Welcome to the third installment of our new series specifically about what you do best – writing! ‘Character Counts!‘ explores why characters matter, and how you can make each hero and heroine just as unique on the page as they are in your head. On the second Wednesday of every month (sorry we’re late!), pop by this page for musings on building characters and stories direct from the mind of Pub-Craft team member Kate Boone! You can learn more about Kate and the rest of the Pub-Craft Team here.
Now, snuggle up with your caffeinated or alcoholic beverage of choice, and let’s talk about character!
Character Counts! – Ep. 3: When it’s Good to be Bad!
Welcome back, fellow Pub-Crafters, to our third and final installment of Character Counts! It’s been a blast re-examining and dissecting our various protagonist archetypes, so to wrap up this series I want to get down to the nitty-gritty of perhaps my favourite part of any narrative – the antagonist.
Let’s be honest – a good (and by that of course I mean bad) villain can really make or break a story. I cannot get enough of well-written female antagonists; I love to hate them, I love to fear them, and most importantly, I love trying to figure out just what makes them tick.
As a fan and avid reader of YA and Romance, I have found that many female antagonists can be classified under the umbrella of the Queen Bee/Mean Girl/Cheerleader trope in one way or another. The antagonist might not always be the most popular girl in school or part of a clique or actively bullying everyone; sometimes she might be portrayed as the “crazy ex-girlfriend*” who can’t accept that her relationship is over, or even the possessive friend who is harbouring romantic feelings for her male BFF and acts catty towards the heroine to mark her territory. We’ve all seen these – heck, we’ve probably all known someone who’s fallen into that category, which is why this type of character in particular is so easy to love to hate.
As we discussed in our last installment, fleshing out our heroines to make them more multi-dimensional and real is a key part of making them more memorable to the audience. So, why would the antagonist, one of the driving forces of the plot, deserve any less? Even in real life, the people that we don’t like have more to them than just being “snobby” or “manipulative” or “catty”; they have struggles and aspirations and disappointments just like the rest of us, and they are more than just a few stock character traits.
One of my favourite character examples is Cersei Lannister from the book series A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones for those who have only seen the T.V. series). No one can really argue that Cersei is a good person – she’s done terrible things to other people, she lies and manipulates, and is a great embodiment of an antagonist. One could argue, however, that she does have some redeemable qualities that make her more human. She loves her children and is fiercely protective of them, which is a positive trait that many people can relate to. She’s not unable to love those around her, she has instead chosen to guard herself to best protect her family in a world where, as a woman, she has very little power. The more we learn about her and witness her interactions with men who possess far less intelligence than her, yet exponentially more power and political sway, the more the reader comes to see how she may be the product of an environment that shaped her to be more manipulative and cut-throat in order to carve out a place for herself and survive in a world ruled by men.
“But Kate,” you might be thinking, “it’s so much fun to be able to rip on a character that everyone agrees is the actual worst. That’s how friendships are made. ‘The enemy of my enemy’ and so forth.” And you would be absolutely right, disembodied voice! I am not going to argue with you there! It’s comforting to know that in such a divisive world there are a few things that we can all agree are certain: death, taxes, and the fact that Dolores Umbridge is in fact Satan incarnate. But what really makes these villains more interesting and memorable is giving them layers the reader can strip away to get a better sense of their motivations and their perspective of others.
So, how do you do that?
Break down their actions – what is their motivation and reasoning behind why they act the way they do? It doesn’t have to be stated outright or when we first meet the antagonist, but you can slowly peel away one layer at a time to give the reader a deeper insight as to what makes this person tick. Don’t make her mean just for the sake of creating conflict – illustrate why she’s giving the heroine the cold shoulder. Was she dumped by the hero (her ex) for the heroine? Did her best friend and love interest tell her he had no interest in pursuing anyone romantically only to turn around and declare his love for the heroine? Has she watched her friend have his heart broken over and over to the point she just wants to protect him from getting hurt again? Does our heroine embody all of her deepest insecurities about success or appearance or relationships?
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that while everyone has an antagonist of some kind in their narrative, no one in real life ever really sees themselves as the antagonist in anyone else’s story. To quote Tom Hiddleston, portrayer of one of my personal favourite complex antagonists, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind”. This, to me, is what makes a villain jump off of the page and into our hearts and minds forever.
So tell me, what’s your story?
*as a note, I strongly dislike using the word “crazy” to describe people who express emotions we don’t like or are uncomfortable with
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