When I read a novel, I can sometimes tell when the author really struggled to get into their antagonist’s head. The antagonist is either a vague puppet moving to the convenience of the author, or a flat caricature of a human being. One of the most common questions I ask while reading these books is, “Why?” WHY does the villain want to kill/ruin/rule/cheat/thwart?
The problem with “why” is that it’s a question that’s almost never really answered. Humans are phenomenally good at making up stories in our heads about why we do things. These stories don’t always fit reality, because they’re based on incomplete information and unconscious motives. The most dramatic example of this comes from Neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments with people whose brains had been divided in half. We normally process things we see and do on the left side of the body with the right side of the brain, and vice-versa. The brain then communicates across a bridge between the two sides (the corpus callosum). When the bridge is cut, the two sides stop communicating. If a person in a split-brain experiment sees the words “stand up” on their left side, it is only seen by the right hemisphere of the brain. They may stand up, but if asked why they stood up, they won’t know. That’s where a part of the left hemisphere steps in. It’s job is to serve as an “interpreter,” by coming up with explanations from insufficient information. The person may tell you they stood because they were cold, or because their legs ached. They’re not consciously lying; their brains are just filling in details.
We do this all the time. If you are asked why you like a particular book, you will probably be able to come up with an immediate answer, like, “I really liked the main character.” But is that the whole truth, or just the interpreter talking? If you follow up with, “Why?” then you may get a little deeper.
“I liked that she was really tough.”
“Because it seems like women don’t always get to be tough in literature and I like that this book subverts that.”
“Because I like the idea of being tough and wish I was more like her, so it’s validating.”
…And so on…
Yes, it’s like having a conversation with a curious two-year-old in your head. But notice how the answer gets more specific and more personal as you dig? If there’s anything I like in my fictional character development, it’s specific and personal motives. So we can turn this idea on both your protagonists and antagonists. When you do, remember a few things:
- Everyone thinks they’re the protagonist. They believe that what they’re doing is justified (regrettably or not). They think someone they hurt deserves it. They think they’re in the right. The more wrong the act, the harder they’ll work to justify it to themselves and maintain their self-image.
- Everyone cares about something or someone. Even if that someone is themselves and the something is their ego. If a person really didn’t care, they’d curl up in a corner and not bathe or eat for weeks at a time. That’s how a lot of severe depression manifests. They wouldn’t go out of their way to sabotage their ex’s relationship or build a super-robot to destroy New York. That takes effort, and to put out effort, a person must first care about the results.
- Bad guys can have good motivations. Your villain might actually believe that, in the long run, his giant city-destroying robot will make the world a better place. Good guys can have bad motivations. It’s okay if, in addition to saving the city, your heroine is also driven just a little bit by petty revenge because the robot stepped on her car and she had just splurged on a custom sound system.
So why is your antagonist working to destroy their ex’s new relationship?
“Because she deserves it.”
“Because she hurt me, so I want to hurt her back.”
“Because being hurt makes me feel out of control and vulnerable.”
“Because I wasn’t the one leaving, so I was helpless to stop it. Being able to hurt her back gives me back my feelings of control and makes me feel strong/able to defend myself.”
At the core of most of these questions you’ll find emotions. Sure your bank robbers are after money, but does that money represent safety? Freedom? Validation? A lot of the reasons we come up for why we do things seem to be intended mostly for covering up the emotions we’re feeling, so keep going until you reach something really visceral and basic. That’s your character’s goal. They want to feel strong and in control. They want to feel safe.
Then ask yourself, “Do my character’s actions make sense as a way to achieve these goals?” Keep in mind that it can be a completely dysfunctional attempt to achieve those goals. But they do have to make sense according to the internal frame the character is operating under, however broken it might be. A person can be irrational, immature, self-destructive, and petty. But with a very few exceptions, they need to be internally consistent.