Should You Ever Redeem Your Bad Guys?

Should You Ever Redeem Your Bad Guys?

This week’s video offers a reminder about letting your antagonists do what they’re best at.

Video Transcript:

We talked last week about how readers love awesome, larger-than-life good guys. Today, I want to flip that on its head and talk about bad guys. In our quest to create realistic characters, we’re going to want to give our bad guys just as many redeemable traits as we give our heroes faults.

Sometimes we’re going to want to take this all the way to the hilt and actually redeem the bad guy in the end. One of my favorite examples of this is Hrathen, a sort of warrior priest, in Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris. He’s the primary antagonist throughout the book—a ruthless but honorable gent—who, in the end, sees the light, switches sides, and is redeemed.

But there’s a pitfall to be aware of in all of this. If your antagonist is literally a “bad guy,” then you have to give him the space to fulfill that role. That means not copping to making him too sympathetic or redeemable. It’s great to give bad guys a few sympathetic traits, by way of contrast. Great to give them pathetic backstories to help readers understand their motivations. Great, too, to give them a shot at redemption—and occasionally allow that redemption to come through.

But don’t be afraid to let your bad guys be bad. You want to create formidable opposition to your protagonists. You want bad guys who are evil, unrepentant, and scary as all get out. Too often, someone will create a really good bad guy—someone so deliciously bad that you just can’t wait to see his demise—only to then start redeeming him. Unless this is done with the absolute finesse of beautiful character development, I’m more likely to be going, “Nooo! This character was so good at being bad. Don’t ruin it by trying to make me like him.” Now, of course, this is a broad generalization. But if you’ve got a bad guy who is just too good at being bad, then let him do what he’s good at.

Tell me your opinion: What makes your bad guy bad?

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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. For the 4th book in my series there’s a new villain. I do plan on redeeming him at the end (the start of the process anyway). It’s only morally possible, I believe, because he initially started down his road with good, if wrong, intentions that quickly went dark — he made a bad judgment about which was the lesser of two evils.

  2. I always find bad guys with “good” motives to be interesting – and often all the scarier for it.

  3. In my WIP, I want to make my bad guy mostly redeemable by the end of the series, but I also don’t want to make him likeable. I want him to remain antagonistic, even when he’s no longer “the big bad.” The whole bad guy/good guy making-them-complex thing can get really tricky, as you’ve talked about here. Here’s hoping that I accomplish this!

  4. It *is* tough, because for all that we live life in shades of gray, we like to look at it in black and white.

  5. My bad guy manipulates people through his ability to transform into other people–dead or alive. He makes a demonic pact with a human girl who just died, so she can target the protagonist who apparently killed her in a barn fire. He helps her target the protagonist, but things go crazy when he starts falling for the protagonist. So relating to your comment about, he develops almost a “good” motive.

  6. Ooh, twisty motivations and morals! I like it.

  7. I was told once, always give your bad guy something to care about…and it may not make he/she redeemable, but it definitely makes them more three dimensional. I don’t think that many bad guys truly believe they’re the villain. They’re the hero of their own story. Perspective is everything; I think that every bad guy for true three dimensional qualities, should be redeemable in some way. But I think there is also something about us as readers, we want to see the bad guy get it in the end.

    My bad guy believes that his queen (and great grandmother) has betrayed him and her own kind, so he sets out to make his own kingdom where his kind will flourish and take over, leaving a wake of death and destruction. He believes that his power is greater and that he should rule over all.

  8. Excellent thoughts. The notion that “every one is the hero of his own story” is a particularly powerful one. It really is all about perspective. People fighting on opposite sides of a war often have equally strong personal and moral motivations.

  9. My antagonist was betrayed by the one he loved. Or still loves, really. Twice. He wants revenge on her… and making her love him back.
    Simple as that, really.

  10. Motivations don’t get more powerful than love – whether it’s right or wrong.

  11. I like how you followed up last week’s post; way to go keeping the discussion moving!

    An antagonist in my story is going to commit crimes that border on unforgivable. He will, however, have the time to “learn his lesson” and truly hate the man he used to be. Before book’s end, his victims may forgive him (I haven’t decided yet). I haven’t drafted these scenes so far but I’m nervous about infuriating my reader, or creating a bunch of cheesy feel-good redemptive fluff. Who knows? I guess I’ll just have to plow forward and write it.

  12. I had to deal with some of those same fears in my last WIP. Jury’s still out on whether or not it works, but *I* like it. 😉

  13. In my novel I’m working on, I actually have two men portrayed as the “bad guys.” At first, one of the men is shown as the obvious villain, having been the perpetrator of evil things in the past and greed is his motivation. As the story develops a bit, however, we see that another guy who we thought was the victim (so he in a sense had a misguided purpose to his evil actions) has his own demons and own evil actions that I hope will make the readers wonder if he’s even worse than the original “bad guy.” In my past writing I almost always had the antagonist redeemed in the end, but now I’m experimenting with, as you said, letting the bad guy be bad.

  14. Hi there, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris
    http://chelencarter-retiredandlovingit.blogspot.ca/

  15. @Sarah: Always great to compound conflict and introduce layers of antagonism. Sometimes we have a better chance of successfully redeeming one bad guy if we have another antagonist who must still be defeated.

    @Chris: Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the blog.

  16. Always enjoy your posts. This one made me think of Darth Vader from my much younger days. Loved to hate him but ended up nearly begging him to do the right thing.

    I have discovered in my WIP that writing the bad guy it’s much more fun, at least for me. Gotta make him just creepy enough but keep him human too.

  17. In my current WIP, the bad guy is an “imploder” whose early life was such a pressure cooker of material privilege and parental misconduct that he is too far from sanity by the end of the story for redemption. It’s better that he’s just being “contained.”

  18. I’ve found that a successful “bad guy” is measured by an author’s ability to make “bad” an understandable motivation. When we see the bad guy/gal doing bad things and we understand why they do them, we become even more invested in our protagonist because we can feel the conflict. Understanding evil does not mean agreeing with it. But senseless or illogical acts of violence come off as contrived. I enjoy stories where the author creates tension by filling in details about bad guy motivations, in some ways it can almost become a form of sub-plot. Just an observation.

  19. @Trevor: “Containment” is always a good choice – especially if you decide you want him again for a sequel.

    @S.A.: Totally agree. As authors, we have a responsibility to understand all our characters. If we don’t understand them, we have no business writing them.

  20. Not all bad guys should be redeemed, so guess this is a good place to start and decide how good at beeing bad he or she really is. Definitely, I guess everyone wanter Joffrey to die and not turn out good ¬¬
    Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Yes, definitely something to consider in the beginning. If you’re going to redeem a bad guy, you’ll want to set up the proper foreshadowing right from the beginning.

  21. My villain is an insane character who is half in love with my protagonist and half despises her. He can manipulate his voice to sound like anyone and the main reason he goes after my MC is because she reminds him of his sister; the sister who he blames for his death. He is terrifying but I actually like him better than my MC. I kind of want him to be redeemed but, I think he’s way past the point of redemption in any of my characters’ eyes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always like to say you’re doing something right when you love your bad guy. Even if readers hate his guts, you’ll be able to write him much more realistically if you love him in spite of his flaws.

  22. With my *bad* guy, he starts off as what seems like a protagonist, and you learn to root for him. However he starts to turn insane when he thinks that he has killed his best friend (even though he has not) – especially as he is a pacifist, and from a pacifist background. He becomes obsessed with hiding what he thinks he has done, to the point of being manipulative and threatening violence. Even still, he retains his core moral – he can’t kill. At the end, there will be a big stand off between him and his ex-best friend. How far will he be willing to go to protect his secret? Will he find out the truth? Or will he redeem himself?

    If I’m honest, I’m unsure! 😛 On one hand, he could be something of a tragic hero and surrender or kill himself, he could be redeemed, or he could kill the protagonist… the options are endless, but which is best?!

    • To clarify the best friend and ex-best friend are different people. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love complicated questions like this. It’s always interesting to see what happens, no matter which road the character chooses to go down.

  23. I love redeemible bad guys! Hrathen is my favorite character from Elantris because of his redeeming trates. I am really a sucker for sympathetic antagonists. Darth Vader, Hrathen, Severus Snape, Team Rocket (from Pokémon), you name them, give them redeemability and/or a tragic backstory, and I’m all over it.
    One of the reasons they touch me so much is that I KNOW their not perfect! Their stories help me cope with my OWN darkness, they teach me what not to do and that I can be forgiven pretty much no matter what!
    Besides, Team Rocket is SO funny!!!

  24. My antaganist’s mentor turns out to be in it for himself and to gain power. Part of the twist is finding out that the antaganist is actually another protaganist and she and my MC team up to defeat the true antaganist, the mentor.

    It’s a young adult novel, and I’m trying to relay the fragile nature of trust in adults, and how important it is to make your own path, not just blindly follow the adults around you… This is really more of a subplot in my novel, but does this work, or it’s too much of a cliche for a YA novel?

  25. Hello Ms. Weiland! Aside from a few writing lessions at uni and a read through Hero of a Thousand Faces, your blog has been absolutely instrumental for how to write a good fiction. Thank you so much!

    It’s my first time writing a book and I was wondering if it’s too repetitive for two characters to pursue the same thing (but for different reasons)? Both of them trade their souls for demonic powers: the antagonist’s being is consumed altogether, while the anti-hero uses such power to help the protagonist defeat the now-possessed antagonist to save the day.

  26. Hello! Nice article, it helped me a little with my story, but I’m still stuck on some things.

    My story is of a scifantasy/adventure, and my protag is planned to meet with the antagonist, which is an overlord of a planet seeking a new habitable planet. I’m stuck on what to do with my antag, she doesn’t deserve to be killed off.

    I planned to make my antagonist redeem her ways through spending time with the protag, eventually adopting the protag as her daughter and changing her methods of ruling her own people. Though, I’m not sure if this plot point makes sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Here are two things to ask yourself:

      1. What does the antagonist *deserve* to have happen to her? If her crimes don’t merit death, then does she at least deserve jail time?

      2. What will readers *want* to see happen to her? Sometimes readers will cheer when the bad guy is redeemed. But only if it is developed so that they have empathy and sympathy for the antagonist right from the start. Otherwise, they may be frustrated that the antagonist didn’t get the comeuppance they wanted to see.

  27. Elizabeth Parr says

    What makes him bad. Hm. Welp he wants to destroy humanity/society…and he’s just…evil. XD.

    Gah.

    How do you find a redeeming quality for a villain who is just full of hate (for society/humanity)?

    Or should there be no redeeming quality like at all? Or one thing that can redeem him?

    Shallest he die unforgiven or live?

    XD any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Shades of gray are what bring nuance and realism to a character. Even the most evil character should have *some* redeemable traits. Sometimes this is as easy making sure there’s at least one other character who loves him,

Trackbacks

  1. […] yesterday and the topic was “Should You Ever Redeem Your Bad Guys” (read it here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/07/should-you-ever-redeem-your-bad-guys.html).  It got me thinking about some of my favorite […]

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