“Awww, such a cute little villain.”
Ummm…yeah. Well, that’s not a phrase you hear every day. I recently received this writing feedback from one of my friends, and truthfully, it left me totally floored. I didn’t really know what to say when she told me that. So I just stared at her. And then laughed. Because honestly, what else could I do? “Aww what a cute little…” That’s what you say to someone’s baby or dog. Not the antagonist in their story. She went on to say that my villain didn’t seem that mean. Could I make her, I don’t know, a little more evil? Well, you know, I told her. I’m working on it. And failing miserably apparently, I told myself.
The antagonist role in my story has always been difficult for me to write. When I first began, the character felt very flat, very one-dimensional. To me she resembled a cartoon villain, with little to define her as a person beyond her overwhelming hatred for the protagonist. We all love a good, fun storybook villain who is just deliciously evil. But I wanted her to be a bit more. I wanted some depth and humanity to her. After all, somewhere inside of her was a person, with likes, dislikes, hopes and dreams. So in an effort to get to know her better I sat down for an afternoon and described everything about her. Her favorite ice cream? Pistachio. Her favorite color? Red. Her favorite activity? Walks on the beach, but only so she can kick over sandcastles. Just kidding. The exercise actually was very helpful. Now she’s much more developed, but now doesn’t feel very….evil? This evil thing, it’s turning out to be a lot harder than I thought. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s difficult to channel that into my writing.
When I went to sleep that night it really got me thinking. What is a villain? And what is an antagonist? Do they have to be one in the same? Does an antagonist need to be “bad,” to be effective? The more I stew over the question the more I’m not totally sure that they do. By definition an antagonist is an opposing force, an adversary. Just because something is in opposition, doesn’t make it evil. It just means that for whatever reason, its aims are contrary to those of the protagonist.
I like nuanced characters. A “villain” who is a person apart from just the identity of being “bad,” is the most interesting to me. The books I like and admire most are the ones who reveal their characters piece by piece, showing them to be multi-faceted and complicated. The way human beings really are. Perspective is important. My “villain,” could be someone else’s hero, and I appreciate authors who present their characters as beautiful, flawed creatures and allow the reader to decide where they fall. Sometimes we even come to understand them, and though we may not like their actions, we come to appreciate their story and the twisted road they took to get there.
I’m trying to get there. Somewhere there’s a balance between what we think of as a satisfying villain, evil enough to make you hate them, and someone with enough humanity to be relatable. According to my friend I’m falling a little short of a truly riveting antagonist, but that’s ok. My writing is evolving, it’s a work in progress just like my characters. They grow and change, just like we, their, writers, do. And as we get to know one another better they will become deeper and more interesting. I can’t say for sure what my antagonist will be by the end of this process. I know that I’ll continue to write her story until it feels right. Not perfect, but right. And once I’m finished, my friend has promised to read it again and give me her opinion. I’ve worked a lot on the character, and when she’s who she’s supposed to be, I feel like I’ll know. I’m really looking forward to receiving the new feedback. My friend promised me that this time, she’ll read it in depth and give me a whole list of adjectives to describe my antagonist.
Hopefully one of them isn’t cute. But if it is, that’s ok too.