Three dimensional antagonists

I read a book.

When I turned the last page I felt sick to my stomach. Because for the first time I didn’t connect with the main character, but the “villain”.

And this “villain” was stereotyped to the worst degree. And it just got worse with each chapter I finished. And three months later, I still can’t think about the book without feeling a little sick. Yes. The book stuck with me. But for all the wrong reasons.

But it made me think about antagonists. I love the villain character. Especially when they are done well.

The antagonist needs to have a story, a life, a history, his/her own goals, motivations, struggles, faults, strengths – all the aspects of a protagonist. I love reading a book where I can have empathy for the villain. I see a vulnerable side, a look into his/her past, and I feel compassion. I might still be rooting for the main character but I understand the villain. And I understand why he turned out “evil”.

For example, Severus Snape. Snape is my main man. He is an example of a well-crafted villain. I loved his character. Especially in the Half Blood Prince where we see how horrible Harry’s dad treated Snape. I felt compassion. He lost the girl. He got picked on. I don’t blame him for turning out the way he did. And so, I liked him.

So, going back to the book I read. I wonder how much more powerful the story could have been if the antagonists in the story were three dimensional. If they weren’t stereotyped, but shown as real people, struggling and making wrong decisions like everyone else. I think the story would have rocked.

Do you put as much time into developing your antagonist as you do your protagonist? What do you think?

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14 Responses to Three dimensional antagonists

  1. Heather Kelly January 27, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    I think that back story for any character is so important, even if we don’t know about it, but those glimpses that tell us why character is the way they are–those are gold. Snape is a wonderful example. We have no doubt of the why that he turned out the way he did. And all the real life antagonists that I’ve met–they always had a reason for acting the way they did. Not to excuse the behavior, but to understand it.

    Boy, did I ramble.

  2. Terry Lynn Johnson January 27, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    good points to ponder this morning. Thanks.

  3. Tina Lee January 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    I have a villain in my book that I wonder about. As everything in the book gets deeper he stays the same. It’s weird. Someone like him was the inspiration for the book, perhaps that is why.

    Thought provoking post!

  4. Nelsa January 27, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I totally get what you’re saying and Snape is a perfect example!! I’m a firm believer in a backstory to all characters but especially secondary ones. And I have to believe in the villain’s truth – even if I don’t like the villain. If the backstory is believeable enough than the antagonist’s actions will be too. Making for a better book.

    Great post!

  5. Laura January 27, 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by Terry, Tina, and Nelsa!
    I don’t think the antagonist needs a character arc, he/she just needs to have more than one side. Even if he takes care of an injured puppy – we know he has a heart. Ya know? 🙂

  6. Heather Kelly January 27, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    Laura–are you still having problems with my e-mail?

  7. Catherine A. Winn January 27, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    I also felt a pang when I read about Snape’s past. I feel exactly the same way about the villains. I don’t have to like the antagonist but I sure want to know what made him/her do what he/she did.

  8. Laura January 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    And I’m sure even the worst most awful person on earth – has moments of kindness. 🙂

  9. Kristen Torres-Toro January 28, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    I try to! I love the villian in my last novel. She had so much depth. I really try to make them full characters!

  10. Laura January 28, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    I agree, Kristin. Villains are so much fun! Not only to read, but to write. 🙂 In some ways, more fun than the protagonist.

  11. Anita Miller January 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    I don’t think one really has to identify with the protagonist as much as one needs to be compelled to think about the protagonist…ponder what made him/her the way he/she is…otherwise, the character is just a waste.

  12. Laura January 28, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by Anita. Good point. Sometimes the best story/character is the one that makes us think. I don’t have to identify with the main character on all levels – but on an emotional level is key. What do you think?

  13. Jennifer Shirk January 28, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    You are so right. I love it when I read a villain who I’m almost sympathetic with.:)

  14. Laura January 28, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    They really are the best but definitely take more work to create. But it’s worth the effort. 🙂

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