Everywhere we turn, the stories of bad guys are upon us:
- Gregory Maguire wrote Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West based on one of the most classic antagonists ever created.
- Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho gives us first-hand insight into the mind (and life) of the ultimately hilarious antagonist, Pat Bateman.
- A significant part of the Harry Potter series is dedicated to revealing Voldemort’s story, from his birth and upbringing as Tom Riddle to his transformation into a terrifying bad guy.
- Even The Joker intrigues us, not just because he’s a great psychopath and supervillain, but because he has no one, definitive backstory.
- And George Lucas made the Star Wars prequels based purely on the importance of his antagonist, who is probably the most iconic bad guy of all time.
Whenever I read, I’m always on the look out for a memorable bad guy.
In my world, the bad guys are just as important as the good guys. It’s not only the protagonist’s journey that we follow, but also the antagonist’s journey. And we often read to see how their two stories will come together.
In many of the books we read (and often movies we watch), there’s not a hell of a lot more to the bad guy than meets the eye.
Yet the best antagonists – the ones who really stay with you – are the ones with their own compelling backstories, their own motivations and their own twisted beliefs.
As a fiction writer, I believe it’s incredibly important to know and understand the life and story of the antagonist. What led them down this dark path? What imbued them with these emotions and beliefs and goals? What happened to him or her, and what was their life like before?
The bad guy’s story becomes incredibly relevant at the climax of every narrative, when the story of the protagonist and the story of the antagonist come together. It has power because there is a story, and a goal, on both sides. Because the protagonist has the ability to be brought down, and the antagonist has the ability to be redeemed (whether he is or not is a different issue).
Understanding your bad guy’s history makes him/her more believable and engaging, and it brings us into another kind of story, too – one that is relevant to us, as readers, and that draws the whole narrative together. Anyone can be evil or malicious, but it’s their story that really grabs us and stays with us long after we have finished the book and left the world behind.