The Jane Doe Novel Experiment

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Why Write a “Good” Antagonist

 

I often get the compliment, “You’re very non-judgemental.”

And I joke, “I have to be non-judgemental. I’m a writer. I have to supply opinions for dozens of characters yearly.”

It’s a joke, but it is also a reality of the field. Show me a writer who is judgemental (of their characters) and I’ll show a book that needs a serious re-write. Why?

Again, it’s the nature of the beast. Most (all?) fiction is built around some type of conflict. If I make every character in my novel think like me, where’s the story? Where’s the conflict? As writers, we constantly need to examine the other side of the coin and we need to do so without prejudice. In that way, we are able to represent the characters we may disagree with fairly. If the reader dislikes the same character we do, it’s because of what the reader believes, not because we placed a bulls-eye on the antagonist. This subtle difference can spark more emotion in your readers than purposely trying to create a character for them to hate.

Listen to a debate. Presidential, classmates, five-year-olds. It doesn’t matter. The one thing you’ll notice is that each person believes they are right, no matter how “wrong” their view is. I think as writers we benefit by getting into the minds and hearts of our “bad” characters and try to understand why they may believe they are good.

The best examples of this is may be the Lincoln – Douglas debates. Wow. In this year, we would call Douglas a lot of things for his opinions, but as a writer, we have to look past the obvious. He believes he is proposing what is best for the country. In his mind, he is doing the right thing. I would consider it an injustice to him if a writer purposely made him out to be “evil”. In his way, he thought he was being “good”, he was trying to prevent division among the states, he was trying to prevent war. Just because I personally would like to give him a taste of his own medicine and see how he likes it doesn’t mean I need to write him as the devil in office. The reader will hang Douglas, or your antagonist, according to his own righteousness. Don’t believe me? Take Lincoln for example. No writer has to add details to make him the “good” guy. His own words makes us feel that way because they speak to what’s already in our own hearts and agree with our way of thinking.

Keep in mind what you are writing. Sometimes, comic books come to mind, purely “evil” characters are accepted and even expected. But reviewing my personal collection of books and movies, not one contains a character who was bad for the sake of being bad. Either the antagonists thought they were doing the right thing (which I strongly disagreed with) or they gained something from their actions. A written example would be, The Help. Requiring the maids to use a separate bathroom claws at my sense of equality, but, listen to what the women say: “They have different diseases.” “It protects them, too.” These women think a separate restroom will protect their families and benefit the maids. And their “goodness” makes me want to slap them all the more!

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2012 by in For Writers and tagged , , , , .

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