Crying for Darth Vader

In my last post I talked a bit about antagonists and protagonists, and the difference between the two. This is a continuation of that long-ago post, with with a writing “must” you might not’ve though of. Ready? Here goes:

When you’re writing a novel, you must make your antagonist likeable … at least in some way.

Are you surprised to see that? Maybe so, considering the antagonist is usually the bad guy who keeps messing everything up for the main character. The antagonist is the one who spoils the fun, bullies others around, plots to kill and destroy the hero. So why do we want to like him?

Because even if your antagonist seems to be bad to the bone, he (or she) needs to have something nice about him or something decent that can help your readers relate to him. Every antagonist/bad guy believes he’s doing the right thing by trying to destroy whatever the hero is working for. But why? Once you’ve figured that out and can hint at it in your story, you’ve made that antagonist even more real to your readers.

Two classic examples from the movies:

Do you know why Joker from Batman fame looks so hideous? Because his wife (yes, he was actually married at some point) was in some type of horrible accident and her face was terribly disfigured. I don’t remember exactly what happened to her, so bear with me for a minute. The Joker (who I guess wasn’t really the Joker at that point), stuck a switchblade in his mouth and cut himself all up. He tells Batman it was to show his wife he didn’t care that she wasn’t beautiful anymore — he loved her no matter how she looked. But she couldn’t handle it and things went downhill from there. That one quick scene with Batman shows us that Joker wasn’t always an awful guy, and that he willingly disfigured himself because of someone he loved. Hmmm … maybe he has a heart after all, somewhere deep down under the wickedness.

And let’s not forget Darth Vader. I’ll admit my age and say that Star Wars first came out when I was in about 4th or 5th grade. After years of movies and always seeing Darth Vader as the ultimate villain, I was completely unprepared for something in Revenge of the Sith — I almost cried for Darth Vader.

What?! Cry for Darth Vader? Yes, I almost did.

He was well on his way to be sucked over to the dark side, but was also still human enough to care for Amidala. Her pregnancy and her life were at risk, and Anakin was frantic with worry over her. The Sith Lord promised that if Anakin came to their side, Anakin would have power over death and that Amidala would be OK. Anakin’s love for Amidala and his desperation to save her pushed him right over the edge.

So why did I almost cry? Because it was the first time I saw Anakin’s move to the dark side through his eyes — and he believed he did it to help someone he loved. Most of us can relate to loving someone and probably know what it’s like to give up something to help someone else. Did knowing that side of Darth Vader turn me into a Dark Force fan or make me cheer for him in the other movies when he battled Rebel forces? No, it didn’t. But it did help me connect with him, even if it was only for a few minutes — and that’s exactly what the writers wanted.

The more you can learn to do that with your own stories, the more real your antagonist will be — and the more your readers will relate to him, whether they want to or not. And being able to create characters that make people keep reading is is what it’s all about.


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