What better way to spend Terror Tuesday than talking about the ones that make it all happen?
I just finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel and am in the middle of Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches right now, and it’s left me pondering what makes a strong antagonist.
When I think back over the literature that I read growing up, a lot of the Big Bads were really big. God big. Satan big. So how were they effective? How did David Eddings keep me reading for five books before he really introduced his Big Bad and we ever saw Torak’s melty face? I read a lot of epic fantasy, which always seems to have a lot of black and white (at least on the surface).
Think for a moment of the best, scariest, most disturbing antagonists you ever read/watched. Hold them in your mind, because we’re going to take them to our play pen.
In urban fantasy, the Big Bad is often an old scary vampire (Picary in the Hollows, the Mother in Anita Blake — or any other number of scary vamps in that world). While those can be effective, they need more than just the oogly-boogly factor to make them creep into your nightmares.
The Oogly-Boogly Factor
The Oogly-Boogly Factor is where that particular baddie lies on the spectrum of badness. What, you ask, is the spectrum of badness? Aha. Observe.
Here’s the key with the best Big Bads — they’ve been through the entire spectrum. When I think of the Big Bads I liked the most, the ones who stuck with me — these are the ones whose motives I understood, who may have even made me sympathetic to their cause at some point, and who have more depth to their character than just the Oogly-Boogly Factor.
You can plunk a character onto the Just Plain Evil part of the spectrum and call them a Big Bad from the get-go, but that won’t make them convincing. Sure, someone who kills at random is scary, but the methodical planning on serial killers is chilling.
Big Bads should also be stronger than the protagonist, at least initially. If the protagonist you’re rooting for can just smush them into smithereens before you can say yikes, that’s no fun at all. Boring. And that violates the basic rule of entertainment: don’t bore anybody.
Big Bads tap into our most primal fears. Something hiding in the dark. Something invading our safe places. Things that do what shouldn’t be done, make happen the things we dread the most. They make us children again, make us forget our adult sensibilities and make us want someone to tell us it’s not real.
Let’s look at a couple of my favorite Big Bads!
As many Big Bads as there were in that show, Caleb is one who has haunted me and who gives me chills each time I watch it. So where is he on the spectrum?
Caleb is full on Big Bad — we don’t see his progression during the show, but we do get glimpses of his back story.
Caleb’s primary characteristic is his misogyny. He calls women “dirty girls.” One interesting trait that he has is that he’s not hugely power hungry. He gets his power from the First Evil, but he bows to it willingly. He is murderous. One of the things that makes Caleb as terrifying as he is comes from the clothes he wears. Even if you’re not religious, his choice of outfit is disturbing. That collar is supposed to symbolize someone who is at least safe. Caleb makes it frightening. He uses religion in his rhetoric often, which adds another chilling layer to his persona. Here’s a quote that sums him up:
Now, it’s a simple story. Stop me if you’ve heard it. I have found and truly believe that there is nothing so bad it cannot be made better with a story. And this one’s got a happy ending. There once was a woman, and she was foul, like all women, for Adam’s rib was dirty—just like Adam himself—for what was he, but human. But this woman, she was filled with darkness, despair, and why? Because she did not know. She could not see. She didn’t know the good news, the glory that was coming. That’d be you. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. You show up, they’ll get in line. ‘Cause they followed her. And all they have to do is take one more step, and I’ll kill them all. See? I told you it had a happy ending.
Since we’re on the Buffy subject, let’s look at the development of a Big Bad — see the progression across the spectrum. Buffy fans probably know who I’m talking about…
Willow Rosenberg, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
To get a feel for the humble origins of this Big Bad, it might be better to show a before picture:
Willow starts out as a stereotypical smart, nerdy girl. She’s shy and awkward, she’s in love with her best friend Xander, and she is so self-effacing that you want to just hug her.
As the series progresses, Willow experiences heartbreak and begins to explore the world of magic, becoming a powerful witch. She often misuses magic for selfish reasons, which backfires more than once. This is where she is lured by the dark side a bit. When her first love cheats on her and leaves her, she meets Tara.
Tara brings out the power in Willow. Together, they hone their craft and fall in love. Tara is kind, wise, and gentle. When Willow spirals out of control, addicted to magic (enter Kinda Naughty range of spectrum), Tara cuts her off and breaks up with her. Willow is forced to learn to give up the magic if she wants to heal her relationship with Tara — and succeeds.
Warren is going after Buffy, but he’s a crap shot with his pistol, and he shoots Tara through the heart, spattering her blood across Willow’s shirt. Traumatic Event.
It doesn’t take long for Willow to go off the deep end in her anguish. Willow’s transformation is incredible, because she goes through every bit of the spectrum to become Dark Willow. When she gets there, she is full on Big Bad. She’s lost her most treasured love. She’s vengeful. And best of all, we sympathize with her. I cheered her on when she went after Warren.
For the writers out there, how do you make your Big Bads convincing? Do you actively ensure that they are in some way pitiable or sympathetic? Where do they fall on the spectrum, and how did they get there? Even if all of that doesn’t end up in the book, you should know.
As I rework my book, one thing I’m doing is strengthening my Big Bad, making him more frightening, considering his back story. Even though he is downright terrifying, he has reasons for being that way.
I want to hear your thoughts!
Who are your favorite antagonists? How do you feel good antagonists add to a story? If you’re a Buffy fan, how did you feel about Caleb? Willow?
Thank you for flying Terror Tuesday, do come back.
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