Many shitty stories start on the premise that the main character is “good” and the antagonist is “evil.”
One thing I really dislike about older movies (and even some new ones) is this concept that the bad guy must be absolutely bad, and the good guy absolutely good. It’s frustrating on the silver screen, but it’s inexcusable when found in prose.
Now, before you go all “what about Hitler?” on me, let me explain this from a more typical viewpoint. Our polarization of some things stems from the media, history books, and whatever. There have definitely been some terrible atrocities on Earth, but I’m going to step out of my comfort zone a little and just say that evil and good are miscible properties. No matter how much you distill any person into one category, something of the other will remain. You cannot realistically extract all of the good from an “evil” character or all of the evil from a good one. Purity of either cannot be attained, realistically. Even Hitler had a girlfriend. For all his terror and destruction, there was a soft spot buried somewhere in there.
I’m not going to stick on that point, I’ve been on it too long already. The fact of the matter, is that pure characters (evil or good) are not believable. They aren’t relatable, and nobody cares about them. Good enough? I’m not defending Hitler, I’m just making a point.
But my main character is a good guy!
I don’t care. Drop the charade, nobody is perfect. If Jesus can have a mean streak of pushing merchant tables over, then your MC can have some not-so-perfect qualities.
Your character doesn’t have to be all-good to be like-able. They don’t have to be a saint. The fun part of a story is seeing character flaws in another person, even an imaginary one, and how they struggle with those flaws. Saints are boring, and so are evil bad guys bent only on destruction.
Can you imagine how stupid Silence of the Lambs would be if Hannibal wasn’t so polite? It would suck all of the fun out of the movies. So get over your perfect character idea, it doesn’t exist.
How do I give him bad qualities without tainting him?
Sorry for the gender specific pronouns.
The flaws of my best characters reflect my own flaws. They smoke, or drink. Most of my stories are pretty unimaginative in that respect. Find something that’s a little negative, which isn’t going to hang your character’s chances of attaining his goal. Hell, he goal could be to kick the bad habit. A serial rapist who wants to give up his evil fetish and become a Buddhist? Now that would a story that would get people’s attention.
Without going to the extreme though, here’s a list of some negative things (perceived by the public and media, I’m not chastising anyone for these habits, necessarily)
- addicted to sex
- abstains from sex
- drug use
- swears too much
- bad driver
- suspicious of all charities
- picky eater
- steals when the chance of getting caught is low
- hates some group (like a city gal that thinks farmers are dumb hicks)
- bad temper
- part sociopath
And here are some like-able qualities for the baddest of characters.
- invests heavily in some charity
- refuses to kill small insects (only people)
- their evil is a means to a better world (at least in their mind)
- only steals from people who “deserve” it
- kind to strangers
- has a kid/family
- tells good jokes
- affectionate to those closest to them
- find their kryptonite
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Get creative. If you have to give the bad guy a crippling weakness, fine, but personally I find weak bad guys (this other guy/illness made me do it) come off sounding a little lazy, but they work in some cases. Your antagonist should have a motive and a goal, just like your protagonist.
Personally, my favorite stories are the ones where the line between good and evil is blurred wonderfully. Complex characters keep my attention. And when characters have a solid mixture of both positive and negative qualities, it makes them seem richer. A protagonist without flaws makes for a boring story, and an antagonist without reason seems lazy.
Just my thoughts. What do you think?