part of it? I mean, do you guys think it’s a necessary thing on a story?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Gary Oldman’s completely psychotic character in Leon doesn’t present much (or any, if memory serves) in the way of vulnerability or sympathy. But his love of classical music, which is, in essence, a love of beauty, however twisted, is enough to give his character an extra dimension.

  5. Lorna G. Poston says:

    Good post. Like Mateus, my antagonist isn’t always a human. But if I were to use a human, I certainly have a lot of people from my past that I can use as a mold. That old saying, “Be nice to me or you’ll end up in my novel” applies. ;)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Interestingly enough, that threat is often a joke on us. Because how we write someone without, in essence, “becoming” them? Writing from the villain’s perspective puts a new slant on the story.

  6. I have two books published and so far the bad guys have been fringe players that no one really gets to know. Maybe I need to change that approach. I recall watching a movie where the bad guy actually became much more likeable after revealing he killed his abusive stepfather by sticking him in the neck with a pitchfork as he slept.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not all stories need the antagonist front and center. I always caution writers to think twice before giving an antagonist a POV – unless he’s as fascinating in his own right as the protagonist.

  7. As a matter of fact, I just wrote his first scene last night. And I start him off by being a good guy to the migrant workers who are being harrassed by the local cops. He swoops in and saves the day. My antagonist will have a pretty good argument for his actions, so I hope that starting with this side of him will open the reader’s mind to the possibility that he may be right. Until the end, anyway, when his true colors come out. Thanks for another great post, KM!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like it when the antagonist can make such a good argument for his position that the protagonist (and the readers) are *almost* convinced. It makes me, as a reader, think. And I dearly love books that make me think.

  8. Alexander Briggs says:

    In outlining my stories I took the protagonist , Petro, from one book and allow the geneticaly corrupted form of the century older character operating as the antagonist, Czar Petro. I want people care about where he went wrong. Wondering if the current protagonist, Cray, would help or finalize his life.

    This quality of antagonist is ideal. Did we not see our own Dr Who wanting to save the Master?

  9. In creating bad guys, what I find useful to remember is that no bad guy ever thinks of himself that way. Or if he does, he sees his behavior as a plus that contrasts favorably with others who are weak, corrupt, cowardly, etc. In a new novel, I have such a character. He is thoroughly nasty, violent, self-pitying, sexist, etc. Even so, and unbeknownst to him, he is clearly preoccupied with a woman, in a way that reveals he loves and needs her. There is no special scene in which this is made known to the reader. But over the course of the novel, the character thinks about and remembers the woman so often, and in so many contexts, that we end up knowing what he doesn’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Humans are very contradictory. We can declare one belief at the top of our lungs and believe we believe it with all our hearts – while acting in a way that completely belies that declared belief. Incorporating these contradictions in a deliberate way can bring instant complexity to any character, good or bad.

  10. Great post, Katie!

    I love that movie! The evil stepmother is a wonderful complex character. I agree that the antagonist needs a moment or moments that explain what made them evil. We don’t agree, but we sympathize because it clarifies the reasons for their actions and why they feel compelled to go through with them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would have to say 75% of the complexity in this character is due solely to Huston’s magnificent presentation. But we can bring the same kind of nuance to our characters that she does to her role, if we’re aware of what we’re doing.

  11. There’s a splendidly evil protagonist, Grenouille, in Patrick Suskind’s weird novel Perfume who murders young girls to collect their fragrances. How could a reader identify with such a mutant? Yet, uncomfortably, we do – because Grenouille was grossly abused as a child. We can identify with that. So his sensibilities developed in a freakish way and, at the end, he develops an insight into his own morbidity and kills himself. So the moral universe remains unchallenged.

    Perhaps one way to present a villain that commands the reader’s grudging sympathy is to portray aspects of ourselves when we’re at our most villainous. We’ve all had those moments but we’re not (really) bad. We know that. And that aspect of ourselves – our mixed sensibilities – will come through in our character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would argue that the most fascinating and certainly the scariest villains are those we relate to most strongly – even in the midst of their most heinous deeds.

  12. Generally, my antags do not get POVs, just kind of the nature of mystery stories. It makes making them sympathetic difficult. The one story where I *do* have the antag with a POV, he’s anything but sympathetic. I honestly can’t imagine what I could do to make him more sympathetic because deep down, he’s such a horrible person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Antags don’t have to (and usually shouldn’t) be continuously sympathetic. As long as they’re fascinating enough to keep readers from wishing they were back in the protag’s POV, that’s the main thing.

  13. Good point. Everyone has both strengths and weaknesses. It makes them human. So, if an antagonist has a strength, at least to them, it makes the character more believable. An antagonist’s bad traits out-weigh any good traits, positioning them against the protagonist. Good and bad traits and experiences help explain what created the character they became. Protagonists possessing a good trait might explain a thwarted desire or goal that drove them to commit evil actions against others.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The two most important things we can given any antagonist are 1) a strong motive for his bad actions and 2) one redeeming trait, however small.

  14. Hi Katie.
    Couldn’t agree more with this post. I think the problem can be that the antagonist is sometimes more fun to write than the protagonist!
    I think as long as you have proper motivations for the antagonist, the mushy moment will take care of itself. When the bad guy is bad just because he is, he stops being real. But when you give him a reason, he comes alive and there’s always something in their to help with the humanity.
    cheers
    Mike

  15. Kay Anderson says:

    Great post! I use this technique myself. My character Madeline is one of them. She’s a spoiled brat and flirtatious, underhanded bombshell, but she has a sensitive spot too and deep, deep down inside is really a nice person. She’s almost nuts about Demetrius, but he doesn’t love her back. So sad :( But her parents (Mr. and Mrs. Clark) are a lot worse.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing sadder – or more relatable – than unrequited love. It humanizes even crazy characters (such as Alex in Wicker Park).

  16. Odessa Quinn says:

    After reading this post, I watched Ever After. I paid attention to that scene in a way I wouldn’t have before.

    I realized that I’d written a mushy moment into each antagonist already. I tried to mirror a challenge or part of the protagonist.

    Thanks for helping me pay attention.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The idea of mirroring the protagonist and the antagonist in some way is classic – and always powerful.

  17. Absolutely. My antagonists are as much a favorite part of my writing as my protagonists, and on occasion I go to great lengths to give the reader a choice of who to love. Why? Because while many tales are Good vs Evil, so very black and white, reality isn’t, and I prefer realism in that way – moral dilemmas, “bad guys” with meaningful backstories that leave you helplessly feeling sorry for them. Complex characters are much more interesting, and besides, sometimes I just want the bad guy to win because he’s way more interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like the idea of “giving readers a choice of whom to love.” Puts the protagonist/antagonist relationship in a whole new light!

  18. In my first novel (not yet ready for publication, maybe June, 2014), I cheated a little: My antagonist is a demon, so no need for relatability, nor humanizing it. In my second, that I’m writing now, I’m using this as a guide: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/SoYouWantTo/WriteAMagnificentBastard

    Fair warning before you click that link: You will lose many hours of your day, so make sure you can afford to click the link. ;)

Trackbacks

  1. […] When it comes to writing our antagonist, we face a dichotomy: we want them to be bad, but we also want them to be three-dimensional, faceted human beings. In short, we want to create bad guys who aren’t all bad, bad guys whom readers will still be able to find a spark of sympathy for, a smidgen of relatability. As a result, we can sometimes end up creating bad guys who aren’t bad enough.  […]

  2. […] When it comes to writing our antagonist, we face a dichotomy: we want them to be bad, but we also want them to be three-dimensional, faceted human beings. In short, we want to create bad guys who aren’t all bad, bad guys whom readers will still be able to find a spark of sympathy for, a smidgen of relatability. As a result, we can sometimes end up creating bad guys who aren’t bad enough.  […]

  3. […] Why Your Antagonist Needs a Mushy Moment  @KMWeiland […]

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