How to Write Memorable Villains

Villains.

You can’t have a good story without them. We loathe them. We hate them. Sometimes, we admire them. While we know the protagonist, the hero, must prevail, deep down inside, we sometimes still root for the bad guy.

So how do we create a memorable villain? The first thing we have to remember, to quote Tom Hiddleston, is that “Every villain is the hero in his own mind.” We have to remember that the villain, however horrible their deeds or deplorable their actions, believes on some level they are doing the right thing.

How is this possible?

Villains should have a sympathetic background.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity that no one does evil for evil reasons. They do evil as a shortcut to doing good. We must remember that every vain, head-of-the-football-team villain in a YA is really craving the respect and attention they feel they deserve. Every mad terrorist in a globetrotting thriller is really looking for justice for their people. Their methods are skewed, but once upon a time, their hearts were pure.

See, I think the best villains have sympathetic backgrounds. You may completely disagree with their actions and methodology – but if the writer can make the reader feel sympathy for the position the villain is in, then we are moving toward a memorable villain.

Of course, having sympathy for the villain's circumstance doesn’t mean you have sympathy for the villain.

A really great villain must be thoroughly irredeemable.
Did you read Frankenstein? I did. For most of the Monster’s story, I felt bad for the shambling corpse. He moved in with a blind dude living in the forest. (BTW, who leaves their blind relative living in the freakin’ forest?) He serves the old man. He cares for him. The old hermit introduces the Monster to reading. I started rooting for the Monster – especially considering the good doctor abandoned his creation.

Then the old, blind hermit’s family comes visiting and drives the Monster off. Still, I am filled with sympathy for the Monster – until he murders a little girl in his rage. As bad as the monster’s life has been, nothing justifies a child’s murder. Frankenstein’s Monster has truly stepped into his role of villainy once blood is on his hands.

A villain must also be more powerful than the hero.
Ever wonder why every teen movie starts with the “new girl” or the “new boy” in town? Ever wonder why these characters are lovable misfits? Because the new person, or the outsider, has no social cache with the school community they’re forced to join. The villain in these stories are more powerful than our hero because they have social power. The hero's journey will be about gaining and creating their own community – a goal opposed by the villain.

This is why political thrillers are crammed with governors, senators, and titans of industry as villains. They are inherently more powerful than the protagonist. If you were to write a story where the local office manager was our hero, but his nemesis was a lowly custodian, things would turn to comedy and farce very quickly.

A memorable villain must be an opposing force.
What’s the point of a villain who’s never in the hero’s way? Everywhere the hero turns, they should see the villain or the villain's handiwork blocking their success and frustrating them. If you’re writing a story where the stated bad guy is just grousing at the protagonist and not actively getting in their way, then you don’t have a villain. Make sure the villain is always in the way of the hero. Always thwarting their hard work and ruining their plans.

PLEASE NOTE: This doesn’t mean the villain has to be on the stage. But it should be apparent that the villain is the root cause of the hero’s problem.

A memorable villain must make it personal.
A great villain will always take things to the next level and make things personal. Whether they just want to throw the hero off their game and get in their head, or they truly want to cause the hero pain, a memorable villain will find and dig at that open wound the protagonist has been trying to hide.

Years ago I saw Prince’s Purple Rain. In it, Prince plays “The Kid,” an up-and-coming musician and his band in Minneapolis. There is a big battle of the bands competition coming up, and The Kid’s nemesis is Morris Day and the Time (another band). The Kid comes from an abusive home where his dad hits his mom. At one point we see our hero step in and defend his mother. Toward the end of act two, the father commits suicide, throwing The Kid into a tailspin right before the finals of the band contest.

As the villains, Morris Day and his band, come off stage from a triumphant set, they sing “Let’s get crazy” in a mocking tone as they pass The Kid’s dressing room. Suddenly, they stop and back up. Morris Day turns to Prince’s character and says before running down the hall, laughing, “Hey man. How’s the family?” The Kid breaks down in tears. Brutal. Just brutal. NOW, it’s personal.

If you want to learn more about villains, you can listen to the current RMFW Podcast, where I talk to the esteemed Mark Stevens about it all. On Saturday, February 17th, I will be giving an RMFW free program at the Sam Gary Branch Library in Denver on this very subject. The program starts at 2 PM, but get there early if you want a seat!

Character Clues on the Christmas Tree

ORNAMENTS AND CHARACTERS

Dismantling my Christmas tree is like a trip down memory lane. First I’ll tell you of some of my memories, then I will show you how it can help when you’re creating your fictional characters.

PINE CONES. I love these, and use them on the tree and in my wreaths. I collected them when my children were young. We rolled them in white paint, and they have been a big part of Christmas ever since.

A TINY SKATER. Our first child was born December 22nd, so I spent that Christmas in the hospital. John brought me a tiny skater ornament. She reminds me of that special time in our lives when we became a family.

DAUGHTER ON A BLACKBOARD. From Jalena’s elementary school. I love seeing her eight-year-old smile on my tree.

BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE. Tourist mementos. I have a San Francisco cable car, one from Mount Rushmore, and this one from St. Thomas.

MEDIEVAL KNIGHT. One of the singers at my first book signing gave me this little guy.

FOUR MOOSE SKIING. A reminder of family ski days when we’d ride the lift together.

CRYSTAL LOCOMOTIVE. Found this beauty at the Cheyenne railway station gift shop. It reminds me of my land title work and the crew in Wyoming.

Now, how can ornaments help character development?

What memories does your character cherish? If it’s pine cones, is it her love of family? Of the child who helped paint the cones?

Is it a little skater, which brings back the time when she taught her daughter how to skate? Or a time when she skated, before the accident that shattered her leg, and it’s a memory that devastates her every time she recalls it now?

Is it the daughter-on-a-blackboard, and her father is depressed because his baby girl is getting married and moving out of the country?

Is it a crystal locomotive, and her brother’s nickname was “Train” and he was killed during a protest? Or he remembers the harrowing railroad ride from Durango after they robbed the train? Did the amateur sleuth tour a museum of sunken treasure at Blackbeard's Castle that gave him an important clue?

Maybe your ornaments are already stored away. Or maybe you don’t decorate a tree, and have no ornaments. St. Nick’s in Littleton is open year-round, and there are many year-round online stores in which to browse. Through ornaments, find some clues to your characters that could add to some colorful images/backstory/details to your work-in-progress.

Happy browsing!

Magic-Wand Words

Remember the Disney production of Cinderella, when the good witches waved their magic wands of blue, red and green? Their glitter flowed like Fourth of July sparklers, creating magic.

That’s what my blog is about this month—the magic that happens with words. In an entire novel, only a few or at most several dozen of them may appear. When they do, they connect us to the characters, embed us more deeply in the setting and emotions of the scene, and increase our enjoyment and understanding of the story. They linger in our memories.

These are a few of my favorite magic-wand words. Enjoy! May these words that so inspired me also inspire you to dig deeper in your creative reservoir. May your current work in progress sparkle!

Nora Roberts, Spellbound:  

… an exquisite simile

And she was there, just there, conjured up out of storm-whipped air. Her hair was a firefall over a dove-gray cloak, alabaster skin with the faint bloom of rose, a generous mouth just curved in knowledge. And eyes as blue as a living star and just as filled with power.

Nora Roberts, Public Secrets

... another one

She would remember the feel of the air against her face, air so moist from the sea it might have been tears.

 Nora Roberts, Sanctuary

… a character-enriching analogy

She walked to the water’s edge, let the surf foam over her ankles. There, she thought when the tide swept back and sucked the sand down over her feet. That was exactly the same sensation he was causing in her. That slight and exciting imbalance, that feeling of having the ground shift under you no matter how firmly you planted your feet.

Katie Schneider, All We Know of Love  

...melding scene and character

The clouds are pulled thin like cotton. I understand how they feel, out in the middle of nowhere, unsure of quite where they’re heading.

Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm

…skillful use of the senses

“I saw you in India.” Mrs. Humphrey had about her the slightly sour tang of an unchanged baby. “You took my clothes off.”

…expression of fury, revenge, stunning rhythm and great example of back-loading

He thought of the look on the Ape’s face, the relish of terror, the time it would take; he’d once seen two men hanged and quartered—the expression of the second condemned traitor as he watched the executioner cut down and butcher the first: that was the fear, that was the struggle, the prolonged kicking and spasms, that was the cringing, weeping, purple-faced, swollen-tongued, bloated sickening twitching entrails-sliding agony he was going to inflict.

Mary Jo Putney, Loving a Lost Lord

…fresh imagery

He wouldn’t need her, and that was as it should be. … When she was old and gray, the time she had known Adam would be the merest ripple in the lake of her life.

Annie Proulx, Close Range-Wyoming Stories

This passage slams the reader into the scene

“Hey, you’re old enough almost a be my grandmother. I rather eat rat jelly than—”

But he was edging closer and Mrs. Freeze saw his trick and the red-flushed neck swelled like that of an elk in mating season, the face beaded with desperate sweat.

...succinct characterization

“Think about it, give me a call.”

“I don’t need a think about it,” said Mrs. Freeze. She dropped the cap of the whiskey bottle, kicked it under the chair. She didn’t need that, either.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Memorable, humorous, backloading

“I don’t know where you keep finding these Mexican strawberries,” he said, referring to the beans. Bolivar … mixed them with so many red chilies that a spoonful of beans was more or less as hot as a spoonful of red ants.

Barbara Bretton, Just Like Heaven

…exquisite rhythm and backloading

…she clung to his shoulders so she wouldn’t slide off the face of the earth and into some vast unknowable universe of shooting stars and fireworks and whispered warnings that some things are too good to be true.

Jacquelyn Michard, A Theory of Relativity

…another memorable simile

He had never been able to think of that except as “innocent,” as guileless and tender as a childhood Christmas.

Tina St. John, Lord of Vengeance

...word choices

The answer came swiftly, softly at first, a dark whisper that curled around him, anchoring his soul to the earth with shadowy tethers.

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I hope you've enjoyed these magic-wand words. If you have some to share, please do!

 

Your Character’s Umvelt

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverWhat is your character’s umwelt?

Yes, umwelt.

Pronounced OOM-velt.

I came across this concept while reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

(If you have a dog, like dogs, are curious about dogs and dog behavior, it’s a fascinating book.)

Anyway, the idea of the umwelt came from an early 20th Century German biologist named Jakob von Uexküll.

To quote Horowitz: “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”

As illustration, consider the lowly deer tick.

Von Uexküll tried to imagine life from the tick’s point of view.

A tick will climb to a high perch, like a tall blade of grass.

The tick is waiting for one particular smell.

Sight is no good; the tick is blind.

Sounds are irrelevant.

The tick is waiting for a whiff of butyric acid, “a fatty acid emitted by warm-blooded creatures.”

(We humans smell butyric acid as sweat.)

When the tick smells what it needs to smell, it drops from its perch.

Its hope during freefall, at that moment in time, is to land on an animal, get its teeth into some skin, and drink blood.

If all goes well, the tick will feed once, drop off, lay eggs.

And die.

That’s the tick’s self-world.

Its umvelt.

Its purpose, wants, needs, desires.

The tick, after all, much like your protagonist and your villain (both), are heroes of their own lives.

Doing a bit more research on the umvelt, I found this article from a website called The Edge and a terrific additional way of thinking about it, that the umvelt is the animal’s “entire objective reality.”

It works for people, too.

Your characters.

“Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?” the article asked. “In the movie ‘The Truman Show,’ the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, ‘Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?’ The producer replies, ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented.’ We accept our umwelt and stop there.”

For instance, we humans accept those things we can and cannot smell with our noses. Any ordinary dog would laugh at our feeble powers with smell.

But we accept them.

What is your character’s umvelt?

What reality have they accepted? What bigger reality are they oblivious to? What senses or abilities are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How were they put together—for what purpose? What will they consider success? Or failure?

Get to know your character's umvelt might help sharpen your character in a distinctive, new way.

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ALSO: I was blown away by all the kind emails, messages, tweets, Facebook posts and texts after being named Writer of the Year.

Thank you all so much!

RMFW, quite simply, rocks.

Hope to see you all at Colorado Gold so I can thank you in person.

Lesson Two: Where to start? Point of View, Setting and World Building

By Jeanne C. Stein

The topics we’re going to cover today involve some basics of storytelling. In fact to some of you, this may be nothing but review. Especially if you were lucky enough to attend last weekend’s conference. It’s the first one in the seventeen years I’ve been a member of RMFW that I had to miss. I’m going through withdrawals. Anyway, if so, skip it and come back next month when we’re going to tackle some “rules” of genre writing.

The first consideration of any work is determining whose story we’re going to tell. Point of view. Whether you plan to use multiple POV’s or one, establishing our protagonist and antagonist are crucial to good story telling.

First, then, what is POV and what are the different kinds? Let’s review the most popular briefly:

1. First person – the one telling the story. Told in one perspective, the narrator’s, as he or she experiences it.

I saw the boy the same time he saw me.

2. Third person – the one telling the story is a witness; may or may not be not involved directly in the story.

She saw the boy at the same time he saw her.

3. Limited omniscient – the “God” point of view. Everything is revealed through a non-participant in the story. Allows you to relay events happening to more than one character in the story, but feels more detached.

She was looking at the boy and at the same time he was looking at her.

There are others, Second person for example, but it is a difficult one to pull off and not used as frequently.

You looked at the boy at the same time he looked at you.

There are many resources available if you need more examples or clarification. If you decide to write in more than one POV, for instance, first and third, there are some factors you must consider to keep the narrative from being jumpy. You can change perspective via chapter changes or drop downs. You can keep POV shifts uniform, that is first person, third person, first person, third person. The thing to keep away from is head-jumping or shifting from one POV to another in the same paragraph or page. That is extremely difficult to pull off and often is very distracting to the reader. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Can you think of an author who pulls this off smoothly? Nora Roberts springs to mind but she’s had years (decades) of practice.

Once we’ve decided how we’re going to tell the story, we cast our characters.

What defines a compelling, interesting protagonist? She should be multi-dimensional, meaning she has inner conflicts as well as outer problems. She should be believable and consistent throughout the story. That is not to say that she cannot grow from the beginning of the book to the end. She must grow in order to make her sympathetic—we want the reader to be cheering her on, after all. To that end, she must have clear motives and goals. As for physical description, some writers are very specific in describing physical characteristics, others, not so.

Whether you want to describe your character down to the mole on her rear or paint her in broader brush stokes is a matter of personal style. Devoting four pages of your first chapter, though, to a minute blow by blow of your heroine staring at herself in the mirror is a good way to lose your readers before you’ve had a chance to hook them. We’ll discuss this more in Lesson 5.

What about the antagonist? The same rules apply when introducing the villain(s) in your story. No matter how horrific his (or her) actions, it’s important to remember that the villain has a reason for doing the things he does. He has clear motives and goals that while they may be in direct conflict to our heroine’s, are as real and compelling to him as her own. Cartoon villains aren’t interesting to a reader, just as a one-dimensional heroine isn’t interesting. The most successful, suspenseful stories are those that keep the reader guessing until the very end. And the highest complement is a reader who says, “I never saw that coming.”

One caveat, however: springing a villain on the reader that we haven’t met anywhere in the story before the end is cheating. As is the “evil twin” ploy. You can hide clues, conceal the villain, create mistaken assumptions to confuse our readers. But don’t cheat. The answer must be buried in the story somewhere.

Some writers devote a great deal of time to defining their characters, writing detailed biographies that cover everything from IQ to their childhood pets. If that appeals to you, by all means do it. Horoscope signs, Tarot Cards, Myers-Briggs personality tests, Enneagram Types—use whatever you want to flesh out your characters. What you mustn’t do is include every detail of the results in your narrative. Better to show personality traits in the reactions of your protag to story events than tell us why she’s reacting a certain way.

Of course, some writers start with a story and construct the setting and characters around it. Nothing wrong with that approach. Whether we decide to use a real city (or rural setting) or to make one up, anchoring our readers in things they recognize is the first step to getting them to accept the things they don’t, especially in a genre like Urban Fantasy.

An example of this is Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. We watch Rosemary decorate her New York apartment, make curtains, set up a nursery. It’s so real, we fully accept that in the apartment down the hall, a powerful coven of witches has enlisted her own egocentric husband in a conspiracy against her.

Some writers use real places, others find it easier to create a fictional locale, still others use a combination of the two. It makes no difference. How you describe your setting, how authentic you make it feel, is the important thing. If you are going to use a real place, familiarize yourself with it. You can take certain liberties (I turned the streets in Mission Beach around a little so Anna’s cottage would face the ocean) but if you say a highway runs north/south and it really runs east/west, someone will notice. And they’ll call you on it. Readers pay attention to detail. This is where Google Earth and Google Maps come in handy. Except when done intentionally, there really isn’t an excuse for getting a point of geography wrong. Literally, the whole world is at your fingertips via the web.

Obviously, you have to be careful about the way you use real businesses or people. Calling the real-life mayor of your town by name and then branding him an ax-murderer or pedophile will likely get you in trouble.

So once you’ve decided where you want to set your story, the next decision is to define the paranormal aspects of the place. This is the crux of world building in genres like UF and it’s great fun. How do you want to populate your universe? Is magic universal? Or are humans unaware of the otherworldly creatures in your story? Do you want to use vampires or werewolves or shapeshifters or any of the more exotic paranormal creatures—fairies or angels or demons?

Don’t be afraid to tweak the mythology either. You can change any “rule” you want as long as you explain it to the reader. If it’s logical to your story, the reader will accept it. Just remember: once you set your rules, stick to them. If your protagonist has to hide his real nature from the world at large, it adds another layer of conflict to the story—particularly if exposure would mean becoming the target of bigotry and fear.

Think about the story you want to tell—define your protagonist and antagonist, set the world, populate it.

We’ll end this lesson with another interviewee: Anton Strout is the popular author of the Simon Candrous series and the new Spellmason Chronicles. His novels are perfect examples of UF. See if you recognize why.

1. You are often included in lists of Urban Fantasy Authors. How do you feel about the tag and do you like it? Why or why not?

I like the tag, personally. I know some writers hate to be pigeonholed, but writing is a business and there’s simply no escaping categorization. And hey! There’s some good company in my category- Butcher, Hamilton, you- and Urban Fantasy sounds like so much better a category name than Buffy/Ghostbusters Fan Fiction!

2. What makes your books fit in the UF genre?

My series takes place mostly in and around Manhattan, which is about as urban as you get. And my main character works for the Department of Extraordinary Affairs’ Other Division, which is an underfunded agency dealing with paranormal activities. These are folks trying to get through their workday, somewhat normal people dealing with fantastical things happening all around them that the average New Yorker tends to block out or not pay attention to. So my writing is a mix of city life and the paranormal that lands me smack dab in the middle of UF.

3. Did you set out to write UF?

No. I set out to write a story about this average guy named Simon, but over time, I realized I wanted to tell a ghost story/mystery set in New York City. I wanted to write the type of things I like to read… or watch. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan. I love his mix of the fantastical and the humorous and when I write, I strive towards that type of balance in my own work. I was also a huge fan of Douglas Adams and his humor and I didn’t really know many humorous urban fantasy authors were out there, but I knew I wanted to be one once I looked at the first draft of Dead To Me and said “Oh, that’s what I was trying to do.”

4. Why do you think UF is so popular with readers?

I think there are several reasons. I think readers like stories about familiar fairy tale monsters set in places they can identify with, such as the modern world. There’s built in accessibility. Also, I moved to New York because there was a romantic notion to it all, and mixing the spooky in with that really appealed to me. When I set a scene, I try to think what the average reader knows about New York. I can skip describing a location for three pages, simply by mentioning a scene outside the Empire State Building. Even if the reader’s never been, they still have seen it in movies or on TV or in other books. That gives me more time to spend giving them the payoff from character development and dialogue. Perhaps it’s a bit of a shortcut, but I think it just makes sense for the writer using the modern world.

You can check at www.antonstrout.com or the League of Reluctant Adults for future release dates.

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Set in New York, the protagonist a bureaucrat employed by an agency that deals with the paranormal—Urban Fantasy—genre.

Next time we’ll look at how you write for a genre audience.