about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

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about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#1 Post by GratuitousMoonspeak » Mon Apr 02, 2012 11:04 am

So, is making your villain completely and unrepentantly evil the only way to do it?

As much as I like the Harry Potter series, I have to admit that Voldemort and his followers are sometimes a bit too over-the-top for my tastes (though to be fair, Voldemort was always kind of a scumbag and at least he's conniving as well as overtly evil). I would say the Tales series gets it a little better by explaining what the villains' motivations are, but even they sometimes come off as being unsympathetic (either by their means or their goals, some of which don't make much sense; though, given how Tales villains tend to turn to evil due to some emotional trauma, perhaps I shouldn't expect them to be the most rational characters in the world).

I suppose you have to show a villain doing villainous things in order to have the audience oppose them, but why is it that it's more of an issue of "good god he's eating kittens I have to stop him" instead of just a conflict of ideals? I guess A Song of Ice and Fire comes pretty close to this, but even then you have the Lannisters who hire crazy people and who are all nasty and incestuous and just generally not very nice people (except for Tyrion, but he's pretty shady out of necessity, I'd say).

I ask this because a lot of writers seem to have it in their heads that the only way to express that you are supposed to not like someone is to have them do reprehensible acts that everyone on the planet would find reprehensible. There isn't even a need for them to do this: they just like to indiscriminately kill children or eat fetuses or rape people just for giggles. I can't enjoy any of James Cameron's movies because he is so heavy-handed about this. I'm not supposed to like the abusive, selfish guy? Gee, never would have guessed. On that same note, I often can't find it in myself to like most media because of how terribly written most antagonists are. You see, in addition to being utterly loathsome, many of these villains are also rock stupid. It makes me wonder how on earth they got to be the big bad in the first place.

I'm just saying, people usually have good reasons for what they do (except for actual evil people, like serial killers or skinheads). I guess for me it's a question of realism: I know there are actually evil people out there, but they are few and far between, IMO. I just feel that you can't break up these kinds of conflicts into a simple black/white spectrum. I mean, even people with the best of intentions can do some terrible things, right?
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#2 Post by sciencewarrior » Mon Apr 02, 2012 11:58 am

Harry Potter is a straight, god versus evil story; and a coming-of-age story too, because Harry essentially has to choose if he will become like Dumbledore or Voldemort. For this story, I feel absolute evil is perfectly appropriate.

Now, I agree you don't have to have villains to have heroes. You can have heroes against nature, or against society. You can even have heroes against heroes, and if there is one genre that does it over and over again, it's mecha. Or you can tell a story without heroes, only regular people put out of balance by some external force. You can have antagonists that antagonize and are still perfectly decent chaps.

(Did I answer the question?)
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#3 Post by GratuitousMoonspeak » Mon Apr 02, 2012 12:21 pm

Derp, and that was me applying maturity to Harry Potter. Sorry, sometimes I forget that the villains were supposed to be like that because, let's face it, it's a kid's series :-T

But you're right. In good-versus-evil stories, there's very little room for varying how your heroes or villains will necessarily act. I just don't particularly like that set-up, actually.

I liked your post, but you didn't really answer my question. I was just wondering why people prefer writing these villains even in books that don't have an obvious good-versus-evil conflict. Or, why people automatically give their antagonists the worst characteristics ever, even when it's uncalled for or it's been shown that the morality of the conflict isn't black-and-white. Honestly, I'm just wondering how people feel about over-the-top villains in general. They make me laugh, but I know people who hate guys like that one military guy from Avatar even though he's far cooler and does more to move the plot along than the heroes manage to.
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#4 Post by redeyesblackpanda » Mon Apr 02, 2012 1:00 pm

It's easier. Coming up with good motivation takes time, and it's not an easy thing to handle. That, combined with the fact that a lot of us are raised in a society that paints many things black and white makes it unsurprising to see this sort of thing. That being said, you'll notice that a lot of old "classics" do have more shades, possibly because society used to be different.
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#5 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Mon Apr 02, 2012 2:09 pm

GratuitousMoonspeak wrote: I was just wondering why people prefer writing these villains even in books that don't have an obvious good-versus-evil conflict. Or, why people automatically give their antagonists the worst characteristics ever, even when it's uncalled for or it's been shown that the morality of the conflict isn't black-and-white.
redeyesblackpanda wrote:It's easier. Coming up with good motivation takes time, and it's not an easy thing to handle. That, combined with the fact that a lot of us are raised in a society that paints many things black and white makes it unsurprising to see this sort of thing.
Redeyesblackpanda is right. It is simplistic or lazy story-telling. It is also related to "Mary Sue-ing". In real life we all too often simplify or stereotype other people, boiling them done to one purpose or trait to make our world view and lives easier. We often don't take the time in real life to examine the motivations and hopes and dreams of other people, or view them as real people instead of NPCs in our life story. So when we sit down to write the first impulse is to say if someone does something bad it is because they are bad. Besides being a fallacy, that is a cheat.
GratuitousMoonspeak wrote: I know there are actually evil people out there, but they are few and far between, IMO.
I would disagree. True evil and true good are false constructs. Everything is a spectrum or a shade of gray. No one considers themselves to be evil or bad - because they understand WHY they are committing the actions they are. They have reasons - reasons they think are GOOD. And that is the secret to writing good antagonists - understanding their motivations and the fact they are doing what they do for a reason.

Every person is out for their own self-interest, and consequentially the self-interest of their group, because the latter insures the former. What helps THEIR group is considered GOOD, what hurts it is considered BAD. We say murder is wrong and "evil", yet we consider soldiers that kill for the group to be "good". Shades of gray. All relative.

Even when someone commits an act they consider to be "bad", they are often doing it for "the greater good". Even Voldemort is not as pure evil as we assume at first glance. His primary motivation is self-preservation - survival. Probably a in-grown fear born of watching his family die and struggling in an orphanage. He sees the conditions that made his once powerful wizard family poor, that caused him to suffer, as a symptom of the degradation of the wizard community abandoning old ways and weakening itself by letting in "mudbloods". His goal is both to never be hurt again, to never die, and to FIX wizard society, so that no pure blood wizard ever has to suffer as he did. Selfish? Sure. Pure evil for evil's sake? Not really.

Most actions that we view as "evil" are born of fear. Fear of death. Fear of loss. Fear of weakness. Etc. Consider the Biblical account of Herod's slaughter of the innocents. A monstrous act born of fear that a child had been born that was prophesied to rise up and destroy him and his kingdom. He feared loss of power, but maybe he also feared the effects his death or a war would have on his kingdom. Maybe he thought slaughtering a group of children NOW so armies of men would not have to die LATER to be the "greater good".

It is almost never as simple as a single motivation. Everyone makes decisions based on life experience and world view. Vaporizing hundreds of thousands of civilians would normally be considered an act of pure evil, but President Truman did just that with the atomic bombs because he had been warned by his advisers that winning the war without the bombs would kill over a million Americans. So he committed an act of pure evil for purely good reasons.

Antagonists are what they are because their goals oppose the protagonist's. Both cannot achieve their goal if the other succeeds. Neither of them have to be evil - or good. Indeed, most examples from real life are not a "bad guy" versus a "good guy".

When writing an antagonist you need to make them a real person - look at the Lanister Queen in Game of Thrones (spoiler tags in case someone hasn't seen the TV show):
She is a complex character, with reasons for everything she does. Her incest with her brother is easily understood. Their father is powerful, overbearing, and gives them goals that are nearly impossible to live up to. She marries Robert, and confesses she was extremely happy when she did so, but he speaks another woman's name when they make love, he hits her, and he fornicates with whores openly around her. Their first child dies and he offers no support. The queen and her brother are each others only support network. They take comfort in each other in bed, and since birth control isn't exactly a sure science, she gets pregnant. Now everything she does is for her children, making sure they survive and want for nothing. She is upset when she sees how cruel her son is, but realizes he learned it from her. If people find out he is the result of incest, he loses the throne and likely his life, so trying to kill the Stark boy by pushing him out a window is an act of "greater good" to save the life of her own child. Etc.
The keyword here is nuance. Antagonists need to be three dimensional and have a "good" reason (literally - each action they take should be in pursuit of what they believe is RIGHT) for everything they do.

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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#6 Post by GratuitousMoonspeak » Mon Apr 02, 2012 2:52 pm

Thank you for the replies!

@ redeyesblackpanda: That's true. I guess I just didn't realize that other people are lazy about it because I'm actually kind of a perfectionist when it comes to my own writing :-/ So there I go, assuming that other people are just as insanely anal as I can be.

@ LateWhiteRabbit: You make very good points. Labeling people 'evil' or 'good' does depend on the perspective of the person doing the labeling, but in the context of storytelling there are just some traits that scream "this guy deserves to be punished for his wanton and cruel crimes," such as the aforementioned baby-eating just for the hell of it. Which, for the record, are traits that I think need to go away and never return, since I think it's immature and manipulative. (Not that manipulating your audience isn't a useful tool, and it can be done well.)

And I haven't had the chance to read A Feast for Crows just yet, but I've heard that Cersei
is still a complete bitch, despite her motivations being primarily fueled by the love for her children, which is seen as a good thing by most people.
And hell, even she has her good points. You can't really fault her for wanting to look out for her children, can you? Even if she goes about it in the worst ways possible.

Though, in the books...
Her romance with her brother is more about them being 'two halves of a whole' instead of anything related to their father. So, it's far more depraved in the source material, though I realize that not everyone is going to feel that way. Not only that, but she does have other lovers in the course of the series (including some women), so it's not as though she doesn't have other outlets. So I'm going to disagree with you on the spoiler'd point and say that it's still a gross trait given to Cersei and Jaime to make the Lannisters look even worse.
And okay, yes, the Lannisters are all pretty power-hungry, but Cersei's little tantrum where she has
all of Robert's bastards murdered
--while justifiable, given her status as queen and her pride, which plays into the whole ordeal--comes across as being inexcusable even in-universe. Then again, perhaps it's just Martin manipulating you into feeling that way, since it's told from Eddard's POV, if I remember right, and of course he'd find it reprehensible.
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#7 Post by jjbproductions » Mon Apr 02, 2012 3:02 pm

I agree with Latewhiterabbits post. Antagonists and even villains should have positive qualities.
A few things I would like to stress are:
A: Villains and Antagonists are different. Villains are antagonists (or they could even be the main character) however antagonists are not always villains. An antagonist is someone/something who wants the opposite of the main character. The antagonist can be society, nature, or another human. A villain is someone who causes evil.
B: Give Reason. Antagonists never have to be bad, they might only oppose the main character. When they are "evil" (which makes them a villain) give them reason, like childhood trauma, or for the protection of their child. Maybe the villain doesn't want to be against the hero, he just has to be.
C: For every three negative qualities, give one positive quality. This is an easy thing to do to prevent the antagonist/villain from being pure evil. You should also do this for "good" characters, giving them a negative quality for every three positive qualities.
D: Your story doesn't have to have good or bad characters. Everyone could be neutral, meaning that there good and bad qualities are close to each other in size. This is what most visual novels do anyway.

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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#8 Post by GratuitousMoonspeak » Mon Apr 02, 2012 3:32 pm

I don't know how everyone feels about Limyaael, but she has an interesting rant on the subject, found here.

And as jjbproductions said, I do think it's important to differentiate between villains and antagonists. Villains do things just because they can, and for obviously evil reasons. Antagonists don't necessarily have to be villains (just look at season one of Code Geass, or even A Song of Ice and Fire, where everyone is pretty much everyone else's antagonist at some point), and they do what they do for (usually) good reasons.
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#9 Post by Dakishimete » Mon Apr 02, 2012 4:00 pm

I simply don't create villains. There are people that for a reason have to fight on opposite sides, but both have some nice characters and violent/greedy/everything that is bad guys.
And personally, I'm in team Lannister and I don't consider them evil. They're all perfect example of well created antagonists. Jamie is a simple man who kills, because that is what he does the best and the kingslayer story is rather touching than outraging. Tyrion is a good person, but he is loyal to his familly. Joffrey is simply stiupid, his siblings are innocent. Tywin rough, but he does what he does because of the false informations he has. Cercei is quite an evil one, though. You don't look at them thinking they sacrifice a goat in the woods every weekend.
Giving antagonist any logical reason other than "because I'm bad and I want to rule the world and kill everything that is pretty and cute" wouuld do. Even if the character is a disgusting person, something in his life had to change him this way, he may even cause more sympathy than hatred.

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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#10 Post by GratuitousMoonspeak » Mon Apr 02, 2012 4:51 pm

Dakishimete wrote:I simply don't create villains. There are people that for a reason have to fight on opposite sides, but both have some nice characters and violent/greedy/everything that is bad guys.
And personally, I'm in team Lannister and I don't consider them evil. They're all perfect example of well created antagonists. Jamie is a simple man who kills, because that is what he does the best and the kingslayer story is rather touching than outraging. Tyrion is a good person, but he is loyal to his familly. Joffrey is simply stiupid, his siblings are innocent. Tywin rough, but he does what he does because of the false informations he has. Cercei is quite an evil one, though. You don't look at them thinking they sacrifice a goat in the woods every weekend.
Giving antagonist any logical reason other than "because I'm bad and I want to rule the world and kill everything that is pretty and cute" wouuld do. Even if the character is a disgusting person, something in his life had to change him this way, he may even cause more sympathy than hatred.
I don't know, the Lannisters just rub me the wrong way, especially Tywin, Joffrey and Cersei. And given how they're the most prominent of the bunch, well... I do like Tyrion and Jaime and the younger Lannister kids, but that's about it. But you're right, the whole family is pretty well-written and believable.

About villains: As a rule I usually don't create "villains", because I think it's harder to do so, for whatever reason. Maybe it's just me telling myself that nobody could be that outright nefarious and that nobody is actually trying to destroy the world for no reason whatsoever. It's still a problem, however, because about 75% of the books I've read in the last year feature the "good versus evil" dynamic. Granted, those books were young adult fiction, but I expect those to be at least a little more mature than stuff meant for little kids.

There I go, having unreasonable expectations again :roll:

On the other hand, some people have fun with over-the-top portrayals of villains, like the Disgaea series.
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#11 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Mon Apr 02, 2012 5:40 pm

GratuitousMoonspeak wrote: About villains: As a rule I usually don't create "villains", because I think it's harder to do so, for whatever reason. Maybe it's just me telling myself that nobody could be that outright nefarious and that nobody is actually trying to destroy the world for no reason whatsoever.
I'm the same way. I never create villains. I want readers to always be able to sympathize with my antagonists, even if they can't agree with their actions. Because, yeah, no one in real life can be nefarious enough to actually try to destroy the world.

Even Hitler had redeeming qualities - he was an artist, a fan of Disney animation, he didn't believe in animal cruelty (ironic!), he organized reading groups for children and read to them, and he organized relief efforts with food and Christmas trees for orphans and poor families - all delivered by Nazi troops. So he obviously had some good in him - but it is pretty hard to balance that against murdering millions of innocent people and plunging the world into global war. Of course he had reasons he thought were "good" for that too. Moral hypocrisy is common, and I try to incorporate that into my antagonists in logical ways.

Ultimately I think a protagonist is only as good as his antagonist, and the more developed, real, and sympathetic the antagonist, the more exciting and intriguing the struggle between the two will be. Of course, I'm a fan of "tragedy" so I like creating a situation where the reader isn't 100% sure who they support winning. Or even if they can side with my protagonist easily, I want them to mourn or feel a twinge of pain when the antagonist is defeated.

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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#12 Post by LVUER » Mon Apr 02, 2012 6:50 pm

Everyone else here already said what I want to say. Antagonist is not always evil. Just like Protagonist is not always good/kind (AKA anti-hero). Some antagonist (or even evil villain) is even given enough background to make us sympathize with him.

Lots of anime pits protagonist and antagonist that have same goal (namely world peace) but only different on how they achieve it. The antagonist isn't exactly an evil person who kill everyone who stands in his way either, though most of them are people who never hesitates in violence/war. Actually, in this kind anime, sometimes (and at early plot, where the protagonist is still a wimpy boy), it's the protagonist that's a wishy-washy naive little boy who don't understand the world while the antagonist is a mature adult person who knows what the world needs (and what he want) and how to achieve it.

Rant:
I watched this one rather interesting anime (though start rather boring and cliche) where it's just like anime I described above. As the story goes on, it begins to be more interesting. The antagonist begins to show his good side and his "noble" goal and make me sympathize for his cause.
Heck, even one of the protagonist party member goes over to that side (joining the antagonist party).
Unfortunately, I don't know why but suddenly the antagonist evolves into your-everyday-evil-king-who-bent-on-kill-everyone-that-moves (and all of this suddenly happened in several last episodes too). Of course this makes everything easier. The protagonist only need to kill him to ensure world peace. No further moral discussion needed. So this anime is bad at the beginning, mildly interesting in the middle, bad in the end (again).
I forget the anime title, but it's from the same person who make Full Metal Alchemist, and I think it have something to do with stars/Chinese zodiac.
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#13 Post by Sapphi » Mon Apr 02, 2012 10:37 pm

“In a good play, everyone is right.” - Friedrich Hebbel

There isn't much to say that everyone else hasn't said already about writing antagonists.
I think one of the reasons that flatly written, "evil for the sake of evil" antagonists are done so often is that in daily life, when we have a fight with someone or something bad happens, we want to find someone to place the blame on. We are the protagonists of our lives, and if we're going to have antagonists, we like to have antagonists who do bad things for the sheer joy of tormenting us. This is so that we never have to look at our own flaws; we can just say, "It's not my fault at all! That guy is just EVIL!" and be totally justified in our stance. This is why we have war propaganda: we need to convince ourselves of the "ultimate evil" we are fighting so that we don't start feeling sorry for the people we are fighting.

Of course, if we are honest, we know that we are not always right, that sometimes the person we thought was heinously evil was just having a bad day, that maybe the other country DOES have a point, and so on. Personally, I think it is better to portray antagonists as people instead of "ULTIMATE EVIL". Some people disagree with me, but I maintain my stance that entertainment affects our perception of reality, and I would rather read and write stories which encourage empathy rather than hatred.
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Yes, they can, and they aren't limited to being only antagonists, either. :wink:
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#14 Post by Glasskitten » Mon Apr 02, 2012 11:45 pm

The Glasskitten definitely agrees with making as many characters as possible as human as possible.
However, it also reasons:
-One-dimensional characters could be a (rather excessive?) defense mechanism against Draco in Leather Pants syndrome. 'Twould be embarrassing to go to a lot of trouble creating a complex yet understandable character who has gone irreversibly down the wrong path in life and needs to finally pay for it--only to see fans ship a cleaned-up shadow of him/her with the local Mary Sue/Gary Stu.
-It really is challenging for one person to understand the motives and inner goodness of all 7 billion people in real life. Why did he punch me in the face and take my lunch money when I was minding my own business? Why did she sleep with all my friends and abandon me? Why did he take over a bunch of villages with an army of freshly orphaned chibis? Why did her boyfriend kill her when she got pregnant with his child?
^--Or is that just a personal thing? Maybe everyone but the Glasskitten understands other people. ^_^;
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Re: about villains/antagonists/whathaveyou

#15 Post by asciibard » Wed Apr 04, 2012 3:44 pm

You've caught the notorious cat food thief and are about to call the cops -- but what's this? He says he befriended a starving kitten and this is the only way he can feed him! If you throw him in jail the cat will starve, and then who would be the REAL villain?

1 - Throw him in jail, kitty dies but you can afford that BMW.
2 - Let him go, kitty goes on to win the cat show and the thief gets rich, you go broke and lose your pet store and have to steal food to survive! IRONY!

Thus concludes the shortest interactive novel ever; point being your antagonists should be human, believable, and pitiable so that you can force your poor reader to agonize over the decision when it's finally time to put them in their place.

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