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Digging Around the Dark Side

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What’s black and white and not much red? The novel with a two-dimensional villain, of course. (Yes, I know the joke works better said aloud than written down).
From the surprisingly young age of about ten, readers recognise that heroes will have flaws and baddies will have redemptive qualities. In Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adulthood (1991), the scholar J.A. Appleyard shows how this is the age when young people can cope with the idea that people are not entirely good or bad and that they have reasons for behaving as they do. What’s more, even at this stage, readers actively start to seek out characters ‘who are not simply good or bad’.¹ But it can take new writers some time to remember this in their own work.
The flawed hero seems an easier character to deal with. New writers often spend a long time getting to know their protagonist, filling in character questionnaires and finding all sorts of issues and back story, to ensure enough conflict to sustain a story.
Usually, though, less time is spent getting to know the antagonist. Questioning a new writer about the motives behind a villain’s decision to take over the world (or merely ruin the hero’s life) can often result in some rather poor answers.
For example, a piece of crime writing I recently critiqued featured a villain whose method of murder was rather unique. I won’t say what he did to his victims as it is, in itself, a gory but good idea – for a story, of course. But when I asked why the killer chose this particular modus operandi, the new writer couldn’t say. He hadn’t quite got that far.
Now it seems to me that this is the wrong way around. In order to convince us that the murderer would go to that much trouble – let’s say, for the sake of argument, he collects his victims’ ring fingers – the writer needs to give him a very good reason. The reader has to feel that this makes sense and even, to an extent, that in the same circumstances they could potentially do the same.
When I was writing my children’s book, I too started off with a rather two-dimensional antagonist. It was my PhD supervisor – the inspirational Jackie Kay – who encouraged me to tell the story from the villain’s point of view, and that’s how I found out why Lady Hexer is this way. This process makes the writer feel almost like a medium, as they go in-depth to find background trauma and motive. In fact, my ‘baddie’ ended up being one of two narrators in The Serpent House, alongside the heroine, Annie.
So here is my challenge for your Work in Progress: why is your antagonist the way s/he is? What is their back story? And what is their redeeming feature?

Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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One thought on “Digging Around the Dark Side

  • Sometimes too much back-story can work against the plot.
    Fleming’s villains have full backstories but they are usually ludicrous. As a result the villain is portrayed as having barely believable powers, which makes them rather two-dimensional, but harder to defeat. In Le Carre everyone is equally flawed and everyone is to some extent a baddie. Kala’s backstory develops very slowly until he is eventually brought across by the love of his daughter. Conan Doyle tells us so little about the maths professor, Moriarty, because he just wanted to kill Holmes, because he had had enough. But readers have seen clues that perhaps Conan Doyle didn’t see and suggested their own backstories over the years.
    So perhaps saying as little as possible and gradually sowing the seeds allows the reader to form enough of a picture.

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