Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Realistic Antagonists--A Lesson from Current Events

In cartoons and children's books, antagonists (aka, "the bad guys") are often cardboard caricatures of evil-doers. Thus, when Dudley Do-Right's arch enemy, Snidely Whiplash, ties Nell to a railroad track, he doesn't need complex motivation. He's the bad guy. So, he does bad stuff. Kids accept that at face value and continue watching.

Popeye's nemesis, Bluto, was also pretty simple. In his case, he wanted to win Olive Oyl for his own, so he possessed a bit more reason to oppose hero Popeye. But Bluto's obvious role was still to be the villain who provided conflict until Popeye defeated him with the aid of spinach.

Nowadays, you can still find cardboard stereotypes in stories for kids. However, authors for young adults and adults need to be a bit more sophisticated in crafting their antagonists. Real people have real lives, real motivations, actual histories that affect them and their actions. This is why writing coaches suggest that no realistic hero should be pristine and flawless, and that no believable antagonistic should embody pure evil. In fact, a really good antagonist can (probably should) believe that he is not bad and actually acting wisely. In fact, an antagonist can see himself as the smart hero of a story.

Current events provide authors with a living example of this truth. When  Vladimir Putin sent military forces into the neighboring country of Ukraine, the West saw that as a clear violation of another nation's boundaries, a cheap land grab at a time when the political situation next door was confused and uncertain. The temptation in the West might be to paint Mr. P as the ruthless villain who knows he is evil, enjoys being evil, but tries to cover up that nature by posing as a normal politician. However, if you were penning current affairs as a political suspense novel, you would want to create more depth in the man. For instance, picture this scenario: you are the leader of the world's largest country. Your capital is full of bustling life. New businesses are starting there. New buildings are going up. Yet, countless citizens eke out a simple existence. Alcoholism is rampant. Many citizens' homes across the countryside still have outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.
You feel your nation should be admired, respected. Instead, journalists and tourists mock you and your accomplishments. And not just foreigners--your own citizens line up to immigrate to other countries where a better life can be had. So, you look for ways to instill national pride. Your neighboring country (which you shrewdly helped to keep under your thumb by grooming its president) suddenly slips out of your control due to public uprisings. This is no time for ethics. It's a time for action. So you seize the day and take control of a strategic portion of its territory before anyone realizes what you're up to. Even more clever, you pull the whole maneuver under the cover story of protecting locals there from some vague dangers. Instantly--as usually happens when any nation accomplishes a successful military mission--you're a hero among your citizenry. "Praise the president!" people say. "We live in a great country!" others echo. Your citizens love you. Your star rises. True, other nations pout and cry, "Foul!" But so what? They're just angry and jealous that you outfoxed them.

See the difference? Even Adolf Hitler--one of the most despised characters of the twentieth century--did not see himself as a Snidely Whiplash, going about to do evil for the sheer glee of evil. Hitler had friends. He had a girlfriend in the person of Eva Braun. His citizens adored him. They saluted him in droves. After the embarrassing defeats of World War I, wasn't he the man who was finally bringing the glory back to Germany? True, minority groups would get swept aside, and other nations did not like the process, but a powerful new Germany was rising from the ashes....

Point of view is a powerful tool. When an author can enter the head of his "bad guy" and see how even a criminal can imagine himself to be the good guy, that author is ready to paint his characters with extra depth.

1 comment:

  1. nicely said, but one must be careful not to venture to far over into the dark side of the force