Today's blog post is by Will Jordan. He is the author of the Ryan Drake series.
Everyone thinks they're the good guy.
Never have I heard a more timely and honest observation about human nature, and one that can be applied so readily to shaping and developing the characters in a story. Where did it come from? I'll tell you at the end of this blog.
First, let's be honest here; every story needs a bad guy. After all, what use is a hero without a villain to pit himself against? How can you create drama in a story without an obstacle or problem to challenge the protagonist? The more we look at how a story fits together, the more we come to understand that the villain is every bit as important as the hero.
Now let's be even more honest; secretly, don't we all root for the bad guy, just a little? Come on, you can admit it. Don't you find them just a bit more interesting, a bit more compelling and more fun than the hero? Don't you find yourself wondering what would happen if their plans actually succeeded? Don't you want to understand what makes them tick, why they do what they do?
Okay, maybe it's just me, then.
But whether you agree of not, the fact is that understanding what motivates your book's antagonist, what drives them, what they're striving towards and what they're willing to sacrifice to get there is a vital skill for any writer. If you can't do it, your book's in trouble right from the start.
So how do you write a good antagonist? Well, my acid test is a simple one. Can I make a convincing argument that my antagonist is in fact a good guy? Does his end goal, at least in his mind, justify all the things he does to get there? Can I imagine what he might do with the rest of his life if he prevails?
Those are certainly questions I try to answer with Ghost Target, my most recent novel in the Ryan Drake series. More than ever before, I set out to shed light on Marcus Cain, the shadowy and menacing figure who has loomed over the entire series. While other antagonists have come and gone in the course of each book, he’s always remained, and now at last he’s coming to the fore.
This has been my chance to show who he really is as a man, beneath the layers of deceit and cunning. Because for me the bad guy needs to have just as much depth and personality as the hero. They need to have strengths and weaknesses, quirks and flaws, and most of all they need to believe they’re the good guy. After all, who wants to read about a character that's just evil for the sake of being evil, or whose excuse for committing terrible acts is as thin and manufactured as the paper it's printed on?
The protagonist and antagonist are both opposing forces that combine to create the drama of a story. If one side is weak and poorly developed, the story suffers for it.
Which brings me back to my quote at the beginning. Everyone thinks they're the good guy. They all believe, somehow, that they're in the right and everyone else is wrong to stand in their way. For me, that is what truly separates a hero from a villain - the inability to see their actions for what they are, to accept the consequences of what they've done, and to admit when they’re wrong.
It's a lesson I've learned and continue to apply to my own writing.
So where did that quote actually come from?
A few years ago, a CIA field officer debriefing a captured al-Qaeda fighter, asked him why he did what he did – why he’d kidnap, torture and execute innocent civilians, help blow up crowded markets and sacrifice untold lives. His answer was as simple as it was striking - American movies.
Independence Day. Star Wars. Even The Hunger Games. Whatever their setting and specific detail, they all depict a small, plucky band of resistance fighters taking on a massive, superiorly armed invader, and winning out through bravery and sacrifice. As far as he and his comrades were concerned, they were those brave fighters, and America was the evil empire to be resisted by any means necessary. That was all it took to justify everything they had done, to make it right in their minds. It was simply a matter of perspective.
No matter where you go, everyone thinks they're the good guy.
Ghost Target by Will Jordan is out now published by Canelo Books, price £3.99 in eBook.
You can follow him on Twitter - @willjordan83 and find more information about Will Jordan and his books on his website.