The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Why so bad?

Last day of my tour! I was delighted to meet those of you I met! Thank you for coming! Remember, I have more events coming up in my local area, so I hope to see even more of you. And then, after that, there’s the rest of our lives…

On November 23, 2016, Failed Villain wrote, What about the motivation for an antagonist? They’re always harder for me because I personally have no desire whatsoever to kill someone or rule the world, so I can’t figure out how to express those motivations. Or are they even realistic motivations? Sometimes I get stuck because my villains seem too pure evil. I try to give them some sort of backstory, but again I can’t really relate to that. It’s one thing to write about a character with a dark side, but it’s another to write a character that is pure (or mostly) evil.

I’ve noticed a disturbing side in many of you here on the blog: mrah-ha-ha, you love to write about writing villains! And I love to, too. Does this make us… evil?

Hmm… I’ve selected a few from your pages of excellent responses.

Melissa Mead: Maybe they started with ordinary motivations that got out of hand. For example: “I’m tired of being pushed around. I want some control over this bullying.”
:Punches out bully:
“What a rush! That bully will never bother me again. But there’s this whole gang of bullies…”
:Plan to stop bullies lands the whole gang in the hospital:
“Well, I stopped the bullies, but now the whole town’s mad at me, and I can’t stand it, so…”

And one bad choice leads to another, and another, until the villain’s so caught up in his bad choices that he feels like the whole world’s out to get him, and the only way to make it stop is to rule the world.

Or when he punched the bully, the bully fell and hit his head on a rock, and eventually died, but the villain-to-be was the one who called 911, so no one suspected him. And the next time it was easier to punch harder…

Jenalyn Barton: My favorite villains are the ones that have noble intentions, but go about them the wrong way. Some good examples are Darth Vader (he wanted to save Padme), Light Yagami from Death Note (he wanted to rid the world of evil), Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender (he wanted to regain his honor; although he does eventually become a good guy, he starts out as the antagonist), Professor Callaghan from Big Hero 6 (he is bitter over the loss of his daughter and wants revenge). But don’t forget that even the “pure evil” villains have something they want. Captain Hook wants to defeat Peter Pan and get revenge for the hand Peter cut off. Shere Khan hates Man. The Firelord from Avatar: the Last Airbender wants to expand the territory of the Fire Nation. Hans wants to rule his own country. Syndrome from the Incredibles wants to be a superhero. The possibilities are limitless.

StorytellerLizzie: We also hate Old Toad Face because, as it was explained to me once, Voldemort is like a serial killer you hear about on the news: scary but distant. Toad Face is that co-worker that you can’t get to like you, the Manager who gives you extra work because they can, The boss who made you work on Thanksgiving: scary/mean/evil and up close and personal.

I love that, StorytellerLizzie!

Not sure why I’m remembering this, but it seems somehow germane. A fellow children’s book writer once asked me if I would rather be a victim or a perpetrator, if those were the only options. At first, it seemed to me that the only ethical choice was victim, but the more I thought about it, the more I came around to wanting to be the perp. The victim is acted upon, the perp is the actor. Most crucially, the perp gets to pick the crime, which can even be victimless. I can be the perp who decides that my crime is to jaywalk! My crime can be to remove the label from a mattress that you’re warned never to remove!

Suppose my crime is to park my car in front of a fire hydrant and, in a rare tragedy, a fire starts and the fire truck can’t get to the hydrant and people die. Of course I didn’t mean that to happen. How do I move forward? The fault is mine. Do I grow from a perp into a villain?

If the perp isn’t me but a character named Phil, we have the beginnings of a story.

Since Failed Villain asked about motivation, I think this is one that’s easy to get inside. A judge recognizes that Phil didn’t intend to kill people and gives him a mild sentence, say probation and community service. One way–a common way, I believe–our formerly run-of-the mill Phil can turn into a villain is if he doesn’t accept responsibility for what he did–and doesn’t forgive himself, either. These two go together, I believe. We have to accept we did something wrong before we realize there is something to forgive. Maybe since the judge didn’t take his crime seriously, he decides he doesn’t have to–but I don’t think anyone can really disregard an event like this. It burrows inside. It becomes a kernel with a hard shell around it. Tentacles push out from it.

There may be someone on the planet who has never done anything bad or unkind, but I am not that person. Though I’m not a villain, I’ve let a friend or two down. I’ve been thoughtless, rushed, unkind. When memories of these failures bubble up in my mind, I feel awful, and I try not to repeat–but I have to recognize that someday I will. Maybe next time, though, I’ll be better at apologizing or better at making things right, better at taking responsibility immediately. Or not. I’m no world-destroying villain, but neither my acts nor my motivations are always pure.

Back to Phil when he blocked the fire hydrant. Let’s imagine that he has been driving around for twenty minutes looking for a parking spot, and his date is waiting for him, and she’s going to be mad if he’s late again, and his cell phone has died, so he can’t call her.

What can we conclude about him? He runs late, gets people mad at him, doesn’t think ahead sufficiently, doesn’t want people to be mad at him, doesn’t want to face the consequences, tends to do what’s expedient, is perhaps self-centered. He may also have wonderful qualities, be generous, kind to people in trouble, may run late because he can’t refuse to help anyone.

The backstory I provided two paragraphs ago doesn’t go into past trauma or childhood experiences. It’s minimal. We don’t need much back story, if any, for our villains or our other characters, in my opinion. I don’t think I know the back stories for any of my villains. For example, I have no idea why Sir Peter, a minor villain in Ella Enchanted, is so calculating. I sure don’t know what makes Lucinda tick. If it helps us, we can figure out our characters’ pasts, but the reader doesn’t have to see our discoveries unless they come into the story. I don’t even think we need to know or understand our good characters’ motivations, except for our POV’s, whose head we’re in. Back to Lucinda. She ruins people’s lives, not for gain, not really to please them with her gifts. I don’t know why she does it.

Can I find myself in her disastrous gifts? A little. I like to be right as much as she does. I can be a tad impulsive. But I would never ever do any of the horrible things she does, even if I had the power. I can still write her, without knowing why she does anything–or without wanting to ruin people’s lives, too.

As we saw with Phil, our starting point can be the first bad act, whatever it is. As we work out the consequences, we can decide how Phil will respond to them. Through his actions we’ll figure out his personality, which will move us forward into our story’s future with a character who gets more and more complete and real.

When it comes to a purely evil villain, unless we’re writing from her point of view, we don’t have to know her motivation. We have to know only that in a given situation she will go for the worst outcome. Naturally, we do need to know her purpose–what specific harm she hopes to impose and on whom. Our other characters can speculate on her motives and methods so they can come up with strategies to thwart her, but they and we don’t really have to know.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Turn Phil into a villain. List five ways his careless (and selfish) act develops into villainy in his life. Pick one and write a scene or his whole story.

∙ Go the other way and write about Phil coming to terms with what he did and becoming a better person. Make this hard. Have him stumble. If you like, bring in family or friends of one or more of the people to whose death he contributed.

∙ Make Phil’s story really complicated by mixing it up with the circumstances that led to the fire in the house he parked in front of. If you like, a more deliberate villain can have been at work to start the fire. Have Phil get involved.

∙ Expand Phil’s future so that he becomes supremely bad–threaten-the-survival-of-the-universe bad. Write his story along with the story of your MC, who, through small acts of decency, becomes the force for good opposing him.

∙ Take a minor bad characteristic, maybe something that drives you crazy when someone does it. For example, could be tickling people whether they want to be tickled or not. Make it bigger and write a scene or a whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Redeem-eroo

First off, I will be speaking in the Oak Room of the public library in San Mateo, California, on May 5th at 7:00 pm. The library is at 55 West 3rd Avenue. If you are in the area, I would love to meet you!

On March 16, 2016, Poppie wrote, Has anyone ever redeemed a bad guy? The villains in my fanfic story have once been good, then they were turned evil by dark magic, now they need to become good again. How can I make that happen in a convincing, non-magical way?

Several of you weighed in.

Christie Powell: I did a short story where the main character is extremely angry. It grows through the story until she snaps. She set a house on fire (magically) without realizing her little brother is inside. So she has to save him, and as she does she sees the consequences of her anger tearing everything apart, and that helps her to set her anger aside and start to forgive the people who hurt her. “The Christmas Carol” is a good example of a book with this rebirth plot. Even kid movies like Frozen or the Lego movie use it.

If this is a really bad person, I’d think it would have to be something pretty dramatic to be convincing. Shakespeare got away with “I ran into some monks and converted and now I’m going to make everything right again,” but that was a long time ago. Realizing that their actions are harming someone they care about seemed like a good one.

Bookworm: Poppie, here are some ideas:
Your villains could:
∙ notice something your good character(s) did that made him/her see the error of his/her ways
∙ get a nightmare that snaps them out of it

Your other characters could:
∙ slap him/her (literally or figuratively) out of it

If you want to be extra convincing, maybe a character can rant about it to the villains, giving the villains new POVs.

Jenalyn Barton: My favorite example of a villain gone good is Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender. It is a TV show, so they had a bit more time to work with his character, but there is still a lot to learn from it. I’ve watched the show over a dozen times now (yes, I’m slightly obsessed), and I’ve observed that Zuko’s character arc basically went through three stages: Establishment, Fall, and Redemption. In the first season, the story focuses on establishing his character. You will notice that even though he is a villain, the creators of the show waste no time in creating sympathy for the character. In fact, they do this from the start, by explaining his motives and giving him a rival villain who is even worse than he is. His back story is established in the first season as well, helping us understand why he is so determined to capture Aang. In the second season he has a fall from grace, where he loses his status and is forced to live the life of a fugitive. He learns some lessons on humility and such because of this, then has his major fall when he betrays his uncle in his attempt to regain his status. In the third season his character goes through redemption, when he realizes that having his status back has not made him happy at all, and that true honor comes from being loyal and doing the right thing despite the opposition. He then switches sides, and spends the rest of the season earning the trust of those he once hunted. By the end of the show, his change from bad to good feels ultimately satisfying. If he had skipped any one of these three stages, his change of heart would have felt hasty and contrived.

Emma: One of my favorite methods I’ve heard of goes like this:
The bad guy is forced to help the good guy in some way (either the bad guy is captured, and is literally forced, or because of unfortunate circumstances has to help the good guy… This could go in a million different directions). While helping the good guy, the bad guy either realizes 1) There is no reason to remain evil, 2) They actually agree with some of the things the hero does/says/believes, 3) They actually have come to care for the hero because of their kindness (whether this is through a brother-brother relationship or a romantic one is up to you). Because of a realization, perhaps the bad guy actually saves the good guy without really realizing what they’re doing. This could be a literal rescue or an emotional “rescue”, or anything along those lines. The bad guy comes to the conclusion after the rescue that they no longer want to be a bad guy anymore, and end up the hero’s sidekick, romantic interest, mentor, or even the hero him/herself.

Now, this does involve a relationship of some kind, and it would really work best on a quest story. But of course, the hero doesn’t have to change the bad guy. The bad guy could change because of his/her new found relationship with another good character. Anyway, I just like this idea because it highly involves sympathetic/likable characters, and would work best in a quest (my personal favorite type of story). It also doesn’t have to involve magic, and can be very convincing.

These are great!

I’m assuming that the original black magic spell can’t simply be lifted. Here are some more strategies that may help:

∙ If we can, it’s often best to work from character, so we might think about what’s least bad about each of our villains. For example, many years ago, before I became a writer, I had a bad boss: egotistical, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-important–self, self, self! The only admirable quality I could detect in him was generosity. If he were a character and I wanted to turn him, I’d work on that, because generosity suggests a smidgen of empathy–and empathy is villain poison.

∙ I notice a common thread in most of the post comments, particularly in Emma’s: relationships. The villain is changed by her connection to another character, who isn’t a villain. I used this in my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake. The fairy Bombina, the villain, takes the child Parsley from her parents. Bombina’s evil stems from the joy she takes in turning people into frogs, for which she has been jailed by the fairy queen. When the story begins, she’s just gotten out. All this is lighthearted, unless you’re a current frog/former person. What starts to turn Bombina around is her love–which takes her by surprise–for Parsley. I won’t give away the turning point, but by the end Bombina is thoroughly reformed. She’s still sharp and prickly–we don’t want to make her unrecognizable–but she’s given up her frog misdeeds.

So our villain can care about another living thing, which doesn’t have to be a person, can even be a plant. The villain’s beloved is a tiny crack in her shell of badness. We can make the story widen the crack until our villain finds it impossible to keep being evil.

∙ We may be able to change him through reason. Our villain is very smart, but he hasn’t thought through the world view that underlies his villainy. If we can undermine his assumptions, we may turn him around.

∙ We can get to her through her self-interest. She wants power, for example. We may be able to show her through events in our story that she’s more likely to gain power by being a humanitarian. It may be a pretense at first, but we can nudge her toward more honest kindness with our other strategies.

∙ We can give him a flaw that we can exploit. Maybe he’s vain. In the fairy tale “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” for example, Puss works on the ogre’s vanity to get him to turn himself into a mouse. In a more serious story, we can use our villain’s vanity to our MC’s advantage, too. When he discovers the consequences of his vanity–or of any flaw–he takes the first step toward change.

∙ Magic has been disallowed, but maybe other outside interventions can be brought to bear. For example, her brain could be changed surgically or with medicine (modern or from another time period) or through hypnosis. If we go this route, we have to establish early that such a thing is possible, and there may be suspense over whether the procedure will work on her.

∙ If these characters were once good, we may be able to persuade them to remember their old selves, as long as their memories are intact.

∙ Here’s a weird one. Let’s call it The Silver-Lining Effect. The bad boss I mentioned above had the good effect of spurring me to find another job, which was a much better fit for me. I think this is common, a good outcome arising from bad behavior. Our villain, who is smart, realizes that his destructive actions may hurt some, but they also strengthen the forces arrayed against him, which is the opposite of his intention. Diabolically, he decides he has to embrace virtue. Then, he can be brought to turn truly decent–or not, if we want to keep his evil in reserve.

The Silver-Lining Effect is an example of the complexity in moral issues, which we can use to create layered stories. An example I think about regularly is homelessness and the beggars that one sees on the streets of many cities, especially in decent weather. I’m a big walker, often in New York City. New York, to its credit, is a great walking city, so it’s also a great place to panhandle. If I have change, if I’m not in a gigantic hurry, I’ll drop a quarter in a beggar’s cup. When I don’t, I feel guilty. When I do, I feel uncertain. I definitely haven’t changed anyone’s life with a quarter, and will my quarter go for cigarettes or worse? And I don’t make the interaction human, either. I drop in the coin and move on, rarely saying anything, rarely making eye contact. So I wind up guilty again. Was this a good deed or not? Upstanding people can argue both sides.

With villains we sometimes bring in moral complexity by revealing backstory. There are other ways as well. If we’re in our villain’s POV, we can show her thoughts and feelings, which can be different from what the reader expects. But even if we’re not in her heart and mind, we can demonstrate what lies beneath through dialogue and action. For example, the villain may be kind to his henchpeople; opposition is what brings out his despicable side.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Dark magic has made villains of Robin Hood, his merry band, and Maid Marian. Think of an un-magical way to turn all of them back at a single stroke. Write the scene in which this happens. You may need to start at an earlier point to set this up. If you’re inspired, write the entire story.

∙ Pick one of the characters above, could be Robin Hood or a band member or Maid Marian. Develop the character and work the transformation gradually.

∙ Reform the evil queen in “Snow White,” using her character as we know her: jealous and rageful. Use one or more of the approaches suggested above, or another that you come up with, but no magic allowed.

∙ Using the complexity of moral questions, create a switcheroo. In the course of an investigation, make Sherlock Holmes evil and Moriarty good, and totally confuse Dr. Watson!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Deadly but likable hero

Here–ta da!–is the reveal of the cover for Writer to Writer, from Think to Ink:

And here’s the new cover for Writing Magic:

On March 23, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, So I have a predicament… The villain in my story needs to lose, and I was initially going to have him die. Unfortunately, I need the heroine of my story to be the one to defeat the villain, but I’m not sure how to do that without having my heroine outright kill the villain herself. I feel like she wouldn’t be much of a hero since killing really isn’t moral or likable for a heroic character…any thoughts?

Elisa opined, Well, actually, some people have to be killed to preserve peace. And plus, if there isn’t a penalty for despicableness, what keeps everyone from being despicable? But, if you absolutely don’t want her to kill him, why don’t you have her do it indirectly? Like, have her rig up the chandelier to fall to cause a distraction, only the villain steps under it at the precise moment it falls, and is demolished! (That is, of course, just a basic example. You can go much more complex than that.)

And Eliza said, Sometimes it’s more satisfying to watch the villain live with defeat than just get killed. Maybe your hero destroys the one thing that meant the world to the villain and they have to stand there and watch all their hard work crumble before their eyes.

The only time I’ve had my heroine kill a villain is in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie stabs (if I remember right) to death the dragon Vollys–to the dismay of some readers, because Vollys is lovable. But she’s evil, and I felt she had to go. I don’t think Addie is any less admirable for doing away with her.

But Vollys isn’t human. So far, I’ve shied away from having people kill people, though it may be unavoidable in the book I’m working on now, during summer break from poetry school. Squeamishness, rather than morality, has stopped me in the past; I don’t think it’s immoral for an author to have a fictional character kill another fictional character, whether it’s a villain murdering a secondary character or an MC polishing off a villain. I hasten to assure you all: in real life, I’m mild-mannered.

Certainly in books, movies, and TV, heroes often off villains, and the reader or the audience cheers and goes on loving them. Think of James Bond, for instance.

We’re wandering a little away from my area of expertise, because I’m not a blood-and-guts writer, but I suspect that the method the hero uses is important. For example, it’s probably a rare heroine who poisons her villain. We’re likely to squirm if an author makes our beloved heroine Martha stir arsenic into the villain’s tea or shoot him in the back using a telescopic rifle sight (correct lingo?) from an office building across the street from his hotel.

Often in a thriller, we see the two locked in mortal combat. One of them is going to die, and we want it to be the villain. I’ve peeked between my fingers countless times in a movie while a hero and villain struggle on a window ledge. The villain goes over, although maybe the hero really wanted to haul him in to jail. But nobody is miserable about the way it went down and he fell down.

Speaking of jail and moving in Eliza’s direction, bringing a villain to justice can be a satisfying way of avoiding death. He can no longer hurt anyone else, and if we set it up right, we can make sure his life in the clinker will be horrible. And justice doesn’t have to mean a maximum-security prison in some country we all know; it can be a dungeon in the castle cellar or exile to a convict planet in the next galaxy.

I love the way Hook meets his end in Peter Pan. Peter defeats the pirate in a duel, a terrible humiliation. But the crocodile, whose clock has finally stopped ticking, eats him. If we can engineer this kind of send-off for our villain, hooray for us.

One way to get there is to think about what would make our villain most miserable. Might be loss of power or wealth or being deprived of the company of his pet boa constrictor. If our heroine can bring this about, the reader will be satisfied. And a nice aspect of these less-than-final final solutions is that they’re reversible, so we can bring our villain back in the next book, if we want to.

A painful example of using what a character fears most occurs in George Orwell’s 1984 (high school and up). *Spoiler alert!* If you haven’t read this chilling masterpiece and plan to, skip this paragraph. Since the novel is a tragedy, it’s the heroes who suffer defeat, but the method can be applied to villains, too. The government, which is the villain here, knows what everyone fears most–heights or spiders or confinement–and subjects dissenters to whatever that is for them. In this conception, everyone snaps; no one can withstand his greatest fear. The dissenters are broken and no longer a threat to the state. As soon as I read the end of the book, I knew what could be used against me. No bones would be broken, not even a scratch, but I’d be finished. Horrifying. And we can do something like this to our villain.

We have to set it up early in our story. Probably we have to show how hard it will be for our MC to discover our villain’s secret and bring it about. She may not know what she’s looking for or even that there is an Achilles’ heel in our seemingly invincible villain.

Kenzi Anne also asks about the morality or likability of a heroine who kills a villain. We can debate forever the morality of a character (or a person) who kills, even to save other lives. But I think our heroine can be likable whether or not she kills anyone. I’m not sure her likability is at stake unless she kills in a way the reader can’t identify with, or that disgusts the reader. Suppose Martha draws a bead on the villain when he’s about to smother her best friend who’s innocently asleep. We want her to get the villain and save her friend, and let’s assume that killing him is the only option. We’re entirely on her side. We’ll still want her to succeed, but we may feel less fond of her if her accompanying thoughts or actions don’t please us. We may get turned off if she’s hoping, as she pulls the trigger, that he doesn’t die quickly, or, alternatively, if she’s debating what she’s going to eat for lunch as soon as he’s dead. Or if she kills him and then kicks his cat or raids his fridge.

Gee, villains are always so much fun! Here are three prompts:

• Put Martha and the villainous, heavily armed, and very large Mr. MacTavish on the roof of a twenty-five-story office building. One of them is going to fall off. Write the fight scene, and kill whoever has to die.

• Put them back on the roof, and have Martha figure out what Mr. MacTavish fears most. Have her vanquish him without killing him–if you can, without touching him. Write the scene.

• In the traditional fairy tale, Snow White’s evil stepmother dances to death in red hot slippers. Devise a better punishment for her and make Snow White bring it about.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plot dilemmas and a villain

On December 13, 2013, this came into the website from Alyssa: I reached a point in my book where I needed an explanation for something, but I couldn’t think of one, so I just put something down so I could keep going. I don’t really like the explanation, but it was the best thing I could come up with. Do you have any advice for moments like that?


Also, I feel like there are large parts of my book where I am just making things up as I go along. Is this normal for you, or do you have a general idea of how your story is going to end when you finish your book?


My third question was, when you create a villain, how much cruelty do you consider enough to convince your reader that the character is no good? Because in my story, the main character’s mother is the main villain in my main character Lara’s life, so I want to convince the reader that the mom is awful and cruel, but Lara still loves her mom, I just don’t know how to show that. I want her to seem evil, but Lara sticks around for about 18 years, so I can’t make her that bad. Do you have any advice for this kind of problem?

Eliza responded with these ideas: I’ve heard lots of writers describe themselves as pantsers, meaning they go off the seat of their pants and just make stuff up. Almost as if they’re reading it instead of writing. For me, I need to have at least a general idea of how it will end. “Villain gets killed. Heroine is reunited with her boyfriend. Character breaks out of prison.” But I don’t know who will kill the villain or how the character escapes. It helps if I know the next five events. By the time I’ve written those I’ve come up with something else. If you feel lost you may need an outline. But if you’re comfortable making stuff up? Go ahead.


On villainy: It’s remarkable-and more than a little sad-how people stay loyal to real life villains. Lara’s grown up with her mother. She’s seen her good side too. But show her doing something awful and cruel and readers will recognize her as a villain. I wrote a story where my character’s parents were mean, though not the main villains. It helped to have her brother call out the parents for being cruel when she’s too afraid to stand up to them.

And Elisa weighed in with, On the out-of-the-blue-temporarily-staying-like-this-fix-later thing: Write something that makes sense, sort of, then leave it like that, then come back and elaborate on it. Change some things earlier on and later on to fit with this scene, (Such as Q: How does the MC escape prison? A: He has a file and a parachute. Now you figure out WHY he has a file and a parachute. Add them into the parts of the story you’ve already written.)

A lot of my writing comes from my subconscious. I toss things into my stories without any idea of where they emerged from. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for example, I made Addie skillful at embroidery, probably because I wanted her to be good at something, and embroidery seemed like a hobby that a shy person might take up. Basically, I was just rounding out her character. I didn’t know what I’d do with this accomplishment, but I kept it in mind, and it came in mighty handy when she was captured by the dragon Vollys.

So that would be my suggestion. We come up with an explanation, the best we can think of, and soldier on, remembering the explanation as we go and looking for spots where it will support our plot. Maybe it will create tension, make our MC unhappy, or get her out of a jam.

I also like Elisa’s idea and her example. When we throw in that parachute and file, we create interest and stimulate our ingenuity. We can also make the reader worry. She knows about the parachute and the file. What if a guard finds them? What if another prisoner steals them for his escape?

In Two Princesses, the embroidery might not have turned out to be useful. Addie may have needed something else. As my plot revealed itself, I could have gone back and exchanged embroidery for pottery, or I could have revised her into a supremely strong swimmer. I may have wasted pages and time with the embroidery, but lost time and words for me are just the price of being a writer. And, often, I have fun writing the parts I wind up not needing.

Generally, before I introduce anything into a story, I make a list of possibilities, and the element I bring in isn’t the first one I thought of. So there’s another suggestion. We can make a list of explanations, five at least, and then choose the one we like best. If that one doesn’t work out in the end, we can go back to our list and add to it or see if one of the rejects really fits the bill.

Like Eliza, I, too, usually know in a general way where my story is going. If a plot seems to be meandering or lurching from crisis to crisis, it’s time to stop to consider what the main problem is. To figure that out, we can ask ourselves some questions: What’s most important to our MC? What problem resonates with her personality? Which challenges those aspects of her character that most need to grow?

When we know the main problem, we can list ways to resolve it. We don’t have to work out the resolution in detail, and our decision can be tentative; we’ll know better if the ending is right as we approach it. Once we have an inkling of the ending, we can craft our crises to jibe with it. We can make achievement of our MC’s goal harder even while giving her the tools that will eventually enable her to get there.

Now for the villainous mother. I have just one suggestion: Be subtle. Mrs. McMeanie doesn’t have to beat her daughter. The havoc she wreaks can be psychological, and the reader will still recognize the misery she’s inflicting. She can make her daughter feel inferior with constant put-downs. She can persuade her child to fear the world outside her family. Going the other way she can even cripple her daughter by giving her the idea that she’s better than everyone else. Or she can burden her daughter with impossible expectations. I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I once knew a man whose mother persuaded him that he was unlucky, and he played that belief out in his adult life. That mother, probably unintentionally, became the villain in her son’s story.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC sets off on a new endeavor, which could be a new school, a battle, camp, a job as unicorn trainer in a zoo. Before she leaves, her mother gives her a few words of advice, which make everything harder. Write the advice and the scene that follows. If you like, continue and write the story.

• A good friend of mine believes that moms have gotten a bad rap in literature for children. In this scene, your MC is spending the day alone with her father. She’s thrilled because he rarely has time to dedicate to her. Make it all go wrong and reveal the dad as less than a great guy.

• Along the same lines, retell “Hansel and Gretel,” and make the father the major baddie instead of the mother–or the witch!

• Our MC, who’s been captured by the enemy, is held in a stone fortress. She has a candle and a lady’s fan. Have her escape using one or both of these.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Beautiful wickedness

On November 19, 2013, J. Garf wrote, I was wondering if anyone knows how to make evil beautiful. I don’t mean making the villains physically beautiful, that’s relatively easy. I mean the act of evil itself. For example, in the Phantom of the Opera, the phantom calls light “cold, unfeeling” and “garish”, while he calls darkness and evil “sweet intoxication.” Is this simply his mad opinion, or could you write something like that? I plan to read the book soon which will hopefully give me some ideas, but does anyone have any advice? Also, how difficult is it to write a protagonist as a villain?

Bibliophile commented, I would say, pretty difficult. I mean, we all want to root for the protag, but can we if they’re evil?


I think that good examples of this on TV are Breaking Bad and definitely Dexter. Don’t watch those shows if you’re squeamish. But in general, if the evil is backed by some good, then we might be able to relate. Like when we had to read Mein Kampf by Hitler, he kept stating his mission over and over again. It’s a good read, there were some things in there that you wouldn’t have expected of him. 


If you were to write a story like that, it would definitely need to be in first person. Otherwise, the character wouldn’t come across as well as he could have.

In the nick of time, Bibliophile clarified: Reading that over, it sounds like I agreed with Hitler, I DO NOT!!!!! It just was interesting to see how his mind worked.

And Michelle Dyck weighed in with, I’m not sure if you can make evil TRULY beautiful. I think you can make it understandable, or beautiful from the perspective of the evil character. But at some point in the story, the readers will begin to see the evil for what it really is.

First off, I want to mention that Dexter and Breaking Bad are both TV series for adults, and for adults with stronger stomachs than mine!

Villains are fascinating! But I’ve never tried to create beautiful evil or an evil protagonist, so what follows is just speculation.

Say we have a species of intelligent cockroaches locked in a war with humans for dominion over the earth. The roaches hope to wipe humanity out, except for a handful who will be kept in zoos. Our MC, Hunneeha, is a young roach lieutenant, who has risen in the roach ranks by dint of her enthusiasm, skill, and team spirit. She and her squad have been assigned to infiltrate an elementary school and kill all the adults and children. In the first scene Hunneeha and her squad are getting ready for their mission. Let’s say the story is written in the first person, and it begins like this:

We gathered in the basement sink. Eleven of them looked at me, waiting for my orders, but Jujo, youngster that he was, sucked on the end of a feeler. I waited for him to come to attention, grateful for the time to think of what to say, how to prepare them. Pretty Panay’s carapace sparkled. She must have spent half of yesterday polishing herself, thinking, perhaps, that cleanliness might contribute to victory. Gross feet thundered overhead. What chance did a shiny carapace have against the filthy soles of a human shoe?

Can we make these cockroaches beautiful? I bet we can, although we may have to get past our own revulsion first. We may write about shine, delicacy, big eyes–and not highlight the icky aspects. We’ll have to individualize the bugs. Some are probably better looking than others. Hunneeha may obsess over her skinny legs.

Are they evil? Suppose we alternate chapters from Hunneeha’s POV with chapters from the POV of Marcy, a high school student who has a part-time job in the school cafeteria, which is the roaches’ target; they’re intending to poison the food. Marcy and the children suspect nothing. We make the reader admire Marcy, too, and his brain somersaults whenever the chapters shift.

The point is, everything depends on perspective. We have to get inside our evil MC’s world, understand his goals, discover what he treasures. As an example, let’s make a hero of a tyrant, one who practices genocide, who by any reasonable standard is evil. His most important characteristic is that he’s an extreme nationalist. At the beginning of our story his people are poor and divided into factions. He realizes that the economy needs a war and that people won’t come together without a common enemy, so he, quite deliberately, picks out a tribe of his own people to demonize. Let’s call them the Bup tribe. Suppose he shines a spotlight on the wealthiest Bups. He publicizes their wealth and contrasts it with the plight of the poorest in the other tribes. As the writer, we don’t show members of this tribe who are poor or charitable or struggling or sympathetic in any way. Instead, we highlight the slow steady improvement in the economy. Maybe we zoom in on a delightful family that’s benefiting from the tyrant’s policies. We show violent acts by Bups but not the treatment that led to the fighting back. For the beauty part, we show a ceremony that unifies the other tribes. There are marches with candles and children singing in enormous rooms with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and banners. There is an air of solemnity and purpose and occasional joyous laughter.

I think we can make this evil beautiful. In addition to perspective, we’ve been selective. We’ve chosen not to show the whole picture of the Bups. By selection, we can make the tyrant sympathetic and heroic. We can make him handsome and even lovable. I bet we can even confuse ourselves.

If we write something like this, are we evil? Maybe not. Are we doing something wrong? I think so.

And I’m not sure we can produce great stories this way, because we may have to try too hard to make the point. We probably have to make our tale less complex in order to force the readers’ feelings. We shift closer to propaganda than to true story-telling. It’s not very different from writing a moralistic story. In both cases, the subtle grays that make fiction thrilling are sacrificed. It’s why I prefer MCs who are a little flawed and villains who are somewhat sympathetic.

Having said all this, we always stack the deck to some degree in our stories. We definitely want the reader to like certain characters more than others. But we also let our stories find their own way and surprise us sometimes.

Here are five prompts:

• Write the scene in which pretty Panay is killed by a first grader. Make the reader feel terrible. Make him hate the child who killed her. For extra credit (ha!), make the child seem as disgusting to the reader as roaches usually feel to us.

• Decide who wins the school battle. Write the final scene. For more extra credit, make the reader have mixed emotions about the outcome.

• Write “Little Red Riding Hood” from the POV of the wolf. Make him more than likable. Make it a tragedy when the hunter kills him.

• If you’re in the mood for historical research, read up on the American Revolution. Pick an MC on the side of the British, and make the reader root for the cause of the monarchy.

• Write “Sleeping Beauty” from the POV of the angry fairy who wants the baby to die. Make her sympathetic. Make her even correct.

This turned out to be a pretty serious post. But have fun and save what you wrote!

Villainy

On November 2, 2011, Rina wrote, I need motivations for my villains, you see. If anyone has any good motivations for villains…?

This is a perfect companion question for last week’s post about backstories. Motivation can be backstory, or front story. Let’s put front story up front and take it first.

Here’s an example:Training in alien communication at the Starship Academy begins with a placement exam, part of which is a chess game. First-year student Anthea intuits the meaning behind the game and intentionally loses to her opponent, Bennett, whose triumph twists into rage when she’s assigned to a higher study group than he is. Thereafter, he’s her enemy, the villain of the story.

Lots of front-story events can motivate a villain. Chuck can inadvertently witness something that no one was supposed to see. He can accidentally say the wrong thing. He can be new in town and just be his adorable, outgoing self, which may threaten Dava, the reigning popular kid.

Going back to Starship Academy, now we know Bennett’s motivation: anger at Anthea for divining what he failed to understand, and fury at himself for being used by her. But we don’t know why he responds with rage. Instead, he could concede with good grace. He could even admire Anthea and ask her to explain how she understood the test when he hadn’t. The writer can provide backstory. We can learn that Bennett’s father, who was constantly passed over for promotion, called almost everyone else a loser. Or his mother used to beat him whenever he brought home less than an A on his report card, or, for you homeschoolers, whenever she found fault with one of his projects.

The writer can put this information in, and the knowledge may enrich the story or may make interesting reading, but it doesn’t precisely explain Bennett; we all respond uniquely to our histories and our circumstances.

Motivation doesn’t always matter. Think of Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He’s simply bad to the core. There’s a chilling moment in the wonderful old movie, The List of Adrian Messenger, when Kirk Douglas says, “Evil is.”

The motivation can be lost in history. Think of feuding clans. The parties may not even remember the reason they hate each other, but the hatred is carried forward from generation to generation until something breaks the cycle.

Power is a frequent villain motivator. Villainy itself requires a degree of power. The villain doesn’t float in the river of time; he puts his oar in. Real-life historical villains, many of them, are motivated by power.

Indifference can be a motivator. The villain wants what he wants and doesn’t care who’s hurt.

Prejudice can be your villain’s goad to action. Inga hates everyone in the Yunnu tribe. When a young Yunnu boy enters the village she behaves despicably toward him.

Lack of empathy, even solipsism (look it up, if you don’t know – it’s a great word) can cause a villain to act as he does. Georgio doesn’t necessarily mean to do ill, but he doesn’t believe that Helena will feel unhappy if he kidnaps her. He just wants the ransom.

As important as motivation, in my opinion, is consistency. Bennett is going to be a certain kind of villain. He’s gotten into Starship Academy so he’s smart. Is he patient or impatient? Does he enlist henchpeople who do his villainy for him, or does he work alone? Does he pretend to be Anthea’s friend to get under her guard? Whatever you decide, he should always be that. Moriarty will always be subtle and clever. Hattie in Ella Enchanted, not so much, and Olive, never. The ogres in Ella are sneaky and crafty; in The Two Princesses of Bamarre they’re brutish and doltish.

Complexity in a villain is nice but not necessary. The decision may rest on how close or how distant he is. In the Sherlock Holmes stories again, he’s distant. In the Starship Academy example he’s close, and the reader will probably need to know him well, so he should be well-rounded. You may want to give him a good quality or two. The pirate Smee in Peter Pan is lovable, at least partly due to his spectacles. Captain Hook is lovable too, I think, even though he kills without mercy. Maybe it’s because he’s pathetic. After all, his ambition is to kill a little boy. And he has good manners.

What good quality might you give your villain? I’ve known a few baddies (not many). One was very generous, and another had a great sense of humor; the others had no redeeming qualities that I could discover.

An element to consider may be the power relationship between the villain and hero. Anthea and Bennett and Chuck and Dava are equals, but Edwina could be Fred’s horrible boss. Or Fred could be the horrible one, undermining everything that Edwina is trying to accomplish. A powerful villain can exercise his villainy out in the open, not always, but often. An underling villain has to be sneaky. The need for subterfuge can be part of Fred’s motivation.

We look for motivation in a villain, but I’m not sure we do in a hero. Anthea does her best in the chess test. Her goal is to show her skill in nonverbal communication; she isn’t out to defeat Bennett, even though he sees it that way. We don’t generally ask, however, why the good character is good. Interesting.

Sometimes the villain motivates the hero and shapes her actions. Edwina, as the good boss, has to learn how to succeed in spite of Fred. She has to become the kind of supervisor who knows how to deal with subtle insubordination. She can become better or worse because of Fred.

And sometimes the hero shapes the villain. Peter Pan is unchanged by Hook, but Hook is profoundly affected by the sort of enemy Peter is. He becomes a tragic figure (in a lighthearted way) because of Peter.
  
Here are three prompts:

∙    Anthea’s mentor, who sets her course through the academy, assigns her to use Bennett’s enmity. For training purposes, he’s her alien, and she has to manipulate him through understanding. Write the story.

∙    Bennett’s mentor sets him up for repeated failure. His task is self-understanding. He’ll never succeed with an alien until he understands himself. Write his story.

∙    June’s cousin Kyle comes to live with her family for the summer. Kyle is a year older than June, bigger, and a bully. June, however, has inner resources. Decide what they are. Write what they do to set each other off. Tell the story of their summer.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Villains galore

After my post of October 27, 2010, Jenna Royal wrote, Is it important to make your villains likable? It is common that in a good book I will both enjoy a villain’s strategy and understand and relate to their desires. I never really thought about making my villains likable, though. They were just the bad guys, nothing more. Would it add more diversity to my writing to make my villains a little more human and easier to sympathize with?

And Silver the Wanderer wrote, I also realize I might have to do some work on my villain, for I fear his character is a tad underdeveloped. However, he doesn’t play a huge role in my book. He’s the instigator of events, but we don’t actually see him until the end of the book. From hearing about him, we know that he is smart, devious, and a traitor. He is also no coward. He might be evil, or he might just have some messed-up moral standards. But sometimes I wonder if his motives are enough to make his wrongdoings believable. He can’t just be evil for the sake of being evil. Does anyone have ideas on how to craft a believable villain?
And Mya wrote, I find balancing a villain’s ‘evilness’ rather hard sometimes. More frequently though, it’s the opposite. I make the villains too nice, and can’t help but forgive, or let them be humbled at the end. Are there ways I can be more awful to them? =)

There is no one way villains should be. The villain – or if not the villain, strictly speaking, certainly the antagonist – doesn’t even have to be a character; it can be a disease (as in my Two Princesses of Bamarre) or weather or a cosmological force. In Norse mythology, as I understand it from my ancient Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, by Edith Hamilton, evil is destined to win eventually – not a particular embodiment of evil, like Loki, but evil itself.

The antagonist can even be a belief. I once worked with a man who believed himself unlucky, although I didn’t see it; he had a good job, a fine mind, a sense of humor, a girlfriend. Whenever anything bad happened to him, he blamed it on his rotten luck. If he were a main character, there would be no human adversary, only an idea. Political theories can play the part of the villain. In Ayn Rand’s novels the underlying evil is Communism.

When your villain is a character, human or otherwise, it’s okay to make him – or her or it – entirely bad. The reader doesn’t have to like him in the slightest. Sometimes he operates in the background of the story, as in Silver the Wanderer’s example. The narrator can speculate about him from his actions, but the reader doesn’t encounter him directly. Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series is this kind of villain. He never becomes a fleshed-out character like Holmes or Watson, and the reader certainly neither likes him nor sympathizes with him.

When the reader does come face to face with a villain, however, he should be interesting, not necessarily likable or sympathetic. In my Dave at Night, the main villain is the superintendent of the orphanage where Dave lives. He is simply a terrible man. His name is Mr. Bloom, but the orphans call him Mr. Doom. Here are snippets from his monologue before he beats Dave up:

“Mrs. Bloom and I love the finer things in life, the theater, concerts…. Mrs. Bloom’s little hobby is following the doings of high society…. So one might wonder at my choice of vocation. I admit it’s a sacrifice, but someone has to do the dirty work. Someone has to take in children like you…. Otherwise you’d have nowhere to go. However, it’s like putting a rattlesnake to your bosom.”

He’s awful, but he has a personality, and the reader hates him even more for knowing him. At the end when he’s fired, the reader feels no guilt for rejoicing at his downfall. (I haven’t given very much away; there’s a lot more to the resolution of the book.) Happiness at the demise of an all-out villain is fun. In movie theaters we cheer.

Of course, in order for Mr. Bloom to be understood as evil, Dave has to be sympathetic. If he’s a young arsonist who’s just burned down an old age home, Mr. Bloom’s sacrifice may seem real.

Although it’s fine to create villains who are simply evil, diversifying is always good. Try your hand at a sympathetic villain. Make her more than likable; make her lovable. Maybe she takes such delight in her dastardly deeds that we can’t help but chortle along. Maybe he’s his own worst enemy, and everyone else’s, but his remorse makes us forgive him again and again.

Believability may depend on genre. In a superhero story, for example, the reader checks her disbelief when she opens the book. If the hero can change from weak and mild-mannered to almost invincible just by changing his outfit in a phone booth, the villain doesn’t have to have much depth or motivation either. This kind of hero is born good and the bad guy is born bad. In some fantasies, evil needs no explanation either. In some thrillers too. As Kirk Douglas says chillingly in the wonderful old movie The List of Adrian Messenger, “Evil is.”

Complexity makes any character more believable, and I’m all for it. One way to craft a complex villain is through surprises. Your villain Monique is unlikely to be the main character, so you probably won’t have her thoughts to make her layered, but you do have all the other tools of character creation. If any of the story takes place at her house, the reader can discover that she collects Hummel figurines. If you want her to be sympathetic, she can bake cookies – not poisoned – for a homeless shelter. She can feed oatmeal cookie dough to her cocker spaniel.

In dialogue, Monique can be witty. She may be an American history buff or love puns. When your hero says something that puts him at a disadvantage she can astonish the reader by letting it slide  – although she may use the information later.

You can reveal her diary in which she writes only about her visits to the homeless shelter and nothing about her cruel impulses. Or maybe she alludes to them in a vague way, like, “Mother scolded me today. I have no idea what she was going on about, but she was very angry.”

Even description can make her more complicated – dark eye makeup with pink lipstick. Pudgy face, muscular body. Terrible posture. An unexplained bandage on her arm.

If you decide to make Monique sympathetic, which usually involves complexity, there is the danger that the reader won’t understand when she acts on her wickedness. He may think, “I identify with Monique, and I like her, I don’t believe she’d behave so despicably.” The solution is to introduce her badness as soon as the reader meets her. Show her being awful, or have a character the reader trusts talk about some vileness she’s committed. Establish right from the start that she isn’t good.

Mya, I tend to let my villains off the hook too. Even when Mr. Bloom gets fired, the information is conveyed in a single sentence in narration. I don’t show him coming before the orphanage board and being publicly disgraced. I don’t say what follows, whether Mrs. Bloom has to give up her concert and theater subscriptions or if she divorces him and he winds up sweeping a factory floor for a living. I’m not sure it matters. At this point the story is over and what happens to Mr. Bloom is an afterthought.

However, if you want to be tougher, try it just as an exercise. Imagine five ways your baddie can be punished. Imagine the scenes and write them down. What do you think? If you decide that one of the grimmer endings is better, use it. (This is a prompt for everyone.)

Villains can be more fun to write than other characters. They can be over the top, think the unthinkable, do the unmentionable. So I hope you go all out with these prompts:

∙    The scene is a social event, could be a child’s birthday party, a charity benefit, the annual fairy ball. The villain Sammy (male or female), one of the guests, makes trouble repeatedly in subtle ways. Show him or her in action.

∙    Estelle and Joe have been assigned a homework project together in magic school, and they hate each other. Each plans to make the other look bad. They meet at Joe’s house to work on the project. As the omniscient narrator, show how it goes, dipping freely into the thoughts of each one. They should connive differently. Both are villains, but they’re differently bad. For extra credit, make us like one and hate the other, although both are up to no good, and both are fundamentally flawed.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The whited sepulcher

Thanks, many, many thanks, to everyone who posted to my first blog or emailed me about it, and thanks for putting the word out. I feel supported and encouraged and not as if I’d flung words into outer space.

Usually I wake up in the morning muzzy-headed, but a few weeks ago I opened my eyes, thinking, What does whited sepulcher mean? Can’t say where the question came from, but I loved the combination of these gloomy and atmospheric words. Anyway, I looked the expression up. A sepulcher is a tomb, and whited means whitewashed. A whited sepulcher presents himself or herself to the world as good, but when you scratch the surface, evil oozes out. An apparent saint, an actual stinker.

Since that morning the phrase has stayed with me, and I keep poking at it, like a loose tooth. During my years (twenty-seven!) working for New York State government, I had two bosses who were terrible people, worse than inept; they didn’t mean well. Everyone who worked for them knew it, so they weren’t as much whited as grayed. But when I was in college and for a few years after, one of my professors really fit the bill, at least to his adoring followers – and I was one. He was smart, interesting, and expert at sniffing insecurity. He ruined lives. I don’t know what would have happened to me, if my husband hadn’t clung to my pinkie toe and pulled me free before I was sucked into the vortex.

There’s enormous power in the whited sepulcher. In fiction, we can draw close to that power without being scarred. I haven’t written anything about a whited sepulcher yet, but I’d like to. When I teach my summer writing workshop for kids at the Brewster, New York, public library, I’m going to start with a whited sepulcher exercise.

The prompt will be to describe the villain, inside and out. Where does she live? Is her home rent free because the landlord is in her thrall? What things does she surround herself with? What does she wear? What’s in her pockets or purse or backpack? How does she smell? What’s her voice quality? Does she have any virtues? Does she think the same way the rest of us do, or is even her thought process different? For fantasy writers, is she human or some other kind of creature, an evil fairy queen maybe? For horror writers, is she the family labradoodle? Does the whited sepulcher have to be an individual, or might it be an organization – a business or a charity, for example?

The second prompt will be to invent the ideal victim for the whited sepulcher, the prey she’s always seeking, the human key that unlocks her wickedness. Describe the victim as thoroughly as you described the villain. Then tell what about him makes him vulnerable? What signals does he give out? Does he have inner resources that eventually will protect him and maybe even expose the whited sepulcher? Or is he doomed?

The last step, naturally, is to put the two characters together in a story. When you do, the most important decision may be point of view. Will the story’s voice belong to the whited sepulcher or to her mark? Or might it alternate, or belong to an outsider? With whom will the reader sympathize? I wonder what the circumstances are of their meeting. In the course of your tale, be sure to show how the whited sepulcher spins her web, and show the moment, if it comes, when the victim realizes he’s being drawn in.

But whatever you do, have fun, and save what you write.