We’ve all seen them in books and movies: the stereotypic ‘bad guys’. The serial killer in a crime novel who does terrible things just because they’re bad, the bitchy co-worker in a romance who sabotages the heroine in order to get the guy they both like, the sleazy male co-worker who tries to rape the heroine the first time they’re alone together because that’s what sleazy men do, the evil ex-boyfriend the heroine catches in bed with her best friend before she goes on to meet the true love of her life, the hero’s bitchy ex-girlfriend who uses under-handed tactics to try to win him back…
These cardboard cut-out characters are, quite frankly, lazy writing. They’re characters who just do bad things because the author believes their book needs a villain. And the thing about writing characters like these is that they make your main characters look bad.
Heroine catches her boyfriend in bed with her best friend in the opening chapter of the book. Sure, we feel sorry for her, but what is the reader’s opening impression of her? That she’s not a very good judge of character, clearly couldn’t see what was happening right in front of her, and has a really bad taste in men. You’re starting your book with an uphill battle to get the reader to like and respect this heroine.
The hero’s stunningly beautiful but bitchy ex-girlfriend uses under-handed tactics to try to win him back, and nearly succeeds. Great story conflict, right? Sure, but in the meantime it’s making your book’s hero look not very heroic. Is he really so shallow that he can’t see past her pretty face? Why was he even attracted to her in the first place if she’s such a bitch? Is this really the man readers will want to see the heroine end up with? Again, uphill battle to make him redeemable.
Books don’t need villains. They need antagonists.
An antagonist isn’t just someone who does bad things because the author needs bad things to happen in the book. An antagonist is a character whose goals or motivations are opposed to the goals of the main characters. That’s it.
You do not need to make that female co-worker a bitch for her to be an obstacle to the heroine. In fact, the conflict can be so much more powerful if she’s not. How much more torn will the heroine feel if she and her co-worker are both up for the same promotion, both equally qualified, and both desperately want it – and her co-worker is a nice person whose life is going to be devastated if the heroine wins the promotion?
In real life, how many truly evil people do you know? How many co-workers are out to stab you in the back “just because”? I worked for 12 years at the same company, with some colleagues who stayed as long as I did and some who came and went. My colleagues and I did not always see eye to eye. There were times where we were stressed or angry with one another (because our goals in that moment were opposed) but in all that time I never worked with someone who was “just a bad person.” Or maybe I’m just lucky ;)
If we don’t meet people like that in real life why do we write so many of them into our books, and expect readers to buy into them as real characters?
If you find yourself creating characters who are bad “just because” hit pause and ask yourself “why are they doing these things?” Give the character a REASON for this behaviour. That’s all it takes to stop them being cardboard cut-outs and make them real antagonists.
Instead of making the sleazy colleague attack the heroine (because didn’t the readers just see that one coming?) imagine how much more horrific if we didn’t see it coming? And now, instead of writing this off as a shallow “he looked sleazy, therefore he must be sleazy” motivation, we’re intrigued. Why has this seemingly nice co-worker suddenly attacked the heroine when it’s going to jeopardise his job and most likely his freedom? What has pushed him to this point, at this moment?
What in the serial killer’s past or psyche makes them want to hunt and kill other people? Isn’t it even scarier if, instead of being a crazed madman, he’s as charming and handsome as Ted Bundy? Doesn’t it make your cop hero look even more heroic when he is able to unmask a murderer who wasn't so obvious? Isn't your story stronger if the antagonist gives him (or her) a real run for their money rather than just being a cardboard cut-out version of a villain?
Looking back at the two examples above, how could we change those scenarios to turn the stereotypes into worthy antagonists for the main characters?
Sure, this happens in real life, but catching the boyfriend in a compromising situation has grown tired and cliched in books and movies. Instead, why not have him dump her in a fancy restaurant while on a date “because he just doesn’t think this is going anywhere and he wants to see other people”? If this has ever happened to you, you’ll know this can be just as painful and just as good a source of conflict to make the heroine not trust the next man she falls for. Or rather than having her catch them because she came home unexpectedly in the middle of the day (the usual set-up) find a way to make your heroine more pro-active: has she been suspicious of her boyfriend for a while and deliberately walked in to catch him so she can throw his sorry ass out? That small shift takes her from weak and naive (also known among readers as TSTL: Too Stupid To Live) to a strong woman we want to root for.
Shit, the hero’s ex-girlfriend is actually really nice! If they weren’t rivals for the same man, the heroine would be friends with her. And she and the hero have history together – good history, not just bad. Isn’t this conflict even more heart-wrenching for the heroine (and the reader), casting more doubt over the chances of the hero choosing the heroine, and doesn’t it make him look more heroic that he clearly has great taste in women? And isn’t it that much sweeter when the hero chooses the heroine as the love of his life, not just because she’s not a bitch but because they’re the right people for each other?
I’ve also been guilty of writing stereotypes (and been called on it by reviewers) but I’m learning and trying to make my antagonists more well-rounded, real and worthy opponents to my main characters. I hope you will too.