Monday, March 11, 2019

Interesting Antagonists: When the Bad Guy Isn't All Bad

Any conflict can be summed up as, "The protagonist versus...whatever." Traditionally, our whatever is the "bad guy" (or girl or thing, etc), and this antagonist is boiled down to that thing in the way of the hero's journey. Lex Luthor, Cinderella's terrible stepmother, Randall Flagg - all classic antagonists built strictly to get in the hero's way, create conflict, build drama, and make for an engaging story.

But do they need to be 100% bad?

Walter White - The protagonist and the antagonist.
Think of people who at some point or another played the bad guy in a particular part of your life. A boss who made your job difficult. A teacher with utterly no compassion for you as a student. A coworker who seems to say the wrong things at the wrong times and you pay for it. "The protagonist versus... the boss, the teacher, the colleague." If we take these people at face value, we can make them into bad guys. The boss hates you. The teacher had trouble with your older brothers and is now taking it out on you. The coworker is a backstabbing weasel. These are antagonists that create our conflict and get the story going. They work, but they can do more. In fact, they can do a lot more if they are not all that bad.

Let's start with the bad boss. We've all had them. I could name one in particular, but there's no need to go there. What I will say, however, is that in that moment, I only knew that boss to be bad, we butted heads a lot, and it created problems on a daily basis. That's a story people can relate to, and the reader hopes that in the end, I overcome that problem. It's good conflict, but it lacks dimension. It doesn't have depth. It's a simple story with a simple solution, but what do we really learn?

Now what if we explore that boss some more, and show what motivates them. It would be easy to just believe the boss was evil, but that lacks interest. Maybe the boss is motivated to make an impact at their job and really shake things up. Nothing wrong with that... other than it goes against the belief of the employee who knows that things are going very well and shouldn't change just for the sake of change. Now the conflict has evolved. It's not just boss versus employee, it's two conflicting ideologies. There might even be some sympathy for the boss, even though they make things very difficult for our main character. The conflict has moved beyond the story, and the reader has to understand more than one side of the story. The reader has their own conflict too.

Once we explore the bad boss, the evil teacher, the weasel coworker, we provide a broad range of feelings for the antagonist. Now, while they are still the bad guy, they are very real and cannot be easily dismissed. A conclusion where the antagonist just gets fired lacks satisfaction because we have some sympathy for them. The reader starts thinking about problem-solving, about best-case scenarios. The reader wants to resolve this situation. At this point, the reader has engaged this fiction as a real-life challenge, perhaps even with some hope for a win-win conclusion. The reader is invested.

Another particular bad guy is actually a woman in a certain sense - "The protagonist versus... Mother Nature." One cannot necessarily call Nature an enemy, but tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, packs of wolves and massive droughts definitely provide big problems. Sometimes the biggest antagonist is the world at large. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" creates a relentless antagonist that goes beyond the occasional person. The real enemy is the end of mankind, and it is evident at every turn, stalking our heroes every day. It's not that Nature hates our characters; Nature does not care about our characters, and they are forced to survive while Nature does what Nature does. The conflict is constant and never-ending, and we can't put it down.

Lastly, the best bad guy is often the good guy - "The protagonist versus... themselves." How many people do we know who are often their own worst enemies? Even when they are kind, gentle, enjoyable people, their problem is how those traits get in the way of what they want to accomplish. Maybe it's a simple struggle: Someone who wants to get healthy but can't manage their diet. Maybe it's the person who wants to climb the corporate ladder but doesn't like playing all the politics of the business world. Authors have made fortunes off of the conflict within characters held back by past trauma that they have never faced. Look at Walter White and you will see a man constantly at war with his own demons, and often giving in to them.

Plenty of stories demand a straight-forward bad guy - The Devil has received plenty of ink for just being bad. However, always take a second and think about whether showing a little depth and dimension can make the conflict more interesting. Sometimes, not being 100% bad makes for a far better story (Look at the ones that remind us that the Devil was a fallen angel). A little good can make bad even better.


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