Heroes and Villains

“Your main character is whiny.”

This is a tough one for me, and it’s a comment I’ve received on a few of my books from both editors and readers. It’s tough because my characters are often parts of me, so it hits close to home. In case you’re wondering why I’m whining about it now.

(Half-) Joking aside, I think I can safely say that creating rounded protagonists is not a major issue of mine. By “rounded,” I mean to differentiate from “flat” characters, characters who are two-dimensional types. Most of the time, readers will comment on how “human” my characters are.

There is, however, an exception to that rule.

I was thinking about this yesterday. I’ve been working on a novel, and I’m at the point where I am fine-tuning a first draft. I made a list of issues I know are in there, and one of them was, “Villains.”

I don’t like reading books where the “bad guys” are all bad. I prefer a more nuanced approach. Which is ironic, because in each of my first three published novels, there are some pretty two-dimensional bad guys. They are usually popular athletes of a sort. I’ve tried to round them out by giving them slight characteristics that contradict their negative ones–in Openly Straight, the guys are painfully nice to newcomers, but total assholes to the non-jock kids, for example. But in the end I’ll admit I’m not so satisfied with Zack and Steve from that book.

So here I am, something of an “expert” on the art of writing novels by now. I teach. I am well published. Critically acclaimed. And yet, I really struggle in this one area.

So I ask you: how do you as a writer write three-dimensional antagonists, when you don’t want to spend an entire novel focusing on them? I’m talking about characters who may appear between 5-and-10 times in a novel, tops.

I’m open to ideas. I’ll see what i get, if anything, on this, and I will sound off on it in a couple days.

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4 Responses to Heroes and Villains

  1. Maybe this is too obvious or simplistic or not at all what you meant, but this is what I immediately thought of. My mom used to say that bad guys were somebody’s little boys once (overlook the sexism). I guess it was to help me develop empathy? Idk. But it can also help humanize bully types in my mind. I think about what a bad guy’s (or girl’s) mama (or daddy) might want the world to know about her kid. I mean even if she completely understands that he’s known as an asshole now and she can’t explain away his bad choices, what would she say that would indicate that he’s got a heart in there, somewhere? Bad Guy might be somebody only a mother (parent) could love, so I think like his mama for a little while. For one thing, she’d find compelling reasons that his actions aren’t entirely his fault. Maybe there were some extra shitty parts of his childhood that were out of his control and he hasn’t yet figured out how to stop taking all that self-loathing out on other people. And maybe nobody’d guess that a guy like him has been doing some simple but surprisingly kind thing for somebody else (even while being a complete asshole to the rest of the world).

  2. Looking forward to it!

  3. Cuong Tran says:

    Hi Mr Konigsberg,
    I don’t know if anything I say is going to be helpful, but I’ll share some thoughts anyway.

    It does seem pretty difficult to create rounded “bad guys” who aren’t the focus of the story but when I try to write minor antagonists, I think of the villains or bad guys in my own life. These people that I dislike in real life appear two-dimensional and shallow at first glance, because I haven’t taken the time to know these people (and I don’t really want to) but I still see glimpses of humanity in these people every now and then that remind me that they are still people, with both good and bad parts; for example, I’ve observed that some of my bullies are extremely amiable and generous to their own circle of friends and some have extremely close and touching relationships with their family members. Regardless, it’s hard to see describe these people without them sounding like two-dimensional or cliche bullies, because I don’t see that much of them and what I do see is the bad parts, so I can’t really fault you for writing two-dimensional antagonists because sometimes that’s how they appear in real life. Maybe you can give them really specific traits, like a certain quirk, habit or hobby, to make them unique; for example, I knew a girl in high school who was particular mean to me and was fervently obsessed with Justin Bieber and liked to photoshop herself into pictures of him (and somehow she was more popular than me). Actually, a lot of girls and boys are crazily obsessed with Justin Bieber so maybe that wasn’t a good example of a unique trait but maybe you can come up with better ones!

    Unless your antagonists are also main or prominent characters and are actually given the time and attention to grow through the book, I think the bad guys you are writing are just fine. Naturally the bad guys fade into the background once the protagonist realises they don’t need to bother with them, like the homophobic members on Bobby’s team or the jocks Rafe abandons for more compatible friends.
    Those are just my thoughts anyway and I still think you are a brilliant writer. Can’t wait for your next novel!

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