For SF&F Writers. Building Believable Worlds Part 4: Antagonists and Enemies

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Lets talk bad guys. Most stories have one. Well crafted or otherwise, speculative fiction is full of them. Not that any one actual character is essential as the obstacle the protagonist has to overcome. Sometimes its simply the environment they’re in, other times its a whole alien species in the vein of Starship Troopers or Ender’s Game. Maybe the story is more reflective, and the protagonist is on a voyage of self-discovery in which the only real obstacle to them achieving their goal is themselves.

While reading for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve come across all of the above, and they each have their own merits and drawbacks. The main trade off I’ve found with stories of these types is that they tend to be able to bring forth more intellectually complex and morally ambiguous plot development than the simple good vs. evil narrative, but in doing so they tend to sacrifice the simple joy of a challenging, well crafted antagonist. Holmes had Moriarty, Batman has the Joker, and even Homer Simpson had Frank Grimes for a minute there. Having an intelligent enemy who poses a threat to the hero on a deeply personal level adds a dimension of emotional relatability for the reader. Overcoming life’s various obstacles is one thing, but a personal triumph over another human being who’s out to get us is another. Predictable as such endings may be, we enjoy seeing the hero beat the villain because we like to imagine ourselves as that hero. Who doesn’t want to be Batman on some level?

So what makes a good bad guy? Or guys or girl(s) or whatever. Personally, I look for an intelligent, powerful, cold-eyed killer, preferably with a motivation I can understand. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin from the Daredevil series is probably my favourite villain of recent years in any medium. That’s not to say I’m discounting the cartoonish sort of evil for the sake of evil characterized by my above examples. Just don’t spend too much time trying to rationalize it or dress it up. For example, comic writers like Alan Moore and Brian Azzarello have written some thoughtful work in an effort to dig deeper into the character of the Joker, but at the end of the day he’s still just a murderous clown who wants to watch the world burn. I wouldn’t have him any other way.

As far as the fiction I receive and review for Cosmic Roots goes, antagonists and enemies (because they aren’t always the same thing) have ranged from pushy, overly friendly neighbours to unseen assassins to fleets of space pirates after the hero’s booty. By which I mean treasure. The point is, the stories I rejected usually had villains, antagonists, or obstacles to the hero’s journey that didn’t seem believable, and worse still were only alluded to, and barely involved in the story itself.

There is a temptation when writing short fiction, particularly from the first-person perspective, to have the villain and origin of the conflict described solely from the hero’s point of view, and to have any actual encounters with said villain limited to a climactic final showdown. I’d advise writers to avoid making this rookie mistake. You can fill your fictional universe with plenty of interesting scenery and diversions along the way, but it still feels incomplete. A bit like reading a summary of a novel before skipping ahead to the end, or watching an action movie from the training montage onward. Drama between good and evil needs tension, and tension needs buildup. Ask and answer questions about their adversarial relationship as you fill the reader in on the details of your imagined world. Put as much thought into the antagonist as you do your hero, and make the reader feel their conflict has depth.