Sometimes when I’m listening to a friend process a major stressor I will ask, “What made you respond that way?” or “How do you feel about your situation.” Several seconds will pass and then they say, “Are you therapizing me?” I will stop, think, and consider my motivations behind the question. Often times it is genuine curiosity and desire to help. It doesn’t matter. My friend believes I'm ingenuine, which means I have disconnected from them, become more of an observer instead of getting down in the darkness with them. What does this have to do with writing? Glad you asked. As the writer, you have to give us the character’s motivations, get in the darkness and not make it sound like therapy. The protagonist is in the spotlight, so there is plenty of opportunity to show motivations and what’s at stake. On the other hand, the antagonist is often off stage or has quick appearances designed to up the tension. It can be tricky to show WHY someone is being evil without it coming across as contrived, sterile. It can be done and here are some typical ways . . .
1. Have a character learn about a person’s past from a third party: newspaper, diary, overheard conversation. It can’t just happen. Newspapers need to be seen in the story before the big reveal. Is the antagonist the type to write things down? That trait should be known. The protagonist should confront the antagonist. And if some of the information is flawed, great. The Antagonist gets an opportunity to reveal the truth and be all smug.
“I know what’s going on. I found your little notebook.” Awesome Protagonist says. “You won’t get away with it.”
“Oh, what is it you think you know?” Evil Antagonist sneers.
“Everything. I found the articles about who you are. The murder of your parents. The date and time of their death matches the date and time that you kill.”
“You don’t know me!”
2. Most of us have experienced an injury that has left us without the use of a hand or arm or foot. If someone is about to bump into the injured area we dash to protect it. It’s vulnerable. It’s hurting. It’s trying to heal. This works the same for emotional wounds. We move to protect them, often using anger as the bandage of choice. Anger is a surface or safe emotion. It keeps people distant. What angers the protagonist can reveal their vulnerability, the part of them trying to heal. If they long for love and attention, they likely lacked those in early life. Thus, when someone threatens to bump against the raw area, they roar, push away.
“Why won’t you let anyone get close to you?” Curious Character asks.
“I don’t need people.” Antihero says, focused on wires connecting to the bomb.
“Everyone needs people.”
“I don’t!” She snaps. “Help me set off the bomb or get the hell out.”
3. Just have them say it. And I’m not talking about a long Shakespearan soliloquy. Those only work for Shakespeare. (Some would argue it didn’t even work for him.) If it takes your bad guy five pages to reveal why he wants to blow up the state of
4. Show a transformation in their personality, countering what they once laughed at. In the transformation process you show what is REALLY important and what was feared.
5. Sprinkle bits of information about the antagonist’s past and present through conversations or new paper clippings or thought insertions or whatever not too contrived venue. Let the reader put the pieces of the puzzle together. You will need to show the picture, but it won’t have to be a five page information dump.
Yes, I know some of you write short stories and you don’t always have room for some of these. You don’t have to go into a full childhood back story. You can reveal a lot about a person through how they react to their world and how people perceive them. Pick your descriptors wisely.
Can you think of other ways you can reveal an antagonist’s motivations?