Antagonists and the Pivotal Choice

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I’ve been thinking again on the dilemma of villains.

Common wisdom has it that every story needs a central conflict. Conflicts come in many varieties, and certainly are not restricted to individual antagonists. All the same, most of the stories we see in mass media are structured around the opposition of a protagonist and an antagonist, although not all antagonists can be termed villains. A villain can easily be considered as a special category of antagonist.

So, if your hero is not struggling against the impersonal forces of fate, technology, or the universe, sooner or later you will find yourself writing a villain, and villains require motivations. Finding the right motivation for your hero can be tricky, but finding one for your villain can be downright grueling. There are so many angles to consider! Does your mythology rely on black-and-white morality? How cynical or idealistic is your story meant to be? Should the villain be sympathetic at all, whether to the heroes or to the reader? The theme of the story should also be considered. Sometimes, the right motivation for the villain is one which complements the hero’s journey.

As much as the classic supervillainish antagonists have their own unique flair, modern storytelling leans strongly in favor of an antagonist who is at least potentially sympathetic, from a certain point of view. A story with gray morality can’t flourish unless the reader can consider that they, under certain circumstances, might have acted as the antagonists did, made the same choices they made. This is the pitfall that trips up most self-styled gray morality stories. In many of these stories, heroes are overtaken by anti-heroes, but the villains, if anything, become even more abhorrent.

Conversely, some stories spend so much time building up the humanity of their antagonists, that either the writer or the readers can’t bear to leave them as villains. The villain then becomes a hero, and a new villain is required to replace them, this one often falling into the same trap or the one mentioned above. In longer, ongoing works there then forms a kind of villainy treadmill that the writer has to race on, or in shared universes, the reviled revolving door of morality.

How, then, to balance the need to keep villains human and relatable, while still keeping them locked into an antagonistic narrative role? In order to maintain narrative conflict there is required at least a single point of friction, a major philosophical, moral or personal difference that sets the heroes and villains apart. Ostensibly, the most common variation on this point is the idea of ends justifying the means, where an antagonist will be working to the same ends as the hero, but much more inclined to slip into morally-dubious tactics. It’s a hit-and-miss writing trick that can come off as authentic or stale, depending on the writer’s talent and the story’s circumstances.

Writing relatable villains always runs the risk of readers relating to them more than they do to the heroes. This is especially true in cases as above, where any given reader may regard the heroes as naïve or even cowardly, all from accepting more readily the premise of the villain’s viewpoint. ‘How far are you willing to go?‘ is one of the questions most difficult to answer on behalf of your readers – and in general.

Sometimes writers will use a fork in the road plot to show the reader a glimpse of who the hero might have been, if their circumstances were less heroic. Forming the villain into the hero’s shadow archetype not only makes both characters more human and relatable, it also draws a crisp outline of villainous intent. A narratively simple way of following through on this would be to differentiate the characters by the circumstances of their upbringing. A popular approach, especially as it reflects on the writer’s own society, and creative point of origin.

Origins can provide a powerful, socially originated foil that blocks the villain from reforming, or joining the side of the heroes. For a more introspective story, a psychological motivation can serve as a similar obstacle that checks the villain and returns them to their rightful narrative position. An impulse, a moment’s carelessness, a snap decision gone wrong, any of these can set a character on the path to darkness. One decision leads to another and so an antagonist of circumstance becomes a villain of choice. The critical juncture in this anatomy is the single bad decision that sets the course of events.

A writer’s job is to force their characters into difficult decisions. With the pivotal choice, a character is forced into making a momentous decision under adverse conditions ranging from ignorance to a poor temper. With perfect control over the circumstances, a writer can position their characters in a vantage that exploits their fatal flaws and natural myopia. A character’s actions in the aftermath of their pivotal choice can determine their course as a hero or a villain.

Ideally, a pivotal choice flies under the radar and can only be readily identified in retrospect. The trick, then, is to circumvent a thoughtful, considered, deliberate course of action. Instead of thinking through one’s options and selecting the best available solutions, one’s actions are informed by the deepest biases, most unexamined heuristics. If the source of all plot comes from putting characters in situations they don’t know how to deal with, it’s the conflicts they don’t even realize they’re in which reveal their weakest aspects.

The aftermath of the pivotal choice determines what sort of villain you’re working with. If the consequences are dire enough, from a moral point of view, you can find your character snared into a loop of escalating violence, whether by social disapproval or by their own guilty conscience. If the pivotal choice is buried deep enough in the past, drowned in years of resentment and vengefulness, it no longer matters how innocuous or comprehensible the original inciting act really was. The weight of years of hostility and brutality rests on every action, and redemption or forgiveness become an unreasonable expectation.

A particularly clear variation on this formula is common in murder mysteries. A character witnesses a crime, or causes a deadly accident, or for some other reason believes themselves to be prime suspects of a murder that has no yet been discovered. In their effort to protect themselves from the veil of suspicion – real or imagined, probable or far-fetched – they end up committing crimes far worse than the initial decision that set the snowball rolling. However innocent they might have been at first, they are still rightfully culpable for the murder of the witness or the detective who was about to reveal their crime.

The pivotal choice is a character device with infinite possible permutations. It can be as clear or as subtle as the story requires, it can leave an opening for redemption or more completely damn the character in question. The biggest trick of it, I think, is discovering the foil that could lead to such an ill-fated decision, without making the character appear foolish to the reader.

After all, there’s nothing worse than a stupid villain.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

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