This weekend I watched the Amazon documentary about Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her conviction after convincing her boyfriend to kill her mother, Dee Dee.
Long story short — Gypsy was the victim of her mother’s Munchausen’s by Proxy. It’s a sad, sad story about a mother convincing her daughter and the world that her daughter had a range of illnesses from cancer to muscular dystrophy. Dee Dee convinced doctors to remove her daughters teeth and her salivary glands, among other horrible things.
Gypsy met a young man on line and eventually the two of them planned to kill Dee Dee. They followed through on the plan. Gypsy was given a ten year sentence. She says that she’s more free in prison than she was with her mother.
All of that has started me thinking about writing antagonists.
There are two types of antagonists — straight up villains and rivals.
A villain is someone who is objectively bad. Evil. Morally corrupt.
A rival is someone who works against your hero, but isn’t necessarily morally suspect.
Darth Vader is a villain. He’s blowing up planets, killing with impunity.
The wizard in the Wizard of Oz is a rival. Like Dorothy, he just wants to go home. He’s working against her, but not necessarily with evil intent.
Regardless of which your story has, this is important to remember: your villain is a person who is the hero of their own story.
Even the really bad baddies.
Your villain is a human being.
And if you can remember that, you’ll write a much deeper, more interesting story.
It can help to chart out their own story arc. It’s not going to be in perfect line with your hero’s journey. They’re in a different place in their story.
Let’s go back to Gypsy and Dee Dee.
Dee Dee’s story started with a troubled childhood, long before her daughter was even born. She was suspected of killing her mother and attempting to kill her step-mother.
She suffered from mental illness.
One interesting thing, when I researched a little deeper into Gypsy Rose Blanchard, is that it’s suggested that she exhibits the same sociopathic, manipulative behavior as her mother did. Which may have lead her to convincing her boyfriend (who had cognitive issues) to commit the murder.
Antagonists are an important part of your story.
Learning how to make them real people who might be broken and even evil, but also human and flawed and at least somewhat sympathetic, is important.
I came across this article today that describes The Scale of Evil, created by Dr. Michael Stone. It describes 22 different types of people and ranks them from the least to the most psychopathic. From not evil (someone who kills in self-defense) to the most evil (the example in the article of someone ranked 22 is Jeffery Dahmer.)
If you’re struggling with making your antagonist read like a fully-developed character, that resource might help.
Try this, too.
As you think about your antagonist, think about at least one positive attribute.
Look for something that might humanize them.
Like Hannibal Lecter’s feelings for Clarice Starling. Or the fact that Darth Vader returns to the light, just before his death.
Make your reader feel something for your antagonist. Your story will be so much better for it.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.