I’m sure that if you think about it for a minute, and not even very hard, you could probably come up with an example of a ‘bad guy’ character that was just that–a bad guy. They didn’t really have any kind of personality beyond being the evil character; a simple pawn to foil all of the hero or heroine’s plans.
And I’m willing to bet that even as you suspended a little bit more of your disbelief, you thought, ‘Man, this guy is all wrong.’
That’s because even though they aren’t the people you came to see, or at least not the people you came to see win, you DO spend a lot of time with your bad guy characters, especially if they are antagonists worth their salt. And sure, their point is usually to give the protagonist a motivation, a reason to do the things they do. And that’s great! But readers want to see HUMAN BEINGS, or ALIEN BEINGS, or.. well… BEINGS on those pages, not two-dimensional cutouts!
Bad Guys can be anything from secondary characters to main characters, and depending on how you play them, they can take your story from good to GREAT, because trust me–sometimes, nothing makes a plot epic like a well-used evil nemesis.
(The above movie, Wreck-It-Ralph, and earlier movie Megamind, took this idea and sort of turned it on its head, to REALLY great effect!)
I’ve been thinking about this because I realized I didn’t know as much as I should about the evil villain in my Life of Gaia series. Yes, I know that’s not a great thing to admit, but hey! I’ve been doing edits, and one of the things I want to change is my knowledge of my antagonist. Sure he’s doing bad things–destroying the world of Lysaran with dastardly deeds for one–but I didn’t know why he was doing it, exactly. In my mind he was just an event-causer to throw Gaia into the fray. Which, I mean, is totally a bad-guy thing to do.
But only if I know him as well as I know her. If I know what makes HIM tick.
So I took some steps. I began to flesh him out like I’ve gone over my other main characters. Asked myself the basic things about him, gotten to know him from the ground up.
I WANT him to be a great bad guy. At the end of the day, I want everyone, even my main characters, wondering if they’re doing the right thing. I get that by making him convincing. I saw something one time that said that, in their own minds, villains are the main characters of the story. How would my bad guy see THIS story? What does HE feel like he’s overcoming? How is he the protagonist of his OWN series of events?
And how would it feel for him if he lost? What are his personal stakes in this adventure?
Sometimes the antagonists don’t need grilled. If your MC gets attacked by thugs as a plot-device to get him or her to meet their love interest, probably knowing the life story of those muggers isn’t going to make or break your story, and would probably actually slow down the action and make your readers go, ‘Why do I care??’ (Actually, I’m sure that’s what would happen.)
But if you have a Big Bad in the background, pulling all the strings, eventually we’re going to see that villain behind the curtain. And as a reader, I want to know what’s motivating him–to see him as a person.
Not just a man-shaped blob with ‘Bad Guy’ written on him.