Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Antagonist

I've been thinking about bad guys.

A number of weeks ago there was a discussion on the ACFW loop about bad guys in fiction and the tendency in recent novels to make them understandable. That is, to explain their background or childhood as a way to show how they came to be what they are. Some people opined they didn’t like this, as it tended to smooth over the evil or make excuses for it.

I found the discussion interesting because it occurred not long before Coral Moon released. In CM the bad guy’s background is revealed. Indeed, I show do why he is the way he is. I found it surprising that some wouldn’t like this, as one of the historical complaints about the suspense genre in general is the tendency to make a bad guy “all bad.” That this leads to a shallow, one-dimensional character, which is unrealistic, because all people have some good in them. This concept has given rise to the so-called “pet-the-dog” concept in the characterization of bad guys, in which you have a scene in which the evil one shows compassion to someone or an animal. Thought being that the evil he then embarks upon looks all the more evil in contrast to his humane acts.

In Violet Dawn, first in the Kanner Lake series, the bad guy is all bad. The challenge there was to create an interesting “all bad” guy—a man who fancies himself as wily and deadly as the legendary black mamba snake. Verbs and adjectives for this character were those that would be used in describing a snake. I even sprinkled in words ending with “S” sounds that would lend the subliminal hiss. Some readers got this, some didn’t. Some complained he was “one-dimensional” or “flat.” Others liked him. Well, for a bad guy, anyway.

In Coral Moon I did something entirely different. I wanted the reader to understand the bad guy even as he/she feared and hated his terrible acts. I chose to begin the book in his POV, showing how he didn’t want to do what he felt he had to do. However, this inner angst made him no less a cold-blooded killer, for he pushes down whatever conscience he starts out with to commit the murders. This look into his psyche forms one of the more subtexted themes of the book—how closely evil and good can coexist, and how, through certain circumstances and without God, the former can rise in a person’s life to trump the latter.

Last week’s blog tour of Coral Moon brought forth various reader reviews. One BG reviewed the book and mentioned that because she understand the bad guy’s background and almost felt sorry for him, she couldn’t fear him as much in the crisis/climax scene. I found this fascinating. It wasn’t a reaction I’d expected.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Nearly thirty years ago I read Tennessee William’s play Camino Real. In his foreword to the play, he makes a statement that so struck me, I remember it to this day. He says, “Hatred is a thing, a feeling that can only exist when there is no understanding.”

And so I am left to ponder: must a reader thoroughly hate a bad guy in order to fear him? And if understanding lessens the ability to hate, then should we writers of suspense stick with the “one-dimensional” all-bad bad guy?

Where is the balance? Tell me what you think. (Those of you who’ve read Coral Moon, please be careful in your comments not to include any spoilers.)


Lynette Eason said...

In Violet Dawn, I was fascinated by your bad guy. He was truly evil. And frankly, I wasn't all that interested in understanding him, I just wanted him caught--or dead. And the wording in his point of view was brilliant, I loved it. I also didn't feel like he was flat or one-dimensional, but I didn't feel sorry for him either. Whereas, in Coral Moon, my heart broke for the little boy caught in a situation not his fault, and I pitied the man he became and found myself thinking maybe he could finally could get some help in prison. (Yeah, I get way too involved in the lives of some characters!)

Anyway, that was my thinking as a reader...

Now, I've got to go act like a writer...sigh. I'm "kicking cabinets" at this point in my story, if you know what I mean.


Deborah Raney said...

No comment on bad guys...yet. Just reporting in. : ) I'm 130 pages in on Web of Lies and still alive to tell the tale. I had some disturbing dreams last night, but then, they might have been caused by the pasta and cookie combination I ate at 10 p.m. rather than BC's novel. At any rate, I'm determined to win those chocolates and reading on! ; )

Jannie Ernst said...

In Violet Dawn, I hated the bad guy so much, I could jump into the book and personally kill him. He made me mad. Brought out the uglies in me, this guy. I experienced fear for him, yes, but also a deep hatred and anger. And yeah, maybe I was a little scared, but I would never admit it.

In Coral Moon, I felt sorry for the character as a child. I had some sympathy for him as the bad guy because of that. But I'm afraid, he made me look over my shoulder quite a few times, and everytime I hear a noise outside now, I fantasize about a possible message waiting there for me. I don't think my deeper knowledge of his situation made me fear him less. No way! I'm still checking my locks more than once at night, just to be sure! I'm ruined for life... addicted to BC's books!

Kelly Klepfer said...

I felt sorry for your bad guy in Coral Moon. He was less evil and premeditated and more driven.

I want to introduce him to Jesus rather than see him thrown and locked away.

Violet Dawn was another story. He seemed clear and evil in his thinking.

Reality - different strokes for different folks, bad guys included.

Nicole said...

Interesting thoughts and question. I could be wrong about this, but I would think that most people don't encounter the jaggedly evil ones like serial killers in their lives, at least that they know of. We do come across truly troubled individuals, though.
I'm up here in Green River killer territory, and anyone who's followed the years long search for him until DNA advancements made it possible to catch him, knows he was in a lot of ways a regular guy to a lot of folks. But there are others who are stone cold evil even in their persona, and some of those don't have horrible childhoods so much as they have demonic influences at an early age which they succumb to, same as those children who were delivered from evil spirits by Jesus. If no one is there to do spiritual warfare over them when they're young and developing their "unknown" allegiance to the prince of the powers of the air, their evil will be in full force as an adult.
You've demonstrated here, BC, by the letters and posts that it's impossible to please all readers. Here you describe two books with two totally different antagonists which evoke different responses. (I'm saving them to read back to back.) The story has to dictate the kind of evil you use, and evil is what it is, you know? Some just like it, others are drawn to it or succumb to it because they've never figured out a way or been inspired to avoid it.

Tina said...

I don't want to refer to either book in case I say something to spoil them.

On bad guys, I'm most afraid of the likable ones... This is what is scary in life and in fiction!

D. Gudger said...

Bad guys don't come in neat "one-size-fits-all" packaging. Black Mamba was pure evil. Not a likeable bone in his nasty body. The killer in Coral Moon was more human. You painted a very real person with some very real past abuses. I can't honestly say I felt sorry for him because it was ultimately his choice to murder (he's argue otherwise, I'm sure), but evil is evil. Anyone who sheds innocent blood is scary. I agree with Tina - the Coral Moon type are scariest b/c it's not what we may expect!
I actually struggled with this in my WIP. I had my antagonist (not a murderer, just a nasty person) to be purely nasty. After thinking it through, I decided to show her life and why she is so nasty and mean. I make it clear her decisions are hers. But that's this book. Who knows about the next? I like that you can make your bad guys whatever you want them to be and do it well!

Karen W said...

In Violet Dawn, you only see the bad guy in the present tense, which is appropriate for his role in the story. He was just evil and you wanted him off the streets.
In Coral Moon, you get to know a little more about the bad guy's background, which was necessary for this story line (you have to read the story to find out). However, I still wanted him off the streets, even though I had empathy for how he got there.
I believe that the 'bad guy' needs to fit the story and there is no "one size fits all". But to humanize him/her, just because it's part of a rule or formula, is wrong. Story rules.
Karen W

SolShine7 said...

Wow...this is a good post. Especially in light of what happened at Virginia Tech. People want to know who Cho was and what drove him to shoot people the way he did. So this conversation is really relevant.

I think one of the best ways to illustrate this "bad guy" point is stories that have two brothers or sisters from the same bad situation yet turn out differently because they chose different moral paths.

Sometimes the bad guys have to be "flat" because sometimes in real life we don't get all the answers on what made them that way. We just know they're...bad. And sometimes we can understand why they would turn that way and that's...sad.

Lastly, I'll admit that I'm not into the whole murder thriller stories but with all this buzz going around about this series, I'm REALLY thinking I should give it a try.

Sabrina L. Fox said...

First let me say to Deb, Web of Lies gave me the creeps. Shudder. I tell ya, I had to keep swatting at the imaginary spiders. I'm impressed you're sticking with it!

Anyway, about Coral Moon, I think it was much more realistic and it made me more invested in the story. I had to find out who it was. It really moved the story along.

As a writer it was also inspiring to see the character development that went into the book. Most can make a bad guy, but to make a bad guy someone we somewhat care about-that's great characterization.

Becky said...

My firm belief is that we have it wrong to think a character is "flat" or one dimensional if he is shown as bad, that we have to show the "made in the image of God" side, or the victim side, even a little, to make him believable.

I think rather, what makes a character believable is motivation. Some characters are evil because their greed or lust or pride drives them and nothing in their make-up is strong enough to stop that sinful attitude from turning into horrific anti-social action. In fact, they may want to feed those desires, not even fight against them.

Does it change anything for me to know that a drug dealer lured a 10 year old into addiction resulting in a loss of some part of this person's feelings of remorse? The only thing that changes is my attitude toward him. Now I can't help but have some sympathy for his plight. My emotions are divided.

For every murderer, there is a history that contributes to why that person steps over the boundary. But knowing the history softens the edges, I think.

I don't think the antagonist has to be psychopathic either. Just ruled by his sin nature. We all understand it.

Good discussion.


Lynette Sowell said...

I thought the bad guy in CM was still someone to be feared...but the suspenseful feelings of, "oh no, who's going to be NEXT" weren't dimmed by the fact that this bad guy was truly a tortured soul. I *wanted* him caught for his own safety as well as everyone else's. For the 'dabblers' in CM, I worried for them, thinking of what made bad guy, well, a bad guy. Trying to be deliberately vague! :)

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

I agree with this astute statement of Becky's: "what makes a character believable is motivation." Therefore, if the past of a bad guy is going to be shown, it should directly tie in to his/her motivation for committing evil acts. Otherwise, I agree--what's the point?

Becky said...

Obviously you did a wonderul job showing the CM antag's motivation, Brandilyn. That's not in question. But I wonder if the motivation of someone who perpetrates a truly evil act shouldn't be linked with the sin behind it, the anti-God way of looking at hard, fearful circumstances? What if the CM antag had wanted revenge instead of wanting to stop ... the other stuff?

Because revenge is part of our flesh, something from the sin nature, we all understand it, so we could identify with the motive even as we recognize that someone who murders because of it is over the top. But, because we identify with it, it might also have an affect on readers, maybe asking hard questions about revenge ... or pride ... lust ... any sin that might be at the root of a killer's action.

Aside from that advantage, I think that really is more nearly an "Everyman" approach. To generate fear by making readers thing that their next door neighbor might be a killer, I think means their next door neighbor doesn't have to have a past that would "explain" the murderous act--but he/she would have to have a murderous heart.

One more thing. As far as the fear factor is concerned ... and maybe this is just me ... nothing is so terrifying as the unknown. When I was a kid, one of the scariest stories was "The Headless Horseman," largely because of the mystery. Tolkien's Black Riders were the same--so frightening as they stalked poor Frodo because they were an unknown quantity.

The one that gave me nightmares and turned me into a BHC was Frankinstein's monster. He was human parts, but was he human? Where was he? Why did he do what he did? How would he react to the mob chasing him? The unknown. It made him so much larger than life.

I never saw it (firmly in the BHCC at that point), but was the killer in Psycho anything but evil?

I'll quit hoggin' your comment space now! Happy writing.


Dineen A. Miller said...

Just a last minute thought here. I agree, motivation is key. Another apsect though that I think balances the "understanding" of the antag's history and still "hate" him is how he (or she) interacts with the protag. If we're rooting for the protag and we keeping seeing him or her set back by the antag (a worthy antagonist indeed), that will keep us disliking the bad guy, no matter how sorry we feel for him. Even serial killers have sad stories, and they're still scary.

Rhonda Nain said...

I haven't read Coral Moon yet. I just ordered it last night on Amazon. Can't wait to get it. Anyway, my opinion on bad guys is they all have history and reasons why they are bad. I prefer to know what motivates all the characters in a novel. It completes the story for me.

Travis said...

(I know that this original post is years old and most readers will never see it, but as a "lurker" who has been going back through all of your great posts of the past, Brandilyn, I've finally decided to chime in).

When I think of villains or antagonists, there are two in particular who were always the most chilling to me. They are very different, but both terrifying.

1) Hannibal Lecter - Pure evil, sadistic. And even though we see glimpses of "respectable" qualities in him, such as intelligence, emotional awareness, or even an overall cultured-ness, none of these qualities are "good." In fact, for me, that he loved classical music and Chianti or could empathize with Clarise's emotions only made him more frightful. (I think it's also important to note that until they decided to make a prequel - which was a terrible mistake - there was little to no known backstory as to why Hannibal was who he was).

2) Kevin Spacey's character in "Seven." A man who kills (brutally!) in the name of righteousness. *shudders* That villain still gives me the creeps. Incredible acting by Spacey aside, the character himself was amazing. So complex, so calculated. Every step along the way had a purpose, and that he killed for a specific reason - one that he believed to be divine - made his murders more than just revenge or anger. He killed with conviction *shudders again* And in the end, the twist and the resolution just made it all so much more impactful for me. A villain who can show us that, deep down in our hearts, we are all murderers - that is a villain who scares me.

So one villain who was all evil, and one who had some "good," but even THAT was tainted. Neither were flat by any stretch of the means. Which suggests to me that we writers are able to do both, as long as we do it well!

Well that's all from me for now, I'm glad I could join in! Thanks for all you do, Brandilyn, and I'll try to be a little more present in the posts of the present :)


~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Travis, thanks for stopping by and leaving the comment. I appreciate your thoughts--and the fact that you reminded me of this post. Two years later it's a topic worth revisiting. :]

~ Brandilyn