Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Building a Better Villian by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no 'help wanted' ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon


BUILDING A BETTER VILLAIN

Call me TINO – tolerant in name only. I recently noticed many of my odious characters share a certain trait, which would be fine if that trait related to being dislikable. However, the similarity my antagonists share is physical – they’re gross in every sense of the word.
It made me wonder if I have a deep-seated bias against those who share this physical attribute. But wait, I’ve read many books with villains who ‘look’ like mine. Does that make me biased, or just lazy?
So that got me thinking – how do you build a better villain, one who is complex and human, who doesn’t fall into the easy prejudice category? It’s one thing to make your villain a classic enemy, like a terrorist or Nazi. They’re no challenge to make despicable; we recognize them as bad from their title. You can say murderers, a staple of mysteries, are easy villains, while action/adventure genres almost demand evil characters bent on destroying the world. But that isn’t enough to create a truly memorable bad guy.
The most fascinating villains are the ones we can relate to on a certain level, no matter how vile their behavior, unconscionable their deeds, or distasteful their appearance. For villains who are pure evil there must be something about them that intrigues us beyond their horrific actions. What draws us to Robert Benchley’s shark in Jaws, or Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, is not so much their conduct as their nature. Unlike the hero, it’s not about the villain’s vulnerability, but ours – to the likes of them.
As writers, we must build characters, not caricatures, which means we have to find some redeeming qualities in our villains. That’s not to say the nemesis has to be admirable, but like a protagonist who is purely good is boring, so is an antagonist who is one-dimensional. If we give our heroes some imperfections, we must also balance our villains with enough positive qualities to make them real without making them nice.
To build this kind of villain, think of how many real life villains are smart (Ted Kaczynski), charming and attractive (Ted Bundy), or charismatic (bin Laden). What makes them villains is the way they used those positive qualities in a negative way. This type of villain should present a genuine challenge for your hero by having the power or ability to exploit your protagonist’s weaknesses. Whether a mighty army against a ragtag bunch of freedom fighters or a devoted family man bent on annihilating one segment of society, the greater the task to defeat him the more invested we’ll be in the story.
Villains don’t have to be evil. It surprised me to learn that one synonym for ‘villain’ is ‘antihero’ – I’ve always thought of them as protagonists – flawed people you empathize with, even like, despite their badness. Whether Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, Count Dracula and Frankenstein, Moriarty from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, or Michael Corleone in The Godfather, these antiheroes fascinate us and we often root for them. Even when their actions horrify us. 
It reminds us that villains don’t have to be wicked moustache twirlers, rope in hand. Haven’t we all known good people who’ve had a momentary break and done bad things? Some, like BTK killer Dennis Rader or Susan Smith, go well beyond bad, but what shocked us most about them was their very ordinariness.
To build this kind of villain, write a character biography to create a backstory. Then seek a motivation for the deed, one that readers can relate to, with a believable trigger. That will provide a reason, which is different from an excuse. Bad can never be excused, but if we understand what provoked the bad – fear, shame, anger – we won’t view the character as a really evil person but as a real person who did evil.
It’s a subtle but important difference. It’s what makes them complex and human.


16 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Miko, and right on target. It's no fun defeating a stereotype, but if the adversary is someone charming, smart, even good-looking, now there's the challenge. Hannibal Lecter is a great example of a fictional villain who could be entertaining and charming--until he ate you for dinner.

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  2. It's a technical skill much to be desired to be able to make or villains so sympathetic that the reader is ashamed of herself and wonders about her own morality when she can't help liking them. How does a writer DO that? The motivation has to be a universal one, I would think. And the more it's implied instead of spelled out, the deeper the reader feels it. It's fun for the reader to try to figure out the motivation and connect it to the trigger. Does anyone know a good book on technique about how to create such a character?

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  3. You can admire a person without liking them, or respect some aspects of their character and loathe others. Your point about wondering about your own morality is well taken. I think the greatest villains are the ones who make you wonder. I don't know of a book that teaches how to do that, but I'm a strong believer in analyzing books that inspire you, figuratively tearing them apart to see how it's done.

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  4. In "Paradise Lost" Milton makes Satan a Freedom Fighter before he shows what a nasty little worm he is. Sympathy comes before loss of sympathy. And of course that's the case of Atticus currently. I haven't finished "Go Set a Watchman" yet, so I don't know how deep my loss of sympathy will be, or whether in the end I will have one vestige of love for Atticus left. It's interesting to me that this book was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird." Published in the wrong order, the books create sympathy before they takes it away.

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  5. I write two kinds of bad guys. One is bad from the beginning and the frustration is trying to catch him or her in the act. The other is the one behind the mask. Sometimes the reader knows he's bad before the hero does, sometimes not. The surprise makes for a fun, if not wild, ending.

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  6. Fantastic post. I have forgotten who said that the villain is the hero of his own story. And I find soft-spoken, reasonable or charismatic villains much more frightening.

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  7. So agree on the "villain motivating back story"! The "why" gives that depth all characters need. That being said, I like EVIL villains better than "caught at a bad time," sort of villains. Excellent post!

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  8. I agree with you, Jackie. The more ordinary, or pleasant, the villain, the more vulnerable I feel when his (or her) bad deeds are uncovered. And as Gayle points out, we don't always expect them to be villains, so that reveal shocks us. Madeline, you’re right - those who can hide their evilness are scarier than the obvious villain.

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  9. I've always read - or at least one time - that you should begin your mysteries with the villain, but I don't like the fellow, so hate to make even ONE redeeming quality for him/her. Perhaps that's why I like writing children's fiction, or tongue-in-cheek mysteries. I would do well to take your advice, though. Thanks for the informative post!

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    1. I have to agree with you, Jackie. If someone would kill for an evil purpose, what is there to like. The killer might like his dog, but dogs instinctively don't like bad people.

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    2. Villains don't have to be likable, but in murder mysteries, for example, you often have to hide the villain in plain sight. Making him (or her) pleasant or ordinary accomplishes that. Gayle, you proved that brilliantly in "Damning Evidence".

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  10. That's such a good point, Miko, - and often a subtle one: the villain having a reason for his/her bad behavior, rather than an excuse.... and how we writers deal with that challenge.
    And Jackie H - you found a clever way to avoid that dilemma by writing your delightful children's stories!

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  12. I find I need to have that reason when I write the character, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a valid reason. Just something that justifies the bad behavior in the character's mind.

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  13. This post is so very timely for me! I've been stumbling over a one-dimensional villain and now realize WHY. I'll follow your tip and I know the story will be better for it.
    Thanks!

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    1. Glad you found the post helpful, Thonie.

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