I compiled this list from the internet, a general guide to writing if you wish to search for it.
- Idealist Realist
- Conventional Moral Code Moral Code of their Own
- Extraordinary Ordinary
- Proactive Passive
- Decisive Indecisive
- Successful at Goals Failure, but can be redeemed
- Motivated by Pure Intentions Motivated by Primitive Nature
- Wants to Overcome Wants to Fulfill Self Interest
- Learns a Lesson Often Remains Unchanged
- Risk Taker, for Good Rarely Risks, unless Self Serving
- General Good Manners Generally Crass
- Conforms Rebels
- Brave Sneaky
- Gets the Girl Loses the Girl
- Clean Cut Sloppy
Most people seem to agree that Superman falls into the hero category, and I would too. The references I found felt Batman was an anti-hero and I agree he is, but if you look closely at the list, he doesn’t fall into the ‘general’ description of anti-hero. Batman is not ordinary, passive, indecisive, crass, sneaky or sloppy. He often gets the girl and also often takes risks to save others. That’s almost half the traits he does NOT possess.
Keeping with the comic scene, let’s look at Harry Osborn from Spider-man. He is a match for Batman in almost every way. He is young, handsome, rich, and looking to avenge the death of his father. What makes him a villain? That he is seeking revenge on our good guy?
Now let’s look at our villain from Superman, Lex. Well, he isn’t passive when it comes to fulfilling his goals and he generally gets the girl, although the girl is usually the ‘dumb blonde’ type and probably doesn’t realize how bad her squeeze is. If you look at the Joker, he falls more into the anti-hero list than Lex, the Joker can’t even get a girl.
So I propose that the anti-hero list is simply a villain list. The good guy list defines most protagonists and the true anti-hero falls somewhere between.
I think I’ve made my case, but let’s go a little further. A villain developed from the anti-hero list is going to be two dimensional. And while there is always a time and place for this type of character, those times and places should be very few. A serial rapist, who takes women who won’t give him the time of day because he is ordinary, poor, sloppy, sneaky, passive, and indecisive is really nothing more than a bully. Your bad guy needs a moral code of his own, and as a writer you need to clarify why his code is different and how it became so skewed from the conventional.
When I was a child my great-aunt told me that evil was beautiful. It smelled good, it’s taste was tempting and it drew you in by calling to your base needs. Now, she was talking about chocolate cake (while she was eating a slice) but as an adult writer I’ve taken that image with me and put it into my characters.
If you are writing an in-depth bad guy, especially if you’re working on a series with a recurring bad guy, then you’re going to have to get to know him as well as you know your protagonist. There are a few things on the anit-hero list he shouldn’t be, ordinary, indecisive, crass, sloppy. He has to be smart, at least in part. If he was ordinary, crass and sloppy, he wouldn’t have been able to obtain the following he has and surely he has people to do his bidding, right? If he were indecisive he wouldn’t be able to complete a complicated task designed to throw a wrench in the life of our protagonist. People would more likely follow a handsome, young man who radiates power and authority. They aren’t going to join forces with some guy living in his mom’s basement.
Think, mob stereotypes. The mobster who runs a casino, deals in drugs, moves stolen merchandise etc. These characters never indulge in the activities they provide, and when they do they are removed from their position (you know how). The bad guy has to be clear headed, not drug induced. He has to obtain money, not lose it on the horses. He has to plan a theft of merchandise, where he’ll unload it and how he’ll launder the money afterward.
Many people enjoy mob movies and shows. Why? Because the mob consists of handsome men and beautiful women. They dress nice, they’re rich and flaunt it. They are smart and radiate power and authority. People, human nature perhaps, are drawn to these characters. These characters are not ‘good’. They fit more into the anti-hero list than anywhere else. They are self-serving and criminals. They have their own moral code and rebel against authority. They are realists who often remain unchanged throughout life and if they do change, life generally makes them even more cynical.
The list above is really nothing more than the cookie cutter bad guy/good guy that publishing companies and movie makers have forced on the public for years (i.e. Wizard of Oz, good witch, beautiful, wicked witch, even her voice grates on your nerves). While they are an excellent guide, and anything that helps improve the depth of a character is a good thing, they should only be used as guides.
Think back to all the books and movies you’ve delved into. Who’s your favorite bad guy and why? I think mine would be Lestat. In the book, The Vampire Lestat, he’s the protagonist. He’s innocent of the world and then thrown into another world against his will. You root for him, simply because of the point of view the book shows. Then in Interview With a Vampire, he’s the bad guy. This innocent has been shown the monster and embraces it, he revels in the change, and this attitude alters his behavior. I loved to hate him so much because his character had depth. You could sympathize with the child, and hate what he had become. But you knew why he was the way he was and what drove his actions. This is what I strive to create when writing my bad guy.
It’s hard for a lot of writers to explore the bad guy. Keeping the cookie cutter list is safe. The readers expect it, since it’s been a mainstay for years in the creative world. Safe is good, safe is easy and people probably won’t think you’re crazy. Those authors who toss the cookie cutter and begin molding something of their own will challenge readers. They take fear and loathing and blow it up, force the reader to take a long, hard look at it and then walk away. Take John Grisham. His bad guys almost always leave you with the question, what would you have done in my place? They didn’t want to be bad. They were forced to be, by someone else. He implies that the kernel of bad is in all of us and if events are just right, it’ll grow. Lestat begs the question of readers, do we all have the potential to embrace the monster? Is it in all of us and through one event, exposed and released?
So get to know your bad guy. You don’t have to tell the reader everything, you don’t even have to tell your reader most things. But to establish consistency with your bad guy you have to understand his motives. Why he acts a certain way will often tell you what choice he’s about to make. Listen to him, then lock him away so people won’t think you’re as demented as he is.