Bad Guys VS Good Guys

To my four year old, it's all very straightforward.

There are good guys and there are bad guys. No in-betweens. Unfortunately, life is not always so clearcut and neither should be our fictional worlds.

The important thing is to make our characters believable.

I just watched an old VanDamme movie in which the protag's closest family are mafia leaders. They're portrayed as good, if not a bit dangerous, for the first parts of the movie. But there comes a time when information is needed from a "bad" guy and these leaders get the info by interrogating the dirty cop. They yell, cuss and then (brace yourself) use a power tool to torture the man and eventually kill him. (My husband, btw, totally made fun of me at that scene. Apparently I was wearing a very scared face).

After that scene, my mind could not wrap around the fact that these men were "good". Yes, they were trying to track down a killer. And yet I was thinking, can people who kill in such a ruthless, cold-blooded way be trusted as good? Could I even like them anymore and root for them?

I lost my ability to believe in those characters. The dichotomy was too strong.

So, when crafting characters, when straddling that line between what makes a person "good" and what makes them "bad", how do you maintain balance? How do you keep the believability factor?


Kristen Painter said…
I always try to give my villains a good reason for being villainous, otherwise they're just cardboard cutouts.
That works too. I guess I was struck how these supposedly good guys in the movie seemed so bad to me when they were really supposed to be good. Maybe because they had a good reason for trying to find their niece's killer, but resorting to torture didn't seem good enough. I don't know. Sigh.
For me, it all boils down to the fact that we are all sinners. If I can understand the reasoning, then I can endure the sin. Of course, I'm waiting for them to bow on knees and seek forgiveness afterward.

I'm with you on this movie, though, the choice of how we sin, to us humans, does make a difference in our acceptance. Though, I'm positive God doesn't think this way. I struggle not to rank sin as a human, but we so often tend to, regardless of what we know is right.

If we go overboard with our villian's, making them too harsh, ugly, in their actions, then it's hard for the reader to see the actions as warranted, I believe. It's a balancing act, I guess.
Hi Eileen.
I think that's what it was. The characters went overboard into something that was downright disgusting.
You're also right that it has to do with the audience. Targeting is so important.
Good question!

Even villians have some good traits, that are often hard to find, but that's what makes them real. The good guys also have some bad traits. For me, the challenge is to use the good and the bad traits of each to make great, believable characters.
It is a challenge. In this case the bad traits seemed to overwhelm the good traits and made me question the true character of the protagonist's friends.
So I guess the traits we give our peeps need to line up with their moral characters?
You're right. The villain's good traits do make them more real.
anita said…
Great post as always, Jessie!

Lots of good points were made already. I'm in a quandary right now about this very issue because my antagonist in chapter one of my new WIP is involved in something so inhumane and heartless, I'm going to be hard pressed to find any good in him. But I do think I've found a soft spot. He LOVED his momma; but she died so he's very good to his old aunt who happens to be her twin sister. This doesn't redeem him, and that's good because I don't want to do that. But it does give him a more well rounded personality so he's not cardboard, like Kristen said above.

As for the hero, he can do something incredibly stupid at the beginning of the book, and be stubbborn and pigheaded, so long as he's not physically mean or abusive to the heroine or any living thing. That's what I have problems with ... a hero that has no respect for life at all. Anything else is redeemable. :-)
Jody Hedlund said…
I'm struggling as I edit to make one of my antagonists more realistic by clarifying his motivation. People are capable of horrible things. As Eileen mentioned, we live with a depraved, sinful nature. I think the key is trying to give our antagonists believable motivations for whatever they do.
I my first novel I have a bad character whom I absolutely love. I think the key is to help the reader understand why they are the way they are.

I wrote my first book because of the bad guy. I had to know what made him tick, and even though he's bad all the way through and he doesn't change, the glimmer of hope is there.

Jody is right. It's about clarifying motivation.
Cindy R. Wilson said…
That's such a tough question because most of my "bad guys" have been circumstances. Unfortunate things that happen in peoples lives. But for the few bad guys I've had, they've mostly been the ones that turned into likable characters. They started off with redeemable traits and their other less likable traits are ones we all possess just to more of an extreme.
Katie Salidas said…
I like my characters to have a little grey area in them. Sometime it is nice to have a bad guy to root for. Things aren't always black and white.
Think of the movie payback. The character Mel Gibson played was a bad guy in a sense, but he was a good, bad guy.
The same thing applies to the, Lestat character in Anne Rice's vampire books. He's hardly a saint, but you just have to love him. He is the perfect grey character. Not quite good, not quite bad but enough of whatever he needs to be to be complete and compelling.
Dara said…
I don't know :P

I'm trying to make it to where my antagonist's motivation is to be accepted by the organization he's part of (one of the themes of the book is finding acceptance and a place to belong).

I don't know if I'm conveying it too well though as the chapters I've been having with him lately have him being rather ruthless. I initially didn't have that but then my critique group said he wasn't "bad" enough.

I do know that at the end, I do have his vulnerable side come out more, but it may be too late at that point. One more thing I'll have to work on improving. :)
This is a question that I've been pondering a lot lately because the MC in my WIP is not a traditionally "good person", and I struggle with staying true to the character, while also not making her too unlikeable for the reader.
Oooh Anita! I can't wait to read about this guy. I agree with you about what is redeemable and what is not. For example, I don't think I'd ever be able to read about a wife-abuser being redeemed. It's hard-headed of me, but I just can't see myself believing a guy like that can change.
Thanks for sharing all those juicy details about your story!
Hey Jody,
You and Eileen are right. But this makes me think of villains who don't have understandable motivations. Now it would be tough to make a character like that to be well-rounded.
That's so funny that you love your bad guy Lady Glamis! I'm seeing a future novel...
So Cindy, I take it you don't like writing true villains? :-)
Awesome examples! So very true with that grey area. I like how you mention complete and compelling. Definitely qualities all main characters should have, whether they're good or bad.
Hi Dara,
Well, if it's your antagonist then maybe he doesn't have to be likable? How are you portraying his thoughts? Even if his actions are bad, sometimes it's good to have the antag. think like a total jerk. LOL
Good luck badding him up. :-)
Hi Kate,
I can understand that struggle. Many people have said certain characters of mine are unlikeable, and these were characters who were supposed to be liked! It's tough. I guess we just have to make sure their positive attributes overshadow their negative. I don't know what your character is like, but maybe she goes and buys food for a homeless person even though she's a grump to everyone else. Smidgens of backstory are good to for creating likability. If she snaps someone's head off, it's good to point out that she's doing it because she feels vulnerable, rather than angry. Anyways, I know I have no clue what your story is about. Erk. Good luck with it!
Tana said…
I agree with kristen, the villain needs motivation and depth and maybe to be a little larger than life.
Terri Tiffany said…
I think too as others mentioned that my villian is not a true villian. I try to make my characters as real to real people as I can get with the bad being something that everyone has a trace of in them. Good post!
Hi T.Anne and Terri,
Thanks for commenting. I'm learning so much just from reading all of your takes on this.
Danyelle L. said…
I think it's important that the "villain" has good reasons for what they're doing and that they think they're in the right. The tricky part is portraying this in a way that shows them as they are without the words actually condoning what they're doing. I think it's important to give them good, or misguided qualities as well since most people are shades of gray rather than black or white.
I put a little bad into the hero/heroine and either show why the vilain is so evil or give him/her one good quality.

Lynnette Labelle
Nancy J. Parra said…
Nice post- makes me glad I never saw that movie...

Hi Jess -

I'd also have a hard time viewing them as good guys. It comes down to maintaining the character's integrity. They can have human failings, but these guys crossed the line big time.

Susan :)
Windsong, great point about the villain thinking they're right.
Hi Lynette,
That sounds good to me! :-)
Thanks Nancy.
Yeah, be very glad. It bothered me big time. More than just grossing out, even.
You're right. It's not a human failing to torture someone. That's inhumane. Normal people can't do that.
Angie Ledbetter said…
Remembering characters' humanity and the tremendous amount of shades between black and white should keep them real enough to believe in.
Hi Angie,
That's true. The point is to make them believable, even in their cruelty. I just watched Australia last night and it was a good reminder that even ordinary "normal" people can be unbelievable cruel.
Jessie Oliveros said…
I, like Cindy, have my main antagonist as circumstance. I believe redeeming even the bad ones. I can't stand reading a character that is just pure evil.
Karen Hossink said… I don't think I could ever be a fiction writer. This sounds like waaaay too much work for me!
I have enough trouble keeping my own motives in check and trying to determine how much of my children's antagonistic behavior is worthy of discipline, and what is pure childish-ness. I don't think I could handle trying to come up with believable characters and evaluating their motives.

You novelists amaze me!!!
Hi Jessie,
That sounds interesting. I haven't used any particular circumstance as an antagonist, although it's certainly an external conflict.
LOL Karen!
Children are wonderful fodder for writers. Definitely antagonists. *snicker*
Like you, I have trouble determining childishness from discipline-earning behavior.

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