All right. We are going to talk some more about the ever misunderstood antagonist today. As a side-note, I am going to actively work to make these posts shorter. I tend to get excited and pee on the rugs when the doorbell rings.
Wait, that’s not right. That’s my dog. I’m tired. It’s Monday.
Anyway, I do tend to get excited and try to teach you guys everything you ever wanted to know all at once. So I am working on brevity. See, we all have our weaknesses. Even me. Although mine are waaaay smaller than yours :P.
First, a quick review. Last week we talked about that Oh, but he is his own worst enemy. That isn’t an antagonist. That is arc. There must be an outside story that drives the inner arc. If your protagonist is up against alcoholism, then he doesn’t just one day decide to sober up. There must be an outside event that ignites the need to change and gives the protag stakes and a ticking clock.
For instance, the protag could lose his marrage if he doesn’t beat his addiction to alcohol, and thus his quest is to save his marriage. The outer conflict might be that his wife has filed for divorce and plans on moving across the country with the protag’s children. The inner conflict is what drives the need to drink and that must be battled and conquered by the story’s end. The inner arc must be satisfied (demons conquered) in order to realize the outward story goal (marriage saved).
We, as readers, must see what the end goal is (saving a marriage) or it will be almost impossible to generate dramatic tension. We must know what is at stake and what could be lost if the protag doesn’t get his act together.
When our protagonist is up against a culture or a belief, there will be a representative that will be the “face.” In the 1984 hit movie Footloose the protagonist is a big city dancing boy who now is up against hellfire and brimstone fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the face of this culture that forbids dancing? Reverend Shaw Moore.
The plot is not that complex. Big city boy trying to find his place in a small town. The real story is in the characters and how they grow…but note the story goal that drives the changes.
Have a dance. That’s it. But it creates more than enough conflict to make a great story.
Today I want to introduce the villain. Villains are wonderful and some of the most memorable characters. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Joker, Blackbeard the Pirate, Dracula, Rasputin, and I could go on all day. Villains can be the stuff of nightmares and can elevate a story to legendary heights.
But let’s get this straight. Villains are only a type of antagonist. Yes, a Chihuahua is a dog, but all dogs are not Chihuahuas.
A lot of new writers use antagonist and villain interchangeably. That will limit your writing. The more we understand the antagonist and all his multi-hues, the more color and richness we bring to our storytelling palette.
Villains do not have to be the guy in the black hat twirling his mustache. That is not a villain; that is a one-dimensional flat villain born of a writer who failed to do proper planning before she wrote him.
Any character that only exhibits surface elements—what we see externally—will be a caricature. Villains I think tend to me more prone to this because:
1. We like to think more about our heroes than our bad guys.
2. Villains don’t generally arc, so we often overlook the villain’s motivations
3. We fail to appreciate that most bad guys don’t think they are wrong. They always have a good reason why they are doing what they do.
Larry Brooks has a wonderful book called Story Engineering, and he has a really neat way to craft characters with psychological depth. Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit and Bob’s workshops are also a great place to learn great techniques for layering your characters.
Great villains reach deep into our psyche and torment those soft places we try to protect. I personally believe villains are the toughest characters to write. I think it is a real feat to be able to create that kind of darkness, and it is so easy for us to botch…ergo why villains are often the subject of cackling parody.
In my opinion, I feel the most terrifying villains are the ones we relate to. One of the most disturbing books I ever read was The Shining. What made Jack Torrance so frightening was that he started out a fairly normal guy with a dark side. Hey, we all have a dark side….but Jack’s took over to frightening proportions. Thus, the real question in the back of the readers’ minds is, “Under the right circumstances, could we spiral into darkness just like Jack?”
In The Dark Knight Joker was the premiere example of chaotic evil. Chaotic evil is not easy to write, and yet, somehow great screenwriting and unparalleled acting merged and birthed a villain that will live on for generations to come.
Joker scares us. Why? Well, we normal folk generally have motives. We don’t go out of our way to hurt, torment and destroy others for no reason. We can’t wrap our mind around the idea of annihilation simply for the fun of it. Joker is chaotic and unpredictable, yet below this veneer of bedlam is a masterful planner who preys off the goodness driving those around him.
Villains when done properly can live on as literary legends. Botch the villain and he will be a cardboard caricature bent on ruling the world. Aside from the writing books I recommended, I would also advise that you read a lot of books on psychology.
To create great villains, you are going to have to crawl into the dark spaces of their minds. Probably a good idea to read about real evil before putting pen to paper. Play BAU profiler. Evil behaves in accordance to patterns. That’s how profilers catch evil men and women. They look to the behavior of evil to look into the mind of evil to see the face of evil.
Same with great writers ;). We will talk more about villains next week.
So what are some of your favorite villains of all time? Who kept you up late at night with a light on? What villains scare you and why? What are some resources you might recommend?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Until next time…
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