Why your psychopath bad guy is a cop-out
When I ask most successful writers who is their favorite character to write, you’d be surprised how often they say it’s the antagonist.
The antagonist? Wouldn’t they prefer to write the protagonist? That’s who the damn story is about!
Here’s my take: if you don’t love writing your antagonist, your story will be severely lacking.
To enjoy putting words in your antagonist’s mouth isn’t the same as thinking she would make a great friend. It just means you find that character’s point of view interesting to explore, and that bodes well for the dimensionality of the second most important character in your story.
The single most important dynamic in your story is that of the protagonist and antagonist. If one of the characters lacks depth, so will your story.
Additionally, I’d take a story with a boring protagonist and an interesting antagonist over the reverse any day. When you oversimplify the force opposing your protagonist, you turn what could be a convincing dialogue about a complex topic into a forgettable surface-level battle that may have high stakes for the characters but has incredibly low stakes for the reader.
The number-one way writers wreck their antagonist is by making him or her a “psychopath.”
I put that word in quotations because even when this happens, it’s rarely an accurate portrayal of a psychopath. Sure, the character might be labeled a psychopath, but it’s usually not explored more than “this person will do everything in his power to stop the hero from getting what he wants.”
Okay, but why? Even psychopaths have complex motivations.
“Oh, but she wants to gain power over the Galactaplex because she’s an egomaniacal psycho and that’s why she’s trying to murder the hero.” But WHY? Why does she want power? I mean, everyone would like a little more power. But what about her history drives that need?
“The serial killer cuts up ladies because he’s a psychopath who enjoys it.” No. God no. Please just stop.
None of those are sufficient motivations for an interesting antagonist.
I know it can be scary to explore the depths of justification evil uses to perpetrate its acts, but get the hell over it and do it anyway.
We’re living in a time where two non-psychopaths can have polar opposite beliefs about a thing, vocalize them publicly, and both think they’re 100% right and the other is evil. A psychopath villain is mind-numbingly dull when you could have such well-meaning (albeit misguided) people perpetuating acts you consider pure evil.
What’s more, the political and social zeitgeist is such that we’re all grappling with the idea of how good people can do such horrifically awful things. We live in contentious times where we hear sentences come out of the mouths of our family and long-time friends that strike us as so callous or so foolish that we can only stare slack-jawed at that person, struggling to rectify our idea of them as a person of integrity with the deplorable thing they just spouted.
You know the experience. It’s like a sword to your stomach. It rattles you.
The world is being subtly radicalized in two opposing directions by external forces of fearful rhetoric, hyperbole, and outright lies. This is what our society needs to examine further. We need to get down into the weeds on this subject. We need to examine how circumstance and environment can cause a good person to do a terrible thing, and to do that at a safe distance, we need three-dimensional protagonists to study it through the lens of fiction.
Yes, it may be a relief to explain away evil acts as being perpetrated by psychopaths, but that is just a goddamn cop-out. What’s more, it’s the rhetoric those who benefit from division are feeding us day after day. They want us to objectify the opposing views and to dismiss those who hold them as less than human, be that sinners, psychopaths, terrorists, or the like. And once we dehumanize a group, terrible things follow. Let’s not contribute to that with our stories. Let’s subvert that.
I truly believe that readers and writers are some of the most empathetic people around (science backs this up), and if storytellers don’t provide a canvas upon which society can honestly and compassionately confront its most troubling issues—in this case, how good people can justify horrible acts — we’re little more than propaganda machines for our own beliefs.
So please, do everyone a favor and step it up with your antagonist. If you want readers to be hooked, go ahead and start by framing him or her as a psychopath, then let readers discover bits of humanity they didn’t expect. Complicate the issue. If you’re really brave, make the reader sympathize with the antagonist while also remaining sympathetic to the protagonist.
Every week I hear a new story of some writer or teacher being dragged on the internet for making someone feel uncomfortable by presenting a challenging opinion or reality. As Dr. Brené Brown argues in her book Braving the Wilderness, more and more people are hiding away in their ideological bunker, falling in line with false dichotomies, vilifying the supposed opposition, afraid to speak out about injustice within their bunker for fear of becoming an outcast. And this is a huge problem.
Fiction has always served as a safe place to play around with new ideas and views without being held to them, and that’s what it should continue to be. The only way for that to happen, though, is if storytellers keep presenting challenging ideas.
And “psychopaths” are the opposite of challenging. “Psychopath” antagonists are tacit permission to dismiss what we don’t agree with rather than struggle to understand it.
Remember, just because we can understand where someone is coming from doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. And if understanding a belief different from your current one seems threatening to you, well, there’s no stronger indicator that I know of that it’s time for you to explore new ideas.
Let your antagonist be the playground for that personal exploration, and both you and your readers will be better off for it.
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Claire Taylor is an author, editor, and story consultant out of Austin, Texas. She’s also the founder of FFS Media.