Saturday, August 30, 2014

Villains can be fun

By Velda Brotherton

Last month I promised to talk about creating villains, and can’t they be a lot of fun? We can hate them so much that we’re excited to kill them off. It’s important to remember that without a strong and vivid villain your protagonists aren’t challenged enough to reveal their strengths to good advantage. The more devious and evil the villain the more the actions of your hero and heroine shine. Sort of like watching Batman and Robin conquer the Jester. Or that favorite villain of all time, Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs. Probably the best known villain in modern literature, his existence made Clarissa so much stronger. We cheered for her, though she failed time after time. And author Thomas Harris was so adept at creating him that most of us secretly liked Hannibal just a bit and cheered when he escaped, yet all the while we were terrified of what he might do.

Why not create a villain based on the person you dislike most in the entire world? Of course, don’t use their real name. Then add even more traits that would make this person truly evil. Get even with him by making him oh, so evil that the reader will cheer when he suffers all the consequences coming to him. Make sure no one can recognize him, though. And don’t forget, he should have a few redeeming traits.

Remember anyone or anything that stands in the way of the hero reaching his goals is a villain, he doesn’t have to be overly evil, just set in his ways. In some books, of course, the villain is the weather, or the setting or specific circumstances.

You plan a story, then build the characters to function within that story. I didn’t say plot, I said story. An idea that you can fill in with the necessary people to get through to the end. Good characters will weave a plot as they struggle with life’s problems and challenges. Without conflict it will fall flat, and that’s where the villains come in.

Your goal is to create characters your readers will either love or hate, they can laugh with them, cry with them, curse them, cheer for them when they win out over the worst adversities.

We humans are all a maze of inconsistencies, but we do have a dominant impression. Don’t load up your characters with the same dominant impression. One may be dignified, but he could lose it when specific things happen to him.

Some dominant impressions are: dignified, cruel, sentimental, sexy, flighty, rowdy, dull, bright, etc. Each of these can be hiding the true self. And each can be a dominant impression of your villain. Sometimes it only takes someone with strong drive and a good reason for being the way they are and you’ve got a superb villain. Why? Because what they want is the opposite of what your hero/heroine want, thus they clash.

For instance, a man who kills someone because he believes they murdered his wife or child is not necessarily all bad, and he may never commit another crime of any kind. Whereas the bad man who goes through life destroying anything in his path is another type of villain.

You can use certain traits to hide the basic personality of your villain. Dignity can hide his stupidity. Naiveté might disguise cruelty.

Try to figure out the dominant impression of some of your writer friends. Ask them what yours is. This helps us learn more about creating characters, both the hero and the villain, or simply an annoying minor character or a lovable aunt or cousin.

Creating our characters is sort of like drawing some stick figures in a sketch pad, then adding faces, hair, then moving on to personalities, weaknesses and strengths. What motivates her, and again what does she fear and what does she want? A villain has goals much the same as the protagonist, they just aren’t necessarily moral goals, but he may want them for a good reason. The more depth you give this villain, the more interesting he will be.

Only two types of personalities are all bad. Those are psychopaths and sociopaths. Though each is capable of hiding his evil beneath a veneer of charm---think Ted Bundy---in the end he will only be what he is born to be. Pure evil. Everyone who commits crimes, is morally corrupt, or just ornery will also have a good side. He may love his mother, his wife, his dog, but turn around and shoot someone who invades his turf. This type character can be a real thorn in the side of your protagonist.

It’s also important to learn the language peculiar to the villain of your piece. Study well- constructed villains in books and movies carefully. There you’ll get a feel for the way they speak. Maybe you know someone in person that you consider villainous. Watch their body language, check out the way they talk to others, the way they dress. Get your clues from real life and you’ll create better villains for your fiction.


Lesley Diehl said...

You gave some great ideas for how to create villains that we love to hate. In some ways I have more fun creating my villains than I do my protagonists. In each book the villain is new which is a fun challenge. The progtagonist in a series is someone we're familair with, so we have to struggle more to keep her fresh. The obstacles a particualr villain poses for her can do just that, an oppotunity for the writer to deepen the protagonist's character

judy said...

Nice to see a concise list of dominant impressions. My problem is searching for any positive element in my villain so maybe if I take the opposite of dignified I will get slovenly etc. Plan to give that a try.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lesley and Judy for the nice comments. I enjoyed writing this piece cause who doesn't love a good villain?

Nancy LiPetri said...

Great post--makes me want to get busy writing and creating characters.

Janet Greger said...

Interesting post. Somehow I find it easy to like my villains. Generally they're interesting men or women (with all the traits our society respects) unless you get in their way.
Of course, I avoid dumb villains. Someone famous once said, your hero(ine) can only be as smart and interesting as your villain.
JL Greger

Charles Gramlich said...

Villains are the best. They make the story.

Liane Spicer said...

I love a great villain. Some I remember long after I've forgotten the title of the book and the author. Especially the creepy ones.

Remember JR Ewing? He was a fantastic villain who kept us glued to the TV every week.