Ruth E. Walker.
I do love a great villain in fiction: Voldemort, Moriarty, Bill Sykes, Cruella de Vil. And so, true-life baddies fascinate me – I want to know what made them nasty. Surely, no baby is born wicked (back off horror writers, I’m talking real life here.) I mean, even Adolph Hitler and Paul Bernardo were wee thumb-sucking tots at one point. I wonder what happened to drain out their empathy and fill it with cold-hearted evil?
When I’m creating villains, I want to know the same thing. Right now, I’m refining a female character that is the main antagonist to my female protagonist. She’s a cruel and devious villain, and she wants my main character dead. And, just for an added twist of nasty, my sneaky villain happens to be my protagonist’s mother.
It turns out the reason she wants her daughter dead is a big part of my protagonist’s ultimate goal. And here’s why I’m telling you this. Despite writing an outline, I had no idea about this goal when I started to write this book. My villain led me to it. Thanks Nasty Mom.
Character motivation is key…so experiment
It wasn’t until I started to focus on my villain’s motivation that I discovered something important: I didn’t know what my protagonist’s underlying goal was. By fleshing out the villain, I discovered what it needed to be. Now my plot is stronger and my overall characterization is richer. Writing experimental scenes from the mother’s POV gave me “entry” to her head. Stopping to ask “why” and letting her tell me through free-writing was genius. I didn’t always like what she said but it helped me make sense of who she is and how she got like that.
None of those writing experiments will be in the book. But that’s okay – because now my villain’s behaviour, her physical form, even what she notices and doesn’t notice, is clear to me. And that makes me write her scenes – along with her actions and reactions – with confidence. Readers notice when you aren’t consistent or logical.
Writer, how do you feel about your villain?
And I have some sympathy for her. What? Concern for a murderous matriarch? Yes. Because I know what happened in her life to drain the maternal instincts and replace them with self-preservation and steely resolve. And I’m a fairly compassionate person, so I like to think that even the worst of humanity has some glimmer of good in them, if only life had been kinder.
We are all capable of doing horrible things. And wonderful things. So the terrible villains that I create in my fiction all have some “wonderful” inside them. It keeps them complex and unpredictable – like real people. For readers, complex and unpredictable can make for fascinating stories. Just like real life. And that, as writers, is what we hope to achieve in our work.
Do you have any favourite villains?
Have you fallen for any desperadoes in your own work or in books you’ve read? Spend a few minutes just thinking about what makes them your favourite. Who or what do they remind you of? How do they make you feel?
The next time you are writing a villain, show that nasty, evil character a little writerly love and compassion. Take a look at why they are so nasty. Your muse and your readers will thank you for it.
Don’t have a villain as yet? Try my quick and easy recipe to develop characters to get you started. Just toss in some extra negative traits to make sure you get enough nasty in there. Having trouble with finding negative traits, try Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws.
If you’d like some help, join me on March 5 for my Master Class in Character: More than Flesh and Bones.