Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dancing with the Bad Guys

Thank you, Chris, for hosting me here today. You know, I get a real thrill when I come across a great bad guy or gal in crime fiction. A character I really love to hate. Unfortunately, not all writers take the same care in developing their antagonists as they do with their protagonists.
Writers put a lot of time and thought into creating their heroes, giving them backstories, motivation, even throwing in a few flaws, which they may or may not overcome. But they too often ignore their antagonists, which is a big mistake.

“Villains are some of the worst characters I meet in manuscripts, and not in a good way. What I mean is that they are frequently cardboard. Most are presented as purely evil: Mwoo-ha-ha villains, as we call them around the office.” Notes New York literary agent Donald Maass in The Breakout Novelist.
Even characters who merely oppose, rather than attack, the protagonist—and provide much-needed conflict in a novel—are often poorly developed. Without strong resistance, readers probably wonder why the protagonist has such a hard time in reaching his goal.

In my stories, I avoid completely evil antagonists because I can’t believe in them. No one is bad all the time. Antagonists lash out because of jealousy, fear or greed—feelings all of us have had. Some are driven by personal demons. And some antagonists can be sympathetic. What’s important is that they are well-rounded and believable.

I invest some time in creating my bad guys and gals, opening up their unexpected sides and justifying some of their actions. In my latest Pat Tierney mystery, Raven Lake, I have two antagonists. Both are smart and strong, as smart and as strong as Pat Tierney. One is driven by jealousy, the other by greed. I found myself really liking one of them. In other circumstances, I could see this character being my friend.

These are some of the things I like to explore in an antagonist:
·       What is his/her main problem, conflict or goal? What does he want the most?
·       Does that conflict with my protagonist’s goal?
·       How plausible is his motivation?
·       What is the opposite of what he wants? And can he want both things at the same time?
·       What are his good traits?
·       What are his secrets? Exposing them may reveal weaknesses he doesn’t want others to see.
·       What happened in his life that made him the way he is?
·       What three steps can he take towards his goal?
·       What three steps can he take away from his goal?
·       What prevents him from taking these steps away from his goal?
·       What’s at stake for him? What would be the consequences of failing to achieve his goal?
A well-rounded antagonist will enrich a novel and make plotting it easier. And a great villain can take a story to a whole new level.
* * *

Rosemary McCracken has worked on newspapers across Canada as a reporter, arts reviewer, editorial writer and editor. She is now a Toronto-based fiction writer and freelance journalist. Her first Pat Tierney mystery, Safe Harbor, was shortlisted for Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger in 2010 and published by Imajin Books in 2012. It was followed by Black Water in 2013. “The Sweetheart Scamster,” a Pat Tierney mystery in the anthology Thirteen, was a finalist for a Derringer Award in 2014. Rosemary’s third Pat Tierney mystery, Raven Lake, has just been released. It is available at

Follow Rosemary on her blog, Moving Target, at; on Facebook at; and on Twitter @RCMcCracken. Visit Rosemary’s website at

No comments: