Good and Evil in Antagonists

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Almost every great work of fiction has an antagonist. A person who gets in the way of the hero or heroine. A person who often embodies evil–or leans heavily in that direction. As I create my antagonists, I need two things: (1) a moral compass that informs me when something that looks good on the outside is rotten on the inside, and (2) an understanding of why the villains acts as they do, and how they would justify their actions to the reader.

One thing that I find refreshing and surprising about Shakespeare’s plays is not only his complex portrayal of evil but his antagonists’ capacity for regret and repentance, rooted partly in the Elizabethan practice of the confessional. Shakespeare told his audience something they already knew: within us all are the seeds of murder, self-aggrandizement, adultery, abuse, greed. I suspect, however, that his audience was much more unified in their view of what is right and wrong.

We writers have a different audience today. The confessional is tucked out of sight in North American culture, as is an agreed-upon baseline of morality. Morality and political correctness do not often run on parallel tracks, and this is confusing to a lot of kids who are searching for a solid place to stand and view this amazing but turbulent and broken world. Stories can give them glimpses of what it’s like to do battle with evil—whether in a fantasy world or in the classrooms of their own junior high.

Not morality tales, but stories about hard choices, confusing and conflicting points of view, and an understanding of good and evil that transcends our current culture’s confused perspective and rises to touch something eternal, a place greater than simply the current view of what’s acceptable behavior, the place of mystery and virtue at the core of this life.

My antagonist makes his first appearance as a vague, boogeyman figure—the shadow of two booted feet standing on the other side of a flimsy door, his daughter clutching a knife and waiting to see if he will break in. My challenge is to slowly reveal this abusive father to my readers as a man driven by his desire to control others, addicted to anger—and yet a man who has at times tenderly touched his daughter, who at one time felt at least a faint tug of compassion for his wife and son. Not sure if I want to do that, but truth calls me to it.

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