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Not sure who the "bad guy" is...

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Michael K. Eidson, Feb 20, 2018.

  1. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I just received feedback from a beta reader who has read my full ms for "The Dreams of Unborn Gods." In the feedback was a comment about there being so many twists and turns, it wasn't clear who the bad guy was until the end. I had to think about this for a moment. From my vantage point as a writer who has gone through three revisions of the story, and written several drafts of each revision, I of course knew exactly who the "bad guy" was the whole time. And because of that vantage point, it wasn't easy to see why the identity of the "bad guy" might be a mystery to a fresh reader of the tale.

    But after some thought, maybe I see why. The story is told from the POVs of multiple characters, some of which aren't exactly friends with each other early on, but I consider them all protagonists. These POV characters early on have friends amongst the other characters, some of whom I consider antagonists. One of the POV characters considers a certain one of the antagonists as a friend all the way through the end of the story.

    So I guess because of all the relationships between the cast of characters, some friendly and some not-so-friendly -- and some having love/hate relationships -- none of them clearly stood out as "the bad guy," until one of them did something at the end that the reader could look at and say, now that's the action of a "bad guy."

    I've not read all of this beta reader's feedback yet. I'll consider asking a follow-up question. But I'm wondering what forum members here think. Do you think it would enhance or detract from the reader experience if it's not clear to the reader who the "bad guy" is until the end of the story? Might the story be even better if there's a clear "bad guy"? Or might the suspense of not being sure who the "bad guy" is during the story help pull the reader along? Have you ever had this kind of experience with a story you've written or read, and if so, how did it work for you?
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I have not been in this situation before, so I can't comment from experience.

    I think that the main thing to ask whether the reading experience gets confusing or not if the reader doesn't know who the bad guy is. Does it create a feeling of suspense to know that there is a bad guy, but not who it is? If so, then that's probably good. On the flip side, does it make the reader feel as if they might have missed some piece of information by not knowing who the bad guy is? Does it make them feel stupid?

    My thinking is that this is something you need to make a decision about yourself, and then make sure the story supports that decision, whichever it is. The readers understanding of the bad guy seems like too important a thing to leave to chance.

    Also, definitely ask follow-up questions. It'll help you get a much better understanding of their feedback. If you have the time, sit down and write a response to their feedback. Address any questions and concerns they might have. It's a good way to show you appreciate their feedback AND it gives you an opportunity to really think the feedback through and come up with solutions to the issues that's being brought up.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    That's a tough one. On a hypothetical, I would say the idea of being unsure who the bad guy is could make for a good premise. But for your actual work, if it's not what you're shooting for, to me, that's a huge red flag that I would think you should look into. It sounds like you're doing something wrong, and even if this is an accident that you ultimately decide to lean in to, it's the sort of thing that I would expect to require significant changes throughout to make it work to your advantage. But to me, it sounds as though your character development may not be coming through as well as it should.

    Or, y'know, your beta reader read too quickly and wasn't paying attention. With just one you can never be quite sure.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Is it clear who is the good guy?

    Is the story couched in terms of good versus bad--a traditional fantasy tale? Or is uncertainty as to who is good and bad an integral part of the story?

    You might as your reader these questions. That is, what sort of story do *they* think it is?
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  5. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I intended from the start that all the characters would be somewhat gray, not black and white, good vs evil. Some characters want to ritually sacrifice a human character, but that character has been destined to be punished.

    There are three POV characters. Some readers like certain POV characters more than others, but they are all three intended as "good guys," being POV characters.

    One of the so-called antagonists turns out not to be who the reader thinks she is in the beginning, and this might really be the whole basis for the comment. I'll certainly ask for further clarification on the comment.
  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I think it depends on the type of story you wish to tell.

    In my opinion, some of the greatest stories have no bad guy at all, but good versus good. In Les Miserables, for example, you have an antagonist in Javert, who’s obsessive, but I wouldn’t classify him as bad.

    Then you have most of the mystery genre where the bad guy may not be discovered until the end.

    I think you need to ask some clarifying questions. I’m betting there’s some confusion on your reader’s part that may be centered around something else, and they’re just trying to figure it out themselves.

    Hard to tell.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  7. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    I heard back from the beta reader on this. Because every character except the main protagonist and her sister had secrets, and because these secrets were continually being revealed as the story unfolded, it kept the reader questioning everyone's motives. The reader said she wasn't hindered at all by the lack of knowing the real "bad guy," and that not knowing made her want to find out more.

    So I'm going to modify the promotional images I've created that identify characters as either protagonist or antagonist, and remove those labels, so as not to ruin the surprise for future readers. Yet another benefit of having beta readers.

    It's not that I tried purposefully to keep the identity of the main "bad guy" secret from the reader. My goal was simply to have some secrets that were gradually revealed. It worked better than I'd hoped, at least in this one case. Cool.
    Night Gardener and Devor like this.

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