One of the most helpful things I learned about writing a captivating novel is that the antagonist is a hero in his own story. If I can show that the antagonist in my story truly believes he is justified in what he is doing, it adds depth to that character. I must be careful not to focus more on the antagonist than the main characters of the story, but that villain needs to be interesting, believable, and have a good reason for why he is the way that he is. He must also be absolutely convinced that his way of thinking is correct — no matter how wrong he may be.
As I contemplated this, I realized this is true in real life, too, not just in novels. Even the most difficult person we ever have the misfortune to meet, usually is absolutely convinced he is justified in his incorrect behavior. For example, didn’t Timothy McVeigh see himself as a hero? Didn’t the men who flew the airplanes into the World Trade Center on 9/11 see themselves as heroes? Of course they did.
Think about a story you recently read. Who was the antagonist? Did they see themselves as the hero? Let’s take a moment to look at Pride and Prejudice. One of the antagonists in that story is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Here is a quote that she said to Elizabeth Bennett:
“Not so hasty, if you please. I have by no means done. To all the objections I have already urged, I have still another to add. I am no stranger to the particulars of your youngest sister’s infamous elopement. I know it all; that the young man’s marrying her was a patched-up business, at the expense of your father and uncles. And is such a girl to be my nephew’s sister? Is her husband, is the son of his late father’s steward, to be his brother? Heaven and earth! —of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”
Lady Catherine de Bourgh definitely saw herself as the hero in her own story. She was saving Darcy from having his lineage polluted by bad blood, namely the Bennett family, and Elizabeth in particular. She felt justified in putting Elizabeth in her place and keeping her there.
Creating a character who sees himself as the hero in a Christian fiction, may cause the reader to hope that somehow or other, the bad guy will recognize his error and become a better person. After all, even the worst of sinners will receive redemption from God if he will only repent and stop sinning. If your antagonist can recognize the error of his ways, he can actually become the hero in your next novel. I’ve seen authors do that very thing in books that are part of a series. In the one book, you can’t stand the antagonist, but in the next, they have changed to such an extent that you find yourself rooting for them.
Understanding this concept has not only helped me in writing, but it has also caused me to try to look more deeply at the motives of difficult people in real life. How do they see the situation? What motivates them to do what they do? Sometimes, they are only partially wrong. They do have some valid points, but their methods of trying to correct the situation may be all wrong.
Bear with me as I take this one step further. I, too, am the hero in my own story. I have my opinions and, at the end of the day, I think I’m right. I’ve looked at all sides, taking my experiences into consideration as well as the things I’ve read, and I have come to a conclusion. However, my neighbor may be of a different opinion. How should I handle this? We certainly can’t both be right. (Can you feel the tension rising here? Life is complicated, isn’t it?)
This brings to mind the Bible verse in Ephesians 4:2 NLT, “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” I’m certainly not saying we should make allowances for the faults of people like Timothy McVeigh and simply allow them off the hook. No prison sentence for him. Just a slap on his hands. No, that is not what I’m saying. But if you are a believer and his prison guard or a trusted friend, should you still try to reach out to him for the sake of his soul even though he had no compassion on the many people he killed? Should you try to show him Christ’s love? As difficult as it is to say, I have to answer; Yes, you should.
Why? Because Jesus has compassion on even the worst of sinners. In comparison to God, we all fall short. Not one of us was good enough to be welcomed into heaven. But if Jesus was willing to save us, who are we to say He should not save this person or that person. It isn’t our call. It is our responsibility to reach out to all people and to tell them about the love of Christ. The rest is up to God. He will judge each person. Look at Jeremiah 17:10 NASB, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” God is a just God and will look into every heart before pronouncing judgment. One thing we see clearly in the Word of God: Salvation is for everyone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, asks Him to forgive them of their sins, and then welcomes Him into their hearts and lives.
Now, let’s get back to fiction. Think about the antagonist in a novel you’ve read. Have you ever longed for the bad guy to see the error of his ways because you kind of liked him? The writer caused you to see things from the antagonist’s perspective and, although he is wrong, you wish he would change before he goes too far.
Do any of you remember Little House on the Prairie? Nellie was a real stinker. She thought she was better than everyone else because her family was the wealthiest in Walnut Grove. As she grew older, I often wished she would grow up and see herself as equal to everyone else. Interestingly enough, when she finally marries in later episodes, her husband helps her to change, and my wish comes true. Her mother, however, is another story. I don’t think she ever changed. But, really, how fun would Little House on the Prairie have been without that awful Harriet Olson? Which just goes to show that the antagonist is as important to the story as the hero and heroine.