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Thread: Well-Rounded Bad Guys

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW Springs's Avatar
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    Well-Rounded Bad Guys

    So, I'm taking a fiction writing class right now, and I've been using excerpts from my novel in our workshops. For the most part, I've been happy with the feedback I've been given and have been able to sort through which suggestions will better the story and which ones don't matter in the bigger context of the novel. However, there is something I was originally planning to ignore that keeps coming up, so I thought I would ask for some more thoughts.

    One of my characters, the MC's mother's fiancé, is an asshole. I intend for this character to be rude and abusive to the MC behind the mother's back, while being perfectly nice to the mother in order to keep the relationship going (he's basically mooching off of them in the process). A very positive moment later in the story will be when the mother realizes how terrible he is and breaks up with him.

    The problem is that my teacher and some of the students want to see a different side of this character. They want him to be humanized and for the MC to see that he isn't really that bad. I think this is partly because I didn't do that well in building up his bad-ness in the beginning chapter (something I will work on) and they didn't read the whole book, but I wanted to ask you guys what you think. Is it okay that he has no real redemptive qualities?
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    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Well... why is he that way? And don't tell, " 'cause he is". Humans (just the same as characters), act with reason and rationality. There is a good reason behind his action, so show the reader that. It doesn't have to be up front in the first couple chapters, but it does need to be foreshadowed to keep some following feeling of redemption and ultimately pop up before everything is resolved.

    You can always have the "bad" guy, but understand that they do bad, for some form of good.
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    Travel biologist, piss-poor fluffer quicklime's Avatar
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    I know a lot of assholes, including myself. even those I loathe rarely have no redemptive qualities. so a guy with none would be a hard sell to me in terms of realism.
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    Esteemed thinker Calliopenjo's Avatar
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    In my opinion, there are people in this world that don't have redeeming qualities. In real life, we generally ignore those.

    What your group may be saying, if you want the audience to see this man as a human being and not a one dimensional thing, then maybe consider giving the character some qualities. The audience may need to see why there's an attraction in the first place. People eventually see through the facade. There has to be something more there.

    The other side of that is do what you feel is best for your story. You know it better than anybody else does. If it works in the end, that's what counts.

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  5. #5
    For I am a Rain Dog too LJ Hall's Avatar
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    Here's the thing I like to remember: nobody is the villain in their own heads. Nobody. Rarely in real life will people just snap and kill someone because they can. Nobody is a thief because they know it's evil and mwah hah hah.

    Usually they have at least some justification of it in their minds. They're a thief because life screwed them over so badly it left them with no choice, and who's it hurting to steal from giant corporations anyway? They kill because they somehow convince themselves that they have to. Even abusive parents or step-parents can justify it to themselves. Kids need to be tough, they need to know who's boss, it's just preparing them for a hard life, etc. Of course these justifications are easy for outsiders to see through, and we know that they're full of crap, but the person actually believes it.

    To me that's the scariest thing in the world about people - not that we commit crimes, but that we can justify those crimes to ourselves.

    Which is a really long-winded way of leading to this: villains with no redemptive qualities are fine, I'd say, there's plenty of them. But I think they need to be human. They need to believe in their own minds that they don't HAVE to be redeemed because they're totally in the right. Maybe add some scene where the fiance actually explains his reasoning to the MC between slaps or insults, explaining that this is just how life is and she'd better get used to it. Something to show that he isn't being abusive just because it helps your plot, that there's a motivation there. That might help your readers believe in him as written and not look for some secret redemptive quality that makes him make sense.

    Just my two cents.

  6. #6
    50% Dark, 50% Snark Nick Rolynd's Avatar
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    In my opinion, yes. Some people have no redeeming qualities in real life, so why do all characters have to have some? Simple answer is they don't. While your execution of this character may not have been perfect the first go around, there's no reason to change his entire characterization. You simply need to work to get your point across better. It could be that your readers in this case felt there's something missing in your character's personality and labeled the characterization "gap" as "no redeeming qualities."

    Do remember, however, that "no redeeming qualities" may mean something different to every reader. One person's "pure evil" is another's "ambiguous good."

    Also, you need to consider the motivations behind your character's actions. Does he do everything for selfish, petty reasons? Is there anything he does that he believes is good? Because the beliefs that go into a character's actions can also influence how a reader interprets him.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Springs View Post
    So, I'm taking a fiction writing class right now, and I've been using excerpts from my novel in our workshops. For the most part, I've been happy with the feedback I've been given and have been able to sort through which suggestions will better the story and which ones don't matter in the bigger context of the novel. However, there is something I was originally planning to ignore that keeps coming up, so I thought I would ask for some more thoughts.

    One of my characters, the MC's mother's fiancé, is an asshole. I intend for this character to be rude and abusive to the MC behind the mother's back, while being perfectly nice to the mother in order to keep the relationship going (he's basically mooching off of them in the process). A very positive moment later in the story will be when the mother realizes how terrible he is and breaks up with him.

    The problem is that my teacher and some of the students want to see a different side of this character. They want him to be humanized and for the MC to see that he isn't really that bad. I think this is partly because I didn't do that well in building up his bad-ness in the beginning chapter (something I will work on) and they didn't read the whole book, but I wanted to ask you guys what you think. Is it okay that he has no real redemptive qualities?
    They want you to make the character human. No one is entirely bad or evil no matter how awful the person is. The reason the antagonist has to be redemptive in some way is that it makes that character more believable and all that more poignant when they do awful things. It's more effective that way. If they're pure evil then who cares? If they're human then the reader cares.

  8. #8
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Springs View Post
    One of my characters, the MC's mother's fiancé, is an asshole. I intend for this character to be rude and abusive to the MC behind the mother's back, while being perfectly nice to the mother in order to keep the relationship going (he's basically mooching off of them in the process).
    I guess this *is* showing two sides of him, although together those two sides add up to = asshole. But some people are like that. I've known plenty of people who are two faced bastards like this, nice as pie to the rest of the world, and the most horrendous c*nt behind closed doors. If you can make it seem plausible (he needs some reason for being an asshole to her, like he's trying to drive a wedge between the mum and daughter) then sure, why not?

    Quote Originally Posted by Springs View Post
    The problem is that my teacher and some of the students want to see a different side of this character. They want him to be humanized and for the MC to see that he isn't really that bad.
    As human beings, we all know there are always reasons why people behave the way they do. No one is born mean.

    As readers, we all know that every character, however minor, has a backstory. But not every character's backstory needs to be shown on the page, or their psychology analysed in depth. Just make your character seem realistic, rather than cartoony, and know where his behaviour is coming from so that IF asked to justify his character/actions, you could.

    Quote Originally Posted by Springs View Post
    Is it okay that he has no real redemptive qualities?
    I think it's ok that you don't SHOW his redeeming qualities, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have any at all. Just that they aren't really relevant to the story. Of course you can give him some good traits if it's bothering you - maybe he's got a talent or job where he actually does something useful, or that benefits others. Doesn't mean he enjoys it (maybe he's a misanthropic equine vet with a secret addiction to prescription drugs) but it gives him a bit more depth than just dead beat no good dirty rotten wife-beatin asshole stepdad-to-be.

    But or god's sake, don't give him a puppy/kitty/fish that he is just sooo attached to it proves he has a heart *vomit*
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  9. #9
    needs something clever to put here Ellielle's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LJ Hall View Post
    Here's the thing I like to remember: nobody is the villain in their own heads. Nobody. Rarely in real life will people just snap and kill someone because they can. Nobody is a thief because they know it's evil and mwah hah hah.
    This, definitely.

    I don't think that the villain necessarily has to have redeeming qualities in the protagonist's or readers' eyes, but I think that it needs to be clear that he thinks he has redeeming qualities. This might be difficult to do in any sort of in-depth manner without his POV, because I'm not sure I endorse resorting to villain monologues to get it across, but hints that he thinks what he does is right for x reason should be enough (or that he knows y is wrong, but still chooses to do it anyway, because of z reason).

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW rwm4768's Avatar
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    One of my major characters in the first draft I just finished sounds a lot like the character you're describing. He's a jerk, but he still has some redeeming qualities. For example, he treats the main female character very negatively, but he does actually love her, just in his own twisted way. He also has at least a little bit of a code of honor, which becomes very important in the book.

    I think it can be difficult to make these kinds of characters well-rounded unless you're writing from the POV of that character. Chances are we're getting the story from your main character and viewing it through his/her lens. S/he's going to see this guy as a bad guy because of the way he treats his/her mother.

    Maybe consider writing something from his point of view. Allow the reader to see why he is the way he is. That's difficult for someone else to judge.

  11. #11
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    It took me three novels to work out the motivation behind my protag's father's behaviour. He definitely started off as 'just an asshole' because if he ever actually TOLD the protag anything or tried to HELP him, no novel. Once I figured him out, I was able to make some small adjustments to his behaviour. So he's still an asshole, but at least I know why....

  12. #12
    Tyrant King jeffo20's Avatar
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    Your instructor may be pushing you to do this as more of an exercise to help you develop as a writer than because your book 'needs' it. I think you can get away without 'redemptive qualities' in your bad guy, so long as you don't go overboard and make him a mustache-twirling, Snidely Whiplash type.
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  13. #13
    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rwm4768 View Post
    I think it can be difficult to make these kinds of characters well-rounded unless you're writing from the POV of that character. Chances are we're getting the story from your main character and viewing it through his/her lens. S/he's going to see this guy as a bad guy because of the way he treats his/her mother.
    Very good point. If you're using single POV in close 3rd, your portrayal of other characters isn't necessarily going to be balanced and rounded. I happen to like multiple POV specifically because it enables me to show my characters from different perspectives, but if it's all written from your MC, then the portrayal will be a bit one sided.
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    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    I think if you, the writer, know the man's story, why he is the way he is, it will come across more subtly in what you write for him. As a reader, sometimes we really don't need to know why he's an asshole, only that he is one.
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    practical experience, FTW brianjanuary's Avatar
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    I agree with bearilou. You don't always have to explain character motivation to the reader, but it helps to understand this yourself. Just as in real life, characters can reveal different sides of their personalities in subtle and incomplete ways. I always maintain that readers aren't stupid and they can add up two and two for themselves without being coached--or hit over the head--by the author.

    And, in the end, it's your story, and you can write it any way you see fit.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Springs View Post
    The problem is that my teacher and some of the students want to see a different side of this character. They want him to be humanized and for the MC to see that he isn't really that bad. I think this is partly because I didn't do that well in building up his bad-ness in the beginning chapter (something I will work on) and they didn't read the whole book, but I wanted to ask you guys what you think. Is it okay that he has no real redemptive qualities?
    Bold mine.

    Their perspective of your antagonist will be skewed by having only read part of the manuscript. While it's good to ask these kinds of questions so as to avoid a stereotypical, two-dimensional villain, you have to take their advice with a few grains of salt. Once the manuscript is finished, a couple of good beta readers can give you a more informed opinion of the bad guy's overall arc.
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    Eight Legs, All Holding Pens ArachnePhobia's Avatar
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    I think LJ Hall, bearilou, brianjanuary, and ChaosTitan have all nailed it.

    If you do want to make the guy more sympathetic, I think there's more sympathy to be had in his head than his backstory. If you show some past incident made him a money-grubbing user, you risk the reader saying, "Something like that/worse than that happened to me, and I don't act like that," and finding him less sympathetic because of it. However, if you get into his head (not necessarily through a POV change; you could paint a picture of his thoughts through a combination of dialogue, actions, even some symbolism), you can get the reader to understand where he's coming from, even if they still think he's terrible.

    However, I also agree that readers may ultimately not need this information, and that the book's arc and conflicts determine how much air time this villain and his villainy require. Don't derail for him.
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    I'm writing. Undistractable. mccardey's Avatar
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    I like a well-rounded guy. Especially in winter

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    Learning to tie my shoelaces sargeorge's Avatar
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    I always prefer villians who you love one second and hate the next. It makes me get more angry when he is being an asshole when I just started to like him.

    He must have had some redeeming qualities for your MCs mother to want to be with him in the first place. Unless of course he's a psycopath and is good at manipulating people.
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    Benefactor Member WeaselFire's Avatar
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    In life, there are very few truly evil people (besides ex-girlfriends, of course). Almost all have some redeeming qualities, that's what makes them interesting. And interesting characters make for an interesting story.

    On the other side, there are no hookers with hearts of gold either.

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    Writer Erin Kelly's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hydrogen View Post
    They want you to make the character human. No one is entirely bad or evil no matter how awful the person is. The reason the antagonist has to be redemptive in some way is that it makes that character more believable and all that more poignant when they do awful things. It's more effective that way. If they're pure evil then who cares? If they're human then the reader cares.
    ^^YES!

    All characters should have more than one dimension, even our villains.

    If he's just hanging out as an asshole to serve a plot purpose (i.e., create a turning point for the mother), readers will see right through that. But if he's his own actual character, your story becomes much more rich and interesting. Bad guys who are 100 percent evil are just as uninteresting as good guys who are 100 percent good -- and it's not realistic.

    He can still be an asshole, mind you. But there should still be a piece in there that makes him human.
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  22. #22
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    I like well-rounded, human characters. But this does not mean a character must have redeeming qualities. Some people have no redeeming qualities, and there's nothing wrong with portraying a character just this way. Some people are all bad, in every possible way. Whether they think themselves the villain or not, whether some childhood trauma set it off or not, they're simply bad.

    This doesn't mean they can't be well-rounded and human. Well-rounded doesn't have to be the cliched "He may be a murderer and a wife beater, but he's good to children, he loves cats , and he gives half his money to a fund for single mothers."

    The truth is just as likely to be that he's a murderer, a wife beater, he fantasizes about torturing a child, he uses cats for target practice, and he impregnated half the single mothers in his town.

    Well-rounded can just mean he has varied interests, different beliefs, and has problems just like the rest of us. Maybe he has a bunion that's killing him, a bill collector than hounds him, and he's lactose intolerant.

  23. #23
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    Give him something to focus on other than being an a-hole. That'll round him out a bit.
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  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW Coco82's Avatar
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    I had a friend who betas for me who told me I had to flesh out my bad guy in future chapters so I gave him a monologue that went into his rationale. I'll do more here and there, but don't think every bad guy needs redeeming qualities that come out in every chapter they're in. They're the villain for a reason and I don't think you need to go into root causes to explain them entirely.
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  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW Springs's Avatar
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    Well, after reading what you guys have said and thinking a little about the character, I've realized that, while he's pretty selfish and perverse, his relationship with the mother did wonders for her. When her husband died, her relationship with her daughter (the MC) went majorly downhill, meaning that she had to go through the mourning process without the support of the living person closest to her. When she started going out with Ken (the asshole in question), she finally had someone to talk to again. Even though he had ulterior motives for being with her, that doesn't change the positive effect he has had in her life, and she will always have the strength that that gave her.

    Therefore, I think I'm going to start by building up his badness in his interaction with the MC during the first chapter to better establish and justify the MC's opinion of him. He's not central enough to the story to deserve a chapter of his own, but I plan at least one chapter to be from the mother's perspective, so in that, the good things that he has brought to the family will be acknowledged, even as she realizes how much of an asshole he is and leaves him.
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