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.