Monday, October 11, 2010

Villains, or are they?

Awhile back, I had a chat with my good buddy, Georgiana, about villains. I'd been thinking about them quite a bit lately, trying to nail down what makes a good villain, what makes a bad guy really bad, and yet not a cartoon, cardboard, or one-dimensional character. Face it, there are very few true sociopaths out there (thankfully.) Most villains--the ones that are the most interesting--are multi-faceted.

I had an epiphany while chewing on these ideas. I've heard it said that the villain in a story isn't a villain in his own mind, that he doesn't view himself that way. As I am wont to do, I tried to take this out of 'writer speak land' and see what it looked like in real life, so I might work it over and find a way to translate it back into a story.

So, here's my epiphany.

EVERYBODY is the villain in somebody's story.

I am the villain in someone's story (probably more than one.) Though I would never cast myself as a villain or describe myself in those terms, I'm sure that in someone's life story, I would be cast as at least a minor villain. I've either wronged them, hurt their feelings, got something they wanted for themselves, ended a relationship...something. There are lots of reasons why someone might think I was a villain. :(

But my point is, when describing myself, I wouldn't cast myself as a villain, even though some people might see me as one. Conversely, though everyone is somebody's villain, everyone thinks of themselves as the hero of the story. Or at least a side-kick. I think of myself as a pretty good person overall.

This really drove home to me the idea that when writing a villain, from his/her point of view, it is so important to realize that they would NEVER cast themselves as the bad guy. They have reasons for what they do, what they do makes sense according to their moral code, and that to themselves, they are a pretty good person overall.

I've found this to be very helpful while casting the bad guy in my newest WIP. The bad guy does what he does out of desperation. It's an accident that snowballs out of control, and each step along the way, his desperation causes him to make choices that--while in his mind justifiable--are more and more wrong.

So, question for you...How do you write villains? Do you write pure evil, sociopaths with no conscience and no redeeming qualities? Have you ever considered that you might be the villain in someone else's life story?


  1. I love to lace sympathetic elements into my villains. They are, after all, human too. I think of Saul when constructing my bad guys.

    Look what he became. Every single person has redeeming qualities. If you invite the reader to see a glimpse of those while having the bad guy do bad guy things, I think it creates a more believable bad guy.

    ~ Wendy

  2. "Or at least a side-kick" LOL!! So true. I make a great side kick, like Ethel to Lucy.

    When you first mentioned that everyone is the villian in someone else's story, it really hit me. Very true, and a great way to lift the character into three dimensions instead of two.

  3. I prefer the term "outlaw" Makes me more of an anti-hero than a villain. (-;

  4. LOL! I love the fact that you're the villain in more than one persons story! I guess the same is true of me many times over.

  5. This is profound. Seriously. I'm bookmarking it.

  6. I'm a new follower and what an awesome blog you have! I saw you over at T.Anne's and read that you're a participant in NaNo (or have been in the past that is!)! This is my first time (Jen_Unedited) but I hope to do well!

    As for villians it all depends on the mood and the story. I have some that are all out killers, never look back, no remorse, no guilt, and then others who were wronged and never quite got over it!

  7. What a wonderful post---and reminiscient of The Breakout Novel's suggestion to pick an action and have the character do the OPPOSITE just to (a) lend sympathy to a villain (b) layer up a hero.

    You're one smart bad girl!! LOL

  8. Ooooh, man! I had a great point I was going to make in this comment and the phone rang right before I could write it. So...I totally lost my train of thought. And it wasn't even an important phone call, just a recording :)

    Anyway...I like this post. That's a great way of looking at villains. It kind of makes it more clear that it's not how BAD this person is or what horrific thing they've done, but more how it affects the protagonist. If we can make that believable then, like you said, anyone can be a bad guy.

  9. I would hope not to be seen as a villain in anyone's life but sin has a sneaky way of creeping into relationships. Your post now has me examining mine!

    My villains are usually pretty ordinary people whose goals collide with someone else's. Your phrase, "an accident that snowballs out of control" puts it well.

  10. Wendy, you're so right about Saul. He thought he was doing the right thing zealously pursuing Christians, and later, when he was converted, look at the zeal with which he pursued Christ.

    Geo- You are a true heroine in your story!

    CJ. outlaw, villain...I've been both! :)

  11. T.Anne, it was a revolutionary thought to me, and I hope I can translate the truth of it into my fiction!

    Katie! Yay! I meant to talk with you about this at the conference to get your take on it, but we ran out of time!

  12. Jen, Thank you! and welcome to OTWP! All the best with NaNo. I'll be shadowing NaNo this year but aiming for the 50K as I work to complete a new project.

    Patty! You're so right, having the villain do the opposite of what he normally would plays right into this idea.

  13. Cindy, don't you hate it when that happens? LOL You're right. It isn't what the villain is or does, but how it affects the goal of the protag.

    Carol, I think the 'ordinary person who is a villain to someone' is easier to write in some ways because they are more relatable. Especially if I remember that that ordinary person is quite often me.