Fantasy is one of those genres that tends to have a defined hero/heroine character. Somewhere near the beginning of the book — if not in the very first sentence — we are introduced to the character we hope to cheer and root for throughout the rest of the story. Amid villains, love interests, comic relief, and best friends, this is the anchor we keep coming back to.
At whatever point our villain comes in, we understand that this character is the antagonist. No matter if he/she is evil at their core, or if they just come from the opposite side of the major conflict, this is the person who makes things difficult for our hero[ine].
But sometimes, the story needs changing up. Another side needs to be shown.
The antagonist may have redeeming qualities that show through at a pivotal moment. As much as I love an evil, evil villain, I love it just as much when we get to know a different side of this character and realize they might have some justifiable motivations and/or a setting wherein they treat their fellow humans well. George R.R. Martin loves to write about this gray area: the person whose goodness or badness is not definite, or not yet decided. The beauty of this is that it shows so much humanity. It can be depressing if there is too much of it or if it goes on forever, but if done well, it can be beautiful.
(Sometimes it’s beautiful because the antagonist finds redemption and becomes a secondary protagonist and it’s super awesome (!!!), but I digress.)
Here’s what I’m coming around to. I believe it can be just as powerful for the protagonist to turn bad. Typically, most of us writers want to write a character the reader can get behind. We want someone to believe in. It is hard to tolerate a story in which our protagonist never does anything right, but it is possible to love a story in which they become someone horrible for awhile (like an anti-hero), or even indefinitely (maybe turned into an antagonist)…so long as we understand why they became this person, and we can sympathize with it.
I don’t think this works all the time. It only works when it truly is what should happen next. But I want to say this: don’t shy away from it. If you want that main character to go through a time wherein they do something terrible, it might be exactly what has to happen to make that character’s story complete. I struggled with this a lot while writing the first book in my SERENGARD series. There were awful things my main characters had to say to one another and do to their fellow characters, because that’s who they were. They couldn’t be anyone else, and I still wince when I read it, but that’s what happened. It’s scary to write like this, at least for me, and it’s not necessarily what everyone’s story needs. But if it does, do it.
If you decide you need to go to the harsher, darker places with your protagonist, here are a few things that helped pull my story through, and might help with yours:
- It’s a good idea to make sure the secondary characters carry a little light with them to keep people reading. Maintain a bit of humor and a bit of morality in some form.
- In the same vein, have another character in the wings who appears ready to be the next hero[ine]. There doesn’t necessarily need to be any mention of them for fifty pages, just as long as we remember that this person exists. Whether it happens or not doesn’t matter. We just need the hope.
- Too much badness, and people get turned off. Not enough, and they’re unconvinced that it’s even a crisis. Balance it out as best you can.
- Of course, keep your character consistent. They can’t suddenly develop a horrid temper or a thirst for blood. They need to have had this issue in a mild form before. What made them snap? Be sure it’s explained.
- Don’t forget resolution. Even if your protagonist changes and becomes this darker character, bring the character arc about full circle, just as you would if they remained a hero[ine].
You’re the writer, and you know in your gut where this story has to go. If it has to happen, than it HAS to happen! Is it horribly hard to write? Yes. But can you do it? You totally can! I have faith in you. ❤