Tag Archives: Bonnie Ramthun

Three Traits of Truly Fascinating Villains … by Bonnie Ramthun

Bonnie Ramthun1When RMFW blog editor Pat Stoltey asked if I'd like to write a post I jumped at the chance. I enjoy these postings and learn a lot from them. Then the panic set in. What do I have to contribute? I looked at my current writing research and found an answer. I've recently been working on making my villains more villainous. I know that the hero of a story is only as brave and strong as the opponent he must vanquish, but I have a tendency to spend more time on my hero development than my anti-hero. Imagine, though, if Ian Fleming's James Bond did nothing but carry secret documents around from place to place with no one trying to stop him. How incredibly boring! Instead, Bond faces criminals like Blofeld, Goldfinger, and Oddjob, powerful and unforgettable enemies who threaten the world. The villain of my novel must be formidable and interesting so that my hero is greater for overcoming him.

As the writer of thrillers and mysteries for adults and middle-graders, I've been researching anti-heroes in this quest and I've discovered that there are some common traits that define an antagonist worthy of a hero's battle. In fact, a truly great evil character can almost steal the show from the hero. So let's look at three traits of exceptional villains and examine them in the context of some of the most complex and fascinating characters in three recent American television series.

1.) They are physically benign.

This is odd, isn't it? But it's true. The most enthralling villains are not towering mountains of muscle. They are instead unassuming, sometimes beautiful of feature, and never outwardly dominating. Operatic opponents like Darth Vader or Goldfinger are caricatures of evil. They certainly have their place in literature and film, but the most complex and horrifying villains are usually ones that aren't imposing in their physical form.

2.) Their goals are important to them.

The great villains of stories are never the bad guys to themselves. They are trying to achieve a goal or goals and this is deeply significant to them. If your antagonist doesn't have a clearly defined goal, they won't have the weight of their own desires to contrast with the hero. Your villain must care passionately about his goal and he will do anything to achieve it.

3.) They have a heartbreaking back story.

Fascinating bad characters always have heartbreak in their background. Some are abandoned as a child, others tormented by malevolent parents or stepparents. Some experience a trauma that forever changes them. A villain who just wakes up one day and becomes evil for the sake of doing evil isn't particularly captivating, is she? A heartbreaking backstory can bring the reader to feel sympathy for this character. The betrayal of this sympathy with evil acts makes the villain even more despicable and the protagonist is more heroic for overcoming her.

Now let's look at some villains in recent American television series. The episodic content of current television is terrific for revealing complex backgrounds of characters, good and bad. Each of these three characters show the common traits of truly fascinating villains.

Regina Mills, Once Upon A Time

Regina is both the iron-fisted mayor of Storybook and the mass murdering Evil Queen of the Enchanted Forest in the television series Once Upon a Time. She's also lovely and very small. (Trait 1.) As played by Lana Parilla, she's a 5'5" package of pure evil who transported the entire population of the Enchanted Forest into Maine so she could torment her nemesis, Snow White. This Evil Queen is not tall and skeletal and aging. Instead, she's vibrant and young and yet she commits horrifying acts. Her goal is revenge towards Snow White, who is responsible for the death of her lover, and anyone who cares for Snow White -- her husband, Prince Charming, her daughter, Emma, and anyone who befriends them, from Hook to Ariel the mermaid. (Trait 2.) Her backstory is tragic and heartbreaking, her mother a humiliated miller's daughter who crafts her child into a Queen. Regina is forced into marriage to an old King. (Trait 3.) She's a tragic figure but so sympathetic that by the fourth year of the series this mass-murdering evil Queen is turning into a hero. That's quite the journey.

Gaius Baltar, Battlestar Galactica

Dr. Baltar is a famed scientist, a kind of science rock star, in the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica series. He's so famous that a fleet officer gives up his seat to him on the last escape ship during a genocidal attack on the planet of Caprica. He's also a weak, narcissistic, self-serving coward. Slight of stature and with fine, almost delicate features, James Callis as Gaius Baltar doesn't appear to be capable of being a villain. (Trait 1.) Yet his manipulations and cowardice lead to the near destruction of the human race. His overriding goal is to save his own cowardly skin and he goes to great lengths to stay alive at all costs. (Trait 2.) Finally, his background is revealed as a Caprica pretender, a common street boy with smarts who clawed his way to the top echelons of power. He started out with nothing but his intellect and his ambition and his survival against all odds is admirable. (Trait 3.) Well, if you don't count his participation in the near destruction of the human race, that is.

Gustavo Fring, Breaking Bad

One of the most memorable villains of Breaking Bad -- and if you've seen the series, that's saying something -- is Giancarlo Esposito's portrayal of Gustavo Fring. Gus is owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos and also a major drug kingpin. He's a ruthless, vicious killer. But he doesn't dress in black robes and stride around with a booming voice. He's slight of stature, unassuming, bespectacled. He doesn't look like he could cut a man's throat with the speed of a striking snake, but he can. And he does. (Trait 1.) Gus has a passionate goal to destroy every member of the Salamanca family drug cartel, a carefully plotted plan that has taken twenty years to achieve. (Trait 2.) His backstory is heartbreaking. He was in a committed relationship with his partner, Max, and created a restaurant with him called Los Pollos Hermanos. An attempt to get funding from the Salamanca family went terribly wrong and Max was murdered in front of Gus. (Trait 3.) He is alone, lonely, dedicated, and quiet. He's also one of the most chilling villains to stride across the screen.

Billowing robes, giant stature, big voices and operatic evil have their place. But the fascinating villain I'm attempting to create in my latest novel will be quiet, unassuming, complex, and deadly. I hope this examination of villains helps you in your craft. Happy writing!

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Bonnie Ramthun is a Colorado mom, wife, and mystery author. Her Eileen Reed mystery novels include GROUND ZERO, EARTHQUAKE GAMES and THE THIRTEENTH SKULL. Her middle grade novel, THE WHITE GATES, was a Junior Library Guild premiere selection and a finalist for the Missouri Truman award. The sequel, ROSCOE, is available now. She’s a former chapter president of Mystery Writers of America and served as the published author liaison for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter where her motto is: Every day is a gift.

RMFW Spotlight — Bonnie Ramthun PAL Liaison

The RMFW Spotlight feature will introduce a few of our RMFW officers and volunteers. We started out with the board of directors, sat them in the hot seat, shined the bright light on them, and channeling our best inner Oprah, plugged them with a few questions. This month, we’ve interrogated our PAL Liaison, Bonnie Ramthun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1. Bonnie, tell us what you do for RMFW and why you are involved.

I'm the PAL for RMFW, which means the Published Author Liaison. I volunteered for this position because I wanted to give back to the RMFW community. When I started attending the Colorado Gold conference I was already a published author but I knew nothing about... well, let's just stop there. I knew nothing! RMFW has taught me so much. The amazing workshops, the excellent publishing advice, and the support of what Mario Acevedo calls "the writing tribe" means the world to me. I found my terrific agent, Becca Stumpf of Prospect Agency, at the conference. I found new publishing contracts. I've discovered amazing authors whose novels take me away for hours of happy reading.

What can I possibly do to give back to such a wonderful organization? I do what I can. I volunteer at every conference, and as the PAL I manage the Friday Night Networking Tables. Each January I form a committee to select the Writer of the Year, and I present new RMFW authors with a PEN award and showcase them at the First Sale Panel at the conference. I make a poster every year of the WOTY winners and present the WOTY with a special pin commemorating their award. This past year I formed the committee to create the new Independent Published Author group, the IPAL, and I put our conference director, Suzie Brooks, in contact with Smashword's Mark Croker to see if he would come to Colorado Gold and talk about independent publishing. (He will!) I try to think of new ways to improve our organization all the time because that means greater success for all of us.

2. What is your current WIP or most recent publication, and where can we buy a book, if available?

I have an eclectic set of stories and novels available for readers on Amazon. If you like romance, there's a sweet short story called Love out of Time, with a cover design by RMFW's own Karen Duvall. My horror story The Little Hitchhiker was selected for Horror Novel Review's anthology and RMFW author Yvonne Montgomery called it "a deftly written, fast-paced tale that veers into nightmare territory." (Thanks, Yvonne!) If mystery is more your style, try the Detective Eileen Reed trilogy of Ground Zero, Earthquake Games, and The Thirteenth Skull. And finally I have a historical-supernatural-thriller-romance that didn't find a niche in traditional publishing (wonder why?) called The Night Queen. Finally, if you have a youngster in your family who doesn't like to read, I have it on good authority that The White Gates will help them change their mind!

If you'd care to write a few words in review on any of my works that you enjoyed I would really appreciate it. Reviews really help a novel and I try to write reviews of every book I read, particularly those of our terrific RMFW authors. Here are a few of my favorite covers:

Ramthun_Thirteenth SkullFrame with Christmas tree branches and vintage decorationsRamthun_night queen

3. We've all heard of bucket lists-- you know, those life-wish lists of experiences, dreams or goals we want to accomplish-- what's one of yours?

When you ask someone what they would do if they won the Powerball, and they say: "I wouldn't do anything differently," you know you've met a happy person. I love being a mom and a wife and a writer. I wouldn't turn down millions of dollars, of course, but that wouldn't change my life. Okay, except travel. I would travel more. I'd go to Ireland and Nepal and India and Australia and I'd attend every writer's conference I could find, and I'd buy books every day, piles of them. Maybe I will buy that Powerball ticket after all.

4. Most writers have an Achilles heel with their writing. Confess, what's yours?

I have a terrible case of writus-interruptus. If I'm in the zone and typing away and the phone rings or the dog starts barking, I'm not only thrown out of my story but I can't get back into it for hours. I know I have this Achilles heel so when it's writing time I cocoon myself in my room, turn the phone off, and put earplugs in my ears. Whatever works, right?

5. What do you love most about the writing life?

Writing is hard work for me. I love to write the same way I love to work in my garden: I know the backbreaking labor will bear fruit. One of the true joys of writing is receiving notes from readers who loved my books. One mom wrote to me that her son who didn't read at all liked my book The White Gates so much that she found him under the covers with a flashlight. Another reader told me that when she finished The Thirteenth Skull she was so swept away by the adventure that she felt like she'd been on vacation. Those notes make me smile for days, and give me the strength to get back to the keyboard and keep writing.

6. Now that you have a little writing experience, what advice would you go back and give yourself as a beginning writer?

I would recommend (and I do recommend, all the time) for beginning writers to join an organization like RMFW, and to scrape together all their spare cash to attend a writer's conference like The Colorado Gold. I learn every year about my craft and about the industry, and beginning writers who have those tools are ahead of the pack and are bound to be more successful. I wish I'd known about RMFW back when I was a newbie writer.

7. What does your desk look like? What item must be on your desk? Do you have any personal, fun items you keep on it?

Here's a photo of my desk, and a picture of my inspiration stones. I collect them and I like looking at them and holding them in my hands. I bought my IMac with the advance money from The White Gates, and my computer is my window to the world, my research companion, and my writing platform. My sister calls this color scheme: Cowboy archeologist librarian. Works for me!

Ramthun_desktopRamthun_inspiration

8. What book are you currently reading (or what was the last one you read)?

I just finished reading Innocence, by Dean Koontz. I'm a big fan and this latest novel chilled me to the bone. Maybe because the ultimate plot twist was so plausible? Koontz is truly a wonderful writer. Next up is Missing, by Christine Jorgensen.

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Thanks so much for answering our questions, Bonnie. We all appreciate your hard work with PAL and with RMFW.