Antagonists: Who, Why and When

The antagonists, the villains, the ‘baddies’, you’ve got to love them. In many scenarios, they give our good guys purpose. Whether it’s defending the people they love, the home they’ve always known, or fulfilling some greater sense of destiny, without the bad guys they would just have to settle for living out their life in peace and without adventure.

Pft, boring!

A few months ago, Dean C. Rich talked about villains and Salty Sam (it’ll open in a separate tab, go take a look). In it, he discusses the concepts of your villain having a purpose, a reason for mass genocide, world domination, or whatever other twisted machinations they have up their sleeve (or evil robe, we don’t judge). I’m hoping to expand on that topic just a little bit by posing three questions I think we should all consider in regards to our villains and how they fit into the plot of our stories.

WHO?

Who is this guy? Where did he come from? What was his childhood like, his teenage years? Who is he to the rest of the bad guys? Does he have any bad guy competition? (I’ve always wondered if the Batman villains have quarterly meetings to discuss who’s hatching which even plan during what time of the year since they rarely overlap. Very polite, these guys.) Who is he to his henchmen? Their boss, their fearless leader, the guy holding the chains and wielding the whip?

The Badguy is like any other character in the book. Like Dean said, he can’t be evil just to be evil, he has to have motives, just as the heroes do. Like any other character in the book, his actions will have consequences and lasting effects. On the heroes, on the setting, on his own plots.

WHY?

We’ve already touched on this a little but, WHY is this guy the way he is? What’s his motive? There are the favorites: world domination, power, money, he wasn’t hugged enough as an evil toddler. Dig a little deeper. Honestly, I cringe a little whenever the whole reason a Baddie is doing what he’s doing can fall under power, money or domination. It feels a little lazy to me because it’s very easy to take those building blocks (’cause that’s all they are) and raise them to the next level. You can start by asking, Okay, once he’s got all this power and money, what does he intend to do with it? Is there a grand plan? Whether or not this plan comes to fruition doesn’t matter. I wholeheartedly believe your Badguy needs to have a goal in mind, something they’re aiming for beyond the power and money. Because, really, that’s a pretty shallow reasoning for being a Baddie. Unless that’s what you’re going for. But consider this, if your Badguy has no ultimate plan, no aspirations, no skinny jeans stapled to the wall (okay maybe that’s just me), then how will you ever convince the readers he’s a force to be reckoned with? How will you convince them to care? Or to be legitimately concerned the good guys may not win?

WHEN?

This is the question that popped into my mind that spurred this whole post. You may think with a well defined concept of Who the Baddie is, where he’s coming from and Why he’s doing what he’s doing, you’ve got enough to get started. Weeelll, I mean, you could, if you really wanted to. OR, you could ask your self one more question that could make all the difference.

When does he make his dramatic appearance? As SpecFic writers, heck as writers period, we’ve got certain ‘rules’ drilled into our brains. Start with the action, being one of them. But let’s consider, is there such a thing as starting with the action too soon?  I’ll use two movies that have come out recently as examples, while trying to avoid any spoilers.

Wreck-It Ralph. If you haven’t seen a commercial, go ahead and youtube it. I’ll wait. So, the general idea we’re given is that it’s a dude that is unhappy with his game and his lot in life and decides to go on an adventure and starts trying out different games.
The reality? As a mockery, one of the other characters challenges him to complete a task and if he does, they will give him the one thing he’s always wanted. Bam, our Ralph has purpose.
But where’s the Baddie? Our villain doesn’t show up until well into the movie, I’d venture half-way through. While trying to complete his task, Ralph meets some people, makes some friends, and wants to help them get what they’ve always wanted in life by helping them stand up to those standing in their way. By the time the Badguy shows up, we know Ralph, we’ve seen his struggles, why he’s unhappy, we’ve seen him go for the gold, we know his new-found friends, we saw them meet and build a bond. We’re invested in these good guys so that when Badguy shows up, we WANT the good guys to win. We care if they’re in trouble, may get hurt, or may have their dreams wrecked.

To make it even more delicious, the Badguy isn’t even who we were led to believe it was all along! PLOT TWIST. (Seriously, that movie is amazing, you should watch it. I know, I know. But Jace, you cry, there are hairy barefooted halfmen and bearded-men and wizards running around! Yes, fine. Go see your precious Hobbit, THEN SEE WRECK-IT RALPH.)

Moving along…
Obviously, there’s got to be a flip-side to all this. Is it possible to introduce your villain too soon? Can it do damage? Yes, I believe it is and it can. Here’s another movie example.

Rise of the Guardians is a great movie but it falls short for me and I think I’ve narrowed down the entire reason to the introduction of the villain. Have you seen the trailers? We know there’s this badass Russian Santa, Sandman, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and all the fangirls’ favorite: Jack Frost. We know they all get together to fight against a foe that is apparently targeting children by using fear. We get all of this from the trailer. When the movie starts we get a nice little prologue from Jack then we jump to Santa and within the first 10 minutes the Badguy makes his appearance. Santa seems genuinely unsettled, enough to get the gang together, but it felt a little …off to me. I didn’t know enough about the characters, their personalities, their wants and hopes, to really fear for them going up against the Badguy. Yeah, you could argue that they’re all based on very well-known and prominent figures from fairy tales and folklore so what else is there to know, but they’re still unique to this world (hello? Russian Santa with TATS?). So as the story progresses I have to get to know these characters while I’m getting to know the Badguy. And to be honest, I liked the Badguy. He had his Who and Why fully conceptualized. Which only made it harder to really root for the goodguys and boo when he came around.

It’s possible this was done intentionally. The antagonist in Guardians isn’t exactly pure evil, he’s doing what he’s good at, what he’s meant to do. Just as in Wreck-it Ralph the badguy isn’t who we think he is, and Ralph isn’t really a terrible guy afterall, even though he’s the villain of his world. (In that respect both stories do an amazing job of tackling the topic of settling for your ‘lot in life’ versus discovering who you really are and being happy with it. But, that’s a topic for another day.)  I recently told a fellow SpecFic writer that I’ve often noticed when beta’ing and critiquing that there seems to be this mad-dash to get all the important characters introduced to the reader within the first few chapters, sometimes, within the first one or two!  So we’ve got the MC, their buddies and the bad guy.  It feels unnecessary to me.  You’ll overload the reader with, at the moment, unnecessary information and prevent them from building a bond with any of the characters, which is needed for them to give a hoot.  For myself, in my own MS, we see the handiwork of the badguys within the first chapter, it’s the instigating event, but we don’t meet the bad guys until several chapters later, once we know who our heroes are, their personalities and their goals.

What say you readers?  Am I way off-base here?  Does it really matter when you introduce your villain so long as they’re well-thought out, genuinely threatening and have a plan?  Can you think of any examples when a villain was introduced very early on but it didn’t have any adverse effects to your enjoyment?  Or when they were introduced much later in the work but by that point you just didn’t care?  Do you think Batman would be more or less badass if he rode a unicorn?  What if it was a robot unicorn?

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2 thoughts on “Antagonists: Who, Why and When

  1. Moonshade says:

    You know, I very recently got some flack over the issue of ‘when’ from a beta reader– I think in the first five pages I’d mentioned and/or described eight main characters, plus two major locations, plus an entire new world… Having cut most of those, I feel a lot happier with how it reads.

    • E.F. Jace says:

      Sweet! I think what happens is we’ve got these amazing worlds and have put so much effort into it we want to really show it all off but wind up giving the readers a bit of sensory overload. Was it hard to decide what to cut and what to keep? I know I sometimes really agonize over those kind of decisions (even though it usually turns out that several chapters later a PERFECT opportunity appears for me to introduce what I cut earlier).

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