No character is more misunderstood than the bad guy. Even today, it’s far too easy for authors to slip into the remnants of the old melodrama stereotype—black cape, twirled mustache, trick laugh. He’s the bad guy just because… well, he’s bad. Isn’t that enough?
Definitely not enough.
Next to your protagonist, your antagonist is the single most important character in your story. Skimp on him, and the entire story—including the protagonist—will suffer as a result.
Now, it’s true not every story will require a “bad” guy. An antagonist doesn’t have to be bad.
Doesn’t even have to be human, come to that.
The antagonistic force is nothing more or less than an obstacle between your protagonist and his story goal.
But, as often as not, this character will be bad. He may be aligned only a little to the moral south of your protagonist, or he may be a dyed-in-the-wool, raving, slasher-scary psychotic killer.
Either way, it’s your job to make sure he’s still a dimensional human being. This may or may not mean he’ll end up being sympathetic to readers in some way. What it does mean is that your bad guy must have realistic motivations for his actions.
Let’s take a quick look at how to motivate your bad guy—and how not to.
Why the Bad-Just-to-Be-Bad Antagonist Doesn’t Work
Bad guys are often conceived simply to give the protagonist someone to overcome—someone to run from or fight against. As archetypal black-hat figures, bad guys don’t always have to be complicated, but be wary of oversimplifying them.
When you create a bad guy who has no clear goal other than kill the good guy, and no clear motive other than just because I’m bad, several not-so-great things happen:
- Your antagonist turns into a one-dimensional cardboard cutout.
- Your antagonist lacks realism.
- Your conflict lacks realism.
In short, you may think that in making your villain as evil as possible “just because,” you’re making him all the scarier and more impressive. But the result is exactly the opposite. The entire story and its thematic argument weakens.
Consider Gavin O’Connor’s western Jane Got a Gun, in which Ewan McGregor chews through the scenery as John Bishop, the villainous leader of a ruthless outlaw gang—who is dead-set on annihilating protagonist Jane and her husband Bill Hammond.
On the surface, he has a nominal motivation: after he tried to force Jane and her daughter into prostitution, one of his men, the kindly Hammond, rescued Jane, shooting up Bishop’s brothel and killing several of his men in the process. Granted, such a thing would be a little galling to a businessman such as Bishop, but is it logically enough to cause him to obsessively hunt down Jane and Ham for the next six years?
The character is introduced in a supremely evil characteristic moment—garroting an innocent man to death, while trying to extract info about Jane.
Why is he so obsessively, and ultimately self-destructively, determined to exact revenge on two people who were, at best, minor annoyances in his overall scheme?
Any number of suitable motivations might have been created to account for Bishop’s obsessive evil. Any one of them would have made him a far more compelling antagonist, and the conflict itself far more meaningful and realistic.
As it stands, he becomes a one-dimensional stereotype—a bad guy who is present in the story for no other reason than to simply be as bad as possible.
How to Properly Motivate Your Bad Guy
People never do things without reason. Good people can have bad reasons for their actions, just as bad people can have good reasons. At the very least, even the most wicked of men committing the most wicked of actions will almost always believe they are justified, on some level, for their deeds.
Your antagonist needs to have a motivation every bit as strong and compelling as your protagonist.
- What’s your antagonist’s backstory?
- What’s the Ghost/wound in his past?
- What is the Lie He Believes that’s driving him?
- What good reason does he have to initially engage in the conflict with the protagonist?
- What good reason does he have to continue to engage in the conflict with the protagonist?
Hatred, vengeance, lust, and any other number of dark emotions are good qualifiers for your antagonist. But, alone, they are not enough to motivate his story goals.
It’s not enough for your antagonist to hate your protagonist just because. Dig deeper than that. The deeper you go, the more rounded a character your antagonist will become—and the better your protagonist will also have to become in order to face this impressive bad guy you’ve constructed for him.