25th Trillium Award


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Believable Evil

With Tara Conklin, Hillary Davidson, Ann Ireland, CS Richardson, and Adria Rotstein.

This month in Fiction Craft, we asked a group of writers: How do you develop believable villains or antagonists?

It is fair to say that in fiction all villains are antagonists but not all antagonists are villainous. Rare is it that you find a villainous character who exists simply for the sake of villainy and not to somehow thwart the protagonist. On the other hand, all kinds of obstacles in fiction can be Platonically antagonistic, if you will. Here we have flashbacks of grade ten English class: man against machine, man against nature, man against himself, etc, etc, etc.... I am not so interested in the platonic antagonist. When I write I like to create villains, just as I like to create heroes. I don?t feel a character is really worth writing about unless s/he is larger than life in some way. So, my villains tend to be Dickensian, in an admittedly watered-down manner. Where they are supposed to be bad, I want them to be very, very, very bad. The reason is to create juxtaposition to my heroes. The two must necessarily balance out in my worlds. I wouldn?t pit a mild-mannered, spineless protagonist against an extremely evil character, just as I would not pit a sorta bad-ish guy against a Luke Skywalker. For me, what is believable is what you make believable within the logic of the world you create. If a character is extremely good, the opposing force must be extremely bad. If the protagonist is just a milquetoast nice guy, then it creates an untenable narrative imbalance to have a villain who is a sociopath (unless you are writing horror, I suppose, which tends to play by different rules). Ultimately, the villain is the character who cannot be civilized, who cannot be tamed by the moral framework of the narrative. For this reason, they usually must die (except, again, in horror). That?s a personal explanation, because obviously there is no one set of rules. Each writer must create the villain who serves his/her story in the right manner. I just happen to gravitate toward those who will push the hero to his/her limit because that?s the kind of story I enjoy.

Let's now see how some other writers get their evil on.


Tara Conklin is the author of the novel The House Girl. She lives in Seattle, WA.

I have a hard time believing in the idea of a Bad Guy. For me, everyone has a story, everyone has a reason for doing what they?re doing, and antagonists are no different. That being said, some people are badder than others (as my 5-year old would say) and, as a fiction writer, those dark corners are perhaps the most interesting and enjoyable ones to explore. For me, the development of an antagonist follows roughly the same process as the development of any character: I begin by understanding his or her story. I write extensive back story for all my characters, detailing their childhoods, physical limitations, mental tics, love lives, professional aspirations, how they talk, how they walk, what kind of clothes they wear. A lot of this detail (maybe even most) never makes its way explicitly into the novel but it helps enormously to create characters who live and breathe. While I love laying on complicated details in a character?s back story, I keep one thing front and center while I write: what the character wants, both big-picture and in any given scene. For an antagonist, of course, his or her desires should create conflict with the protagonist. This is a standard, writing-as-craft notion and I think a good one. Conflict can and should take many forms. One of the best pieces of writing advice I?ve ever received was to personify my protagonist?s internal conflicts. When writing my first novel The House Girl, I called my main antagonist the ?there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I? character. He represented a future life that my protagonist might conceivably experience, one that she was struggling to accept for herself. The conflict was internal and pretty esoteric — what did my protagonist want for her life? — but I was able to effectively demonstrate it through the use of an antagonist who was, in many ways, my protagonist?s alter ego. And that, finally, is how I envision an effective antagonist: someone with the same level of complexity as the protagonist, just as believable, just as smart, and yet through some twist of story-DNA has ended up on the wrong side of the reader?s sympathy.


Hilary Davidson is the author of numerous novels including Evil In All It's Disguises, The Next One to Fall and The Damage Done. She lives in New York, NY.

In a lot of important ways, developing my antagonists isn?t so different from developing my protagonists. In both cases, I have to understand what drives the character, and what motivates them to act the way they do.

It?s almost a cliché now to say that the villain is the hero of his or her own story, and that the villain doesn?t see his/her actions as evil. I agree with the first part of that theory — no matter how far removed we are from the egocentric toddlers we once were, our own worlds revolve around ourselves — but I take issue with the second part. My villains are intelligent, and they?re aware they?re doing wrong. There?s no confusion on that front. They?re simply convinced that their ends justify their means.

All of my characters — good, bad, and in-between — are flawed in some way. I don?t like perfect people on the page; those seem like caricatures more than characters. What?s particularly tricky for me is that my villains are often motivated by the same impulses that drive my protagonists. In that way, the villains are kind of a shadow side of my main characters. In my latest book, Evil in All Its Disguises, there are several characters who are, for different reasons, motivated by a desire for revenge. While the main character is deeply conflicted, understanding that her darker feelings are poisoning her, the villains have no such remorse. They have a sense of ego and entitlement that frees them from moral constraints.

For my protagonists, doing what?s right is often a struggle between head and heart. They feel the same dark impulses that the antagonists do, but they fight them. The villains have given in to those impulses. For them, the struggle is over.


Ann Ireland is the author of numerous novels including The Blue Guitar, Exile and The Instructor. She lives in Toronto.

A villain or antagonist in life is the person who is getting in your way, causing suffering, frustration, maybe worse. In a thriller he may be lurking behind the cellar door, ready to crush his victim on the head with a two-by-four.

Most villains in our lives are temporary villains — and often they are a loved one, or a close friend. The antagonist?s role is, in most cases, part of intimacy, a result of lives entwined. I?d guess that most of our villains live with us?or nearby. Perhaps we work next to them.

Someone has to block the protagonist (main character of the story) in his desires and pursuits to create conflict and thus, plot.

A bristling exchange is always more interesting than pleasant chit-chat. Hard to get fiction?s motor going without someone who wants something, and another character who gets in her way.

For-instance: Martha wants to paint the house bright blue. So cheery! Paul comes home and grabs the paint can from her hand and a heated argument ensues. Blue is a ridiculous color for a house! Paul is the villain, as far as Martha is concerned. The dynamic of antagonist/protagonist can be that small and contained.

I get a kick out of creating sympathy for the antagonist. I?ve been a villain often enough in my life to see that bad behaviour is often a product of fear or perceived threat. Or simply another point of view.

I work to develop the antagonist/villain the same way that I develop any character: with great interest and care. Often this means writing a scene that shows the antagonist away from the hero of the tale. He pours cornflakes for his daughter, helps the neighbour dig his car out of the snow. The reader starts to wonder: is this fellow really so bad?

We are often drawn to those who act out of ambition, selfishness or greed — in them we see our worst selves.


CS Richardson is the author of the novels The Emperor of Paris and The End of the Alphabet. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Two novels later, a third underway, and I?ve yet to create an actual bad guy. Not one black hat robbing the stagecoach or groping the schoolmarm or calling the sheriff out at high noon.

But if one considers an antagonist as typically defined — adversary to the hero, threat to their existence, barrier to their journey, gothic yin to enlightened yang — then perhaps I have developed a villain or two. They just haven?t embodied a humanoid form. Or any form: thus far they?ve been invisible. Yet they?ve caused no less mayhem for their lack of nefarious grins reeking of bad teeth and tobacco spit.

My first novel?s antagonist was mortality itself. The hero faced a non-negotiable medical diagnosis: he would die within a month from an undefined illness. I felt no need to develop this death as a flesh-and-blood (so to speak) character: Instead I relied on the reader?s intelligence: they would instinctively know that this death would be like most deaths: feckless and relentless and inevitable and heartbreakingly final. And while the tone of the novel was that of fable or parable, I didn?t want to create some version of a Brothers-Grimm-Reaper tapping its rusty scythe on the hero?s door. What I tried to explore was the effect this antagonist (at least its advancing shadow) had on other characters in the story.

In my second novel, there were a few ?villains?. Again, these were invisible foes in the guise of human frailties: the hero suffered from an inability to read (now called dyslexia, in the time of the novel called word-blindness), another character returned from the trenches of WWI with what we know as PTSD (then it was shell shock), and a third struggled with the effects of post-partum depression. Again, the development of these antagonists relied not on clinical description or human-as-metaphor players, but (hopefully) on an evocative portrayal of what happened to others because of them.

An oblique approach to be sure, but its how I try to write: arrive at a character from a different direction, like a cushion shot in billiards or ?show-don?t-tell? at a forty-five degree angle. Rather than creating an antagonist through straightforward description and a laundry list of traits, moods, habits and flaws, I?d rather explore what they do with those traits, who they do it to, and ultimately to what effect.

I break no new narrative ground here. For me a model to follow if one is to write a villain would be Stephen Spielberg?s Jaws. The bad guy (shark) is not physically revealed until an hour into the movie. Yet we know all about him within minutes of the opening credits: witness the violence, panic, helplessness, gore, greed, and stupidity he inflicts and/or ignites (while still unseen) in everyone else. And when he finally rears his head above water (yes, we all knew he would be big but not that big), Mr. Spielberg?s storytelling eight ball drops neatly into the corner pocket.


Adira Rotstein is the author of the novels Little Jane and the Nameless Isle and Little Jane Silver. She lives in Toronto.

The best advice I ever received about creating villains for fiction was actually something I picked up from a friend's acting class. When playing a villain as an actor, you should never play the character as aware that he/she is evil. In real life, nasty people are often oblivious to their own nastiness. That's what so frustrating about them.

Most villains think they are the hero of the story. From their perspective everything they do is perfectly justified. We as audience members need not agree with or approve of the villain's reasoning, but we should at least understand what motivates them. The truth is every good character has ambitions and goals in life. For me, what separates a villain from a hero, is whether that person is willing to engage in cruel, unjust actions towards other people in order to pursue that goal. Now every human being has a slightly different moral compass. What one person sees as villainous behaviour might be excusable to another person. In human society we're always negotiating the boundaries of what constitutes morality and those boundaries are constantly shifting as our society changes and we go into different social contexts. I think confronting villainous characters in fiction and writing villainous characters as an author is part of a society-wide cultural discussion about where we draw our moral lines in the 21st century.



SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs is available on Kindle and is forthcoming in paperback from Tightrope Books in spring 2013. shaunsmith.ca

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