Readers expect stories to include heroes and heroines. Naturally, in order to make things exciting, antagonists are also required. I’m often asked about the characters I create, and whom they may be based on. They want to know, for example, if a heroine is based on a friend, or perhaps a relative. They ask if my antagonists are actually colleagues, employers, or neighbors, in disguise. Chuckles and sardonic laughter aside, that is an intriguing question!
Let me first state that, as a rule, I do not create any character from one individual. I draw certain behaviors and characteristics from a myriad of people I’ve known in my life —and somehow mash them all together like a pot of potatoes—and the end result winds up as a character with real, multidimensional aspects.
My characters are motivated by their goals but they must be well-developed, with likes and dislikes and quirks. In other words, I strive to portray my characters as believable as possible. This is sometimes challenging when conceiving dangerous antagonists, as I’ve (fortunately) not had the experience of spending lengths of time with hard-core criminals. With the exception of a tour to a maximum security prison while I studied Criminology in college, I’ve avoided gaining insight into the mind of a psychopath or sociopath.
But I’ve witnessed plenty of unruly (and sometimes violent) antics of people in the past: maniacs on the road who resemble Hannibal, fingering randomly as they weave in and out of lanes; shoppers engaging in hair-pulling and fist-fighting over a parking spot; rowdy drunkenness and drugged ranting at a bar or festival; and long-ago neighbors who demonstrated manic tendencies with alarming regularity (how many times a day does the lawn need to be cut?). I’ve known people who’ve shown narcissistic behaviors— wanting attention and making choices that never benefited anyone other than themselves, and so on. I think we’ve all had similar encounters. I’ll admit, I prefer writing about my heroes and heroines, but the bad guys/gals can be fun to dream up and cultivate.
If my antagonist must be made more frightening than annoying, then my imagination must be stretched. I’ll watch a particular movie, read a certain book, research criminal histories online, etc. I don’t have to pull from direct experience if it involves a person I have no familiarity with.
I glean specific traits for antagonists from behaviours I’ve witnessed somewhere. Such as the baffling and frightening antics of a parent who screeches continuously at their wayward child in a store (maybe the kid has finally tuned out the yelling parent or he/she is hungry or tired). I’ve also observed rude behavior of people in line-ups at airports or restaurants. On the (mostly rare) occasions I’ve seen these disappointing displays, I make a mental note, filing it away in my memory bank. I should point out, however, that while I may forget the specific location or name of the person in question, what registers is the emotion I’m feeling while bearing witness to these interactions. As a writer, I’m aiming to capture the mindset behind the misbehaviour and the impact it leaves on people. To enrich an antagonist’s believability, I’ll strive to keep his/her behavior consistent (speech tone and pattern); drinking or eating habits; routines, etc.
Either way, dreaming up malevolent, murky characters is an engaging part of the job. I like to wink at those who invariably ask, “So, you’re not writing about me, are you?” and remind them to buy my book to find out.