All writers have heard some variation of the phrase “A story is only as good as its villain.” Yet writers, especially beginners, rarely write from the villain’s perspective. Why? Because in order to do so, we must tap into our own villainous potential. We must foster compassion, even empathy, for the traits we deny, repress, and reject.
It’s not a pleasant project. It can be downright unnerving. It’s little wonder then that most writers hesitate to attempt this. Even experienced writers can forget this possibility.
In August, I attended a business conference in Montreal. I met a few fellow writers there, including a woman named Kay. At one point, she shared that she was stuck on a trilogy of stories. The first two were written, but she wasn’t sure how to approach the third. We had just listened to a speaker talk about how we could “flip the script” in our businesses, so that advice was fresh in my mind. I suggested that Kay should try flipping the perspective in her story. Instead of writing from her protagonist’s perspective for a third time, she could write from her antagonist’s point of view. Kay gasped then said, “I’ve got chills.” From the expression on her face, I could tell that a tidal wave of inspiration had hit her, thanks to that one suggested switch.
Being the hero, doing good, and fighting for justice are always noble things, and they’re always fun to write about. Yet it’s foolish to think that these heroic qualities are the whole of who we are. The truth is that each one of us is equally capable of good and evil. As brightly as the best versions of ourselves shine through when we are at our best, there also exists an impenetrable darkness within all of us that’s born of our weaknesses, vices, failures, fears, and sins. Ignoring this truth is not wise in the long-term.
“Deep trauma or guilt can fester when exiled to the darkness of the unconscious, and emotions hidden or denied can turn into something monstrous that wants to destroy us.” – Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
As writers, our work will only grow stronger as we examine all sides of human potential, even those that are uncomfortable to look at. A strong villain will force the hero to be stronger, but a well-written villain is more than strength and an evil plot. As I discussed in my character analysis of the Dealer from the video game Hand of Fate, well-written villains are also human villains. The reason why Vogler and other experienced writers stress the humanity of antagonists is because it reflects a truth about the antagonists we face in real life.
They are fundamentally just like us.
Even those who disgust you, who do nothing but anger you, whose beliefs are vastly different from yours, whom you believe are beyond hope and reason. Yes, even those who hate you and actively make their hatred known. Sadly, here in America, we seem to have forgotten this.
It’s October – the month of ghost stories, monster masks, and horror movie marathons. So I thought it would be fitting to issue you this challenge: spend at least one session this month writing from your antagonist’s perspective. Let their voice contribute to the story you’re working on. Let them tell the short story you just got the idea for. Examine their life, their past, and their motivations. Explore how they see the story and what they think of your protagonist. Let your Shadow speak and sow chaos in the world that exists solely on the page.
You will come out of the exercise with a fuller understanding of your plot, your characters, and the world it takes place in. Who knows? You might leave with a better understanding of your own inner darkness and a bit more compassion for those who oppose you in real life.
If you took on the challenge and want to share the results, drop a link in the comments. I’d hate to ask again what you think about Shadows and antagonists right after wrapping up a series where we talked a lot about them. But if you have any final thoughts or new thoughts, feel free to comment.