Not all killers are villains. For that reason, I’m calling this kind of character antagonist, not villain. I’m not writing about psychotic serial killers or what I call accidental killers. “He fell and hit his head. I panicked.” The crime in the latter isn’t murder. It’s covering up a murder, which can in itself, make a good mystery, if there is sufficient motivation for the cover-up.
Some characters are forced by extraordinary circumstances into committing an extraordinary act.
Why people kill
“All the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre, and Loathing.” ~ P.D. James, The Murder Room
If the four Ls aren’t enough motivation, try the medieval church. They had a good handle on motivation, called the seven deadly sins.
- Extravagance, which interestingly enough mutated into lust. Originally intended to reflect a over-desire for everything material, we now think of it as applying primarily to sexual appetite.
I think being the bad guy or gal boils down to hunger and hopelessness. At some point, antagonists realized they will never have enough—fill in the blank [money, power, prestige, sex, love, control]. The world as a zero-sum game: If you get, I lose, and vice versa. Not having enough is the hunger; playing a zero-sum game is the hopelessness.
Losing something provides more motivation than never having had it. If our protagonist fantasizes about booking the most expensive cabin on a cruise ship, but is actually traveling in a tiny inside cabin without even a porthole, she might daydream about miles of glass windows, a private balcony, and a jacuzzi. But if the man in the next cabin actually cruised in such luxury, but is now forced by circumstances into a similar tiny cabin, there are a lot more possibilities for deep-seated conflict.
Unless, of course, time is running out. If your lady in Cabin 24H has only a short time to live, and this is her absolutely last chance to experience the luxury suite, all bets are off. She might be desperate enough to kill to get an upgrade.
One among many
A classic mistake mystery writers make is to have one antagonist and several red herrings: characters who didn’t do it, but who will be investigated and proved innocent. If we start by knowing James is the killer, and as an afterthought decide, okay, maybe Ralph, Connie, and Marie might have done it, the reader is a lot more likely to figure out who did it. This is because we have applied more energy, invested more time in developing James than we have the other three characters. All potential suspects need to be developed with the same attention paid to the real killer.
Start by not knowing who did it. I might want James to be my killer, but I rather than say he is, I say he’s one of four characters who, along with Ralph, Carol, and Marie might have done it. Then I work through a short set of questions about all four of them.
The first things that swim by
“Big ideas are known as The First Things That Swim By. They swim by first because [popular culture] has cut such deep grooves in our consciousness that our imagination shoots down these grooves faster than dumped water down sluices. We must learn to not take the first thing that swims by. Piddle around with our passions and perceptions until we come up with a fresher idea. ~ Claudia Hunter Johnson, Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect
Books abound with antagonists who were abused as children; embarrassed at school; grew up in poverty, or conversely grew up in extreme wealth but without love; missed getting a promotion; or were threatened with losing their job, spouse, or business, etc. What will set my antagonist apart?
What this boils down to is not settling for easy answers to the questions below.
Defining Our Antagonist
Developing good antagonists should take at least an hour per character. It sounds like a lot of time, but the antagonist is half of our plot. Writers, as a whole, tend to spend a lot of time on heroes, but quickly skim through thinking about bad guys and gals. Who wants to dwell on badness? As writers, we have to.
If I have four potential antagonists, I try to spend at least four hours on their development, not necessarily all at one time. In fact, it works better for me if I do one character, let some time elapse, and then tackle the next character.
- What was the first moment the character realized he/she would never have enough [fill in the blank]?
- Why does the character see life as a zero-sum game? (Chances are it comes, at least in part, from something that happened in her childhood.)
- What was the last straw moment when the character’s life changed? (It may happen in the book itself, or just before the book begins.)
- It’s not socially acceptable to display openly the four Ls or the seven deadly sins. Chances are that the character has a cover story. She says, “I love shopping in second hand stores. Not only do I save money but I’ve found some great designer clothes.” In reality, she seethes with anger every time she walks into a second hand store.
- How has the character built and maintained his/her cover? Is the cover story holding, or is the underside beginning to peak out?
- What stakes are high enough that the character will narrow the funnel until murder is the only option?
- How does this story happen from this character’s point of view?
“Plot from the murderer’s point of view and write from the detective’s point of view.” ~Earl Stanley Gardnier, mystery writer
Once in a great while, I’ll discover that I was wrong, that Carol makes a much better antagonist than James, but most times not. Our instincts are pretty good for knowing the bad person from the start. What will have happened, though, is that our red herrings have become a lot easier to write and a lot more complex and ambiguous. Ambiguity keeps the reader guessing, and that’s a good thing.
I hope to see you back for Thursday, March 27th. for Level Thinking: Odds and Evens. Why are second drafts and second books in trilogies often disasters? Why do first and third drafts or books work much better?
Next Tuesday on Write the Novel: The Inciting Incident. Why is today different from all other days?