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Friday, July 27, 2012

Bad Guys Have More Fun: How to Write Realistic Antagonists, From John Cusick's NJ SCBWI Workshop

Bad guys have more fun, says literary agent John Cusick, because they bring more diverse pathways to a story; often there's only one 'right way,' but a myriad of 'wrong ways,' he says. Maybe that's why John, who prefers the titles Mr. C., Professor C, and 'the Doctor,' once asked his dad for a big fur coat so he could dress as Batman's villain Penguin for Halloween.

"There are many ways to be wrong," he says.

The word villain comes from the French word villein, for 'farm hands,' from back when the elite ruling class identified all unseemly behavior--stealing, rape, murder, etc--with the lower class. Over time, of course, the word's unpleasant connotations became its definition, and the association with manual labor faded away, John explained.

Now-a-days, you could classify "villains" into bad guys and antagonists with a Venn diagram. Your 'bad guy' goes in the left circle; he's anyone in the story who does bad, or has bad behavior. The right circle holds the literary term antagonist, who opposes the protagonist or hero.

In class, John used the diagram to demonstrate that often there's overlap between 'bad guys' and antagonists, but they aren't always the same person. Dark Lords fall right in the middle. When Tom Hanks plays a cop against Leo DiCaprio's a thief protagonist in Catch Me If You Can, Tom falls only in the right circle: he's a good guy, but he's the antagonist opposing the protag. Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean generally demonstrates unsavory, bad-guy characteristics--lying, cheating, misusing women--but he's not the antagonist.

John defined the protagonist as the character who moves the plot forward--which would make Darth Vader/Anakin the surprising protagonist of Star Wars. His plots and actions change the galaxy; everyone else just tries to keep him at bay. Voldemort, Harry Potter's antagonist, is the only guy with any initiative in the Harry Potter series, says John. Harry's the focal character, but not the character moving the plot.

John introduced a few other character definitions that can help authors organize their character development. Anti-Heros--like may of Johnny Depp's dark characters--do wrong, but either work with the hero or serve as the primary movers towards good against a greater bad. Dramatic foils serve to highlight aspects of the protagonist. In Spiderman 3, Venom serves as an antagonist dramatic foil to Spiderman, because he does not choose to overcome the symbiont suit, demonstrating Spiderman's strength of character in his own victory over the suit. In Crime and Punishment, each of the prostitute, the priest, and the protag's best friend highlight a different perspective on killing, and the protag must watch and navigate their different rights and wrongs. These other characters--not all antagonists--are his dramatic foils.

While a villain may recognize himself as a villain--as does Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, who mocks an evil laugh in the gangster meeting in Batman--you want to avoid evil for evil's sake, says John. He quotes, "All truly wicked things start from innocence." In other words, every villain needs an equally strong motivation as your protagonist's motivation.

We brainstormed a list of motivations in class:
Evil for power's sake/greed--like literary agents, says John
Evil for revenge's sake--Captain Hook
Evil for envy/jealousy
Evil for pride
Evil for the sake of advancing an agenda/making the world a better place
Evil for lust's sake
Evil for love's sake
Evil for the sake of being loved

John explained that readers can relate to more powerful motivations. Not many readers have impulses for power or lust for conquering the world, but perhaps they've wanted to be loved. He warned writers not to stop at a scarring origin story as a simple explanation for a villain's evil: "The scarred childhood thing is the foundation of your bad guy house. But it's the successive decisions the character makes that make him a bad guy and get him to be more complex."

John says writers should give the villain a motivation that we agree with--"it's the execution we have a problem with." A husband's love for a wife--a good thing--in Hansel and Gretel, causes him to cross ethical boundaries. A father's love for his children--again, a good thing--might cause him to obsess over their safety until he locks them in a tower forever. In science fiction, curiosity often becomes a villain motivation, as in Jurassic Park. The villain should be sympathetic, and become a villain because they cannot modulate their passion for a good thing to an acceptable limit.

How can we arouse some sympathy?
The reality is that most human beings are sympathetic in some way, so it makes a bad guy more real when you make him more sympathetic. The more human a scary thing is, the scarier it is, says John, because it is frightening and sad. (On the other side of the fear spectrum, of course, we find terrors so dark and alien that we fear them because of the unknown)

Sometimes we arouse sympathy with something as small as a desire to be loved. All you need to do is hint at that a villain wants a hug, and that character gains like six leagues of depth, says John. Insecurity and fear work wonderfully also because we can relate to them. We can't all relate to the desire for power, but when the Silence fights Dr. Who because of fear of his powers, we begin to understand. Childishness and a sense of humor also add sympathy to a bad guy character. An author may choose to work positive details for the villain anywhere in the story. Front-loading might strengthen the villain's appeal, but later revelation of good details might bring powerful surprises.

And once you know all those, says John, you should forget them. They are tropes--clichés. He's seen them 1.2 billion times before, and asks that you don't use them, or use them consciously and twist them.

Here are clichés he hates:
1. Wearing black
2. Scars
3. Well-dressed
4. Foreign accents
5. Smoking
6. Small pets

You're in slightly safer ground with these because of the self-awareness in some bigger sci fi etc.

But do not do this, no joking:
7. cheerleaders/jocks/blondes/hot girls who are just evil/unmotivated bully
Those are just too easy, he says.

In terms of villains over a series, John explained how in the first book of a trilogy, the protagonist will defeat the first villain, but the second book will reveal the bigger, badder, ACTUAL villain BEHIND Villain 1. That gives the author an opportunity to really explore the first villain, and in book three, Villain 1 and the hero can team up because Big Boss just has to go. Star Wars does this well, with Darth Vader in A New Hope, the revelation of Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back, and Darth Vader's betrayal of Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. However, John sees series becoming less popular market-wise right now. Nevertheless, good trilogies exist, stories with endings that aren't cliff hangers, but "guitar solos to take us out into the next song."

All of these tropes, strategies, and definitions should work for the author like a pose-able doll, says John. The doll means nothing special--just mass-produced plastic--until the author takes it and tilts the head a little. Pose your tropes in unique ways. Write your own story. And use bad guys effectively.

Because, after all, they are more fun that way.

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