Villains, part two

This is the second installment of Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes.

Just How Mean Is Mean Enough?

Okay, she's a mean girl, but you can do so much better!

Okay, she’s a mean girl, but you can do so much better!

Remember, we’re still working on the first “V” in our Villains, Virgins and Vigilantes hierarchy. Presumably, you have a working version of your villain, whom I’ve been referring to as your Snidely.

Unlike your bad guy’s namesake, your Snidely needs to be a believable character. That means clichés shouldn’t be used to describe him (or her, or it, for that matter). So let’s proceed on the assumption that all such one-dimensional crap is off the character-building table.

So, where do we begin? I suggest examining the genre your story is in as a first step. If you’re writing fiction for an audience of 8- to 10-year-olds, your Snidely might actually need to be more like the guy Dudley Do-right dealt with. fantasy monsterBut if you’re hoping to catch the eye of an adult, epic fantasy-loving audience, you can make him far more sinister. You can, in fact, pull out all the rhetorical stops. (No one who reads fantasy really expects the bad guys to be terribly realistic. Fantasy involves magic, right? So give your creepster an extra head or two and have him/it feed on infants. <shrug>)

The monsters in your non-magical stories, which means those fitting into most of the other genres I can think of, probably ought to be more grounded in the real world. Making such evil folk believable will also make them more frightening. One might, after all, bump into them at the grocery store, the filling station, or the local head shop (not to be confused with a “beauty” parlor).

One of the cherished mantras of fiction writing is “be mean to your heroes.” I heartily endorse this philosophy. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to start planning all the vile, nasty things your Snidely will do to your Dudleys and your Nells before you begin your epic. Plan to hurt them early, and often, to paraphrase the ballot box stuffer’s creed.

Killing them might be a little extreme unless you’ve got plenty of spare virgins and vigilantes to take up the slack, story-wise. The trick, I fervently believe, is to be mean creatively.

Face it, any bad guy can tie a damsel to the tracks, or put a ticking time bomb under the hood of a hero’s car. And if you’re hoping to make your readers yawn, that’ll likely do the job. But most readers would prefer to see something new, and hopefully, different. Here are a few possibilities to which I’ve given almost no thought:

Train and cement truck* Drop a cement truck on your hero, or better yet, a freight train.

* Finagle some black ops government agency to target your virgin.

* Instead of hiring some loser to kidnap your cutie, enlist a whole biker gang.

* Give your bully some sort of immunity before he pulps your hero.

Yes, I know it might be tricky to pull any of these off, and doing so will likely make your book longer, to say nothing of being more interesting, but it’ll also require that you really think through the process. “Hm. How could I get a freight train to fall on my champion?”

Even more important than “how” your villain hurts your hero, is “why.” All too often we see bad guys who are one or two genes shy of being declared bonobos. Yes, there’s a place for knuckle draggers, but they shouldn’t be in charge of anything. Villains need to have enough on the ball to concoct reasons for the havoc they create. It’s not good enough to simply be “bad” (or “mean” or “evil”).

Think back to those dreadful “Home Alone” movies. Of course, such stories are meant as “family” fare, so the plotting can’t be intense. But the bad guys in those films are way beyond inept. They’re so unrelentingly stupid, the only anxiety they might engender is self-inflicted — “Hey, Harry! Know how to keep a dumbass in suspense?”

Your villain must never be stupid, no matter how primal his reasons are for doing vile things to your virgin.

"Relax, General. I'm going to kick your ass for your own good. And that of the country, too, of course."

“Relax, General. I’m going to kick your ass for your own good. And that of the country, too, of course.”

All the usual emotional causes are fair game: jealousy, fear, revenge, etc. But wouldn’t it be fun to have your bad guy do despicable things for noble reasons? Patriotism leaps to mind, but that’s because it’s been done a good deal already, especially if the villain works for some acronymically suitable agency of the federal government: FBI, NSA, EIEIO.

Likewise, religious rationales have become passé, whether the faith being hijacked is Christian, Moslem, or Zoroastrian. It doesn’t much matter any more. It’s been done. Too much, in fact.

So keep pushing! How ’bout inventing an NGO (non-governmental organization) you can use for motivation? Let’s say your villain is head of the Clean Water for Everyone Coalition, and your pretty, innocent young thing just inherited a bazillion shares of Dreadful Energy, Inc. She’s been appointed CEO by yet another evil-doer who plans to manipulate her into poisoning most of the Third World.

Hm. That actually has some potential….

old-person-confusedA plot twist we see more and more lately is the one in which the bad guy isn’t really “bad,” he’s just been put in an impossible situation — by someone even worse — who’s forcing him to do harm to your good guy. In which case, your original villain is really just another victim.

So, what motivates the “really” bad guy to make his victim look mean while ultimately hurting your hero?

Oy. Does your head hurt, too?

Of course, that’s just one of the scenarios you’ll need to work out. Another is what happens if your virginal victim can’t complete some urgent task of her own? This sets up the classic crash of competing interests that makes for fun fiction. And yes, it’s harder to write, but that’s the sort of dues payment you’ll have to make in order to achieve success.

Which leaves us where, exactly?

Here’s my short list of requirements for a “successful” villain (the masculine pronoun is merely for convenience; feel free to spawn bad girls, too):

* He must not be dumb, but he needn’t be a genius.

* He must have some motivation. He can’t be bad simply because the library’s closed, and he has nothing else to do. (Explaining how that might be true would give you a motivation!)

* He must be willing to do something different (to entertain your audience).

* He must have positive characteristics, in his own mind if nowhere else.

* His evil acts should stay within the limits of your chosen genre.

When working out these essentials, it wouldn’t hurt to keep a technique in mind that I first heard from Kris Rusch and Dean Smith: levels of thinking.

DigSimply put, the first ideas that pop into your head are likely to be the same ones every other writer will have. They constitute the 1st level. You need to dig deeper.

2nd level ideas are a little harder to come by, and they’re usually better. Unfortunately, they’ve been hatched often enough by other writers that editors and agents will have either seen them frequently, or would have come up with them on their own.

This means you need to dig down to the 3rd level. And now you’ve entered the realm of the really creative. These are the ideas that typically come to you during adult beverage hour (for those who partake), or that wake you in the middle of the night, or hit you betwixt the eyes while you’re driving home from a late night poker game (or babysitting for the grandkids). These are the ideas that make readers sit up straight, shake their heads, and admit they never saw “it” coming, whatever “it” might be.

So, there you have my collected wisdom on developing villains.

Next up: Virgins Are People, too!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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One Response to Villains, part two

  1. Pingback: What kind of character is yours? | ELM Advanced Fiction Writing Class

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