Remember that A Villain’s Mind series introduction? It’s ba-ack; and ironically we aren’t starting with a full-on villain (per se). Let’s get to it.
I have a favorite type of antagonist. He’s not the over-arching villain (usually) – generally he’s a secondary character, someone with whom the MC clashes frequently. They’re kind of a ‘bad guy,’ but not necessarily evil and they usually exist to create extra conflict and danger for the MC.
My favorite example of this character – we’ll call him the PIN, or Pain in the Neck – is Eric from Divergent. (I’m NOT talking about the books, only the movies; as the two characters are almost totally different and I don’t have any liking for book!Eric as a character.) When we first meet him it’s obvious he’s arrogant, tough, and merciless. Literally every time we see him it’s in a negative light because the movie frames it that way.
But ah, there’s the rub – because I have always liked movie!Eric as a character. What’s more, I usually agree with him. We’re supposed to view his words and actions as negative because he does not like the main character, Tris, whom we’re supposed to see as positive. But let’s flip it around and look at it this way –
You’re Eric. One of the new recruits is from Abnegation – the exact opposite of a warrior. She’s a skinny teenage girl with exactly no personality, and there’s very little promise there. Sure, she jumped off some stuff, but that doesn’t make her a good recruit. It just means she, like everyone else, was afraid of failing. Training continues; she mouths off to her instructors, is less-than-stellar at almost everything she does, and still dislikes the idea of hurting people – in which case, she should never have joined the militant Dauntless faction. She routinely breaks rules, ignores orders, and mouths off – but everyone sees her as a hero because she stands up for people sometimes.
I don’t know about you, but if I were Eric, I wouldn’t like Tris either. In fact, I’d want her out of Dauntless. Throughout the movie, Eric is shown in a negative light because he’s ruthless. He’s efficient. He doesn’t stand for back-talk. Of course he possesses negative qualities – he’s unnecessarily harsh, he enjoys watching good recruits climb through the ranks at the expense of the less-talented, and he gives no quarter even when he should lighten up.
And yet there are moments, too, where he isn’t so bad. When Tris runs in order to catch the train that was leaving without her, he’s even willing to show he’s impressed. Because when Tris acts like she belongs in Dauntless, Eric is okay with her.
He’s a soldier. He follows orders, he does what he’s told – to the point where he’s apparently willing to shoot a young Divergent girl in the head. But before his execution, he tells Four in a moment of candor,
“Listen. I’ve found a way to live with the blood on my hands. But can you?”
Those aren’t the words of a villain. They’re the words of a soldier – and beyond that, Eric was born and raised Erudite – the faction now calling all the shots over his head. He believes in what he’s doing.
So like I said, I’ve always liked Eric. He’s my favorite character in an entirely stupid movie series, and the only thing that kept me watching it – because Eric, for all his terrible flaws, was quite possibly the most well-rounded character in the whole series.
He’s an antagonist, true, but he’s my favorite kind – the sort with whom, if you look just a little closer, you just might agree with. These characters are tricky to write and I’ve often seen it fail – I even think the Divergent movies failed Eric because they painted his every action as that of a Bad Guy and his dimension happens almost in spite of it – but it can be done. Here are a few questions to ask when writing your PIN character:
• Give them a strong set of beliefs. We don’t want a character who’s annoying just for the sake of being annoying; then we get Peter from the Divergent movies and he’s just – well, you don’t want that. Eric’s beliefs are a solid mix of his firmly Erudite upbringing and his Dauntless adult life; making him someone who believes Erudite should rule and is generally able to enforce those rules.
• Give them likeable moments. Eric actually has a few, believe it or not. He’s impressed with Tris’s initiative in chasing down the train; he’s impressed with her bravery in standing up for her friend. He has a brief moment where he pauses to pet a horse – all these little things add dimension to a PIN character, making them something more than merely an Antagonistic Force. It keeps you wondering whether he might change his mind and join the good guys.
• Show them interacting with people. Often in a book it will feel like the PIN character exists in this nebulous vacuum of space-time, existing only to pop out and taunt the main character whenever the plot starts to lag. Establish this character firmly within the world, or they won’t feel believable. Eric has history with one of the main characters and we see how he interacts with the other initiates, not just Tris.
You don’t need a lot to write a PIN character – they’re interesting; they often live in a gray area that’s fun to write, and they keep the reader guessing; so go forth and conquer!