What makes popular fiction popular? Is it a formula or something less… commercial?
I’m guessing the magic is a combination of good writing and good characters. The good writing only comes with lots and lots of practice plus a willingness to learn the difference between techniques that work and those that don‘t. But what about the good characters? Other than signing up for “lots and lots of practice” (and that other icky stuff), shouldn’t there be a way to make the development of good characters less arduous?
I think so, and I think I know how.
We start by looking at the character types often found in popular fiction: villains, virgins (victims) and vigilantes. There’s another category which I call VIPs — very important pals — which we’ll address later.
<Cue evil laughter>
Popular fiction has given us so many villains it’s hard to know where to begin a discussion of them, so I’ll go with an easy one: Dudley Do-Right’s arch nemesis, Snidely Whiplash. When it comes to one-dimensional bad guys, it’s hard to find a better example. One could argue that Snidely’s evil cartoon teammates from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle show” — super spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale — were worse, but they weren’t operating on their own, plus they had the resources of an entire evil empire at their disposal. Snidely was just a simple, ne’er do good.
Snidely represents just the sort of character a writer should avoid at all costs, unless she’s writing satire or scripting episodes for a Saturday morning cartoon show. Why? Well, for starters, everything about Snidely is obvious.
Everything about him screams “bad guy,” from his top hat and handlebar mustache down to his sharp heeled shoes. His clothing comes straight from Central Casting by way of the Melodrama Express, and everything he says and does indicates he’s out to do terrible things, usually to the myopically innocent Nell.
Snidely’s creators faced daunting restrictions. Their cartoon malcontent not only starred in adventures designed to make college-age audiences feel clever, he was further limited by show length. Producers had to pack three completely different cartoons into a 30-minute program, and leave ample room for commercials. Naturally, the characters in those shows shed depth like a politician dispenses platitudes. In short, Snidely doesn’t have the time and space needed to become a “real” bad guy. Instead, he’s the rubber stamp version.
The last thing a writer should want in their fiction is a rubber stamp of anything, especially a villain. And any writer who opts for the easy out in building a heavy is also depriving themselves of a great opportunity. Creating a bad guy can be fun, and for many writers, it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing.
Bad guys can say, do and feel things most of us can only dream about. When the whining little brat in the airplane seat behind him wails about running out of peanuts after throwing his supply at passengers and crew, your bad guy can super glue him to his seat with a sock in his mouth. And while the hubbub over all this subsides, your version of Snidely can pick the pocket of the whining kid’s mom.
Let’s say your villain is female. You’ve already demonstrated she’s quick witted and resourceful. She knows how to take advantage of misdirection, and she’s goal oriented — she wanted that mom’s wallet, badly.
Some writers would stop there. More than likely, they’re the kind who don’t get published.
What have we left out–aside from what our femme fatale looks like, or why she covets the contents of a young mom‘s purse? At least one of those issues is strictly plot-related. I’m looking for something deeper. Like:
- Or background.
- How ‘bout Family?
- Or friends?
Does anyone like this gal? Does she like herself? Does she have a lover, an ex-lover, a thousand ex-lovers?
Does she like puppies, or is she more of a cat person? Maybe her pet of choice is a turtle. Or a spider. The point is, if your character lacks dimension, readers will know it. Maybe not right away, especially if your plot is intriguing, but sooner or later they’ll figure it out, and they’ll probably stop taking your Snidely seriously, just like any other paper doll.
Two things must be done to make this stuff work. First, the writer must know her character inside and out. Second, the writer must be willing to introduce some of this background in trickle-down mode. Dumping it all into the opening chapter, scene, or God forbid, paragraph, should almost never be done. I say “almost” only because someone clever enough may one day figure out how to pull it off, and I want to be in their good graces. Until then, assume you’re not that writer and resist the temptation to unload dependents, favorite foods and/or bra size into your opener. Save it. Dole it out in bites scattered over a large area. Feed all the squirrels, not just the one living in your attic.
However, long before you need to start worrying about delivery methods for bits of your background material, you have to develop those bits. How does one do that?
The internet is rife with checklists you can download and apply to your characters. Is he tall, short, left-handed, handy with tools, or attracted to Rubenesque brunettes? These may be profoundly important character traits, but more than likely, they’ll be so common no one will really give a damn. Including you.
What you should care about are the truly bizarre things powerful enough to turn someone into a villain. Physical traits *might* apply, but chances are there’s something much deeper at play. One of your jobs is to ferret out the distinctions and put them in perspective. You could start by making a bold and utterly ridiculous assertion about your Snidely. Want an example? How ‘bout: My Snidely is not only manic depressive, he’s genetically disposed to collect glow-in-the-dark wall decorations. Then riff on that a little — after those stickers adorn the walls for awhile, he eats them. Boils ‘em down and mixes them in with his Cheerios or his Mac n’ Cheeze.
Conversely, how could he have turned out so rotten when his Mom and Dad were poster kids for the “Saints of Tomorrow?“ The answers you generate to those kinds of questions will be a lot more interesting than a list of Snidely’s favorite TV shows or where he went to college.
And no matter how mean and unreasonable your Snidely is, try to figure out who might like him anyway. Surely somewhere there’s someone who still thinks fondly of your monster. “Dear Uncle Snidely” is just as likely as “Dear Uncle Adolph.” Figure out who that is, and why it might be, and you’ll be well on your way to developing a truly interesting villain.
Next up: How Mean is Mean Enough?