Note: I originally wrote this at the beginning of December of 2008, but I forgot about it until recently when I started tidying up my notes on how to write better fiction.
Update 2011-08-14: I now also have a more instance-specific post which touches on this in the context of Disney’s Tangled as a side-effect of exploring Disney’s biggest weakness as a source of creative endeavors.
A big bad is a character, usually poorly defined, shallow, and explicitly evil, whose quest for power/revenge/evil
/pizza dominates and drives the story, forcing character development and any other subplots to fit themselves in around it.
These days, having a “big bad” has almost attained cliché status. While you can still get away with it, it takes a great deal of skill and, as such, should not be attempted by amateurs. (Sadly, the people who do it most) Doing so will most likely cause your story’s perceived quality to take a nose-dive. (Especially if the “big bad” isn’t introduced until part-way through the story, because it causes the reader’s first impression of the story to be disproven after they’ve gained an emotional attachment to it. I often find myself feeling a twinge of resentment when authors do this.)
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that all fiction is, more or less, the same stories being re-told with different details. Regardless of personal taste, the core of the matter is that people read stories for the characters and the ideal story for a given reader at a given point in their life is a story which provides them with just enough depth (both of characters and of plot) to comfortably entertain them and no more. (I say “comfortably” rather than “effectively” because even if a reader *can* follow the plot of an overly complicated story, their taste in complexity will vary with their mood. At some points, they may feel like challenging themselves to a brain-bending mystery story while, at others, they may just want to rest their fatigued mind in the company of a good book)
Keep in mind that not all complexity is the same. A complex plot with simple characters will be easy to write, but not very satisfying to read. A simple plot with complex characters will be difficult to write but, all other things being equal, will satisfy the readers very well. This trait is also what helps to distinguish classic fiction like Frankenstein from pop culture. Society changes and technology changes, but human nature remains eternal1. It takes practice to write truly deep characters, but just keeping this in mind should help you to quickly find an acceptable mix of complex characters and complex plot for your current skill level.
To illustrate how others have achieved this as well as the importance of avoiding the lure of a “big bad”, I’ll compare several popular animated feature films and deconstruct the tendency for Disney films to have higher-quality plots.
A good place to start would be Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. At its core, it’s a romantic story of two characters who are unsatisfied with their lives and end up finding the solution in each other. The plot is very simple, made more so by the limitations of presenting a story as a film, yet the end result definitely earns the title of “animated classic”. Cursory examination is all that’s needed to conclude that “memorable characters” play a large part, but you can’t add them as icing on the cake and, as a crucial tell, you can’t immediately point to one character and say “that’s the bad guy.”
For example, Belle isn’t just your ordinary female lead. She’s a literate woman in the pre-industrial french countryside, misunderstood by everyone but her father, and she dreams of living beyond the bland existence of country life. The beast is a prince, spoiled and immature, who will mature and learn kindness throughout the course of the story. He also provides a crucial tell as to the story’s quality in that, in his initial appearance, one could easily mistake him for a villain despite his status as the lead male protagonist.
Gaston is probably the most telling character though, because he’s the closest thing the story has to a villain. Selfish, egotistical, and popular, Gaston is every bit a pre-industrial, country-bumpkin jock and, most importantly, nothing more. At most, his subplot shares the story equally with the developing relationship between Belle and Beast.
The lesson to be taken from this is that, unless you’re either writing an epic, or skilled enough to not need advice at all, you shouldn’t use a “big bad”. They’re two-dimensional, boring, and tend to make for simple, predictable stories. Also, keep in mind that “epic” is a commonly misunderstood word. In common conversation, it can be used merely to mean impressive or grand (eg. an epic voyage), but in the context of literature, it refers to a tale where events on a grand scale (eg. the fate of middle earth) are determined by small, seemingly ordinary protagonists. (The heroes. eg. Frodo Baggins and friends)
Now, let’s contrast this with Don Bluth’s Anastasia, produced by 20th Century Fox. As with Beauty and the Beast, there are two subplots and one is romantic, the characters are memorable, and the production quality is high. However, in this story, the non-romantic subplot is being driven by a madman (Rasputin) bent on killing the main protagonist (Anastasia) and this is to the detriment of the story because, despite some clever character design work, his motivations are suspect and his personality falls flat. Most importantly, despite attempts to change him to a “basket-case wanting out of limbo”, Rasputin never overcomes his role in the prologue as a cookie-cutter “madman out for revenge” whose reasoning was neither explained nor justified. However, in all fairness, solving that problem would require a prequel of its own or it would do more harm than good to the story as a whole. Hence, my argument that, except in very special circumstances, the problem of using a “big bad” is a Catch 22, and the only solution is not to do so in the first place. More significant to this instance however, is Rasputin’s role in the story: the happy ending can only occur once he’s dead, and that means that his subplot is dominant, hence his status as a “big bad”.
Finally, to clarify the importance of that, I’ll examine a slightly more subtle case. Disney’s Aladdin. At first glance, it would seem to disprove my argument, since it has a big bad (Jafar) and the story can’t end until he’s defeated, but his role is key. In Anastasia, the romance is subordinate, dancing to the tune of Rasputin’s plot; In Aladdin, the romance is dominant. The main conflict has always been that Aladdin is a commoner and Jasmine is a princess and, despite his best efforts, Jafar’s subplot merely places additional obstacles to their love, rather than commanding the flow of the story as a whole. This distinction between the villain’s plot being dominant or subordinate can be illustrated further by analyzing the sequels: In “Return of Jafar”, Iago’s subplot dances to the tune of the dominant “Jafar, the big bad, returns and must be defeated for good” story and, in “Aladdin and the King of Thieves”, the “Aladdin and his father reunite and reconcile” subplot is driven by Cassim’s greed and eventual defeat. If it weren’t for the quality of characters like Genie and the emotional connection to them already developed by the original film, the story would be ordinary, un-exceptional Saturday morning cartoon fare.
In essence, in a good story, it’s the characters’ story and the bad guy is in the way; In a bad story, it’s usually the bad guy’s story… and not in a good way. You can write a good story about a bad guy, but then it’s the characters’ story and the (good) bad guy is in the way.
1. For example, there is an ancient greek play where a father complains of how his teenage son loves to sleep in and lay around all day listening to the bards. If that doesn’t convince you, I doubt anything will.