Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Mafia Taught Me About Antagonists

Just so everyone is clear, we are talking about Mafia the game. It is not, in fact, some kind of assassination spree where we smoke cigars and talk in strange accents. The basic premise is much less violent: everyone gets a card that indicates whether they are a citizen or a mafia member. Before each round, the mafia members kill someone, and at the end of each round, the citizens lynch someone, attempting to get the mafia out of the game.

Besides being a very fun and entertaining game (especially the Star Wars version), Mafia has taught me three things about making my villains more complex. Here they are:

  1. The antagonists we dislike the most are the ones we once trusted.

My sister is a master of this one. When she’s the mafia, she’ll talk to people on either side of her and get them to trust her. They work together the whole game…until my sister is killed and reveals her true, sinister nature. Or, even more likely, when she wins and all the citizens are dead. Looking back, the citizens can see exactly how they were manipulated, but, at the time, they never saw it coming.

Let me tell you, that kind of backstabbing betrayal makes for a very dramatic scene. The same is true for writing. Sometimes, it’s good to have a villain we love to hate. When the sides are clearly drawn in the battle of good and evil, we all know that the guy dressed in black on the black horse with the black skull-adorned weapon is the bad guy.

At other times, though, it’s fun to use an antagonist who isn’t so obvious. When the protagonist (or even some of the minor characters) trust a character who then turns on them, that’s interesting – if it’s done well.

The reader doesn’t have to suspect that the character is not what he or she seems, but they must be prepared for it when it happens, or they’ll reject it as unrealistic. I read a book recently where a likeable character ended up being the accessory to a murder, and, with no foreshadowing, I didn’t buy it.

If, in small, subtle ways, you get the reader ready for a betrayal, it won’t take away from the impact; it will make it feel more believable.

  1. Antagonists know how to lie.

Play Mafia enough with the same people, and you’ll be able to tell when most of them are lying. Not everyone has a nervous twitch, but all except the sneakiest have habits. I tend to get really passionate when I’m lying (or when I’m obviously innocent…it can go either way). Some people’s voices get higher and others suddenly look really guilty. There are people who will accuse anyone else but themselves and people who just try to lay low and not be noticed.

Chances are, your antagonist is going to lie, cheat, and otherwise not play by the rules. There’s a range of dishonesty, of course – is she a master of deception or just an annoying kid sister tattling a fib? – but the idea is the same.

Just like readers should be prepared for a betrayal, they also need to be suspicious of a lie. Sometimes, your hero may have a compelling reason to believe the antagonist, but the readers don’t. They should at least have a hint that your villain isn’t being entirely honest.

You can give those hints by incorporating lying habits you notice in others. Mafia is one of the few chances you get to observe other people in real time when you know they’re lying. Find out how they do it, what gives them away, and how they react when confronted. Then use that in your writing.

  1. Sometimes, your antagonist thinks he’s the good guy.

One time, playing Mafia, we changed the backstory. Instead of mafia members killing citizens, it was undercover cops arresting mafia members. The gameplay was exactly the same, except when you were put on trial, you didn’t claim that you would never kill so-and-so…you said you were evil to the core and would never betray your fellow mafia members.

Both lies, but the first scenario was a bad guy lying to cover a murder, and the second scenario was a good guy lying “for a good cause.”

And guess what? There were some people who were much better liars in the second scenario.

I never would have believed this if I didn’t experience it. The lying itself was identical, but there were some people who looked guilty as anything as mafia when playing the normal way who were the most innocent-looking as undercover cops.

To me, this illustrates something interesting about villains: some of them don’t think they’re villains. Sometimes, you antagonist will be more convincing and realistic if he doesn’t see himself as evil, if he can justify his actions, or if he is under the delusion that he is fighting for the greater good.

That’s the end of my observations, and the end of my learning-from-games series. Hope this has been helpful (or at least entertaining). And remember – it’s never just a board game. Not when you play with a writer, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, I love antagonists who think they're heroes. There's nothing like a monster who believes he's an angel. The deluded villain is right up there with the nihilistic villain in my esteem.

    I love how you're using board games to illustrate creative writing principles, by the way.