Thursday, February 19, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Not Every Antagonist is the Bad Guy

Last week I talked about villains being the heroes of their own story.  But even in those cases, they do tend to still be the "bad guy" in an objective way.  In Thorn, Fenmere believes he's in the right, protecting his own, but at the same time, if you were to design a "Am I The Bad Guy?" Flowchart, the question "Did I Hire Assassins to Kill A Teenager?" would definitely point to "Yes, You're the Bad Guy."
But not every antagonist needs to be a villain at all. 
Take Rellings-- the dormitory prefect in Thorn of Dentonhill.  He's a constant roadblock for Veranix over the course of the book. He's obnoxious to Veranix, but mostly because he suspects Veranix is up to something he shouldn't be... and he's exactly right.  Veranix is sneaking out of the dorms at night, and it's Rellings's job to maintain discipline and stop students from doing that. 
So of course he's not a bad guy. 
Stories are full of this kind of antagonist, and it's far more interesting to have two people who believe they are doing 'the right thing' be in opposition to each other.  Sometimes that works well-- The Fugitive in the 1990s was an excellent example: Dr. Kimble knew he was innocent and was on the run to find his wife's killer; US Marshal Gerard was hunting for an escaped convicted murderer.  They both were doing the "right thing", and in the end, they both got to "win".  Heck, the sequel flat out made Gerard the protagonist.
The challenge is finding that balance.  When one person's "right thing" is more obviously "right" than the other, you lose that, and then you can overcompensate to attempt to bring balance back.
Take, for example, Marvel Comic's Civil War story line a few years back.  On the face of it, you have one side saying that there should be regulation and oversight to superheroes, and people who choose to do that should have accountability (just like police, firemen, soldiers, etc.), and the other side saying that any yahoo should get to put on a mask and punch people without regard to civil rights or due process.  (Am I showing my bias here?)  But the story, in seeing that one side of the argument has more of a point, overcompensates, turning the "supporting registration" side into jackbooted fascists who throw anyone who disagrees with them into an extradimensional prison. This includes having Tony Stark-- the face of registration-- decide that when Peter Parker abandons his side, he's going to send a team of "reformed" villains after Peter, including Bullseye. 
Remember that flowchart point I made before?  Yeah.
But it doesn't have to go that far. A genuine clash between two good people can make for a fascinating story. 
Have at it.  See you down in the word mines.
Also: If you are in the Austin area, tomorrow night (Friday, February 20th), I'll be at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) at 7pm, reading from and signing Thorn of Dentonhill.


  1. I just finished reading The Thorn of Dentonhill, and I really enjoyed it. I am very much looking forward to the next entry in that line. I must say, though, that every time I read the word numina, that one Muppets song went through my head.