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.)
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?
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?
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