Moral Ambiguity in Antagonists

One of the first things you read in any book on writing, aside from the fact that adverbs are the Devil’s handiwork, is that characters need to be three-dimensional. Our hero needs to have a few flaws in addition to his many sterling qualities; and our villain needs to have some traits aside from a penchant for sinisterly twirling his mustache and drowning kittens. I think when it comes to heroes, or at least protagonists, they need to be relatable above all else. If the hero is pure of heart, a gallant warrior, etc etc, that’s great — but if he cusses a blue streak when he stubs his toe, well then! He’s human! And I am much more interested in him as a character.

But villains seem to be a trickier business. To wit:

There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist. (“Wonderful” – Stephen Schwartz)

We say that we want three-dimensional villains, and then we protest that the genocidal maniac was just brainwashed into committing genocide (cough Loki from the Avengers movie cough). We say that we want interesting bad guys and nuanced good guys, and then we claim that the brainwashed victim was actually the villain (cough Bucky Barnes cough). Show me an antagonist who laughs when he murders people and then has tea with his daughter, and I’ll show you a slew of people who say that he’s just misunderstood. Or alternately, show me a protagonist who does his best in a horrible situation to protect his family, and I’ll show you a crowd who howls for his head.

It’s black-and-white thinking. The same stuff that says “anyone who isn’t perfectly pure and good-hearted is an evil sonovasomethingorother and deserves to roast on a spit.” Sorry? Last time I checked, people were humans, and humans make mistakes. It’s kind of built into the programming.

And our main characters should be the same way — making mistakes, I mean. Big goof-ups that make the plot twist and tangle, little goof-ups that make you laugh, and goof-ups all in between. Which means that bad guys need the chance to occasionally do something good, too.

Yeah, it’ll make us as readers uncomfortable to think that such a bad person can care about family or a stamp collection or gardening. But it reminds us that bad people are people, just like us. And more importantly, that it doesn’t stop them from being bad.

Fiction doesn’t have to be haughty literary stuff in order to tell uncomfortable truths.

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