Stories can’t exist without characters, right? Well, at least most of them need characters. Our first stories feature characters that include dogs, caterpillars, cars, power tools with faces, and purple dinosaurs, to name a few. As we grow our stories become more complex and we get introduced to bad guys, usually trolls or wicked witches. At some point, if you’re paying attention in high school lit, you will further learn that the main character (usually the good guy) is called the protagonist, and his nemesis (usually the bad guy) is called the antagonist.
You also learn that characters can either be flat (or one-dimensional) or round (or three-dimensional). Flat characters are like most of the characters in the fairy tales you enjoyed as a child: Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella – the sweet, innocent girl who got a raw deal out of life and needs someone to save them; Prince Charming – the noble hero with next to no common sense who will gladly risk life and limb to rescue a girl he has never seen in his life whom he will then marry; Evil Witch/Stepmother/Dwarf with funny name – evil…or jealous…or greedy…or evil…wait, I used that already.
And while there’s nothing wrong with innocence, or valour, or even evil, no person is just those things. That’s why we call the characters flat. They’re unrealistic. See, real people are multi-faceted. Even the most stand-up guy you know has his dark side and the meanest bastard on earth might have a soft spot for kittens (no, I’m not necessarily talking about that guy). Good characters are like that – you get to know them as complete people and that’s why you empathise with them.
I had never thought that this last bit should also apply to bad guys. In epic fantasy the bad guy is often evil incarnate (think Sauron), so not much else you can do there. Sometimes we get to know a bit more of their motives, like Saruman or Tywin Lannister, but even that does little to engender sympathy in readers, as their motives are often entirely selfish. It is rare in fantasy to find a genuine bad guy who’s also a genuine human.
Therefore I was intrigued when I was taught during a creative writing course last year that the antagonist should be every bit as rounded as the protagonist that the reader must be able to sympathise just as much with the antagonist and even struggle to decide which one to root for. I have been looking for that type of antagonist, but have not yet found one in the books I’ve been reading. I have, however, found one on television in one of those rare occasions when visual media seems to outstrip the printed word.
The wife and I have recently started watching Dexter and it is probably one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Remember in the first paragraph where I said the protagonist is usually the good guy? In Dexter the protagonist is undoubtedly a bad guy. He’s a sociopath. He kills people for enjoyment. Okay, so it’s a compulsion and he only kills bad guys, but still…
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the first two seasons of Dexter and are still planning to do so you probably shouldn’t click through to page 2.)