If there’s one thing novice writers get wrong more than anything else, it’s the bad side of their story. Why? Because we are good people. We don’t like or relate to the murderers, the dastardly and the manipulative psychopaths that we end up writing about. I would go further: as writers, we are probably even more pacific and sensitive than the average person and even less capable of handling confrontation. We are advised to write from the heart, so we do. Which means we naturally side with our good guys and give our bad guys a hard time from the start. The result is that from page one, we are starving our bad guys of the oxygen they need for success… and instantly consigning our stories to the bin as the forces of antagonism are reduced to nought in the eyes of our readers.
Unless you have suffered yourself, doing justice to the negative side of your story is not going to come naturally and you will need to work ten times harder to bring the antagonism to life in your work. So you must use all your energy and imagination to make your forces of antagonism convincing, and your bad guy bad. Get right into him and let him take you over (I’m assuming it’s a ‘him’…). Somewhere in your heart is a little black spot. The bastard you could have been if your life had been different. Try to connect with it. Be honest – you have been resentful. You have been jealous. You don’t like to admit it, but you have manipulated. You’ve felt hatred. You know someone you felt you could have murdered, even if only in your darkest moments. Try to scare yourself with your own characters. They all reflect you in some small way, so you must battle with your subconscious to imbue them with evil that has the same levels of integrity you will happily give your good guys. If you don’t, your story will be weak.
Why put myself through that?
Not all stories have antagonism or bad guys or even conflict (that is for another blog another day). Assuming your story does have forces of antagonism, as a writer, look how hard you make life for yourself if these forces are weak. Your hero can only be as heroic as the effort it takes her to defeat the bad guys, so you must give your bad guys all the power they need to appear unassailable, and from there you must make them even more powerful – apparently beyond defeat – and weaken your good guys to the point where it seems impossible for the bad guys to lose. From there, your protagonist is going to have to be pretty damn special to win out – and I for one would like to see how she’s going to do it.
Every cinema goer knows, from the moment they see the poster, who is going to win and who is going to lose. They’ve seen enough movies to take their seat feeling pretty confident, deep down, that things will end up fine for the hero. When things get a little tense for my children in the cinema, I whisper to them that everything is going to be fine. I promise them that the good guy will win in the end. And I am always right. Your job, as a storyteller, is to make me squirm. Make me fear that on top of the amazing plot you are about to deliver, I’ve also just lied to my children, because maybe – just maybe – this is the time when the good guy isn’t actually going to make it. And achieving that is totally dependent upon your ability to deliver powerful, believable, convincing and (almost) unassailable forces of antagonism.
Now, get out there, and be very, VERY BAD!!