Sunday, August 2, 2009

Going to the Dark Side

Before sitting down to write any novel, I draft up complete sketches of all my characters with their likes, dislikes, background info, quirks, temperaments, etc. By doing this, I can shift into writing the story and show more, tell less. My characters can jump on stage and be who they are and I don’t try to explain them. If you don’t have fleshed out characters, it doesn’t matter how cool your plot is, no one will care enough to read on and find out about your never-seen-before twists. I’m going to talk about creating great villains because they’re just so much fun to think up and read about.

Epics and character studies show character growth, some big change or a time period I'm supposed to care about, but for me, the most compelling stories have a driving force coming against the protagonist, whether it be some greedy corporation, a massive asteroid on a collision course with earth or a relentless person hell-bent on bringing destruction and chaos to the novel‘s hero. Entra…the antagonist. [Cue Darth Vader‘s theme, because it rocks and makes this particular character seem all the more villainesque.]

Villains can be hidden in the shadows, causing misery behind a mask of obscurity until the very last page or front and center with his or her own perspective, revealing justification at every plot turn. Pure sadism is difficult for readers to believe in because a landslide of evil schemes and desires without good reason backfires and turns your Prince of Darkness into a cartoon. Presenting utter malevolence without motivation means you were lazy and didn’t bother to flesh out your bad guy. Even Hitler, one of the worst monsters in history, had motivations. Societal cleansing. A desire for a stronger Germany. European domination. In his mind his actions were justified, which is how your villain needs to be.

Think of Darth Vader. [Yes, I’m a geek and you can cue the theme music.] Has there ever been a more interesting villain in film? Well, Hannibal Lecter is up there too, but still, Vader’s evil, yet pretty cool. We understand he used to be a good guy, a Jedi, who tried to balance the Force, but succumbed to the dark side. True, we may hold some sympathy for him, but conversely, we don‘t want him to win. George Lucas is often criticized for the newer films he made, but as an artist and writer I can completely understand his use of contrast. The overabundance of Jar Jar Binks aside, Lucas wanted to show the innocent, adventurous young Jedi-to-be, then a glimpse of the man he could've been because we know the outcome and it makes Anakin’s fall to the dark side all the more tragic.

Give your villain a past, interesting facets and ideals, friends, a job, a church home, quirks and reasons for evil doing. You need to find the balance and make your villains credible, logical, and believable, yet not likable. Don’t pull back on your writing or be afraid to get inside your character’s head. Characterization and motivation need to pop to show your antagonist is capable of winning the battle and that the final outcome is anyone‘s game. That kind of uncertainty heightens suspense and gives you the perfect opportunity to showcase your hero's strengths and weaknesses by contrast.

You can make your villain a twisted reflection of your hero, both owning the same core qualities but being bent in different ways. Take Hannibal Lecter and Clarice. They’re both analytical, methodical, brilliant, never impetuous--everything must be thought out before action is taken, yet they're polar opposite in proclivity.
When you’re writing stories with a mystery thread, the villain is often unknown. Then you can look for ways to hint at evil beneath the surface to throw any character into question. The guy who’s toooo nice. The obvious suspect you just can’t read, likable sometimes, deplorable the rest. The jilted old flame, the bizarre new worker in the office, the societal outcast, the nosy neighbor, the know-it-all postman. You can also use prejudice, a reader’s inclination to make assumptions about people, to your advantage. Secret villains need to be equally enthralling, maybe more so than exposed ones. And still, provide motivation in the end.

A great way to bring some facets to your villains is to look at evil itself. Evil can be subtle, beautiful, seductive, frightening, complex, suffocating, confusing, witty, cunning. Build and draw various shades of evil. The Phantom of the Opera. Scary, but sexy and alluring, intoxicating, nearly irresistible. Your villain will appear more intriguing if you show various sides of his or her particular brand of evil. Make it unique. The better the villain, the better the hero, the better the story. Keep at it...and use the Force.

~Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.


  1. Hi Courtney
    Your approach to characterisation is a healthy one. I don't necessarily write everything down about a character but I have to know everything before writing, even if it's not relevant to the story.

  2. I have a little manic pad on which I flesh out my characters. I don't even write one word of my story until I know who my people are. That way I can just jump right in and show who they are rather than try and explain anything. I find novels with poorly developed characters, okay, sometimes they're readable, but the characters don't stick in my mind when the story's over. I often forget their names and I have photographic memory. If my works end up like that, I feel I'm cheating my readers. I want them to be a little bit sad when the book is finished, and they can't feel THAT unless they not only identify but become engrossed. And they can only become engrossed if I do an exceptional job at character building.

  3. I have character sketches too. If I don't have them, my characters seem like cardboard cutouts.

    I do have a question though. With my new novel, my "heroine" is actually the villain as least in the second half as she tries to battle with the being she's become. There's another antagonist too that's there trying to figure out what my MC is, and she's got a bit of a villainous side to her. So who or what would actually be my antagonist and/or villain? I keep debating this in my head. It's still in planning stages so it could change but right now the main battle is between the character and her inner self.

  4. Your Protagonist would be considered an anti-hero. Don't think of her as a villain, even though she's got a wicked streak. In her mind, she's justified in what she does until she begins to feel conflicted about it. And you especially need to project it this way since you're in First. You can really have fun with her inner conflict once you delve into that.

    The Antagonist/villain in your story is anyone who stands in her way, anyone or anything who/that keeps her from achieving her goals. Drop the word "villain" from your process because it can usher in confusion. Think "Antagonist". A good person or a tornado can be her Antagonist, even history and tradition; it doesn't necessarily have to be a person or creature. She can be her own worst enemy too. All battles, inner and outer, are great! Conflict hooks.