"Muahahaha – nobody expects the dark-hatted baddie!" Dr Evil shouted as he popped out from behind the curtain, twirling his moustache with one hand and cuddling a miffed-looking white cat with the other.
Or would you, dear reader, prefer him to point a laser gun at you, flash his fangs and rip his shirt to put his spectacular abs on display, abs only a werewolf can have?
Whichever option he chooses, it looks pretty stereotype to me.
Stereotype is no good. Especially not, when you want to stand out in the crowd. If you wish to be successful as an author you have to stand out, which means you'll have to work on your characters. Among other things of course, but characters are essential. If you don't give us an engaging character right from the start, a character your readers can care about, they will stop reading. It's as simple as that.
Which is why we all polish our first lines, paragraphs, chapters until they truly dazzle. Right? Right!
Now, you'll tell me that you do exactly that, you have all these fantastic character charts, where you not only look at the exterior of your protagonists, but you list all their hobbies, motivations, dreams, hates, fears ... You KNOW your characters inside out. You pile up lots of conflict for them – conflict stresses the protagonists, which is perfect for readers - and yes, I know you know that as well.
So, why is it that when it comes to antagonists, we still get the same old cardboard cut outs far too often?
They're bad. Yes. Right. That is their job. They're the antagonist and their purpose in life is to create more conflict for your characters. They're darkness to your protagonist's light; they're evil, etc.
That's fine, but that isn't the whole story.
The stories I enjoy are those where I either get
a) a villain who once was a good person (okay: good-ish). If the story even shows how he drifts off towards the dark side, I like that even better. Darth Vader is the classical example. From cute blue-eyed, curly haired boy to monster. That is one heck of a career move;
b) a villain who also is a good person, somebody where the boundaries blur. But that sort of villain still gives your protagonist a run for his/her money. How do you feel about a vigilante who shoots people when they do something he or she doesn't like? Typical villain, you will say. Okay. But what if this vigilante only shoots people who leave their pets behind when they go on holiday. Tie them to trees in icy winter woods, leaving them to die. Hm. It's not the right thing to do. But there's a motivation and the motivation as such is good. I like that sort of villain. A baddie with a motivation he or she firmly believes in. As misguided as it might be.
c) an absent villain. Huh? Yes! There is a person in the background pulling strings but, we do not necessarily meet him or her. Or not immediately. We meet their minions, who might have motivations of their own but we do not necessarily meet the mother lode of evil straight away.
There are more options, of course. If you have more ideas or suggestions, let us hear them in the comments. But whatever you do, it is crucial for me as a reader that you give me a) motivations for Dr Evil being who he (she) is and b) make sure your villain is a rounded character with some likeable traits. Even if somebody is the baddie from the start, if you make him (her) believable, credible and even likeable, you create another character who can pull in your readers. Even if the pull is from the dark side . . .
But that's what we're writing mysteries for. And thrillers. We like the pull from the dark side, right?
The image is Darth Vader Crochet, copyright cuddlycephalopod. Isn't he cute? And the other little villain below is A Little Snow Angel by Wild Kegan.
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