An Ode to Ambiguous Characters

This past weekend, I was thinking a lot about some of my favorite antagonists, and why they’re my favorites. Particularly, I was thinking of Lord of the Rings (since I’m rereading The Two Towers again) and Once Upon a Time (since I finally caught up on it. I was far too excited about the 10 second glimpse of the huntsman in the finale).

(I suppose now would be a good time to tell you that this post will contain spoilers for Once Upon a Time, if you care about that sort of thing.)

I really, really love ambiguous characters. I think this is because the mantra “embrace the ambiguity” was drilled into me on almost a daily basis during my AP Lit class my senior year of high school, and I took my beloved teacher’s words very, very seriously. (I think this is also why I’m drawn to heroes like Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff. I wrote my last high school English essay ever about Mr. Rochester, actually. It was more or less a love letter disguised as a stunning analysis of his ambiguous character.) So, embracing the ambiguity once again, I thought about some of those ambiguous characters who really stood out to me this weekend – Boromir, Gollum, and Wormtongue; Regina, Rumply, and Graham. I guess, technically, not all of them are antagonists – but they’re ambiguous enough that you really just don’t know, DO YOU?

What all of these characters have in common is redeeming qualities – as in, they have them. For example, Boromir tries to take the Ring from Frodo, which is a total party foul. I mean, here Frodo is, trying to SAVE THE WORLD, and Boromir decides to be a jerk and try to get in Frodo’s way? But then, right after this, Boromir goes gallivanting off to save Merry and Pippin from the Uruk-Hai, and is killed in the process. He confesses to Aragorn and asks for forgiveness, apparently feeling guilt over his actions. To me, it almost feels like Boromir is actually relieved to be dying, because it means that he doesn’t have to fight himself anymore.

And what about my man, Graham? (Including him might have just been an excuse to plaster his picture in this post.) When we meet him, it looks like he’s totally in Regina’s corner, but then he does things like hiring Emma (which doesn’t really go over well), and as the huntsman, he ends up being unable to kill Snow White and lets her go, ultimately sacrificing himself in the process.

And what about some of our other friends? Wormtongue kills Saruman. Gollum helps Frodo and Sam get to Mordor. Rumplestiltskin proves himself capable of love on a couple of different occasions – his son, Belle. Regina also is capable of love – her father, the stable boy, Henry. Not a single one of these people is evil through and through.

And another thing all of my examples have in common? None of them started off as evil. I mean, Boromir, Wormtongue, and Gollum were all seduced by power. Regina was motivated by the desire for revenge after her true love was murdered. Poor Rumply just wanted to protect his son. Graham/the huntsman was mostly just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But all of these characters were, at one point, perfectly nice people, and even after they turned “evil” (or, at the very least, ambiguous), they still retained very important qualities from who they were before. Maybe they leaned a little too far toward the Dark Side, but they were still human.

So, next time you go to write an antagonist, take some time to think about their back story. Who were they before? What happened to set them on this course they’re on? What are some redeeming qualities they have? Ultimately, it will make for a more interesting character. Who knows? Maybe your readers will root for them…and wouldn’t that be interesting turn of events?

8 thoughts on “An Ode to Ambiguous Characters

  1. Caitlin E Darrell says:

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now! I'm just about to introduce my villain, and I have a feeling without this post he would've been all swivel-chair-while-stroking-cat, and "I'm going to take over the world for no reason but my own greed! Bwahahah!" and so on.So THANK YOU, Steph, for reminding me that antagonists are people too!

  2. Anna says:

    Great post. I think stories work so much better, and are more realistic, when that ambiguity is introduced. I love me a good anti-hero too!

  3. Jenna Cooper says:

    Yes, I completely agree! I think the only villain who's all the way evil and really worked is Voldemort. Other than that, I love those ambiguous characters. Even if they are evil like Regina, they're rarely thoroughly evil.

  4. Hildred says:

    I agree that the ambiguous characters are the best. Especially for villains. Villains who do their "evil" because they think it's what's BEST for the world and would otherwise be a "good guy" are my faves, and are tend to be what I write the most. Most of my heroes have some ambiguity to them too.

  5. Nick Wilford says:

    Great post! I'm not sure evil exists in a pure form anyway. I think we're always interested in why someone is the way they are – the last thing we want are one-dimensional characters.

  6. Donna L Martin says:

    Greetings!I'm trying to visit all the participants of the 2012 A to Z Challenge and I have arrived at your lovely blog. Good luck with the rest of the year!Donna L

  7. Franklyn Thomas says:

    That's a pretty interesting musing on antagonists, and you're right of course. Nothing exists in a bubble. Another thing to understand is that the bad guy doesn't ever think he/she is the bad guy, just doing what they have to do.

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