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I thought about writing fantasy story from the perspective of the evil antagonist (think from Sauron's perspective). So my bad guy will be the protagonist and my good guys will be the antagonist. I want my main protagonist to be in general a bad guy. I don't like the idea of using the "but he thinks he is a good guy". I want my character to be petty, shallow, and selfish.

I am interested in this in large part because it has not been done.

Similar to this would be a fallen angel story. The good guy must become over time as brutal and mean as his opponent to overthrow him.

What are the pitfalls of this type of story? How can I find a way to make an evil protagonist likable, so the reader does not throw away the book?

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Standback Dec 18 '13 at 14:06

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
Ravenloft books often did this sort of story. –  Ernest Pazera Feb 15 '11 at 17:28
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Whenever you think "this has not been done", think again. Chances are it has been done before. Yes, I think I'm on the record for thinking that an original plot is possible. But I'm also realistic enough to know that it's hard. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 16 '11 at 12:16
    
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Meta question about this question: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/q/776/1993 . Please provide input. –  Monica Cellio Dec 17 '13 at 1:01
    
This question as-written is problematic and attracting some poor answers; I am locking until we get this into shape. Please see meta-discussion. –  Standback Dec 18 '13 at 14:05
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13 Answers

I have not read it but Soon I Will Be Invincible is the closest I can think of to what you're proposing, other than the excellent short story collection If I Were an Evil Overlord, inspired by the Evil Overlord List.

My question is, why should your main guy be only petty, shallow, and selfish? Do you want him to win at the end, or be defeated? I think LOTR from Sauron's perspective (or Melkor's, who was Sauron's mentor and much more powerful and evil) would be really fascinating in a skin-crawling kind of way, but Sauron is not a one-dimensional character. (Particularly if you read all the Tolkien backstory prior to LOTR.)

Your bad guy doesn't have to think of himself as a good guy in order for his motives to be understandable to the reader. Someone with an obsession, a burning need for revenge, a mental defect, or who's just a plain ol' psychopath can be complex while still being bad. Your main character shouldn't be paper-thin and obviously hissable. The reader should actually be torn a little because s/he finds s/he can sympathize with some of the things your evil main character did.

George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, the one which starts with A Game of Thrones (coming to HBO soon YEAH!!! okay sorry), has an entire family of "bad guys" who do evil, selfish, cruel, and petty things, but there is a lot about them which is also likeable and sympathetic, and when one character ends up trapped in jail as a result of her own scheming, I was both horrified and elated. That's what you want to aim for, not Snidely Whiplash.

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+1 for the mention of G.R.R. Martin. Lannister twins are the best evil (or rather "evil") characters ever. –  Lukas Stejskal Apr 11 '12 at 10:59
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Petty, shallow, and selfish people often do not see themselves as petty, shallow, or selfish. They believe that they are righteous people acting out of noble principles. –  Seth Gordon Dec 16 '13 at 17:31
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Another example of this as well as Doctor Evil is Darth Vader.

  • Starts off an innocent boy
  • Corrupted to become evil and follow his new master under the pretense that he'll save his wife
  • Convinced in the last moment that there is still good in his heart and overthrows his evil master
  • Pays for his actions by his death but ultimately died as a good man in the eyes of his son

Roughly.

I would gladly read about such a character's progression in a fantasy environment. I think ultimately most people don't really like to read an ending that is not positive, but it doesn't mean the character can't be malleable to the point of going against his moral beliefs for a period of time and then being redeemed.

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I'm wondering if the main character in your story really needs to be likable.

Some time ago I've read an interview with an 18-year old psychopath who killed a few people. It was right before his execution. His philosophy and priorities were totally different from mine or yours. As he explained, at times he got an irresistible urge to kill anyone. Being a hedonist, he immediately tried to satisfy his urge and went to hunt. It was as simple as that.

If you have by now an image of a ruthless killer who doesn't feel any emotions, there is more to this story. He had a great sense of honor and respected law and order more than any person. In a sense it felt like a military training, but he developed this naturally. As the saddest thing in his life he points to pig slaying at a butchery. He couldn't help himself and cried.

After reading I couldn't accuse him of any illogic but yet I felt he was totally wrong. He was repelling me from the one side, but it was interesting to see how twisted one's personality can be.

So, to the point - what about making a character that will make you wonder who is more normal in this world? Maybe contrasting dead logic of your bad hero with nonsensical motivations of his enemies would do the work?

I'm no writer so I can't technically prove it. It's just an idea.

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Sounds like a story about a character like that would be one in which the start is Crime & Punishment but without the remorse and therefore with very different actions and ending. –  justkt Feb 17 '11 at 19:26
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As you say, it will be very challenging to create a likable evil character. A lot of people aren't going to relate to a person that does nothing but wreak misery on those around them.

One danger is that most villains are so short lived in stories that they are one dimensional. Their sole purpose is to be an obstacle for the hero, and are quickly disgarded after that.

Stories that start off with an evil character typically have them turn good at the end in some way (like Darth Vader, original trilogy), they basically receive redemption by the end.

The Fallen Angel idea sounds a lot like The Punisher, or basically any story where the good guy falls on hard times, becomes bad, and seeks vengeance against those that turned him bad.

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I liked "Despicable Me" because the "hero" didn't get redeemed in the end: Gru was every bit the evil mastermind that he started as. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 16 '11 at 12:19
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Despite the fact that he learned to love the three children he adopted? I think that was his redemption. –  Jack B Nimble Feb 16 '11 at 19:30
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Deep, convincing characters always work. Others have suggested that a comedic approach might work best. It does not have to be broad comedy. The darkness of your fantasy can remain pretty dark and twisted. There is humor and irony in many True Blood scripts and some of the villains there would do well carrying a story of their own.

Dungeon Master is a video game where you, the player, are cast as an evil overlord. The white knights come to save the day and you can gleefully stop (kill!) them. It is humorous and somewhat twisted. In your version, if you wanted to amp up the dark elements, you could eliminate any "silliness" you detect but leave the irony behind.

As a sucker for a happy ending, my personal preference would be for some sort of redemption for the main character. But if you provide fulfillment at the end -- fulfilled goals, proven philosophies, and overcome obstacles -- you'll likely win over many readers, no matter how evil, shallow, and petty the protagonist was.

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There seem to be quite a lot of players who enjoyed playing the various open-ended Star Wars games (most notably Knight of the Old Republic 1 and 2) on the dark side, as dark as they can be. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 16 '11 at 12:21
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It sounds as though you are describing the concept of the Anti-Hero.

Basically, this is a situation where the person whose story is being told, the protagonist, is not the standard person for whom a story is told. Whether you want to refer to Scarface or John Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the anti-hero has a long standing tradition in literature.

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Your readers will have to relate to the protagonist, even if they disagree with his moral stance and actions. He needs clear goals and obstacles that stand in his way to establish conflict. The same basis for any successful story.

My guess is that a comedic villain would be your best bet (e.g. Dr. Evil).

Check out: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VillainProtagonist

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I'm kinda surprised no one mentioned these, but the dark elf stories written by R.A. Salvatore, excluding the drizt novels, most of these are about pretty evil people just going about their evil way.

I personally love the stories from the evil perspective, and agreed, not the 'thinks hes good'. Of course, D&D's 'evil' is quite clear cut and rather shallow.

The problem with writing evil, is you have to first define evil. In reality, there is no pure definition, everything is in a shade of gray, so you need to figure out exactly what you want to portray.

Most fantasy evil is short lived, either redemption or evicted from the mortal coil. Figure out how you intend to keep the story interesting without killing off your main character, or betraying the story by turning him good? reading about some dude murdering children, raping mothers, and eating grannies is going to get old quick.

You might do better with a little gray. Don't make the character evil, make him/her complex. If you go down that road it gives you lots of room to fill in the back story.

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I am interested in this in large part because it has not been done. Has anyone thought of a story like this?

Actually, it has been done. A LOT of times. Classic fantasy example: R. Zelazny, R. Sheckley - Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. Its protagonist is an evil daemon.

As for the mainstream literature, there are whole genres for this - hardboiled crime fiction, mafia stories (M. Puzo - Godfather). In movies: Natural Born Killers, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men... In computer games: Dungeon Keeper, Overlord.

Regarding originality, there's a good rule of a thumb: "If you think you have a great original idea, hundreds of other people already had it before you."

I'm not saying you shouldn't write it, but not because it's never been done.

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My first fantasy novel was told from the perspective of the good guys AND the bad guys. Each had their own respective goals and when the story was centered around one or the other, the reader was seeing what those characters were doing. My "bad" guys didn't necessarily see themselves as being "good", but they did see themselevs as being "right". I have had a number of people tell me that they enjoyed getting more into the mind of the "bad" guys, so I say go for it. I believe readers would welcome such a change. (I'm even considering changing up a future novel to make the main character more shady!)

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I don't think any of the main characters (I actuially hesitate calling them protagonists) in Joe Abercrombie's first trilogy could be described as "good" (or even be described as believing they are good). So, I'd say "yes, it can be done".

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DAMASTOR- It deals with the Black Plague in England, and it also deals with present day where violence reigns. An embittered angel has had enough with saving stolen souls from hell and wishes to save only one more, knowing full well that he is incurring the wrath of the All-Mighty.

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In 1999, a book called The Last Ringbearer was published in Russia: it’s an account of the War of the Ring, from the losers’ perspective. It hasn’t been professionally published in the US, out of fear that the Tolkien estate’s lawyers would descend on the publisher like a swarm of Ring-Wraiths. However, an English translation is available for download.

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protected by Monica Cellio Dec 17 '13 at 1:01

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