When my children were very young, they called villains, criminals, and all-around evildoers “mean guys.” This quick descriptor was gender neutral, a reliable summary of how that evil force behaved in the world. Find the mean guy and know who the hero was going to vanquish. If you weren’t sure who the mean guy was, look for the one wearing the black hat.
In early breathless NANOWRIMO ventures, I dutifully crafted excellent mean guys (and gals) to thwart my protagonist. The antagonists were smart, charming, and attractive until you got close enough to see the evil simmering just beneath the surface.
One day, when I sat down to write the scene that I had planned, things went sideways. Instead of coming home and cracking open a beer after a hard day at work, the protagonist walked into a brutally cold, pitch black apartment stinking of cigarette smoke. Turning on the lights, he discovers wind billowing through the curtains and his beautiful, manipulative girlfriend business manager (aka antagonist) slamming down shots of 100-year-old Scotch whiskey.
In the tense scene that followed, the girlfriend tells him how she sees the world, why she has made the bold, illogical decisions that baffled him, and that she has no intention of changing. Throughout, the nonsmoker, teetotaler girlfriend chain smokes and finishes the bottle of whiskey. She tells the hero unbearable truths about himself – the very treasures that he needs to complete his hero’s journey and arrive at his happy ending. She finishes the pack of cigarettes and leaves her keys on the coffee table.
I was breathless. The antagonist had gone rogue. In so doing, a bossy, tiresome bitch changed into a flawed and brilliant real person. She had her own hero’s journey, her own dark woods to go into and come out of to discover her own new life. This brilliant blonde didn’t need a hero’s kiss. She saved herself.
What’s more, she saved the novel. It transmuted from a well-crafted, perfectly devised narrative into a twisty story with unexpected depths, heartfelt passion, and surprising moments.
That’s the power of changing hats, from writer/hero self to antagonist. Try on the black hat of the antagonist, admire it in the mirror, and tilt it just right. Then look down at your feet. Mean guys have terrific taste in shoes.
Mean Guy Rules, or How to Develop an Excellent Antagonist
- A powerful antagonist wears a fantastic black hat. Possibly, it is better designed and more interesting than the protagonist/good guy’s hat, which means that you are either in the wrong story or better work further with your good guy’s hat.
- The antagonist is the good guy in his or her life narrative. He does not exist to showcase the protagonist; she has her own goals to pursue. The protagonist is his antagonist; the good guy’s happy ending is the mean guy’s tragedy.
- A terrific antagonist starts out in the distance, his hat a stinky, ill-defined blur. The closer she comes, the more alluring, beautiful, and powerful her hat. A complex, interesting protagonist recognizes the familiar, deeply personal aspects of the mean guy’s hat. A truly brave protagonist might try it on for size, take a feather from it and improve his own hat, or add it to her collection.
- Every single character in the story has a hat. The best stories feature characters in hats ranging the spectrum of grays between black and white.
Thanks to Raimey Gallant for her ever-entrancing Author Toolbox and for initiating this excellent adventure! No doubt she has many excellent hats — and knows how to wear them. (https://raimeygallant.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/html-code-for-authortoolboxbloghop.docx)