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I am writing a book. However, I can't quite wrap my head around making my character do bad things, while still making their actions and/or motivations for their actions believable.

Here is an example of what I'm tying to achieve, from Season 2, Episode 24 of House: A former patient walks into House's office and shoots him. However, its revealed that the patient's wife committed suicide after House made him confess to cheating. The fact that he was cheating didn't turn out to be medically relevant, so the former patient decided to get revenge and put House into pain (to make House feel the pain he felt when his wife died).

What I'm really trying to avoid in my story is the whole "evil for the sake of being evil" thing. I'm not trying to make the antagonist look like a good guy, but to make the reader question themselves for just a second and wonder, "Is the protagonist really doing the right thing?" or "Is the antagonist really doing the wrong thing?" Because I can't make my antagonist, I haven't really been able to determine what the plot or conflict will be, though I am pretty sure thre will probably be a group / organization of antagonists, not just one or two, and that the genre is fantasy. Thanks for any advice or examples!

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    Some related answers which might be helpful: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1614/… and writers.stackexchange.com/questions/5022/… and related to that one, writers.stackexchange.com/questions/5059/i-want-to-explore-the-psychology-of-a-ruthless-macho-killer-what-mistakes-shou/ – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum May 10 '15 at 22:36
  • Could you give us at least one example of a bad thing you want to make believable? It can be an isolated incident - no need to go into the detail of your story's plot. – micapam May 11 '15 at 5:31
  • The antagonist(s) try to take away free will from people in general, but I don't have any specific examples, as I'm still in my exposition. – Keychain1 May 12 '15 at 0:37
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    What I always do is make the antagonist have good aims, but they go to the farthest extremes to implement their schemes. – Cyberson May 12 '15 at 3:55
  • This reminds me of the manga Death Note. Don't beat me for referring you to a comic. The Hero-Antagonist pair in this one is extraordinary in terms of motivation. The main character finds a book that kills everybody whose name is written in it. He decides: I use this book to purge the world of evil. Maybe you want to take a look at this manga -- quite a brilliant thriller, actually -- for inspiration. Besides, taking away free will can always be "justified" by the reputed stupidity of people. Maybe your antagonist wants to save humanity from itself. – Filip May 12 '15 at 9:06

12 Answers 12

4

This may seem a bit unorthodox, but if you'd like to see a very good example of an antagonist with believable motivations, the character Jack/Handsome Jack from the Borderlands video game series is an excellent place to start. This example may be a bit more outlandish/extreme than what you're going for (at least from what I can extrapolate from your House example) and is admittedly quite long, but it gets the point across pretty clearly.

The games weren't released in chronological order, so Handsome Jack is presented to the player in Borderlands 2 first as a sociopathic corporate dictator - he repeatedly tries to have the player and their allies (who have a history with him that isn't explicitly expounded upon) killed, exhibits extreme megalomania and paranoia, and displays a severe disregard for the lives of others, often finding delight or amusement in killing innocent civilians, children and even his own family members. He, however, believes he is a 'hero,' and seems to have a complex about it. It is originally not clear why he believes this.

Anyone who opposes him he considers a 'bandit,' and therefore deserving of extermination, and although he claims the mass murders are all in an effort to bring peace to planet, no concrete reasoning is ever given for his malicious obsession with the player and their allies, and he is very much presented as the 'evil just to be evil' antagonist.

The tipping point is when the player frees his daughter which results in her death after he had imprisoned and tortured her for a significant period of her life. Even though it was technically suicide and also his fault, the fear, loss, grief and rage he displays as the event plays out are genuine, showing he is literally incapable of comprehending that he has done bad things. Eventually, the player does succeed in defeating him, but not before he kills and tortures several main protagonists.

All of this is expanded upon in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, released after Borderlands 2, where the player is actually allied with Handsome Jack and aids in his rise to power before the events of Borderlands 2.

Just "Jack" at this time, he's a programmer within the company he eventually becomes CEO of in 2 and is more or less a stand-up guy; in a turn around from his rather manipulative manner of "winning" in 2, he plays a more hands-on role in his plans, willingly risks his life to save the player's and is only concerned with saving the crew on a company owned space station under attack. He frequently voices his disgust and repulsion over the loss of life occurring and focuses all of his resources in an effort to retake the station.

However, as the game progresses, he is forced to make more and more morally ambiguous/questionable choices.

  • After confronting the man who betrayed him by selling the security information, Jack actually lets him go free - he then attempts to shoot Jack in the back as he leaves, resulting in Jack killing him and noting that it felt "exhilarating."

  • The player retrieves a sentient military AI for Jack so he can control a robot army and take the space station back. After realizing that she doesn't want to kill people, the AI pleads to not be forced to integrate with the machinery and offers to duplicate herself instead, which will take several days. Jack concludes they don't have the time, forcibly installing her into the system and subsequently erasing her personality.

  • After taking part of the station back (for which the crew heralds him as a hero), Jack locks a group of scientists in an airlock and opens the door, killing them because he fears they will betray him, despite having no valid reason to believe this. Notably, this is witnessed by the two protagonists in 2 that Jack kills and tortures, who at this time were hired to help retake the station as well.

  • He is then betrayed by those same protagonists, who sabotage the weapon of mass destruction Jack had constructed in an attempt to kill him and the crew, because they believe he is a deep-seated psychopath with too much power. He survives only because he decided to activate the weapon remotely instead of manually as they had anticipated, and this becomes the catalyst for his hatred of those characters, as he vows to kill them alongside the bandits that roam the planet.

  • Finally, after obtaining an alien relic that gives him visions on how to become powerful on the galactic scale, one of the protagonists who had just tried to kill him arrives and destroys it. Jack's proximity to the relic in the ensuing blast results in him losing an eye and his face being permanently scarred, forcing him to wear the iconic mask seen in 2. He swears vengeance on the characters, finally shifting from the well-intentioned Jack to the violently obsessed Handsome Jack.

Why is this a good example? A noted part of any type of storytelling is that it features protagonist-centered morality; you're observing the world from the protagonists point of view, and it is very easy for their own morality and the morality of those that they encounter to be warped, e.g. the protagonist losing their love interest to someone else - even if that person is an objectively good person otherwise, through the eyes of the protagonist, they are an enemy and will be presented as such throughout the narrative.

When playing through 2 it's easy to sum Jack up as your run-of-the-mill villain taking on the scrappy underdog protagonists - and many people did. But after playing The Pre-Sequel, it was hard to look at those same protagonists and still feel like they were faultless heroes.

With Jack's story, it's difficult to walk away saying he got what he deserved and that the protagonists were completely in the right.

But it is also difficult to say Jack wouldn't have still descended into psychopathy at some later point (seeing as he had already imprisoned his daughter prior to the events of The Pre-Sequel! and had already constructed a weapon of mass destruction), and that the protagonists were completely wrong in trying to kill him before he took the plunge.

But that's the point; the reality is people are morally gray, and seldom are events as clean cut as narratives make them out to be. Your reader should feel conflicted when walking away from your work, because that shows you have portrayed a reality in which they themselves would have probably made or at least empathized with a number of the decisions made by either side.

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I will tell you the single most helpful thing that helped me in constructing characters for a story.

That is the Alignment System.

It is often used in role-playing games to construct broad characters, but I've found it is a great jumping off point for creating a more detailed, well balanced character.

Constructing a 2d grid and plotting good-evil and lawful-chaotic against the axes, and placing characters somewhere on it, it is a lot easier to get a clearer picture about who a character is, and thus what would motivate them.

Having the main 9 denominations is helpful, because it allows you to start constructing a character around the values that each of the denominations holds. However, most characters do not fit perfectly into a single one of the categories, and even fewer stay where they are on a grid as their character develops.

However, everyone fits somewhere on it. A good story will tend to have people across the entire area of the grid.

This can then be expanded to create finer details within the personality of the character, because it's easier to think of how that character would act in a situation based on their values, which is what most people use to make tough decisions. You'll find particular personality traits go with particular alignments as well.

I have difficulty creating characters who are lawful-good or chaotic-evil, because I struggle to find motivations for people who are so virtuous or so immoral, but sometimes it is good to throw a character like that in to advance or halt the story, as they tend to be the most stubborn.

Using this will hopefully allow you to get around the "evil for the sake of evil" problem. Some people have no regard for others, but do not break the rules. Others are rule-breakers, but only in order to help others.

Think of Robin Hood vs the Sheriff of Nottingham. Depending on where you stand personally, either one of these people can be seen as the good guy or bad guy.

As for the difference between protagonist and antagonist, it is very easy using this chart to see which people would naturally oppose and support each other.

A lawful evil and lawful good character will, despite being on other sides of the morality scale, find common ground in respecting the rules. A lawful good and chaotic good would, despite both wanting to help others, disagree strongly on the method of helping people.

People directly opposite on the grid will invariably be the most at odds with each other. Whilst conflicts do not always have to be from entirely opposite ends of the spectrum, like with characters it is a great jumping off point. This can then be adapted to what fits into your story.

If you're still struggling to identify your characters with certain alignments, try looking at some alignment grids of other stories. This is a list of some good ones, including Nintendo characters, The Big Lebowski characters and even the various forms of The Doctor from Doctor Who. But there are a million more if you search for them.

Whilst I have found this as a great help, don't rely solely on this. Characters can become caricatures if they are created in order to fit into this grid pattern, just use it as a guide. And remember, characters can fit into more than one. Batman fits into them all, but then again, it is Batman.

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    It's worth noting that a character who is chaotic evil can be evil for the sake of evil. It's actually something of a requirement. – Ferus Olin May 24 '16 at 2:19
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First off, I applaud your goal. I read so many stories where the villain is evil for no apparent reason. Most evil people in the real world don't cackle insanely and shout "I will destroy all that is good and true!!" Rather, they have very plausible-sounding reasons for their evil.

Some examples of plausible motivations that come to mind:

  1. Carrying what could be a good thing to an extreme. Consider the Unabomber: He was concerned about pollution damaging the environment. So his solution was to murder people responsible for pollution. Is it wrong to want to protect the environment? Of course not. Is appointing yourself judge and jury and handing out death sentences a good solution to the problem? Personally, I'd say no.

  2. Paranoia. The villain is convinced that someone is out to do him or people he cares about harm, and he must protect himself and others. The biggest villains in history come to mind here: The Nazis couldn't comprehend how Germany had lost World War 1. They concluded that it must be because the Jews had betrayed the country and sabotaged the war effort. Therefore, to protect the country from further betrayal, they had to kill all the Jews. The villain could be over-reacting to a real threat, or the threat could be totally imaginary. The more plausible-sounding you can make the threat, the better.

  3. Revenge, for real or imagined offenses. You mentioned this one.

  4. For their own good. People would be better off if they did X. I can't understand why they refuse to do X; they must just not understand. Therefore, I will trick them or force them to do X for their own good. Example: Plato. He believed that people should marry and reproduce based on genetics rather than love. He knew people wouldn't accept this idea. So he proposed that the government should decide who should be mated to whom and then trick people into these pairings.

I think some of the best stories are those where the villain's motivation sounds totally plausible. That is, that you have heard real people who were not obviously insane say similar things. Like, "I realized that my neighbor Bob was really an alien from Mars disguised as a human and here as part of the advance guard of their invasion. I had to kill him to save the world." Could make a good story if done right, but in general the reader will just think the guy is nuts, which is less interesting. But, "I realized that my neighbor Bob was running for mayor because he was paid off by that big corporation to change the zoning laws so they could build a factory here. That factory would destroy this town. So I had to spread those rumors about him being a child molester to make sure he lost the election." Now that's pretty plausible, I'd think.

Of course depending on the nature of the story, the villainy could range from breaking up a friendship to destroying the world, but the same KINDS of motivation would still largely apply.

2

Don't forget good old misinformation. Perhaps the antagonist believes the protagonist is a nasty piece of work and needs to be brought to justice.

Similarly feel free to use stress, misconceptions and being emotionally unstable to make the antagonist consider the protagonist to be the 'bad guy'. Treating the first person you meet with a connection to one who's done you wrong as a target is very human (sadly).

Another useful way of setting things up is to make your antagonist goals conflict with your protagonist's goals, and make those goals easy to understand.

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The antagonist can have any motivation as long as they feel justified. It sounds simple but it really is true. In your House example, the antagonist feels fully justified in his actions because his wife killed herself.

In a more amusing example, wrestler Mick Foley (Mankind / Cactus Jack) once turned on a tag team partner because he'd left Doritos on the floor of his car yelling "don't you know I have an eating disorder?!"

Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory hates Wil Wheaton (at least in the early series) simply beacuse Wil never showed up to a show that Sheldon had travelled several hours on a bus to see him.

Captain Barbosa in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film plunders, pillages and kills but all he wants is to find the last piece of Aztec gold so he can become human again and eat an apple.

To us outside looking in, these are crazy people but, in their own minds they are fully justified in their actions.

The days of the crazy evil for the sake of evil villains are a bit behind us (though they do still have their place on occasion) but if you can give them good reasons and motivation for their actions then they'll seem more real to your readers.

2

Two dogs. One bone.

The dogs are antagonists.

Which is the good dog? Which is the bad dog?

One dog may have the objective right to the bone, but that does not change how each dog sees things. Each lives in a world in which that bone is their bone.

Your antagonist lives in a world in which the bone of contention in your story is his bone.

Understand that world and describe it.

2

Antagonists and villains (which are not identical) do things for the same reasons that protagonists and heroes (which are not identical) do. They have the same motivations. Antagonists and villains feel like they are the protagonists and heroes of their own stories.

In the case of real historical persons and real historical conflicts used in fiction, writers can choose which sides and persons to make protagonists and/or heroes and which sides and persons to make antagonists and/or villains. Thus there are examples of the same historical sides and persons being depicted as protagonists and/or heroes in some works of fiction and depicted as antagonists and/or villains in others.

The ability of writers to chose the protagonists and antagonists in a fictional situation should not be abused. When both sides are more or less equally good, and neither is evil, then the writer is free to make either one the protagonist. For example, in sports stories both teams are usually fairly good people, and the writer thus has perfect freedom to depict either team as the protagonists.

If either side is evil, they must be depicted as antagonists and villains. if both sides are evil, both sides must be depicted as antagonists and villains; and the writer must be careful to avoid making either side too sympathetic.

Remember that a person or group can have: 1) good goals and ethical methods of achieving them, or 2) good goals and unethical methods of achieving them, or 3) evil goals and ethical methods of achieving them, or 4) evil goals and unethical methods of achieving them. A person in the last three categories is evil, only those persons in the first category are good.

Since antagonists do not have to be villains, or more evil than the protagonists, or evil in objective terms, they can have good goals and ethical methods. Thus antagonists can have exactly the same motivations as writers and readers and other hopefully good persons, and use methods that are similarly as ethical.

Evil villains can have evil goals, but they don't have to. An evil villain can have good goals and unethical methods of achieving them. Thus evil villains can have exactly the same motivations as writers and readers and other hopefully good persons, but sometimes use unethical and evil methods to achieve them.

Thus it seems perfectly easy to imagine a situation in which the protagonist wants a certain event to happen to achieve his goal, while the antagonist ants to prevent that event to achieve his goal, without either being evil. And it seems perfectly easy to give an evil villain a perfectly normal and understandable goal that he sometimes uses unethical and evil methods to strive for.

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There are three man ways to deal with antagonist motivation. They can sometimes be combined.

No explanation of motive. The book is about the protagonist, the antagonist is just another problem. related variants are mystery and insanity.

Pure evil. "Why?" "Because I can, because I want to, because it feels good".

Everyone is a hero it their own eyes. True story: There are a number of Americans wanted in Italy for kidnaping a cleric. They have been tried in absentia and convicted. Why? They were trying to save the world. It was their job, bin laden was on the loose and they were working for the cia.

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I write my antagonists to truly believe they are doing the right thing. They just begin with different beliefs about the world than my protagonists, that also truly believe they are doing the right thing.

For example, my antagonist may believe that a few dozen politicians, by their votes, are literally causing hundreds of thousands of people to live in misery and die from lack of medical care.

Now my antagonist sees an opportunity to rid the world of these politicians, one at a time, but each time will demand an explosion that he knows will kill hundreds of innocent men, women, children and infants. But for my antagonist, as much as he regrets ending those hundreds of lives, on balance he is protecting hundreds of thousands, so what he does next is a no-brainer to him.

Again, and again, and it is my protagonists job to stop him. My protagonist believes these lives are not worth the cost, and the corrupt and evil politicians will just be replaced by another round of corrupt politicians, that there is an infinite supply. So the antagonist is creating misery with no point.

The antagonist disagrees, if there is another round he will kill them too, until politicians are too afraid to vote for their vile policies under the threat of his wrath.

The protagonist knows sooner or later the antagonist will make a mistake and be caught or killed, and that goal will never be accomplished, so it is all a waste.

I could go on! But the point is that what is in conflict here is two fundamental belief systems that won't be shaken, each also driven by emotional investment (anger for the antagonist, sympathy & justice for the protagonist).

  • I like your point of the two fundamental belief systems a lot, thank you very much for that input! – Eve Dec 4 '18 at 17:53
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The process of defining antagonist motivations does not necessarily begin with the antagonist.

Before I create my protagonists and antagonists, I usually look for the issue of their contention. For the story to have fluidity and broad scope, that issue needs to be somewhat morally nebulous. There needs to exist several distinct and opposing points of view, each of which owns at least part of the moral high ground.

Once that issue is found and an arena for its contention takes form, the characters (protagonist or antagonist) can simply enter the story from the direction of any of those distinct points of view. The protagonist is thereby just the character which the writer (me) favors during the beginning of the story. The antagonist is just a character whose perfectly valid point of view opposes that of the protagonist. Both are real people in every way that I can imagine them. The more real they are before the first word gets written, the better the chance that I will be happy with the final story.

The nebulous nature of the issue of contention facilitates growth and change on all sides of the conflict.

  • The protagonist and antagonist can enter the story as friends with similar initial points of view, then grow apart as each ones' experience shifts them to a different belief.
  • They can enter as enemies and slowly find some common ground.
  • Starting in opposition, they can each stay devote to their original beliefs and batter each other down to a mutually negative outcome.
  • or (on the road most traveled) one of them can win at the others expense.

Set up this way, you can tell stories about the transition of one character's beliefs without ever introducing a separate character to play antagonist. Or you can tell of your protagonist champion standing up against a variety of enemies, all of whom hate each other only slightly less than they hate your hero. Great characters grow out of great conflict, but each must be able to stand in the absence of that conflict and their opponents. They must be complete and they must be real.

Some good examples of nebulous issues of contention include...

  • Ownership vs Social Responsibility : Does a wealthy character have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor while others go without?
  • Wisdom vs Freedom : Does a character who thinks they know better have a right to force others to follow them?
  • Safety vs Hope for Happiness : Does the presence of real danger justify not pursuing unlikely treasure?

...and there are many, many more.

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I actually have the same problem you do. I'm writing a story with more than one antagonist. For the first antagonist I created a motivation for him to act as a "bad guy". The context is about two company owners competing to get a client's account.

  • Protagonist makes an offer to the antagonist as if the protagonist is going to win the contract, even though the antagonist is pretty sure of that mainly because he has a very strong contact acting as an informant inside the client's company. The offer is about both working together even though the biggest share is going to be the protagonist's.
  • Antagonist refuses the offer. "Absurd offer" from his perspective.
  • The insider was actually bought by the protagonist, arranging the contract to be his.

Having the insider providing privileged information is not ethical to start with , so the protagonist also acted unethically to get the deal.

It's hard to tell precisely what you want for your story since I don't the overall context, but hopefully that can give you an insight. :)

(I am still strugling, however, to give a better motivation to the other antagonist)

Cheers!

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This is actually an interesting construct, where the protagonist wants to punish the antagonist for doing the "right" thing, the reverse of the usual.

Realize that the protagonist (patient) feels that the doctor did absolutely the WRONG thing. Then have him run down the the doctor like a revengeful "lawman," while the doctor almost gets away. The best example I can think of is Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit" against Tom Chaney and his gang.

The "punchline" of your story is that "good is evil," and "evil is good."

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