Tuesday, July 26, 2016

I'm the Bad Guy?

Scene from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), starring James Stewart & Lionel Barrymore

I’ve been writing half of my new novel from the antagonist’s point of view, and two uncomfortable but important thoughts crouch in the back of my mind as I write his part of the story:

1) He doesn’t know he’s the bad guy.
2) I don’t always know when I’m the bad guy.

In real life, nobody knows when they’re Mr. Potter, because everybody wants to believe they’re George Bailey. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please find the classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life and watch it.) My antagonist knows he makes mistakes, but he believes that’s because he’s only human. In many ways that’s true, although this guy does such bad stuff that massive rationalizations are required for him to chalk it all up to being “only human.”

Rationalizing our behavior is what we all do when we make choices we’re sure will benefit us but either aren’t sure, or haven’t considered, whether those choices will benefit others. To get inside my antagonist’s mindset, I call on my own inner-rationalizer. Sharing the antagonist’s viewpoint with readers requires me to come to some understanding of the dark side of human nature, which requires me to recognize my own nature and what I’m capable of. Sometimes that makes me cringe.

My bad guy does things I would never do, but they’re still things I can imagine. My ability to manufacture reasons why he considers his actions understandable, forgivable, or even commendable, makes me question my own moral compass and all the things I rationalize in real life.

When I’m done writing his sections, I almost feel dirty, not because of what the bad guy did, but because I’m able to describe it as if I own it. It’s humbling to recognize that some of my antagonist’s worst inclinations are a dark and twisted mirror of my own unworthy temptations: manipulation, cowardice, covetousness, arrogance, self-righteousness, and so on. In other words, in a convoluted way, parts of my bad guy lurk inside me. Yuck.

I thought the deep honesty involved in penning a memoir was confronting, but fiction takes it to a new level. My conscience typically keeps my id under lock and key. But, when I write about my antagonist, I whisper to the id, “Pssst, I’m going to unlock your cell and let you out to play. Then I’m going to trap you and lock you back up when I’m done.” It’s like playing with a psychotic: on one hand, an emotional danger to the unsuspecting public, on the other hand, cruel to the poor psycho, who must afterward sit in the dark and contemplate the destruction he has wrought.

Not that writing about this guy tempts me to do the evil he does. That’s not in my makeup. But he forces me to re-examine how I make decisions, to never again rest in the comforting certainty that I’m George Bailey. My antagonist makes me face the truth: that sometimes I can behave like Mr. Potter, and unless I’m vigilant I might not even know it.

On the flip side, this process leads me to deeper compassion for the foibles of others, a greater readiness to forgive people for wrongdoing, and a desire to understand what motivates bad behavior in the hopes that understanding might lead to change. So it seems those studies that suggest literature increases empathy are true, at least for me.

Whatever else this process yields, I believe honest self-knowledge is the path to writing a great antagonist: to shed light on our dark side, to admit our rage, fear, and, worst of all, our love for the little troll within. This is how we create a believable monster. The next trick is not to hand the guy a mirror, not to let him see himself as he is: because he’s typically more interesting if he has no idea he’s a monster.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s an editor, ghostwriter, and coach who has collaborated on more than twenty books. She teaches young writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV journalist and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.


  1. What a great post, Cara. I agree with all that you said here, and especially liked, "The next trick is not to hand the guy a mirror, not to let him see himself as he is: because he’s typically more interesting if he has no idea he’s a monster."

    I had to think about that for a bit to totally get it, but now I do. In your Mr. Potter example, I see that Capra and the other screenwriters never held that mirror to the character. Potter went through the entire story believing that what he did was just fine because that is the way he always operated. That was how you made money.

    1. Thanks, Maryann. It seems Mr. Potter is his era's version of those members of today's 1% who feel entitled, rationalizing that if others haven't succeeded to their level then that's either because of a flaw in character or bad luck, not through any unfairness in the system the elite helped create. I suspect that if the movie were remade today, writers might reveal his sad childhood and offer him redemption in the end.

  2. I love the concept of the antagonist who would be the protagonist in her/his own story. Two other movie examples that come to mind are Ferris Bueller's Day Off - the antagonist Mr Rooney is really just doing his job, trying to ensure that kids attend school and that the trouble-makers don't get away with ditching class.

    In Star Wars, from Emperor Palpatine's point of view, he simply stepped in to remedy the implosion of the Galactic Republic and, realising that it was the futile attempt to include fair representation of thousands of varied cultures that had led to disaster, Palpatine reasoned that the opposite approach was required: an empire where decisions can be made for the "greater good" of the many, by the few (or the one) [to mangle a Vulcan philosophy and mix the Stars ;-) ].

  3. I'm with you, Elle. I tend to get a bigger kick out of a story when I can see that if it were written from the antagonist's point of view, that person would be the hero.

  4. Excellent insights, Carla! Some great food for thought.

    1. Thanks, Heidi. I do go a bit existential sometimes when pondering craft. Glad it works for some folks. ;)

  5. The strength of a writer's perspective is in the ability to explore all sides of a situation.

    1. I agree, Diana. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Stephen Spielberg, talking about making the movie, Munich: "...you extend empathy in every single direction because you can’t understand the human motivation without empathy."

  6. This is a fabulous post, Cara. It steps up to the plate and validates the antagonist (the person but not necessarily the behavior). I agree with all you say -- right down to the belief that a little of the antagonist lives in each of us.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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