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.