Behind every great hero is a great villain. Right? The antagonist we love to hate?
That’s a funny phrase, isn’t it? “Love to hate.”
Why do we love a “good” bad guy?
I think the easy answer is that it’s a thrill to see what kind of adversary they’ll make for our hero… how far they’ll push their opposite number, in what way, and, in some cases, with what kind of flair, style… pizzazz?
The bad guy is fascinating. They aren’t constrained by the same morality guiding the protagonist, which provides readers with a delicious means to vicariously dip our toes into their murky pool.
As a fiction writer, it’s your job to come up with the bad guy. And you don’t dare half-ass it.
But to do it right, you’re going to have to dip more than just a toe into the poison pool.
You’re gonna have to grow gills.
Acting The Engine
Writing fiction is, like acting, an exercise in active empathy.
Characters are, to paraphrase author and instructor Larry Brooks, the engine of your story’s theme.
If you want that engine to hum, you need to know, to really understand and empathize with, all the principal characters, inside and out.
Putting aside those stories where the antagonist is an antagonist force, and not a person or sentient character at all, this includes the bad guy.
This might not be too tough, because, let’s face it, not every antagonist in literature is an emotionally stunted genocidal mass murderer of women and children, manipulated by tiny evil particles in his cells, or a disembodied flaming eyeball.
The antagonist could be simply an ordinary person working to keep the protagonist from getting the thing they both want.
Or… they could be someone really (subjectively speaking) awful.
How can we empathize with a character we want our readers to root against?
How can we empathize with a character whose actions seem irredeemable and unconscionable?
You’ve probably heard the saying, “every villain is the hero of their own story.”
Truth is, we’re all heroes of our own stories.
Your challenge, as a writer, is to put yourself into your character’s perspective.
To do that, you must walk where the character walks. You have to breathe their air, and find it nourishing.
You gotta jump into the most brackish, cold, weed-choked well and, like I wrote above, figure out how and why you can adapt, and survive, and maybe even call it home… at least for the time it takes to write that character’s scenes.
Get In Over Your Head
I want you to try a exercise in extreme empathic discomfort.
If you do it right, it’s not going to be easy.
If you do it right, you’re probably going to need to take a long walk or have a long cry.
And if you don’t feel shattered when you’re done… keep coming back to this exercise until you do.
An Exercise In Extreme Empathic Discomfort… For Your Art!
This exercise has two components.
The Mental Component
First, I want you to imagine the absolute worst thing a human being could do.
Keep going. Remember one of my suggestions to be an irreplaceable writer: throw out the first things that come to mind.
They’re not horrible enough.
Use that imagination of yours. Go into taboo territory. Let your imagination include people you care about.
You’re safe. You’re in your own head.
Gross yourself out.
Make yourself sick.
Get those gills good and wet. Breathe deep.
Take some time to think about what it would take for you — the real you, the person reading this, the one with friends and maybe children, and people you love — think about what it would take to drive you to do that ultimate atrocity.
The motivation will be as varied and personal and specific as the horror itself. That’s the point: make it personal. Make it yours.
Then, live with it there, in your head, for a few minutes.
The Written Component
Get a pen and paper — don’t type, don’t use a computer and a keyboard unless you have some compelling medical reason that prevents you from writing by hand — and write a first person account (a letter, a monologue, a journal entry, whatever works for you) all about why you need to do the awful thing you need to do.
Do not make excuses. Simply explain. Convince.
Remember, you’re the hero of your own story.
Write for as long as you can. Two or three pages, longhand, if you can take it.
Your Empathic Discomfort Boot Camp Badge of Horror
If you make it through… congratulations. You’ve just completed Empathic Discomfort Boot Camp. You are now prepared to write bad guys like a non-ironic boss.
Now… go puke, or take that long shower, or long walk. Hug a puppy. Do whatever you need to do to cleanse your soul.
But! Don’t throw out your writing exercise! That’s the makings of a story, after all.
You’re Out Of Your Gourd, Selznick
You might think this exercise is far, far more than what’s necessary to be an effective fiction author.
I’ll grant you: you can write book after book and maybe even have a great career without diving this deeply into characterization.
I submit that this exercise will not just benefit your writing. This exercise will, done correctly, show you parts of yourself you never knew existed.
Self awareness and vulnerability are good things for your life. They make you a better human, and the better you are at being human, the better you’ll be as a writer.
Why settle for anything less than your full potential?
How’d It Go?
I’d love to hear how this experience went for you. I don’t want you to share the actual Horrible Thing… that’s yours, and should be yours alone (until you finish that story, that is). I do want to hear about the experience of going through the exercise and how it helped you (or didn’t).
Leave your thoughts in the comments, with my thanks!