We continue this week with our study of James Scott Bell’s basic elements of conflict, picking up with the third element in the formula and the one that seems most obvious: confrontation. If conflict is the struggle between opposing forces, a compelling story must contain not only a lead worth following, but also an opponent worthy of the fight. Think about it. What reason would George Bailey have to stay in Bedford Falls without Mr. Potter’s menacing presence? What better way to bring the Dark Knight back into action than with the Joker’s maniacal threats? On what meat would Othello’s consuming jealousy feed without the steady influence of Iago’s deceitful maneuverings? Interesting, isn’t it, that the villains in these three stories are as famous as the leads. Why is that?
Every lead needs a strong opposing character to create the tension required for a gripping story, and in order to provide interest, care must be taken when creating that character. Bell affirms a truth every fiction lover already knows: “There are few things less compelling than a one-dimensional bad guy.” To fully engage the audience, the antagonist must be as complex as the lead. That means the author must spend as much time developing him as she does the hero. Something about the bad guy should strike a chord with the reader. He can never be simply the mysterious man in the black hat; he must be someone with enough history and motivation to justify, to himself and to the audience, why he does what he does.
One classic example is Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He is greedy, mean and selfish. He agrees to lead Frodo and Sam to Mordor only because he believes it will afford him the best opportunity to get the ring for himself. He is, as Samwise Gamgee says, a “miserable little maggot,” and we want to hate him, but it’s not that simple.
Since his past is not a secret, we know he once had a good life, a life he sacrificed to possess the ring. That knowledge gives us pause because we can no longer categorize him as just a villain. He’s someone whose choices and obsession destroyed all that was good. His weakness lingers in the back of our minds and gnaws at our conscience because we recognize the allure of the desire that betrayed him. We find ourselves torn between feeling Sam’s anger and disgust and Frodo’s pity and compassion.
We may never like Gollum, but neither can we dismiss him as insignificant, for his character highlights both the reason for the battle and the strength of the hero in overcoming the same dismal fate. Gollum proves to be a formidable adversary as well as a living symbol of the overarching conflict, making him a truly iconic antagonist.
Who would make your list of the most memorable bad guys? Who would be your favorite? Why? Feel free to share your list in the comments section, and check back next week when we talk about the special chemistry required between hero and villain.