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Bad Guys: Breaking (Down) Bad

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

MaleficentIn the lists we came up with yesterday of some of our favorite villainous/antagonistic character, we definitely had two different types of characters going: the sympathetic bad guy and the out-and-out, no-redeeming-qualities villain. And we’re definitely going to take a close look at both in the course of this series.

But first, let’s define what “bad” means when it comes to characters who are labeled as the bad guy/villain/antagonist in a story.

We must first start off with defining what the protagonist/main characters believe is bad—bad behavior, bad beliefs, bad ethics, bad spirituality, bad culture, bad politics, etc. Through this process, we can start to see that a “bad guy” in a story might not necessarily be “bad” (or evil) in and of himself. It may be the hero’s perception of the antagonist’s behaviors or beliefs or actions that make him the “bad guy” in the story. This is the kind of antagonist character we see more often in stories that are lighter-hearted, such as romance or women’s fiction or general fiction. These are going to be people who, while going about their daily lives, create conflict for our hero or heroine because the antagonist’s lifestyle or behavior or beliefs or work ethic is different than the main character’s. In A Case for Love, the antagonists are Forbes’s parents—because he finds himself coming to a point where he believes their company is doing something wrong. Does that make his parents “bad” people? No. But it makes their company’s actions bad in Forbes’s eyes, thus putting them in the antagonist role in the story.

The more specifically and strongly bad is defined and shown contrasted to good by the heroes and the villains, the more potential there is for conflict and drama. But be cautious with this. Unless you’re writing a children’s story (for children under the age of about seven), you can’t paint good and bad in shades of black-and-white. Some of the greatest stories out there are those that make the reader/viewer—even just for the briefest moment—wonder if we’ve got it all wrong and maybe the bad guy isn’t so bad after all (before either proving he is worse than we imagined or showing that it really is all about perception).

This black-and-white concept of good vs. evil is known as duality, and we must determine if our protagonist believes in duality: good vs. evil, light vs. dark. Even though we authors don’t want to make the conflict in our stories that black-and-white (again, unless we’re writing for children), it’s okay if our characters have a black-and-white, good-vs.-evil view of the world. The more your character has this kind of worldview, the more they may be willing to sacrifice, even to the point of martyrdom, because for them, the ends justify the means—if through their own personal sacrifice, good/light prevails (no matter the cost to them), their sacrifice is justified and the reader/viewer will be satisfied. We see examples of characters in which the duality worldview leads to the main character being willing to make the ultimate personal sacrifice in Braveheart, the Harry Potter series, and in the Lord of the Rings. (And yes, there are biblical parallels in this story structure.)

In addition to figuring out what the protagonist thinks is bad and what the protagonist’s worldview of Bad is, we must also determine what Bad wants. There are many roles Bad plays in stories throughout the ages, sometimes more than one. But here are some of the things that Bad (the antagonist, the bad guy, the evil force, the inanimate object that takes the place of the bad guy) can do within a story:

  • Bad wants to teach the hero a lesson—e.g., what goes around comes around (the concept of Karma); or it can be a concept the hero must learn, such as forgiveness or tolerance or humility. This is the most common use of Bad in a story.
  • Bad wants to teach the reader/viewer a lesson—whether or not the character learns the lesson Bad wants to teach, the reader/viewer can learn the lesson, either by seeing how the hero’s life is changed for the better or, more potently, by witnessing the character’s tragic downfall, e.g., King Lear, Romeo & Juliet, Oedipus, most of the Greek and Roman myths, Wall Street.
  • Bad is a side-effect of a wager between supernatural forces—in this case, though the story is focused on the human pawn, Bad is in the hands of two supernatural forces that are entertaining themselves—or waging a passive-aggressive war against each other—who are wielding it in such a way that the hero character has no chance of overcoming Bad on his own, without allying himself to one or the other of the supernatural forces. The prime example of this kind of Bad is in the story of Job.
  • Bad actually used to be Good, but has gone awry, been taken to an extreme, or has rebelled. E.g., the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, the cybernetic creatures in the Terminator movies, HAL in 2001, or something as simple as a healthy fear allowed to become a phobia (think about Monk).
  • Bad was always Bad but should have been something the character grew/learned from; instead, he’s become bitter, jaded, cynical, etc. Therefore, Bad now actually lives inside the character and feeds off the character’s reaction to his previous encounter with Bad. (Can someone think of an example of this? I’m not coming up with one immediately.)
  • Bad needs to be redeemed—whether it wants it or not. This is Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.
  • Bad wants something it shouldn’t have, lest it become Worse—money, power, social status, media attention. Think Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, whose most famous line was, “Greed is good.” This is also the nature of Bad as seen in the characters of Sir Drake, Lady Pembroke, and Lady MacDougall in Ransome’s Honor.
  • Bad just wants something to break/destroy—break up a relationship, annihilate a different ethnic group, stop someone else from rightfully getting what he/she deserves, destroy the planet, etc. We see this kind of Bad in a wide range of stories, such as Schindler’s List, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Independence Day and Signs, the Bond films, and horror films.
  • Most of all, Bad wants whatever is going to stop the hero from attaining his goal. No matter what it takes. So, technically, the author is the ultimate Bad Guy of the story.

For Discussion
Think back to some of those favorite villainous characters you mentioned yesterday. What kind of Bad are they? Are they bad because they are at odds with the hero and may believe or do something the hero doesn’t like? Do they fall on the evil/dark side of the hero’s belief in duality? And what’s the purpose they serve in the story?

  1. Tuesday, August 18, 2009 2:54 pm

    For Bad was always Bad, would Hannibal fit?


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:11 pm

      Not having read the books and having seen Silence of the Lambs only once (and then when it first came out on video seventeen or eighteen years ago), I don’t know that I could give a definitive answer. To me, from what I can remember, Hannibal is “Bad just wants something to break/destroy” as his sadism seems to be more focused on ending someone’s life than in just being bad.


  2. Tuesday, August 18, 2009 4:23 pm

    Bad wants to teach the hero a lesson . . . vengeance?
    Can Bad used to be Good be redeemed and be Good again?
    My head is beginning to hurt. But I think I’m following you.
    Thanks for all your input.


    • Thursday, August 20, 2009 2:16 pm

      Bad wants to teach the hero a lesson: vengeance leads to nothing good. If Bad is trying to pull the hero down the path of taking vengeance into his own hands, that’s more of the destructive type of Bad—Bad wants to destroy the hero by making the hero Bad.

      “Bad needs to be redeemed—whether it wants it or not. This is Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy.” Anakin Skywalker started out as a good kid, one whose ambition was to become a Jedi—one of the defenders of truth, justice, and the . . . Star Warsian way. But then Bad (in the character of Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine) got hold of him and converted him to Bad. So when we meet him in the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, Darth Vader seems to be more along the lines of “Bad wants something it shouldn’t have” (domination of the galaxy). But he is really: “Bad used to be Good and needs to be redeemed whether it wants it or not.” (Clear as mud?)


  3. Tuesday, August 18, 2009 5:50 pm

    Ok. So this is Mr. Potter bad. He’s just bad because he enjoys seeing people suffer. 😉

    And I see the antagonist in my own WIP as this kind of bad…he’s the revenge kind of baddie.

    And question…is Phantom/Erik from Phantom of the Opera considered a baddie? I mean, yeah, people like him, but he can be pretty nasty. Is he more of a sympathetic one or is he considered a baddie at all? Or does it just depend on an individual’s POV?


  4. Thursday, August 20, 2009 1:21 pm

    Allie, I think part of the answer with the Phantom depends on if you’re looking at Musical!Phantom or Book!Phantom. Book!Phantom allowed his past to turn him bad. He’s not a very sympathetic character, even though he does let Christine go at the end.

    Musical!Phantom has more redeeming qualities and ends up trying to do the right thing, misguided as it is. Musical!Phantom is definitely sympathetic.


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