maybe your bad guy is right

Maybe Your Bad Guy Is RIGHT!

How do you know if you’ve written a good bad guy? There are many possible qualifiers. He’s scary. He’s hatable. He’s a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goal. All of which are valid. But today what I’m talking about is the kind of bad guy who isn’t black and white. He’s solidly the hero of his own story, to the point he deepens the theme by compelling the protagonist—and even the reader—to see things his way, if only briefly.

Here’s a little exercise for you. Write a scene in which your antagonist is confronting your protagonist about their central difference in beliefs. The good guy believes stealing is wrong; the bad guy justifies it. On the surface, that’s a pretty black and white discussion, and of course readers are going to side with the protagonist and think the bad guy is load of tripe.

But what if he’s not? What if he’s right? Or, better put, what if you could make readers think he’s right?

I want you write this scene as if you believe every word the bad guy is saying. Explain his point of view so completely and compellingly that you make readers wonder if, hey, maybe he has a point. Your protagonist should wonder too. He should stand there, gun lowered, mouth agape, experiencing a feeling of panic: I never thought about it that way before! What if he’s right? What if everything I’ve believed and have been fighting for all this time is wrong?

Naturally, I’m not campaigning for a repeal of the laws on stealing. Neither am I suggesting you encourage readers to believe stealing is the right thing to do. What I’m saying is that if you can infuse a high level of honesty and realism into your antagonist’s worldview, you can create the kind of theme and conflict that will provoke readerly thoughts all over the place.

Readers can always tell when you’re not fully investing in a character—especially when that character is a “bad” one. Even if you find the bad guy generally repulsive, you need to be able to put yourself so thoroughly into his shoes while you’re writing him that, just for those moments, you almost believe his slant yourself.

If you can accomplish that, the threat against the protagonist will be stronger. The theme will grow deeper and more faceted. And reader investment will skyrocket. Give it a try!

Tell me your opinion: What’s a belief your bad guy has that your protagonist doesn’t?

Maybe Your Bad Guy Is Right!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. While nobody who has read my last book thinks any of the antagonists are right, some readers state that my protagonist doesn’t help himself. He gives the antagonists the rope in which to hang him by.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Balance between protag and antag is a good thing. The protag isn’t flawless, and the antag isn’t entirely evil.

  2. I’ve actually got a bad guy in my story who is doing the right thing, and the mc agrees, he’s just going about it the wrong way. After he is taken down by the mc, she continues his work in a more progressive, better way with less violence.

  3. Connie Driver says

    I’ve always taken the approach of making my villains people like everyone else, and they naturally turned into good-ish guys who just took the wrong path or took things too far. For a while, I thought this was a sign of weak writing. Seeing articles like this makes me feel better. A couple of beliefs some of my villains hold are that order is more important than freedom, and that the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few. (I know that second one is iffy for a villainous belief, but from the POV the story is set in, it makes said person a villain because he drives a 17-year-old to suicide with it.)

  4. I love this! I have three villains in my book. They are each a different level of villainy. One is simply blood thirsty and wants to turn the world into an all you can eat buffet. One is focused on ultimate power. These two are my “pure evil” villains. The third, however, gets the spotlight as the grey villain. My protagonist, who is new to the world and doesn’t know what’s been going on, is told right off the bat how cruel and evil my grey character is by her mentor. Because she knows her mentor isn’t lying, this goes unchallenged until she is forced to actually talk to the villain and realizes both sides have been mistaken in their assumptions. The hardest part is not revealing who has really been pulling the evil strings this whole time because the true villain is seen throughout the book and is so perfectly villainous. 🙂

  5. I have a hard time with relating to my antagonist… she’s my protagonist’s half-sister and has been lying to and manipulating the protagonist all her life. She’s the mastermind over a wildlife smuggling operation and as such has forced her lackeys (protagonist’s husband and her half-brother) into doing her dirty work of blackmail and murder. I’m hard pressed to find any good qualities in her. The antagonist doesn’t want to be found out, or lose all the money she’s bringing in from the animal smuggling, or go to jail, and so she’s obviously against the protagonist’s goal of uncovering all the illegal activities and deceit that have been rampant in the family for years. Like me, the protagonist is a softy who can’t stand cruelty to animals or bullying of people, and that’s exactly what my antagonist is doing, so how do I relate to her or try to present her side in a way that would make my protagonist or readers think: “I never thought about it that way before! What if she’s right? What if everything I’ve believed and have been fighting for all this time is wrong?”
    Any suggestions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Take a look at your antagonist’s motives. *Why* is she doing what she’s doing? To make money in order to survive and take care of her family? To punish a person or system that hurt her? There must always be a reason for an action, however dark. To the person performing that action, her motive is what ultimately justifies her. She’ll have a good argument for why that motive is a good one. Find that argument and make it as convincing as possible when coming out of her mouth.

      • Okay, thanks, that makes sense. I’ll have to dig deeper and come up with something. She’s doing it for the money, but not because she needs it to survive or take care of her family. She’s just money hungry. The antagonist has a grudge against her younger half-sister, the protagonist, because she had to look after her after the protagonist’s father died and he’s the one who got her involved in the animal smuggling but that doesn’t really make for a good argument as to why she’s still doing it.

  6. This is great! In my magical realism story, the antagonist is not entirely human, and represented in many big and tiny disguises. But the point is, as I figured out only recently, is that my antagonist has what protagonist needs, and does everything possible to prevent protagonist from getting what she wants and going for what she needs (which is dangerous, and hard, and horrible, but worth it). Do you think it’s going to work?
    Thanks

  7. When I read this post, all I could think about was my previous antag. And it was actually funny, because I loved and believed in the goodness of my villain so much, I had actually done it unknowingly. It has convinced my friends that he’s not completely bad anyway, so I think I succeeded.

  8. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says

    I wrote the scene recently that first introduces the antagonist to the reader (and to the protagonist) and it was one of the more disturbing emotionally scenes for me to write because everything I had the antagonist say I disagree with on a profound level but I am banking on the idea that the reader will find it all sounding completely (or mostly) reasonable and normal.

    My question is, the scene is told from the protagonist’s point of view, so while I wrote what the antagonist was actually saying to sound normal and not in any way outright sinister, there are little hints that the protagonist finds it uncomfortable, although not saying why (he’s not sure why himself yet), such her smile seeming insincere, etc. But will doing it that way draw away from the reader and protagonist being unsure what they object to that is being said by the antagonist and make it too obvious that I, as the writer, have a bias against what is being said, or will it just work to introduce a thread of doubt to be explored later?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ultimately, of course (in most stories anyway), you want your protagonist to overcome the antagonist’s false view of the world. However, in order for the thematic argument to be as convincing as possible, you want there to be a section of the story in which the protagonist is really confused by and almost convinced by the antagonist. You want readers to be right there with the protagonist, experiencing what he’s experiencing, almost believing it right alongside him. It’s fine to foreshadow doubt, but try to do it in a way that presents the antagonist as objectively as possible.

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