Making the Bad Guy Good

I’ve been struggling with the antagonist in my new book. So has my protagonist, of course, but she seems to be winning. Up until today, I wasn’t doing so well.

It’s hard to write a villain without resorting to stereotypes. You set out to create a believable character, and before you know it, you’ve got a moustache-twirling, hard-eyed Bond villain, or a woman with all the depth and subtlety of Natasha in Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Serendipitously, Donald Maass addressed this problem in a workshop at the RWA conference. One of his suggestions was to find the character’s defining quality, and then think of its opposite and find places where she can demonstrate this quality as well.

He also recommended you define what the antagonist wants, and then define its opposite. Can she want both, sometimes? Can she be torn between the two?

And third, he advised you spend some time looking at the plot through the eyes of the antagonist–as if that person is right. After all, she doesn’t know she’s a villain. She thinks her way is the best way. By looking at events through her eyes, you understand her better and find her humanity.

I tried all these techniques, and they helped–a lot. But I still had trouble, sentence by sentence, keeping her from being what Maass calls a “woo-hoo-hoo” villain. She was just too much of a bitch.

Today, I found the simplest solution imaginable. I changed her name. Changed it from a name I thoroughly dislike to something less objectionable. Names are different for everyone, with different connotations based on experience, but I happen to really dislike the name Stacey,” while the name Julia conjures up someone gentle and kind.

So she’s Julia now. And she’s evolving into a real person, instead of a cardboard cut-out.