There. I said it. Yep. I dislike bad guys. Intensely.
|Image via Flikr User Sam Lavy shared via a Creative Commons license|
I've spent a lot of time considering why this is, so let me unpack some of the reasons.
First, most bad guys are written pathetically two-dimensional. Or even just one-dimensional, if you want to get into theoretical geometry. They have a single-minded focus on ruining the life of the protagonist. Their only story purpose is to make life crappy for the main character, or scare the beejeesus out of the main character to keep him/her on the run. Or to kill the main character's mother/brother/uncle/dog.
These kinds of bad guys don't work for me for the primary reason of: WHY? What the heck is motivating bad guy to so single-mindedly pursue our treasured main character? And why does bad guy continue doing so even after a point at which most sane people would stop the pursuit? Mostly because it serves the story's purpose, not because it makes any kind of logical sense.
I also dislike the deep, dark baddie because I have trouble believing in that sort of person. Sure, there are some deep, dark baddies in the world and we read about them in the news, but they aren't as commonplace as popular fiction (genre or otherwise) wants you to believe. Of course the counter-argument is that we only tell stories of great conflict and a juicy bad guy helps create that great conflict, but ... yeah. Ugh! Isn't there more to a great story than just a nasty meanie who wants to make life miserable for the main character?
Even when the "bad guy" is part institution/part person, it still falls down for me. Primary example: Hunger Games. I have a hard time believing in the whole story premise because the badness of the government is so great, and the nasty man at the head so nasty, it starts to feel like watching a bad cartoon. I think I have a greater dislike for institutional baddies than most other types, perhaps due to reading too much dystopian fiction.
So what is the alternative if I don't want to see such nasty bad people? How to make a story work without a Big Bad for the main character to be set in opposition to?
Well one of my favorite kinds of stories are the kind where the conflict stems from the main character and some antagonist/oppositional force being at cross-purposes to one another. Stories where there is one character with goal A and another character with goal B and the pursuit of goals A or B mean thwarting the achievement of the *other* goal.
These are hard stories to pull off, but often tremendously satisfying. This usually requires for an investment in time on the part of the author to draw the antagonist/oppositional character fully. Often this is done by giving the antagonist the moral opposite characteristics of the main character. Since real people are morally complex and carry many different views about things, done well this can create a nuanced character that can be difficult to pigeonhole into a "bad guy" category.
Tamora Pierce does this to amazing effect with the last in the Beka Cooper series, Mastiff.
Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys series includes some weird stuff and several characters at cross-purposes to the main characters' quests (including a caricature or two of the traditional "bad guy," though she takes us into the POV of one in an effective way.) There's even a character in the second book in the series who is semi-antagonist, semi-mentor role, showing one of the principals how to use his magic. It's definitely a more compelling series to read than many others due to this layered complexity to the "bad guy" aspect of the story.
Isaac Asimov used to play with this quite a lot in his books, an example of one I recently read was Currents of Space. In this book, there is a "bad guy" who put the main character into the bad situation he finds himself in, but that character turns out to be a very minor player, instead the primary conflict is driven by information the main character learns gradually (coming out of an amnesiac episode) which is in direct opposition to how the institutional system the main characters live in operates. It's a more satisfying read because of this complexity, I believe.
Have you seen this in movies you've seen or books you've read? What about movies like Night at the Museum, where much of the conflict is driven by the weird magic of that world, although there's a few baddies as played by the old security team. (But even they aren't really "bad guys" but rather trying to achieve their own goals, which are somewhat understandable and sympathetic.)
What other examples can you think of?