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.