January 30 – February 5: “Antagonists, why do we love to hate them?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Sarah K. Stephens, Ritter Ames, Steven Konkoly, Rachel Amphlett, Linda Lee Kane, Patricia Smiley, Jane Jordan, A.J. Kerns and Mary Lawrence as they discuss antagonists: why do we love to hate them?

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Rachel Amphlett is the bestselling author of the Dan Taylor espionage novels and the new Detective Kay Hunter series, as well as a number of standalone crime thrillers. Originally from the UK and currently based in Brisbane, Australia, Rachel’s novels appeal to a worldwide audience. An advocate for knowledge within the publishing industry, Rachel is always happy to share her experiences to a wider audience through her blogging and speaking engagements. SCARED TO DEATH is the first in a new series featuring Detective Kay Hunter, with the second in the series scheduled for publication in 2017.

 

Linda Lee Kane, MA in Education, PPS, School Psychologist, and Learning Disability Specialist, is the author of The Black Madonna, Witch Number is Which, Icelandia, Katterina Ballerina, Cowboy Jack and Buddy Save Santa, and Chilled to the Bones, 2017 release date, Clyde: Lost and Now Found, and Bottoms Up, A Daisy Murphy Mysteries. She lives with her husband and three dogs and six horses in California.

 

Patricia Smiley is the best-selling author of four mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Pacific Homicide is the first of a new series about LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and debuted on November 8, 2016. Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the US and Canada. She served as Vice President for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

 

Sarah K. Stephens is a developmental psychologist who teaches a variety of human development courses as a senior lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her writing has appeared in LitHub, Critical Mass, Five on the Fifth, eFiction, (parenthetical), The Indianola Review, and the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, was released in December 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing. Follow her on twitter @skstephenswrite or Facebook @sarahkstephensauthor and read more of her writing on SarahKStephens.com

 

Jane Jordan grew up in England, and after some time spent in Germany in the 1990’s she immigrated to Detroit, USA, eventually settling in South West Florida. She returned to England after a fifteen-year absence, and spent six years in the South West of England living on Exmoor. Inspired by the atmosphere, and the ancient history of the place, she began writing. Jane Returned to Florida in 2013, and now lives in Sarasota.

 

Ritter Ames is the USA Today Bestselling author of the Organized Mysteries and the Bodies of Art Mysteries. She lives atop a very green hill with her husband and Labrador retriever, and spends each day globetrotting the art world from her laptop with Pandora blasting into her earbuds. Often with the dog snoring at her feet. She’s been known to plan trips after researching new books, and keeps a list of “can’t miss” foods to taste along the way.

 

Steven Konkoly is the USA Today bestselling author of over twenty novels and novellas. His canon of THRILLERS includes: the FRACTURED STATE trilogy, a “24-style,” near future conspiracy series set in the southwest United States; the BLACK FLAGGED books, a gritty, no-holds barred covert operations and espionage saga; and THE PERSEID COLLAPSE series, a tense, thriller epic, chronicling the aftermath of an inconceivable attack on the United States.

 

Mary Lawrence lives in Maine and worked in the medical field for over twenty-five years before publishing her debut mystery, The Alchemist’s Daughter (Kensington, 2015). The book was named by Suspense Magazine as a “Best Book of 2015” in the historical mystery category. Her articles have appeared in several publications most notably Portland Monthly Magazine and the national news blog, The Daily Beast. Book 2 of the Bianca Goddard Mysteries, Death of an Alchemist, released in February 2016.

 

yemenArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Diversion Books, Inc. NY, NY published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract, and the sequel, The African Contract. The third in the series, The Yemen Contract, was released in June 2016.

 

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19 Comments
  1. Ah, the temptation of sin, the fascination with evil. Writers are constantly told that creating an interesting protagonist who is the “good guy” is more of a challenge than creating a villain. The character who follows the rules, sets a good example, and is concerned with their fellow human’s welfare can be boring, perhaps because they are exemplify all that we want (are expected) to be. That is why we’re told to give our protagonists a few flaws, to make them more interesting or believable to the reader.
    The good villain, however, shows all the characteristics that we have been taught to avoid and keep at a distance. Writers are not constrained by societies caveats when creating this person who can display all those taboos in an orderly culture. They can carry on those actions that we couldn’t do or wouldn’t tolerate in others. We can just have a field day letting the perverse side of our imaginations go wild.

  2. In children’s’ media, villains have become more interesting. There’s only so much a writer can do with a beautiful princess or a handsome prince, I mean there perfect, right? In contrast, villains have become bigger than life. They have far ranging moods and actions that are available to them. I also think the ‘bad guys’ are wittier, ironic, and all knowing, Maleficent, Liminey Snicket, Despicable Me I and II, come to mind. Usually they’ve become the villain from unfortunate circumstances beyond their control and you end up having empathy for them.
    For adults, a number one show on television today is Black List, and who doesn’t love to hate James Spader’s character?

  3. In my field of developmental psychology, we often reference the phenomenon of ‘social comparison.’ As an incredibly social species, humans are constantly assessing their position in the social group and this assessment often includes examining our strengths, abilities, and ‘goodness’ in comparison to those around us. I think antagonists are so captivating because they allow us a very flattering social comparison. We are typically more honorable, compassionate, and sometimes even more physically attractive than the antiheroes found in fiction. Perhaps even more compelling, we are able to explore our more base interests and compulsions (that would typically lead us to be expelled from the social group) through the viewpoint of antagonists, all the while luxuriating in the fact that they are worse than us. Sounds like the perfect reading pleasure to me!

  4. Antagonists are often portrayed as dangerous characters, they can be manipulative, deceitful, powerful and act without a second thought to morality.

    A reader can find this compelling, as an antagonist can be darkly charismatic, when they dare to do things that regular people never would. Human nature strives to understand what makes an evil character tick, we look for redemption in characters, we want them to see the error of their ways and pay the price for their crimes. Ultimately it gives us some satisfaction to know that they might be reformed, if they deserve it.

    When a protagonist kills a person, the reader often feels it is wholly justified, they have already invested time and emotion in this character and are drawn to be on his/her side. With an antagonist, it is different, often they act out of a self-serving purpose, and without guilt or shame. Readers then struggle with the moral dilemma, often having misplaced sympathizes or perhaps it is merely a reflection of a darker aspect of ourselves.

    In my novel Blood & Ashes, I wrote about a dark and dangerous vampire named Kitan. He was pure evil, he had no compassion, but as the story unfolded, the reader was drawn to him and his twisted love for the protagonist, and then, more so by the unjust things that had occurred in his mortal life. He was an antagonist to be mesmerized by, one of the darkest characters I have ever created and still one of the best.

    One of my favorite books was The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde’. I was captivated by the morality of the idea. Dorian Gray sells his soul in order to stay forever young and unblemished, instead, his commissioned portrait becomes more aged and grotesque. It reflects Dorian’s sins, of which there are many, including murder, all the while Dorian retains his beauty of youth.

    This book encapsulates the idea of being drawn to such a dark character, as a reader I wanted him to peace despite the terrible things he had done. His suffering, along with the plight of many other dark and dangerous antagonists, perhaps wakes up an unconscious aspect of a reader’s psyche, it make us take a critical look at ourselves, and makes us aware of the less desirables aspects of our individual personalities.

  5. Hey everyone, hope you don’t mind me joining the conversation. I love these round tables. I write very strong female antagonists. Woman these days like to be bad at times and we do it in our fiction, rather than real lives. I know there’s a saying that authors can take out revenge on others in their novels, and I bet a lot of us do. In writing my antagonists, I make sure they have their own ‘why.’ It has to be a ‘why’ that people will understand. The antagonist needs a redeeming characteristic to keep the reader engaged. An antagonist who is evil to the core without any positive aspects will throw the reader out of the story. It almost makes the book not worth reading bc it’s one sided conflict. The protagonist also has to see the good points of the antagonist to make them wonder why they are doing what they do, and to also set up some doubt as to whether or not the antagonist is indeed capable of these acts. It’s all to add to the multidimensionality of the characters. More depth equals more reader involvement, in my opinion.

    We also love to hate the antagonists bc they do what people in ordinary life may be thinking of doing, but wouldn’t dare. The antagonists aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind, or take revenge on people who had hurt them. My killers are women who are eliminating those who have abused them in their lifetime and early childhood. The antagonists bring out the themes in the novels, too.

    1. Hi Ronnie,

      thanks for joining in. I agree, antagonists cannot just be evil or bad for the sake of it, they have to have other dimensions to their personality to, as you say, keep the reader engaged.

      Jane

      1. I consciously make the effort to find what my readers would like about the character. Most often my readers have experienced some trauma my character did, but the reader didn’t resort to the same kind of revenge.

  6. In crime fiction, I become fascinated with the antagonist if I’m given a compelling reason why he or she is carrying out that crime. I don’t mean a justification for it, far from that, but a motivation. What drives him to do what he is doing? Why is he doing it now? How did his behaviour start? I love it when a reader writes to me to tell me that they felt very uncomfortable reading one of my books because they started to develop an empathy for an antagonist!

  7. Villains dare to break the accepted norms of behavior. They shock, they revel in doing what others perceive as ‘evil’. They stand in God’s face and stick their tongues out at him. Perhaps it is their boldness, their disregard for self control that fascinates us. Don’t we all wish to rile against something in society? They choose to rile against morality or society’s perception of it.

    If I may twist Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote (my apologies), “The mystic duel of good vs evil that lives in everyone is continuously challenged by the devils of our nature.”

  8. The reader’s and writer’s relationship with the antagonist needs to be the most complex. Literally a “love-hate” relationship. I strive to find that balance as a writer, where the reader finds aspects of the antagonist’s personality or behavior attractive (even if it’s a morbid fascination), while the antagonist’s motivations and methods remain firmly rooted in the realm of “the despicable.”

    This may be the most important feature of the traditional antagonist-protagonist arrangement. If he or she become too relatable, then you have a “gray-area” character, which doesn’t immediately strike a conventional chord with readers, or may possibly blur the line between antagonist and protagonist. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all, since it challenges the reader’s expectations and definitions of an antagonist. I love to write in this “gray area,” where the development of an antagonist is complicated relative to the protagonist—not as clear cut from the start. I often make it even harder on readers, giving many of my protagonists “anti-hero” qualities.

    Without a doubt, I have a love-hate relationship with my antagonists.

  9. I mostly write about good people who’ve come to a fork in the road and taken the wrong path. It’s important that I give even the most evil villains some sort of humanity or else they become cardboard bogymen. Even a serial killer may love his disabled mother.

  10. The most rewarding relationship between reader and antagonist can literally be a “love-hate” relationship. I strive to find that balance as a writer, where the reader finds aspects of the antagonist’s personality or behavior attractive (even if it’s a morbid fascination), while the antagonist’s motivations and methods remain firmly rooted in the realm of “the despicable.”

    This may be the most important feature of the traditional antagonist-protagonist arrangement. If he or she become too relatable, then you have a “gray-area” character, which doesn’t immediately strike a conventional chord with readers, or may possibly blur the line between antagonist and protagonist. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all, since it challenges the reader’s expectations and definitions of an antagonist. I love to write in this “gray area,” where the development of an antagonist is complicated relative to the protagonist—not as clear cut from the start. I often make it even harder (or possibly easier) on readers, giving many of my protagonists “anti-hero” qualities.

    1. I like writing that love-hate relationship, too. I like the heroine to question if the killer is really the killer, especially when supporting characters on good terms with the antagonist vouch that he/she couldn’t possibly do what they’re suspected of doing. Self-doubt is an interesting process to watch the heroine go through.

  11. For me, understanding what motivates the antagonist is a huge driving force behind my writing. This can make the reader empathise with the character, which can be confronting when the antagonist is a murderer, for example.

    When I’m first mulling over an idea for an antagonist, my first questions are always Why is he/she doing that? Why now? What drove them to this point? How did this happen?

    1. Rachel, that’s a perfect series of questions to answer, particularly for antagonists. I write espionage/covert operations thrillers, which often involve layers of antagonist-like characters, some with very simple motives (mercenary hired for a job), most with complicated motives (revenge, state sponsored directives). One of my most “enjoyable to write villains” and a “beloved” character (scary to think readers like him!) is a bioweapons scientist driven by revenge against his home country, but mentally ill from a lifetime of heavy metal exposure. He simultaneously embarks on what he feels is a justifiable mission to punish his government, but can’t fully wrap his deranged mind around the unspeakable fallout his plot will drop on thousands of innocent people.

  12. I always ask the same question Rachel, there has to be a plausible reason for an antagonist to do what he/she does, not just for shock factor, but to create a degree of empathy, I believe its the key to good character development and ultimately a good story.

    1. So true Jane–I feel that’s one of the biggest challenges for any writer. If we can create empathy for our characters, regardless of whether our readers like or dislike them, then we can feel confident that the characters are fully-formed and authentic. I think every reader wants a story where the characters present as genuine human beings with all of the complex facets that make individuals so complicated, regardless of whether they find that character morally upright or reprehensible. And it’s so, so, gratifying when we get it right in our work!

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