A smart question from a smart young writer reminded me, last night at a reading, that antagonists are best and most persuasive when they have layers of character. She was asking me about the "bad guy"--who is actually a "bad girl"--in The Brahms Deception, and who is not a monster, but does monstrous things. Sarah wanted to know how an author does that.
Someone has said that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. I like that way of looking at characters, or at people, and remembering that every person has a backstory, has desires, needs, burdens, and fears. Leaving out the sociopathic personalities, most people believe they're doing the best they can with what they have--or at least they start out intending to do the best they can.
We are all shaped by myriad influences--parents, socioeconomic status, education, physical attributes, relationships. Some of us are unbelievably lucky, born beautiful, wealthy, with loving parents, every opportunity laid out for us. Yes, some of us. But darned few. Most of us, on the other hand, have to deal with baggage of some kind, and that baggage--that history, or injury, or failure--is what makes a great antagonist.
The principle feature of every character is a desire for something. Beginning writing teachers query, ad nauseam, "What does your character want?" As with most cliches, this one persists because there's truth in it. Characters do want something, or even many things, just as people do. An antagonist wants power, or success, or sex, or revenge. Perhaps he wants money to set him free from a life his family built for him, but which he hates. Perhaps she wants a love she knows she can't have, and so she beds every wrong person that comes along. It's about motivation, and motivation is about backstory.
The old cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle (ah, many happy Saturday mornings lying on my stomach in front of the television!) poked fun at the two-dimensional protagonist and antagonist. The characters were aptly named Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash. These characters didn't need backstory or motivation. Dudley was the Good Guy, Snidely the Bad Guy. There were no shades of gray there, and no layers of meaning to complicate the stories.
Outside of parody, this doesn't work very well in fiction. To immerse readers fully, every significant character should be fully realized, with a story of her own. A great example of this is Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, a gothic romance in which even the bit players are real people. And so are the bad guys. The plot is convincing and thrilling because every character matters.
Writing bad guys is fun, and the more complex they are, the more fun the writer can have with them. Wave farewell to Snidely Whiplash, and embrace the antagonist who has reasons for the evil she does.