Apples and Antagonists
Picture an apple.
‘Tis red, yes? Red, fairly constant in color, fairly normal in size and definitely normal in shape.
Congratulations. You’ve just pictured a stereotype. While sometimes quite lovely, stereotypes not only lack variation; they lack personality. Of course, for apples, this isn’t much of a problem. When it comes to things we’re going to eat, personality is not high on the qualifications list.
When it comes to antagonists, though, personality makes it pretty high. And yet, oftentimes, I see the same thing; just like apples, people seem to think that, because antagonists all serve the same purpose, they must be the same. Apples come in different colors, with spots or scratches, in weird shapes, huge, tiny, and in just about every form of variation that can occur within the same fruit; there are even some blue apples. Antagonists, being (most often) sentient creatures, come in an even greater variety.
If we take the time to make it so.
Of all the characters in the world, villains are probably the most stereotyped. They come in clichés, the evil emperor without a care for the lives of the people, the black-haired, black-clad, black-mustached, black-caped evil overlords with devious plans to take over the world equipped by their maniacal laugh. (Admittedly, the last bit is a bit of an exaggeration when it comes to Young Adult novels these days, but you get the idea.)
And then, there is the other side, the ones that are too sympathetic; the sob-story villains who, of course, couldn’t use their human nature and automatically responded by turning evil—but they couldn’t help themselves! The tragedy in their back-story made them do it!
The idea is to find balance between these two sides. Sentient creatures (be they human or otherwise) have the ability to refuse evil, so whether or not they had a terrible back story, it is their choice in the end. In the end, assuming that your antagonist is a villain, your villain has decided to do something that’s wrong (whether they’ve justified it in their head or not), and it was their choice, not one made for them; they are entirely responsible for what they’ve done. Mind control, by the way, is an entirely different matter, leaving the role of antagonist up to whoever is doing the controlling. Since your villain has decided to be the evil fellow, he must automatically turn into a cape-swirling evildoer, yes? I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Your villain is neither entirely innocent of all the crimes brought against him because of what’s going on—nor is he automatically an entirely evil fellow without a shred of human-ness within him.
He remains a person. Yes, perhaps an evil person, but a person nonetheless. This, my dear readers, is where it gets complicated. How are we to make our villains not only evil people with a certain amount of danger about them, but also make them people?
In the end, it’s fairly simple. Aside from the fact that one is evil and the other is good, villains and heroes are not all that different. The differences between them are slightly enormous, but when it comes down to it, some villains would make the best heroes if they changed what they were fighting for.
Being a supervillain requires a certain degree of insanity, devotion, and determination. Without it, they would never achieve the status as antagonist in a novel. Saving the world also requires those ingredients.
I have a slightly bizarre mix of villains. In IOTW, my villain is a calm, in control man with a very expressive smile and a whole world of hopes for the goal that he sincerely believes is right. In another story, I have a villain who acts more hero than villain; his passion, his energy, his devotion brings a whole group of people to him. He could be seen bravely leading the charge at the front of his men, moving among his men before the battle to encourage them, remembering even the most insignificant of them. Except for the slight fact that he’s a murderer and his purpose is only for himself, he could be the ideal hero-King.
In both, I see character traits that someone could find in a hero. In both, I see a villain very clearly, but at the same time, there’s a person.
Having your villain be a person is the real goal. Since there’s no 3-2-1 step guide to creating people, there’s also not one for creating villains. The one thing that I’ve found helpful to remember? Villains are people. They have personalities and quirks, things they value and lines they won’t cross, just like the heroes do. At the same time, they’re villains. They’re people who don’t understand or don’t care for the sanctity of life, who are more willing to sacrifice other people than themselves, whether for themselves or for something that they believe is right.
They all serve the same purpose: conflict, but they’re not the same. They’re apples, all different, with huge variety, not stereotypical.
So let your villain be a person. Let him turn blue or green or whatever color he wants to be; let him be flecked with brown specks or smooth entirely around. Make him into a person, an introvert who doesn’t like introducing himself or a speaker who can capture the attention of hundreds of people at a time. He’ll still be an antagonist, just as an apple will be an apple. But this time, he will neither be stereotypical nor plastic. He’ll be a villain—a real villain.