Over the past few weeks we’ve already talked quite a lot about how to create believable characters. What we haven’t looked at so much are redeeming qualities, or why you might want your villains to be likeable in the first place! The short answer is conflict. The long answer is below 😉
You’ve heard plenty of talk about the anti-hero, I’m sure! People love an anti-hero – a hero who has some negative traits like assassination or thieving besides the good ones – but they love a good anti-baddie just as much.
Your antagonist probably wants to rule the world, create chaos, and generally make life difficult for your protagonist (or something along those lines, anyway – I’m not here to tell your villains their business). But it doesn’t have to end there. Villains rarely see themselves as the bad guys, so there’s no harm in giving them some good traits, too!
We all love an antagonist we love to hate, but I love the antagonist I have conflicting feelings for even more. So he’s an assassin – he’s a cat person, too, and will stop to pet every kitten he meets! (one might argue that’s not really a positive trait, exactly… but don’t listen to those people. they’re not cat people and can’t be trusted.)
Or how about the evil queen who wants to murder a village – but only because it would save her sister’s life, and even though she’ll despise herself for it?
The redeeming quality can be something emotional like that, or it can be an action. Your baddie might be a murderer, but oh look, he volunteers in a soup kitchen once a week because really he feels guilty about all the lives he’s taken. Or what if he doesn’t want to kill all those people or seek world domination, and only does it because someone else is pulling the strings? Your villains can commit crimes without enjoying themselves or without being the mastermind behind the plans.
All those things make your readers more conflicted. It’s easy to hate the antagonist who creates chaos for chaos’ sake, but it’s harder to hate someone who’s doing all those evil things for a good reason, despite having a good side, or knowing they’ll live with the guilt for the rest of their lives!
As we’ve discussed a few weeks ago, every character has strengths and weaknesses. I won’t go into detail now because we’ve already covered this topic, but in the case of your baddie his weakness could also be his redeeming quality. You could see the assassin with the hit list of ten high-ranking government employees – or you could see the brother who’s scared for his sister’s life because she has talents said government has just outlawed. He goes on to kill some of those high-ranking people, maybe even all of them (where’s your hero in this? why isn’t he saving them??), but he only does it to protect his sister, who may not even know what her brother is up to! Maybe he didn’t tell her because he knows that she would shoulder the guilt, and by not telling her he’s trying to protect her further!
Years ago I read an article – and I could kick myself for not remembering where! – about what makes redemption impossible for any character. This doesn’t affect just your anti-baddie, either, but your heroes, too. There were three actions the article stated no character could recover from. I remember two of them *ahem*
It stated that killing dogs and molesting or otherwise hurting children are actions no character, no matter how good otherwise, can recover from.
While you might disagree, this is something you need to consider. Your character might have a good reason for killing a dog – an exception could be if the dog is dying and in pain, and the character shows mercy and ends its suffering – but you’d need to do something pretty special to let your character recover from it. A lot of people are protective of their dogs and children, and if your character harms one or both chances are he’s had it.
(If you somehow know which article I’m talking about, please let me know so I can link it)
… don’t count. If you ask me. You can disagree with me, obviously, but if something terrible happened in their past and they use it as a reason to do bad things now then that’s not a redeeming quality. So what if your antagonist was kicked out from home at a young age and was despised by his parents before that? He’s still capable of making his own decisions, and deciding to destroy someone’s world – or everyone’s world if your villain is so inclined – is a decision he’s made.
Reading to sick children at the hospital twice a month is a redeeming quality. Getting revenge for something that happened in your past is not. The former is trying to be a good person at least in some aspects of his life. The latter is committing a crime because he can.
If you think you can convince me otherwise, bring it on 😉
Not every villain needs to have a kind side. As I said above, we love baddies we love to hate, and they’re definitely easier to hate when they’re all evil with no flicker of goodness in them. Literature and cinema are full of excellent examples! Just look at Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Sometimes the bad guys are just evil, and their re-occurrence on TV and in books shows just how much we love it. But plenty of them are more complex than that, too. Next time you create your antagonist, consider creating an anti-baddie, because they need our love and hatred, too <3
Who are your favourite anti-baddies? Do you prefer your bad guys all evil with no kindness, or do you prefer them with a few redeeming qualities? Make a tea, have a biscuit, and let’s chat!
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