Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Oh, the villainy

It's easy to create an evil villain to foil your protagonist's plans, but with just a little extra effort, you can take your diabolical character to the next level.

Instead of a stock bad guy, infuse your antagonist with real emotion, and a few good qualities, and you've just upped the stakes. The loving father and husband who is embezzling from his company. The abused and ignored child turned gangster. The grieving mother out for revenge. The bullied teenager turned gunman.

All of these villains have motivations we can empathize with. They're not just one-dimensional psychopaths who serve our plot lines, they're human beings making bad choices. Very few people in this world are all good, or all bad.

I've been thinking about villains this week because I'm trying to fix my own. I started working through Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, and realized that my antagonist could be more compelling if he was not just a man who lusts for money because he grew up homeless. That's his motivation, but he has many facets. I just need to find them.

Fixing him will require some new scenes, and a few plot adjustments, but in the end I hope to have created a more compelling character that readers will remember long after they put down the book.

How do you create interesting villains?

Happy Groundhog Day!


Callie James said...

I usually give my villain at least one thing in his (or her) background that helps me sympathize with him later. Then when I put myself in his shoes I can write him credibly (hopefully).

The one villain I hate to read and find incredibly boring is a narcissist. I have met a villain in real life who is a narcissist—who is ALL bad because he's incapable of caring for others. Every life he’s ever touched (as far as I know) he’s brought havoc and pain. There’s no redemption for a narcissist because they can’t look into themselves to take accountability or see a possibility for improvement. And yes, this guy would make an awfully boring character in a book because of it.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Giving them something you can sympathize with is great, Callie.

I hadn't given it much thought until I started working through the Maass book, but it's always creepier when the villain seems relatable. Like he could be you or me in different circumstances.

Nannette Conway said...

Interesting post, Gwen. Sounds like your villain will be a very interesting character now.

One of my elective classes in college was true crime novels - had to read about 10 of them and write reports. The thing that always amazed me was how people trusted the "villain" because he didn't seem like a villain . . . well at least until he was in the act of killing them.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Ooh, Nanette, I think reading a few true crime novels is a good idea. What a great point about villains in real life.

I've been reading biographies of undercover law enforcement and members of special forces. I think I'll add true crime to my list. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Gwen, this is a very timely post for me! Most of my previous books have been straight romance, so I tended not to think too much about villainy.

But my WIP is taking a strange twist, and suddenly I have a guy doing some really scuzzy things to my characters. So far, he is all bad -- and your post made me realize that I need to make him three-dimensional instead of the caricature he is now. Thanks!

Gwen Hernandez said...

JoAnn: Glad it was helpful. Good luck with your villain!

Christine said...

I wonder about the true villain who is not relatable. A sociopath with no ability to empathize? How do we make them sympathetic? Must read the workbook.

I love this post. It makes me think a lot about my own villain(s).

The workbook sounds so interesting. I can't wait to try it.

Cari Hislop said...

To Callie:

Narcissists can do a lot of damage (I know). The man you mention sounds like a Sociopath which is on the far end of the scale. Narcissism covers a wide range of emotional impotence. Like the loss of vision, some Narcissists only have blurry emotions while others suffer from various levels of blindness all the way to completely blind.

Sociopaths don't care because they can't feel to care. If they treat other people like pieces of wood to build a fire to warm themselves with, it's because they themselves feel like a walking log. Sociopaths aren't born that way, they're created by their environment, however, they then choose to do good or evil whichever they think will best serve their purposes. Not every Sociopath ends up a villain though they will always be emotionally impotent unless they seek professional help.

What a lot of people don't realise is that narcissists aren't in love with themselves, they hate themselves. They've unconsiously cauterised their feelings (to end their emotional pain) and try to be the person they want people to think they are. They grow up emotionally handicapped wearing a mask. It's the mask they're in love with, but the mask keeps them in their emotional prison.
I highly recommend 'Narcissism' by Alexander Lowen for anyone who thinks they may know a narccissist or to help draw narcissistic characters.

One of my villains is a moderate narcissist who kept showing up in various stories. In the end he insisted on having his own story. Before he could become a hero capable of loving he has to die in a duel. He ends up in hell where he suffers/feels all the things his victims have suffered at his hands (learning empathy the hellish way)...he's then sent back to his body to learn charity with the knowledge that there's only one woman under 70 who will love him and he has to find her or he'll never be loved. The whole story he suffers and he deserves it, but he's on the road to healing and the story is him learning to begin to feel and care and to let go of the mask that never fooled anyone anyway.

I think all characters have both good and bad traits; nobody's perfect. I've been thinking a lot about this as one of the stories I'm working on weaves around how various main characters see each other. They think they know the other people...they think they know why other people do what they do and sometimes they're right, but usually they're wrong. It's made me think about how sometimes the label 'villain' is nothing more than a perspective. Saying that, I have had one villain whose heart was as hard and black as obsidian; it was him or the hero. He deserved his awful death.

Debbie Kaufman said...

I usually start with my villain's childhood and try to decide what went wrong and how he could have reacted to it or what belief systems he would have created. Out of this, his behavior flows. I have done it the opposite way, started with the behavior and worked it back. Either way, but it's not all about bad parenting, it's about what my villain perceived, saw, believed, and judged. When I understand my villain, then I can create one with more dimensions.

Lexi said...

Interesting post! I am in the beginning stages of a new novel where the villain is a villainess! I will keep these thoughts in mind as I write her. On the surface, she appears to be a nutbag. But I will add layers! Thanks!

Gwen Hernandez said...

Christine: I think there is probably room for the all-evil villain, but I still think it'll be more compelling if the reader understands why. Plenty of books don't bother and are still best sellers, but we can do better, right? ;-)

Gwen Hernandez said...

Wow, Cari! Thanks for all the info. I had no idea. Your story of redemption sounds fascinating.

Debbie, I love the idea of starting with his/her childhood. As we've discussed in other posts, those years affect us as adults in so many ways.

"On the surface, she appears to be a nutbag."=D Jeanie, you crack me up. Good luck with your villainess!

Christine said...

I always thought/believed sociopaths were born that way and that the environment was not always the factor in building that kind of mind. I'll have to dig into my old research books to check it out.

I know someone who has a narcissist for a father--probably more of a BPD (borderline personality) than N. But he's just awful--very self-serving.

I'd love to read a book where a true sociopath/narcissist learns about emotions ;)

Carla Swafford said...

I'm weird. I actually like my villains. Maybe because I know why they're the way they are and can't help it. Misunderstood and hated. The best kind.

In one of my books, I liked the psycho so much, I decided to let him live and be the hero in the next book. :-)

Gwen Hernandez said...

Carla: I don't think it's weird that you like your villains at all. It probably means they're amazing. I would expect that helping the reader understand the villain would increase the tension and suspense.

It's cool that one your villain is redeemable enough to be a hero. That must mean he's complex and multi-dimensional. Good job!

Christy Reece's heros have troubled pasts, as do the heros in Sherrilyn Kenyon and Dianna Love's BAD agency novels. Obviously there's something about redemption that we love to read.

M.V.Freeman said...

Sorry I missed posting earlier!!!

Villians are my favorite, because their moral code is so very different from everyone elses.

Then again I like anti-heros. LOL

Excellent thoughts Gwen!

Gwen Hernandez said...

Mary, somehow it doesn't surprise me that villains are your favorite. :-D

They *can* be very interesting, and I need to make mine more so in the future, I think. I'm somewhat tied to what I started with right now, but in my next MS, I want him/her to be much more compelling.