September 10 – 16: “Antagonists, why we love to hate them?”

This week we take a look at antagonists and try to answer the question: “Why do we love to hate them?” Join ITW Members M.R. Gott, Connie Archer, Don Helin and Kathy Reichs. You won’t want to miss it!

Connie Archer is the national bestselling author of A Spoonful of Murder, the first in a new soup lover’s mystery series from Berkley Prime Crime. The second book in the series, A Broth of Betrayal, will be released in April 2013. She lives in Los Angeles, but was born and grew up in New England, so writing about Vermont was like a trip home. She is currently working on her third book in the soup shop series, and another series set in San Francisco. She is a member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

Kathy Reichs, like her character Temperance Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist, formerly for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina and currently for the Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale for the province of Quebec. A professor in the department of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she is one of only eighty-eight forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, is past Vice President of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and serves on the National Police Services Advisory Board in Canada. Reichs’s first book, Déja Dead, catapulted her to fame when it became a New York Times bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Her most recent novel, Flash and Bones (2011), was an immediate New York Times bestseller. Dr. Reichs is a producer for the hit Fox TV series “BONES”, now in its seventh season, which is based on her work and her novels.

Don Helin served seven years in the Pentagon as well as multiple tours in the United States and overseas. His Washington D.C. insider positions have provided him ample material for his novels. His first thriller, THY KINGDOM COME was published in 2009, his second, Devil’s Den in September 2012. Don makes his home in central Pennsylvania and is hard at work on his next Zack Kelly thriller, RED DOG.

M.R. Gott, the author of WHERE THE DEAD FEAR TO TREAD and the forthcoming sequel WHERE THE DAMNED FEAR REDEMPTION, is a resident of New Hampshire, content with his wife, two cats and a dog, while his controlled imagination produces spine-chilling works, leading readers to self-knowledge. With disciplined skill, Gott binds disparate scenes of truth flashing across his  “imaginaire” into a coherent whole achieved through “outlining and mapping the series of events and character’s growth”, followed by rigorous editing.  Aside from writing, M.R. enjoys strong coffee, dark beer, red wine, and fading light.

19 Comments
  1. Choose your antagonist, choose your villain. The best heroes are wasted without a great foil. What about these characters provokes such strong reactions for the seekers of stories? Why do we love to hate these characters?

    Let’s face it, we all face struggles, we all have an adversary (or two) in our life. But we are rarely provided an opportunity to confront these people as directly as we imagine. Few of us have quipped, “Yippie Ki Yay Mother Fucker.” After shooting our personal antagonist in the face and sending them out a 40 story window. And this is probably for the best.
    When do we love to hate antagonists/villains the most? When we see something of ourselves in the protagonist/hero, and something we hate in the antagonist/villain. Shallow characters are hard to love, and the best antagonist/villains are respected and fully fleshed out by their creators. They are not waiting to be vanquished, but a threat to our beloved protagonists. To me a perfect example of this is Sir Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes antagonist was so respected by Sir Conan Doyle the reader believed that Holmes could lose, and he did.

    Antagonists when done properly also encapsulate our fears, and the issues we wish to see confronted. Confrontations we rarely are afforded an opportunity to truly have. Choose an antagonist/villain from your favorite story, and I would wager it is not only the actions they take that frighten you, but what they represent. There is so much vague cryptic uncertainty in life. This is why it is reassuring to be able to put a face to the concept or idea you fear.

    Personally and on many lists I went through while researching this article one name kept coming to the top. Darth Vadar. The character is corrupted by his noble goals. His actions are unpleasant, hacking off people’s limbs. But are made more unpleasant when put into full context, hacking off his son’s limb. Context matters. Any of us could become Darth Vadar, and that is what is most frightening about him. You are the monster under your bed. It is because of this fear we root for the antagonist’s demise, though it may be in the vanquishing of this foe, we become the villain.

    And the next time you feel a tingle of sympathy at an antagonist’s death or defeat remember this dear readers, in the story of another’s life you are the antagonist. You are Frankenstein’s monster, and the town’s folk are coming for you.

    What antagonist/villain do you love to hate? Tell me why?

  2. Antagonists — we need them desperately. They are so necessary — at best, the fly in the ointment, at worst, the agent of destruction of the planet. They may make a big mess in our orderly universe, but a really juicy antagonist provides the spice, the kick, the obstacles against which our heros and heroines must struggle.
    Where would Sherlock be without Professor Moriarty?
    Superman without Lex Luthor?
    Frodo without Sauron?
    So much of our behavior is constrained by the necessity to behave in a civilized, politically correct fashion. How often do we allow ourselves the luxury of a full blown murderous fantasy? Poisoning our insufferable aunt and watching her gasp and turn blue? Bludgeoning our obnoxious neighbor to death? Oh wait, isn’t that what we do when we write? We are writing – and reading –to escape the daily routine of life. Let’s face it, tapping on a keyboard and staring at a computer screen for hours, days and months to produce something that is hopefully readable is pretty boring to say the least. What isn’t a drudge is allowing our minds to wander through alternate universes of our own creation. Go ahead, be unabashedly evil. Your antagonist doesn’t think he’s evil, he feels perfectly justified in his actions.
    Antagonists allow us to live out our own dark sides, to disavow our nastiest proclivities. They provide a wonderful dumping ground for our unleashed ids. After all, ‘we know we would never behave like that.’ Best of all, it’s perfectly safe, there are no repercussions. The planet will still spin on its axis . . . or will it?

  3. Thriller writers love to create murderous villains. The long-haul hacker. The basement bogeyman. The heinous hitchhiker. And thriller readers love to hate them. (The villains, that is. Not the authors!) Why? Why the fascination with crime and violence? With stories about stolen children, assassinated statesmen, butchered and mutilated women?
    My view, for what it’s worth.
    For most people, the day-to-day world is a place of relative comfort and safety, a place ruled by law and morality. Novels about homicidal monsters turn that world upside down. The plot lines introduce an element of fear, vicariously experienced. Could my child set off for school and simply vanish? Could my wife leave for the supermarket and end up in a landfill? Could a random stranger take my own life? My freedom? Do such free-range killers really exist? Is it possible my path might one day intersect with such a psychopath?
    But, despite their freaks, felons, and sinister sociopaths, thrillers also reassure. In the end, the mystery is solved. The antagonist is caught. Good conquers evil. Order wins out over chaos, and, by the final page, society is once again safe.

  4. I believe the secret of writing a successful novel is holding your readers gripped in a slowly rising conflict. And to me, the secret of a slowly rising conflict is to think in terms of attacks and counterattack as if the evenly-matched protagonist and antagonist were conducting a war. Maybe that’s just my military background.
    Probably what helped me the most in writing a believable villain is to realize that the villain is the hero in his own story. Bad guys need to justify what they do so the reader can say, ‘”I see why he did that.” Readers don’t have to like the villain but he must engage them.
    When developing a villain, I try to remember the villain must:
    Challenge the hero – Be a worthy opponent for the protagonist. Provide balance in story.
    Makes sense to your reader even if the reader disagrees with what he does.
    Be understandable to your readers so they can follow his motivations and actions.
    I look forward to the discussion.

  5. What a terrific comment by M.R. Gott: “You are the monster under your bed , , , though it may be in the vanquishing of this foe, we become the villain.” How true! Even if our protagonist cuts a lot of moral or ethical corners, the reader must always be rooting for the “good” guy. That can be a fine line to walk for a writer.

  6. Connie’s comment made me go back and reread M.R. Gott’s summary again and really think about it. We all pick different villains for our stories. Some are killers, some are psycho’s, some are crooks, some are good guys driven bad by things that happen to them. Maybe a soldier with PTSD. Why do we pick the villains we do? Is it by chance or are there deeper psychological factors that weigh on us? My goodness, I’m going to have to really think about that.

  7. I would add to Don’s thoughts on villains, “…Bad guys need to justify what they do so the reader can say.”

    Perspective is very important to me in all things. It is rare a person or group truly sees themselves as the villain. So my antagonists always find their actions as justified. It is when groups with opposing ethical codes come into conflict that it becomes the most intense.
    In seeing themselves as justified the antagonist/villain becomes more imposing.

  8. Best topic in a while. I’m surprised there aren’t more posts… What a great opportunity to rub shoulders with such accomplished writers.

    I like that you all seem to agree that the bad guys don’t generally see themselves as that way. I began a very unscientific survey years ago as a young patrol officer/would-be writer where I got arrestees talking about televisions shows and movies on our way to jail or court. They almost always root for the traditional protagonist/cop/hero. An exception would be in HEAT or some other heist movie, but that’s what the director generally wants so I don’t count those.
    In a career of law enforcement I can count on one hand the men (and woman) I have met that I could describe as evil to the marrow. And, even then, their parent or sister or brother or someone loved them in spite of who they were/are–often tragically so.
    I think I mentioned this before in a post, but I know a teenager from a great family of well adjusted, successful, law abiding folk. He is the sort to set live kittens on fire and throw puppies up in the air to see how they smack the concrete. One of his neighbors told me: “I could see the bad in his eyes when he was a tiny baby…”
    A physiologist friend of mine opined: Sometimes bad behavior comes from some sort of psychosis–sometimes, people are just plain mean.

    I test my fictional antagonists and their actions by telling squad room stories to my compadres who have seen and heard all sorts of psychosis and nasty behavior. If a story or vignette intrigues these guys, I run with it.

  9. Marc makes an interesting comment. Most villains should not be all bad, they should have some redeeming features so the reader can relate to them.
    I always think of “The Godfather.” He’s a bad guy but not all bad. He does have a moral code and sticks up for the little guy.
    In the movie, I remember the Undertaker’s daughter is brutally raped. The guilty party gets off because its her word against his. In this case the bad guy beat the legal system. The undertaker goes to the godfather and tells his story. The godfather puts his arm on the man’s shoulder and says, “don’t worry my friend, I’ll take care of it.”
    He sends out a couple of his hoods who beat the hell out of the guy who raped the daughter. I thought about that and it made a sort of sense to me. In our society we can’t condone violence but in some cases . . .

  10. To Don’s comment: “. . . in some cases . . .” Yes! I’m sure everybody has fantasies about what they’d LIKE to do to certain perps or predators. At the top of my list would be anyone who would hurt a child. But if we were given that moment to pull the trigger, a la Jack Reacher, could we do it? What repercussions would we then have to live with? This is the area of Marc’s expertise (above) and my hat’s off to all law enforcement personnel for their restraint! What cops face on a day to day basis boggles my mind!

  11. I have to agree with Connie Archer about the need for restraint. My novel Where the Dead Fear to Tread is based around the repercussions of vigilante violence, and how it destroys your soul, despite the purity of your goals.

    As far as The Godfather he is evil, he avenges the undertaker’s daughter, for a price. Imagine if Batman operated like that.

    The Don’s choices destroy his son Michael damning him to a life of violence where he will ultimately kill his own brother, and make a lackluster third film.

    Mob movies are an oddity to me, when watching them they can be terrific character pieces, but at the end of the day I am rooting for the cop to take the guy out. I cannot comprehend rooting for a killer to escape simply because he has a code. If he/she was so honorable their code would include, don’t steal, don’t kill for personal gain.

    Again using The Godfather as an example, he kills for profits and as far as giving a damn about raped women, he profits off brothels. The average prostitute begins at the age of 11….nuff said.

  12. I would not for one minute suggest that the godfather is a good guy. He’s a bad guy, some would even call him evil. But that’s what we’re discussing. What makes us love villains? What is our fascination with the god father? Why do millions of people watch movies about him, read books about him, and yes, even follow a TV series about him? I would suggest that we want to know about societies we’ve heard about but (hopefully) don’t personally know. The godfather is a loving father, cares for his family, helps people in his community, works in his garden. then goes out and kills people. He makes his money running the shady side of people’s lives, things some desire but don’t want anyone else to know about. Gambling, yes even prostitution. If there wasn’t a market, the godfather would soon be out of business. He presents us a conflicted personality. But that’s, I think, what fascinates us. The godfather is not a “cardboard cutout.” He’s understandable to the reader even though most would disagree with his methods.

  13. I’m not quite sure myself about the deep appeal of the “Godfather” films. They certainly helped to romanticize the early days of the Mafia in America. In terms of cinematography, sets, wardrobe, recreating a time period, they are exquisitely done. That, of course, is what makes them wonderful to watch. However, the early life of the Godfather character, the violence and oppression into which he was born, into which he immigrated, flesh out the man who would later become the head of a criminal empire, code or no code. There were forces who shaped him. Forces that (in his mind) justify his life choices. And this goes back to earlier comments that no antagonist is two-dimensional or totally evil.

  14. All of the comments are valid and on point. What a terrific roundtable session.

    For me, the key to creating believable antagonists is realism. I suspect readers find antagonists to be most believable when there is a nexus to the real world. For example, we all are aware that there is a movement within Islam known as jihadism. We know its adherents have committed unspeakable acts against other human beings. Worse, we know that they are fanatically dedicated to destroying the West and everyone in it. The news media bring this into our lives daily. Is it any wonder that so many of today’s thrillers involve plots driven by jihadists who scheme and carry out monstrous acts. These are not bogeymen from some campfire ghost story. There really are such people; thus, it’s easy for the reader to find such antagonists believable. It also makes it all the more satisfying for the reader when Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp, Scott Horvath, Sean King, or a plethora of other fictional heroes sends these bad guys to meet their 47 (or however many it is) virgins.

    But, as also has been suggested by some of the panelists, these antagonists truly believe they are the good guys and simply are following the dictates of their religion. It only adds to the realism of the story and makes them even more frightening as antagonists in a good thriller novel.

  15. John makes some excellent points. Realism is key to ensuring a believable villain. For example, the villain in my first novel is a former Marine colonel who gets boarded out of the Marines for making a verbal slip and using the “N” word to a group of enlisted marines. He ends up leading a group of white supremacists stealing nuclear material to make a bunch of dirty bombs to threaten the country and pay back for what he believes was done to him.
    I attended an outstanding workshop led by James Frey from the University of California at Berkley. Frey says you need to develop a complete character sketch for each of your key characters, including you villain. This helps build realism into your villain and ensures you know what to expect of him (and your readers do too). His book, “How to write a Damn Good Novel,” has helped me a great deal.

  16. Here is my question,
    Would an antagonist who is a Muslim extremist elicit the sympathy that a character like the Godfather can evoke?

    Culturally we are shown romanticized criminals and thus, are given justifications and excuses for their heinous actions.

    The sympathetic back story would be easy to create. Family members civilian casualties of a western air strike.

    I suspect a western audience would never develop the affection for such a character as they could a criminal character.

    Yet each justifies their behavior based upon a code of conduct.

    So my question is how does cultural background come in to play when excusing the clearly reprehensible actions of characters.

    Final example, the pimp. Pimps are often portrayed quite positively in American culture right now, yet they are the absolutely scum of the earth, yet American cultural excuses a great number of criminals.

  17. I’ve met many hookers with hearts of gold, and tend to cut them some professional slack, but the pimps I’ve arrested have had few redeeming qualities. I remember one poor girl who was scared to death that her ‘man’ was going to beat her with a ‘pimp stick’–a bunch of metal coat hangers straightened into a rod and wrapped in duct tape… We made that guy the focus of our endeavors for the evening. The pimp stick is likely still in the evidence vault at my old department.
    I like to have larger than life bad guys and a bunch of smaller antagonists as well who, while not terrorists or even bad, do things they think are right and proper that keep the hero from accomplishing his/her mission–LIke the bean counter who checks James Bond’s spending accounts or the military officer who holds the hero to the letter of the law. If these guys all have nefarious motives the story would take a big leap from reality. The bad guys are fairly easy to fight; it’s the guys who are supposed to be on our side that have caused me the most heartburn over the years.

  18. From my perspective, it isn’t always necessary for villains to have redeeming qualities that help the reader identify with them in any positive sort of way. If your protagonist is going to off the bad guy in the dénouement, you probably want the villain to be thoroughly inhuman and despicable. None of us thinks the worst of Hawk or Vinnie the Shooter in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series just because they continue to raise the bad guys’ body count.

    Specifically, Osama bin Laden undoubted was loved, perhaps worshiped, by family members and his dedicated followers. But those of us who were his sworn targets filled a lot of bars with singing, dancing, and prodigious drinking when his death was announced.

  19. The fascinating thing for me about both mysteries and thrillers is the “why” of the crime, the psychology of the antagonist. Yes, a villain can be thoroughly inhuman and evil, but how much more interesting to explore how their psyche is put together. I’m reminded of the Val McDermid series “Wire in the Blood” in which the main character Tony, the psychologist, faithfully visits the (female) serial killer who almost killed him (except Tony of course was saved in the nick of time).
    Tony truly wants to understand and help, and we get a glimpse of the levels of pathology that drove that (horrifying) person — a darkness we wish we could turn away from. Pimps and terrorists are easy to hate, I agree, but what forces, what abuse, what inner drives created them? Were they born that way? What made a Manson? At what point did they cross the threshold to “the dark side?”

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