Loveable Baddies – GUEST POST by Chris Panatier (STRINGERS)
Today, we’re thrilled to be taking part in Angry Robot’s blog tour for Chris Panatier’s brand new insect-infested sci-fi STRINGERS.
Here’s a little more about the novel:
Ben isn’t exactly a genius, but he has an immense breadth of knowledge. Whether it’s natural science (specifically the intricacies of bug sex), or vintage timepieces, he can spout facts and information with the best of experts. He just can’t explain why he knows any of it. Another thing he knows is the location of the Chime. What it is or why it’s important, he can’t say. But this knowledge is about to get him in a whole heap of trouble, as a trash-talking, flesh construct bounty hunter is on his tail and looking to sell him to the highest bidder. And being able to describe the mating habits of Brazilian bark lice won’t be enough to get him out of it.
Stringers is available now from Angry Robot
by Chris Panatier
One of my favorite things to talk about, whether in the context of movies or books or TV or whatever, are bad guys. But more specifically, the baddies we can’t get enough of. The “loveable” baddies, to abuse an adjective. Probably like most fans of fantasy and science fiction in media, I’ve carried with me an informal but fiercely defended list of my favorite baddies. And ever since I started thinking beyond the page or the screen, I’ve wondered what makes a really good antagonist—what makes the best antagonist?
I think the answer might very well be found at the intersection of characters who have committed the worst crimes and must rightly die for their transgressions, but whom we would spare for the sake of getting to spend more time with them because they are so compelling. I tried to write one such character in STRINGERS, a shit-talking flesh-construct bounty hunter called Aptat. Did I do a good job? We’ll see.
There are innumerable examples of compelling baddies, and all for different reasons. Darth Vader, Spike from Buffy (my wife’s suggestion), Vizzini (The Princess Bride), Roy Batty (Bladerunner), the Borg Queen (Star Trek: First Contact, et seq.), and a whole host of antagoni (my word) from A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’ll single out the Hound, Sandor Clegane. And you can’t leave out the gremlins or Beetlejuice. Some of these we love because they demand our respect. Others because we gain empathy for them. Darth Vader is compelling both for his badass characterization and eventual redemption. Spike for his wardrobe, charm, and flirtation with goodness. Bloviating Vizzini for his comedic incompetence in delivering Buttercup to Prince Humperdink. Roy Batty for the empathy we feel for him as a short-lived replicant slave. The Borg Queen, Danzek, for her incredible character design and stoic, singular focus. Clegane for his characterization, vulnerability, and apparent redemption. Beetlejuice and the Gremlins because, well, they just wanted to party.
Most of these examples are from movies and TV shows rather than books. Yes, we’ve uncovered a pattern in my life.
Unless the initial concept for a story centers around the antagonist, I think most authors probably build their protagonists first—I certainly do, mainly because you meet them first. We think nonstop about that character, from how crooked their teeth are, to their motives, to their story arc. Most of the time, especially in genre fic, protagonists are more or less the “good guy” and we have a natural feel for how we want those characters to come across. We think about antagonists because we have a protagonist. Unfortunately, I think that we see more underwhelming antagonists make it to the page than truly compelling ones. Conscious of this, I’ve made it a point as I’m drafting to devote gobs of time and numerous passes to shaping those characters.
I have a thing for loveable (even if killable) baddies, so it’s a rare case that I’m setting out to build a machine of pure evil. Not to say that this can’t be done in a compelling way. There are some bad guys whose badness by itself is enough to engross us. I think about Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Thanos, on paper, is the most evil person in the multiverse, but I don’t find him compelling. Having a bit of a lighter bent (for now) than McCarthy, my own antagonists tend to be less sociopathic. And don’t get me started on amoral or non-sentient antagonists. I love them, but that’s another essay.
I prefer to build tragic bad actors. Characters that didn’t have to go bad but did because of circumstance and/or bad decisions (Walter White, anyone?). This brings me to Aptat, the flesh-robot of STRINGERS. They are a fully autonomous, living person, and an opportunist of sorts, engaged in the capture and sale of Stringers (people born with strange knowledge, sometimes valuable). This job of buying and selling others is unvarnished slave-trading, and for this reason Aptat is a very bad person and should die. But.
But…they also have a big, fat personality!
They are funny, charming, entertaining, hospitable, and sometimes genuinely empathetic for their abductees. On top of that, their own brutal backstory partially explains how they came to be, a feature of their character designed to siphon away some wisps of empathy. It’s an interesting place to put a reader—in the crosshairs of both their own negative judgment of a character’s actions, and positive emotions they may otherwise feel for them. I mean, who didn’t love the corridor scene in Rogue One where Vader walks through like the ultimate badass, slaughtering every rebel in cold blood like womp rats in a barrel? Does he deserve to die for that, and countless other transgressions? Of course! But can we hold it off for maybe another light saber gauntlet run? We need to be entertained!
Aptat draws us in with moments of humor (offering a “wearable body bag” to a captive who needs new clothes while simultaneously blasting Michael Jackson’s Pretty Young Thing over the ship’s PA) as well as empathy for their own suffering. Hopefully it’s the type of character development that can cast a bit of a spell on the reader, causing them to root for the bad guy because having them around is either satisfying or entertaining in some way.
Over time, I’ve tried to stop thinking about the antagonist as the antagonist and as just another fully developed character with their own set of motives. Nowadays, I’ll pull out the antagonist’s scenes from my first draft and read them together as a single story to ensure their characterization feels three dimensional. Hopefully these practices have helped me create compelling baddies who make the reader forget that they’re supposed to hate them.
Chris is an artist and writer living in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter and a fluctuating herd of dog-like creatures (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels. His debut, THE PHLEBOTOMIST, was released on September 8, 2020, from Angry Robot Books, and is available everywhere.
Chris has also been a trial attorney for almost two decades. He represents people who have been injured, poisoned, or killed due to the conduct of others.
Represented by Hannah Fergesen at KT Literary.