Getting to know the villain of the piece–and Sunday #ROW80 check-in

I’m currently reading Donald Maass’ “The Fire in Fiction,” and one of the writing pitfalls he mentions is the stereotypical, cardboard cut-out bad guy or femme fatale. Sometimes, we expend so much effort developing our protagonists that we forget that our antagonist has to be equally as strong. I often worry that my villains will become stereotypes. Motivated merely by a desire to inflict pain, these characters show up and cause all manner of mayhem—all while muttering a few snappy lines of dialogue along the way. Or worse, they go off on a bad-guy monologue that’s straight out of Austin Powers. (Note: I now have Dr. Evil muttering the phrase “$1 million dollars” playing in my head on a continuous loop.)

drevil

But what if your baddy is meant to be downright evil? How do you create someone who doesn’t make readers roll their eyes? Here’s what I’m trying:

Step No. 1: Develop backstory

I’d suggest that we put as much time into developing our villains’ backstories as we do for our heroes and heroines. If their actions drive key parts of the plot, we need to understand what motivates them. They weren’t always a “bad guy.” How did they become who they are today? What was their turning point? Maybe they still don’t think of themselves in that role. How do they see their relation to the other characters? What motivates their actions? What was their past like? Why do they want what they want?

Step No. 2: Add a drop of humanity

Even the nastiest of villains needs a drop of humanity. Perhaps your bad guy or girl has a poetic side and enjoys reading Tennyson. In “Smallville”, Lex Luthor played the piano, had a taste for sports cars, and collected “Warrior Angel” comic books. In “Buffy,” the vampire Spike was known as “William the Bloody” because his sappy poetry was “bloody awful.” We don’t have to sympathize with or like villains—and we probably won’t—but giving them these small characteristics gives them and our stories much-needed depth.

Step No. 3: Prepare to be surprised

If, as a writer, you’re surprised by something your villain does, chances are your readers will be too. And that’s when you know you’re getting down to the heart of the story. There’s a moment in my current WIP when the heroine and one of the villains (the story has two) make eye contact. What happened in that moment surprised me as I was writing.

Do you struggle to write fresh, well-defined villains? What exercises do you use to overcome this writing dilemma?

Lastly…

ROW80 check-in

1.) Total word count for the week on WIP, “Good, Old-Fashioned Magic”: 3,722 words. As of Jan. 31, I’m over 1/3 of the way through the first draft of WIP. Woot! (I also wrote about 600 words on a rough synopsis for fairy tale retelling that just popped into my head, bringing the total to over 4,300 words of fiction-related writing this week.)

2.) Read to hone my craft: Continued reading  Julia Cameron’s “Walking in This World” and Donald Maass’ “The Fire in Fiction.”

3.) Blog at least two times a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays: Target met.

4.) Check in on Twitter daily and on WANA Tribe at least once/week: Checked in one Twitter every day except Monday. Didn’t manage to check in on WANA Tribe.

5.) Comment on 5-6 blogs per day, Monday-Thursday: Target met.

6.) Super-secret project: Write two articles/posts each week for that project. Target not met. Honestly, I was zooming through the WIP this week so I didn’t get much work done on the super-secret project.

How did this week and the month of January turn out for you?

This is a blog hop. Cheer on the other ROW80 participants here.

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16 thoughts on “Getting to know the villain of the piece–and Sunday #ROW80 check-in

  1. I really want to ask “what’s the super-secret project”, but I will refrain… haha.

    From what you describe, Gru from Despicable Me is a great “bad guy”! He’s pretty pathetic mostly, has the back-story AND he becomes quite endearing! No wonder that’s such a successful film… not to mention the minions are ace. Then I went on to think of others, like Gollum (LOTR), Mr Tinkles (Cats and Dogs), Snape (Harry Potter)… and all becomes clear.

    • Oh, I’m a huge Snape fan. I even like Draco Malfoy as a character–if I met him as a person, he would probably annoy me, but as a character, he’s just so real. There are times when we don’t want our readers to sympathize with the villain at all, and there are other cases where the villain is someone who can be redeemed, in which case, we have to plant those seeds early on the story. Gollum is a good example because we’re meant to feel pity for him more than disdain. But what do you do when you have a baddie who’s all powerful? Then it’s harder to make them flawed.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • I think that’s when you’re in danger of turning them into one of those characters who moans about how freakin’ amazing they are all the time. Enter Bella Swan. Wait… she’s not a bad guy? Damn.

        But yes, I actually quite like Draco too. I particularly liked how he went from being really irritating to actually not wanting to be a jerk but too scared to fight or put his family at risk.

      • Indeed she was. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive her for killing off some of my favourite characters though… Dobby, Snape, Remus and Tonks, Fred (though the twins were annoying in the film), Dumbledore… What is that all about? Geez, Louise.

        Was pretty exciting about Billy becoming a werewolf though. I REALLY liked him in the book, but he wasn’t as exciting in the film.

      • And poor Sirius, too. He was one of my favorites. Though as a writer, I understand why Rowling killed him off (having him as a godfather/surrogate father could’ve made things too easy for Harry–not that he ever had things easy), I still missed him.

      • It still sucks. Poor Harry had finally found ‘family’ who actually liked him, only to have him rudely snatched away. I was convinced Sirius was still alive with all that mirror fiasco. I thought he was just trapped in some alternate dimension…

  2. I’ve been using Rock Your Plot, by Cathy Yardley – and my own experiences growing up in the abusive home created by parents who loved me (I’ve never doubted that, despite the damage done).

    I tend to enjoy powerful villains – especially, and maybe not surprisingly, adults who thwart and mistreat children. One of them is going slowly mad; he believes he is doing what he needs to do to protect his people. Another demands perfection from her children, because her own mother expected it of her; she can’t see past her own consistent failure to measure up that she doesn’t see that no one could.

    In the WIP I’ll be revising, I just realized that I had no real antagonist, but there was a sappily sweet character who could embody all the things my young protagonists need to fear in the story. I’m thinking I’ll keep that sweet exterior, but that there will be some very unsavory underpinnings – many of them prejudices and superstitions she’s absorbed whole from her parents and others, without even realizing or analyzing them. She’s affectionate and kind – and filled with the potential for unwitting malice.

    And reading this post helped me to about half of those realizations up there, so a huge dose of gratitude is included in this reply! =D

    Your word counts are amazing and inspiring. I’ve been in more of an editing than a writing space, of late, but I do love those weeks when the words flow!

    May this week be villainously wonderful!

    • Thank you! Your character–the too-nice, sickly sweet antagonist–reminds me of Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter (another commenter has me thinking about those books!). She truly believes that she’s doing the right thing and she follows the orders she’s given to the letter–but this leads her to do some pretty despicable things.

      Have a great week!

  3. Congratulations on meeting your goals!
    That’s a great tip about villains – just because they’re evil 🙂 doesn’t mean we should short change them in terms of backstory and character development.

  4. The best villains, IMO, are those for whom we can feel a bit of sympathy and understanding of their motivation, if not the great levels they’ll go to to achieve their goals. Which ties in to your suggestions perfectly, so we don’t end up with: “Just one calorie… but not Evil enough!” (LOL Austin Powers is one of my faves!)

    • I know! Dr. Evil is the ultimate satirical villain. I think the key with any villain is that we have to see not just their evil acts, but a touch of their humanity. Klaus from Vampire Diaries/Originals is a good example of this. His desire for the love and loyalty of those around him drives him to attempt to control those closest to him–driving them away in the process and creating a vicious cycle.

      Thanks for stopping by, Jennette!

  5. Hi Denise! Fab progress on your goals. I think you’re definitely on the right track in creating your villain. Kristen Lamb has some good advice on that too, if you want to search her blog.

    I read somewhere (not Kristen, but I forget where) that in the villain’s mind, he’s the hero of his own story. Something like that. Food for thought, right?

    Have a great week!

    • Thanks. I’ll have to check out Kristen’s advice on villains.

      That makes perfect sense. Often, villains aren’t evil for the sake of being evil, and they don’t necessarily see themselves that way. They might see themselves as being on a quest for justice, for example, or trying to create a better world. It’s just that the way they go about it is twisted and corrupted.

      Have a great week!

  6. Pingback: Creative Play: ROW80 Update, 2/6/14 | shanjeniah

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