Monday, December 19, 2011

When the villain outshines the hero

Ideally, readers will prefer our protagonists to our villains. But I would bet we've all found a book or two where the opposite was true, where we ended up rooting for the villain to beat the hero.

By thinking about the characteristics of books where I prefer the antagonist, I've come up with some possible fixes for this problem:

--Don't let the antagonist have all the best lines, especially the funny ones. If anyone in the book has a sense of humor, let the main character have one.

--Make the protagonist earn his status. Things shouldn't come too easily or seem unmerited. If he's had to sweat or sacrifice to get where he is, we'll usually have more sympathy for him.

--Let the main character be vulnerable. If she's always on top of things, if she always knows what to do, we won't worry much about whether she can succeed, and we won't be nearly as invested in her struggle. It's also good if the main character is nice to others, or nice to at least one other person (or even a pet!). I recall one book where the supposed hero was cold to everyone, and by the end of the book I really didn't care whether he survived.

--Similarly, let the protagonist have flaws. If she's too perfect, too good to be true, she loses believability. Who can relate to a character who never makes a mistake?

--This one may seem counterintuitive, but don't make the villain too bad. When I feel that the author has stacked the deck too unfairly against the villain, piling one negative on top of another, I start to feel some sympathy for the antagonist. "Gee, he's really getting a raw deal--he hasn't had a single break! No wonder he acts the way he does," I end up thinking. People have an inherent sense of fairness, and if an author seems to violate that by over-punishing the villain, it can backfire.

You'll notice that most of these suggestions revolve around shoring up the protagonist rather than tearing down the villain. That's because I believe that a strong, even sympathetic, antagonist is actually a plus. I would rather see a weak protagonist strengthened, so that there are two strong characters.

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