Thursday, November 4, 2010

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

How bad are your bad guys? Are they believable?

It’s important to know as much about our antagonists as our protagonists—to flesh out their roles and use them to captivate the reader’s interest.

Before I go on, I’ll share a real life example of a bad guy.

Halloween night. My kids are dressed up and chomping at the bit to collect massive amounts of candy to keep them on a sugar high for weeks on end. We traipse from house to house as a family. It’s cold. It’s dark. They walk by skeletons sprawled on the ground. They bypass witches and ghouls trick-or-treating in the same neighborhood.

“I’m brave. Nothing scares me,” I hear again and again.

Then we approach the blue house.

A creature flings the door open. A mask with the gruesomeness of an Orc from The Lord of the Rings, greets my three girls at the door. I hustle to catch my girls charging away from the door.

“They’re scared,” I explain to the man.

“Of course.” The man slides the mask off his face and transforms his monster noises into a gentle speech. “It’s just me. I’m a man. See.” His grandpa form emerges and the kids take small steps back up to his door. His wife laughs at his side. They drop candy into my children’s hands.

Then for some freakish reason the big bully decides to slip the mask back over his head while my kids are but a step from his door. They run squealing.

This masked man was a perfect bad guy. He gave a trick and a treat. He dished out a head trick.

“I’m a monster.”

“I’m a man. I’m normal. I’m nice.”

“But really, I’m a monster.”

This is what we need to do with our bad guys. Humanize them. Help the reader to see there’s a man beneath the mask. And we’ll leave them screaming, scratching their heads. Leave them wanting to know more!

In On Writing, Stephen King offers advice while referring to Annie from Misery:

“If I can make you understand her madness—then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or even identify with. The result? She’s more frightening than ever, because she’s close to real. If, on the other hand, I turn her into a cackling old crone, she’s just another pop-up bogeylady. In that case I lose bigtime, and so does the reader.”

And take James Scott Bell’s words from The Art of War for Writers:

“We are drawn to powerful negative Leads, especially if they have a little charm. We have a part inside us that wonders what it would be like to have such power.”

Donald Maass touches upon this in The Fire in Fiction:

“Cardboard villains don’t scare us. Stereotypical antagonists lack teeth. By contrast, an antagonist who is human, understandable, justified, and even right will stir in your readers the maximum unease.”

Maass expounds on this more in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook:

“We are not accustomed to thinking of villains as being on an inner journey, but what human being is not? Humanize your villain. Motivate his actions with kindness. Let her be heroic, helpful, and principled.”

How intentional are you when you create your bad guys? Do you remember to humanize them?
*photos from flickr


Ralene said...

In my last novel, I had a villain who was scary because, though his methods were criminal and his logic majorly off target, his motivation was from a good place. He thought he was doing the right thing for his family and his country.

My latest WIP, the villain is a demon--so there's not much humanizing to him. However, I tried to make him relateable by showing that his actions are motivated by the desire to earn back the respect of his fellow demons. He's still evil, but the respect thing keeps him from being a cardboard baddie.

Great post!

Julia M. Reffner said...

I love your Halloween example! It helped me to journal from my "bad guy's" perspective. I love the quote from Stephen King.

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Wendy. Love the quotes.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

That was a great example, Wendy. Usually I don't have a bad guy. More often my characters are battling against self and the past. But in my current WIP, there IS a bad guy in the side plot and I'm going to have to take another look at how he's coming across. He's already made my heroine trust him just a bit, so maybe that's good :)

Great post, Wendy!

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Great post, Wendy! And thanks for reminding me about that part in ON WRITING! I just might be printing that out and throwing it in my character notebook! =)

Wendy Paine Miller said...


Oh wow, a demon. I could see how that one might be tricky. Interesting how you invite the idea of respect in. Yes, that would kill the cardboard aspect.


I'm still kind of wondering what was going through that guy's head. Was he just so super excited about scaring little kids? People can be so fascinating.

Angie, I love my writing books. I pull all kinds of things from them. And they are covered with underlines and stars, etc.


I love having an inside look at your work. ;)
The past can play just as many tricks, no? At least I know from experience mine can. I all of sudden think I'm over something and wallop--there it is again.


Such a great book, On Writing. Full of such wisdom told in such a strong voice.

~ Wendy

Kav said...

Humanizing the villian is hard to do. I just finished reading Don't Look Back by Lynette Eason a week or so ago and I think she did a really good job of fleshing out her villian. You don't exactly feel sympathy for him (at least I didn't) but you understand where he's coming from.

And grrrr to your Halloween bully. One wonders what he was thinking -- however at least he gave you a lovely intro to your excellent blog post!

Wendy Paine Miller said...


My mom and I have hour long discussions about people and why they do what they do.

Yes, a big grrr to the bully. But you're right, he did make a fitting example.
~ Wendy

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great post Wendy.
Food for thought.
I recently read a YA horror (not my usual cup of tea, but was asked to review it). One of the bad guys was painted so real that he was allowed into a situation where he could kill one of the protagonists. It was on the edge of your seat reading for a while....and that is what we want to do.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oooo, good post. It's so true that the scariest villains are those who we come to know and sympathize with. I think of Sylar in the TV show Heroes. Creepy guy, but grew up without a mom...had a sad life. I felt sorry for him, even though it didn't excuse his madness.

Pepper said...

Great post, Wendy.
You know, I didn't 'get' this until my third rewrite of one of my novels. I just couldn't sympathize with my villianess. Then I thought - hmmm, What is her backstory? Why is she the way that she is? How can I show her 'reasons' for being so very selfish and manipulative?
When I answered those questions, it flavored each of her scenes and I finally 'discovered' her.
Oh - it was cool! I hope I can only get better at that.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

Wonderful post, Wendy! I'm not sure yet how he'll come off, but I made my King Saul wickedly, horribly evil, yet I managed to bring him to tears more often than the Bible does. We'll see how an editor likes him.