Crafting Morally Gray Characters
I love morally gray characters. They are unpredictable, but relatable. After all, most people have flaws and strengths.
This is particularly evident in antagonists.
I love a morally gray antagonist. They are someone who 'seems' evil, but has reasons and goals and aspirations that makes you wonder, how 'evil' they actually are.
These characters are carefully crafted, but so much fun to read and write about. They aren't cookie cutter evil. I like antagonists that have the same depth and care put into them that the main characters receive.
Personally, I find the advantage of a morally gray antagonists is that I can get into complex topics and backstories that I might NOT want to put on my main characters, at least... not at the beginning of the story. For me, I see antagonists as 'what if' characters, what if this was to happen instead of this? How would it affect someone? You could almost see it as creating a foil, but that's not quite accurate either. I'll talk a bit more on this later.
I guess, to me, characters, both 'good' and 'bad' are just people who've had problems shoved on them and react differently depending on their situations.
Truth be told, while the common idea is to put your protagonist through difficult challenges and problems, I often have my antagonists either go through similar problems... or worse.
It's always interesting to see them develop and 'grow' from these moments in the same or different way from the protagonist.
So, since I enjoy writing about them so much, I'm going to talk about 3 ways that I develop my own antagonists.
Tip 1: Don't make them evil for the sake of being evil.
I mentioned this earlier, so you knew it was coming. Still, it is a very rare writer that can take a character who is evil for the sake of evil and make them interesting for the reader or viewer. Yet, it's also one of the most commonly used archetypes in stories across multiple genres. The bully popular girl, the mad scientist, the evil doctor, these are all common stereotypes that we've seen countless times... and that's all they are. They never have any other defining traits.
Is the reader supposed to hate them just because they're evil? What is the definition of evil? Just kicking a puppy isn't going to cut it. For one, that's cliche and for two what reason did they have to kick the puppy? Just because their evil? That's not scary or intimidating, it's comical and pathetic. After all this 'evil' character went out of their way just to kick a puppy. Do you see where I'm going with this?
An antagonist like that doesn't make for very interesting reading.
They didn't just pop out of nowhere inherently evil to begin with. The only way you could maybe get away with it is if either A) they are actually the main character and you hope to develop them from 'evil incarnate' or B) they are non-sentient, such as a being from another universe or, something like Cthulhu. If that's the case, have at it, it's almost always interesting reading those types of stories as long as they are well written. After all, it is something otherworldly, so of course our mind will jump to the worst possible outcome. So, as a writer, one is given more leeway when dealing with 'eldritch horrors' then they would a normal bad guy thug.
Tip 2: Give them a backstory.
Let's go back to the idea of the 'evil' character kicking a puppy. Let's actually develop that a bit more, maybe the 'evil' character is actually afraid of dogs due to being attacked by one as a child and, instinctivally, lashes out. Yet, to hide his fear he 'laughs' it off. To an outside viewer he still looks evil, but to someone who knows about his backstory, he's a little more human. (Though they are still evil for abusing an animal, but at least now we understand why and, to be honest, a fear response to something is relatable for people more than simply doing the act to do it.)
And that's what we want to do with our antagonists, we want to make him or her human. Look at any great work of literature, you'll find that many antagonists (Not all but a good amount) are human or were once human in some way before they became the way they ended up. (A classic example would be star wars with Anikin Skywalker. He wasn't necessarily good or evil. He was just, eventually twisted, corrupted, but that wasn't his initial state of being.)
I'll be honest, I love giving my antagonists backstories, it allows me a chance to really get into their heads and make them that much more dangerous for the main character. After all, an intricate character has many more facets for the main character to get lost in and struggle with than a one note 'evil' character.
At the same time, it makes your reader more wary of the antagonists because they DON'T know the others sides of the character, so they don't know what they might do. They might act friendly, they might do something evil... or they might just leave the main character alone for their own personal gain.
Because we, the writer, know the backstory of the antagonist, we can make the interactions with the main character that much more interesting. To do this, let's look, once more, at the puppy kicking anecdote. (And believe me, I don't condone this, considering I have an adorable dog of my own, but I'm using it as a writing example.) Let's say the main character sees this antagonist kick the puppy, instantly the main character hates him, and so do we as the reader... so, later, when the protagonist sees the antagonist help someone flee from a rabid dog, we're thrown off. Why would this puppy kicker help someone?
For the writer, it's because we understand that the antagonist is 'fearful' of the dog. That doesn't make them not care, if anything, if someone is being attacked by a dog, that character might be more willing to assist the one being attacked, due to their own thoughts, emotions and, in general, trauma.
This is a very basic example, but you can still see how it adds a bit more intrigue to the character. We are thrown off. We WANT to know more... and it also makes the antagonist unpredictable as a result.
I should note, up until this point, I've always used the term 'antagonist' not villain. Often times we equate the two, but that is not actually the case and the two, while having some semblance of similarity, aren't the same thing.
An antagonists, according to the dictionary definitions is: a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.
Where as a villain is: a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.
A villain is almost always an antagonists, but an antagonist isn't always a villain. That's why I've been using the term.
Personally, villains aren't as interesting to me. Even by the dictionary definition they are more... evil for the sake of evil to move forward the plot than an actual character. That's why I have been sticking to the term antagonist and why I will continue to use it. After all, isn't the idea of an 'adversary' more interesting?
Tip 3: Keep them unpredictable
No one likes a one note character unless it's supposed to be a quick joke character for one scene and even then... but my point is that you want to keep your antagonist unpredictable (While still in keeping with who they are as a person). This is helped along by knowing his or her back story.
For me, often times my characters have a tough past and, in contrast to the main character, they succumb to their bitter feelings, their grief and anger and other deadly emotions.
A term many people use is a foil like I mentioned earlier. However, now I'll go into a bit more detail regarding that. The term foil in fiction is a contrasting character that 'supports' the main character; They help develop the other characters in the story by comparing contrasting traits to help the reader understand not only the individual personalities but also why they are important to the overall work as a whole.
Personally, however, I don't like to use the term foil, because it always feels to me like creating a character that is a complete opposite to the main character... and that is not the case.
A good antagonists will often have traits that are actually similar to the protagonists, such as a desire to help people or a passion for romance or whatever it is, it's just their methods lead them toward different paths.
For me, one character I particularly like to write about are Gray Antagonists, characters that fall right on the threshold between 'good' and 'evil'. They do things that many would consider abhorred, but they have their reasons and desires and, depending on the character and there situation, you might end up supporting them. For instance, in one of my stories I have an antagonist whose closely related with one of the main characters. I sometimes flip into his point of view so we can see his side of the story and, while he is very clearly the 'enemy' we can't help but support him and feel bad for him due to the estranged situation he's in.
Things get so bad he resorts to murder because it's his only choice, his only way out.
And we support him for it.
These things lead to compelling characters. A backstory that allows them to be human and act unpredictably, that give them more depth than a one note 'evil' bad guy.
So next time you sit down to write an antagonists, or read about an antagonist, don't let yourself say he's evil for the sake of it, think up his or her backstory and develop it. Everyone has hardships and everyone deals with them differently, remember that fact when you are writing your antagonist and let them be unpredictable. Let them help or hinder the main characters depending on what fits with their backstory. That unpredictability, that humanity, that's what makes an antagonist compelling and interesting. This can also make a more compelling story, because the reader is left tense, wondering what's going to happen next with the 'adversary'.
Because there's more to him or her than meets the eye, and we, as readers, enjoy learning about it.
So, what do you do when creating antagonists? Do you like to write characters that fall right on the line of 'good and evil' or do you write them leaning heavily toward the dangerous or even deranged side?
What about as a reader? Do you prefer the 'Anikin skywalker' type character? Or the 'Dolores Umbridge'?
There's no wrong answer, even one note antagonists can be useful in the right circumstances, you just need to be careful and use them sparingly.
So next time you're developing your antagonist, or reading about them, have fun with it and learn all you can about them. They may surprise you.
Anyway, let me know what you think about antagonists. Do you like them? Hate them? Enjoy writing about them? Love reading about them? I would love to hear what you think!
If you are curious on how I develop my antagonists, you can read my books on Amazon or B&N. Follow the links below!
Julie Boglisch is a prolific author. At the age of twenty eight she has already created and published multiple works. Her second series, The Elifer Chronicles, received a glowing Kirkus Review. She is an artist both in character art and cover design and is the creator of her own covers for her works.