In this series of articles on writing and developing fiction and sharing my own trials and tribulations on writing fiction, I will be discussing topics such as world building, constructed languages, writing protags/antags, understanding pacing, the concept of the “Mary-Sue,” self-inserts, discussing sex in fiction, and plot building.
Onwards, my unicorns!
Building protagonists seems like an easy job. Making a hero, telling their story, sharing their experiences. Sounds pretty easy. Now making an antagonist? That’s hard; how can you make a person unlikable, a real foe for your grand hero? How can you make them a challenge without making them trite or predictable? It can be a real challenge to write organic characters, especially if they are going to be interacting in rich and dynamic situations. I am going to explain how I make protagonists and how I make antagonists, as well as give some commentary on the heroes and villains I see.
One of my favorite villains ever is from the animated series Gargoyles. David Xanatos was the most intriguing, captivating and stimulating villains I’ve come to enjoy. Dynamic and involved, he was always in control of everything. All his plans synced up, despite him “losing” a few battles. His grand schemes seemed over-the-top and cheesy, but if you broke them down, they were quite simple in design. He is probably the best example of a well-written antagonist and he is going to be one that I am going to use as an example.
One of the more striking things about Xanatos is that his plans and the protagonists’ plans often intersect in interesting ways. They often shared the same goals and David is always willing to exploit the gargoyles if it benefits him in the end. When writing a protagonist or an antagonist, you need to understand both their motivations and their goals. They need to be solid for them to interact and build conflict naturally. In Xanatos’ case, his motivation was power and immortality was his goal. His plans were all varied and diverse, and his goal wasn’t a direct hindrance to the gargoyles, whose motivation was assimilation and goal was acceptance and equality in New York City. Each of the gargoyles had different motives and goal, but as a whole, their goals didn’t interfere with David’s so much. He was Machiavellian and dangerous, but only when they got in the way with his schemes. David always had an ace up his sleeve.
One motivation that I liked a lot was the goal and motivation of Amon, the villain in the Legend of Korra. He was paced a bit too fast and his backstory was an info dump, but his motivation was liberation and his goal was erasing bending absolutely. You want him to lose, but in some way, you could relate to his reasoning. In fact, many fan members actually sympathized with Amon and the Equalists. In some way, I empathized with David. He was a family man; he loved his wife and son and was protective of his family. He would do anything to save and protect the people he truly loved. A good antagonist is just as relatable and empathetic as the hero. It makes their goals and motivations more understandable and more realistic. Taking over the world and kidnapping princesses are great and all but the best kinds of villains don’t need to do “evil” things to be the villain. Their goals must in some way impede the goals of heroes. That’s what makes them villains.
In regards to more coldly logical villains, a good “chess player” is one who thinks five moves ahead. As a writer, it’s your job to think that far in advance too. Not only that, but a good writer needs to calculate “losses” as “wins” and move ahead in that fashion. If there is one thing I liked about David Xanatos, is that even though he lost, he still won. We are fooled to think his plan was thwarted when instead he was able to move ahead. Now, Azula, a villain from Avatar, had plans that always seem to succeed and she is always a step ahead of the protagonists. She wasn’t interesting to me because she was predictable. I knew what she was thinking and I saw her plans. She was still compelling; I just think that David was better at it than her.
As a final note, don’t make an “insane” villain so you can use his instability as a justification for his evil doings. That doesn’t fly with me, honestly. I am sick of seeing mental illness as an excuse for evil characters to be evil. It’s frustrating and just feeds into the hysteria that the “crazies” are trying to kill us. I avoid it at all costs. Write with caution.
So readers? Who is your favorite villain and why?