Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Creating a Convincing Villain

Writing is easy.  It’s just a bunch of words typed in or scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper, with proper grammar and punctuation and all of that.  Most people can accomplish that fairly well enough to write an email or letter to a friend or whatever.  Well, maybe most people over the age of thirty.  I worry about the younger generations of today.  Either our nation’s English teachers are suddenly, miserably failing, or texting and IMing is destroying our youth’s ability to write cohesive sentences.

Writing fiction, though, takes a bit more skill.  When I write, I’m usually rather adept at creating a protagonist.  I take some of my own (or my wife’s, son’s, friends’) endearing qualities, add in some flaws (not typically my own, but ones that I am usually personally familiar with), create a back story, and voila I have a protagonist.  Most of the time it works.  Of course, I don’t just reveal all of this to the reader in the first few paragraphs or even the first chapter.  Most of the time I’ll stretch it out across the first third to half of the book, and because I love to add plot twists, I may switch it up and add a new or different quality or attribute somewhere in the latter half.  Either way, creating a convincing protagonist isn’t too difficult.

But the antagonist, on the other hand, is a bit trickier.  First of all, it’s quite difficult to create a villain without falling into a cliché.  If your villain is a bank robber, and he’s done it a dozen times before, it’s easy to get carried away with how “perfect” he is at robbing a bank—a crime that leads to apprehension nearly 99% of the time.  He may not have been caught all those other times, but each new robbery needs to be treated like his first with regards to the dangers he faces.  I don’t care who he is, unless he’s taking a ton of Xanax and is somehow immune to the sleeping/numbing effects,, he’s not going to be going in there with much confidence.

Likewise, if your villain is a high school bully, it’s easy to make him a bigger, lonely kid who comes from a bad home life and who, in the end, is just looking for attention.  Or if he’s a military drill sergeant, he barks orders to the point of breaking soldiers and never seems to have a softer side.  In other words, it’s easy to create a one-dimensional villain, and that’s where, as writers, people tend to make mistakes.

In my book, Project Utopia, my villain is a mental health doctor, and while he fits the mold of many others, I try to turn the tables on the reader by making him seem like he’s not necessarily the mastermind behind the entire evil plan.  Likewise, my villain in Paradox is quite sinister, and yet the reader learns midway through the book that his similarities to the antagonist are uncanny.

But beyond the clichés, I don’t think it’s very easy for most readers or writers to think like a villain, and therefore it’s not easy at all to write about them.  I mean, many writers go for a serial killer/mass murderer/horror movie villain, and yet unless those writers have actually committed some of those crimes, it’s really hard to put themselves into that mindset.  As an example, our nation has seen some tragic mass killings happen recently, and at one point my family was discussing the motives of the killers.  Some people are convinced that these men are/were crazy, and that may indeed be the case, but how do you describe crazy in a way that a reader can relate?  Or if they weren’t crazy, what were they thinking when they plotted and carried out these killings?  What does it feel like to be sadistic?  How can you make a reader relate to someone that is heartless or cold or uncompromisingly evil?

Sometimes I really struggle with coming up with a human, run-of-the-mill villain, and the reason, I think (or hope) is that the average person doesn’t think like a villain.  I envision Joe Blow from his lovely little abode “off the street” as being a kind soul, and so unless he has some mental health issues, why is he going to hurt this person or commit this crime or cause tension or pain to my protagonist?  And if this guy (or girl or dog or alien or whatever) has made the decision to create or be a part of some conflict with my main character, the explanation as to why has to be clear to the reader.  Because a good story relies heavily on the conflict itself, and if the author doesn’t have enough detail in that conflict, the reader will think the story isn’t very good.

My wife scares me sometimes in her penchant for real-life crime stories on Investigation Discovery and A&E.  And we both recently signed up for additional life insurance so that our kids will be well-cared for if one of us meets his or her demise.  I keep joking with her that she’s going to poison my food, but she is clear to point out that, really, it’s pointless to murder someone, because it’s impossible to pull off the perfect murder.  And then I think it’s just a little twisted that we are having a discussion about murdering me (or people in general), and while we laugh it off, it’s still a little unsettling.  I mean, the idea of killing someone else isn’t really something that most people think about.  Is it?  Or perhaps they think about it, but would they ever have the ability to go through with it?  No.  And yet we read about villains in fiction works that are ruthless killers ALL THE TIME.  Where do all of these evildoers come from??

How do you create a convincing villain without alienating readers?  I mean, it’s one thing to write about a guy that wants to kill, kill, kill, but most readers aren’t going to relate.  And the ones who do, well, they’ll probably think your idea is corny, because they’ll probably be megalomaniacal themselves, deeming anyone else’s theories or ideas as trivial to theirs.  It’s quite a riddle—one that great writers have apparently been able to solve.

I’m not an expert in villain creation.  Heck, I’m not even an expert in writing fiction, because if I were, well, I’d be a great writer on the New York Times’ Bestsellers List.  But I’ll certainly try my best at creating a convincing character that has a legitimate reason for creating conflict with my protagonist.  Maybe I’ll fail, or maybe I’ll succeed—that’s up to you, as the reader, to decide.  Either way, just know that it’s not easy taking the imagination into the realm of the perverse and leaving with a believable, multi-faceted antagonist.

P. S.  If you are a fellow writer, let me know your thoughts!  How do you create a realistic and convincing evil mastermind?

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