Welcome to Writing Tip Wednesdays, where I post (you guessed it) tips on writing every Wednesday at 5:00 PM ET. This week’s topic:
Well, I hope everyone had a very merry Christmas, and that you have a lovely New Year! This week, I thought what better way to bookend a year than by talking about villains who, as a general rule, hate new beginnings?
We’ve all seen villain stereotypes. The guy stroking his cat, Darth Vader who is so bad, but ends up so pitiful. Same with Loki—you want to see him change, and even worse (better?) you see the potential for him to be good, and make for himself a better life. But he never does. And most of our villains never take that chance.
This is a very important consideration when writing your own villains. It starts with their motivation—your villain is not simply imbued with darkness and suffering from “villain symptoms,” and is more likely a decent person who made tiny little bad decisions that eventually led up to making a lot of really huge, horrible ones. So it is with this that I offer this advice:
1) Believe your villain was once a decent person
2) Give them honest motivation that they believe is good, but is likely skewed
3) Present them later with an opportunity to listen to a voice, whether a character or an inner voice, that gives them a way to accomplish their goal without doing something horrible
4) DON’T let them listen to it (or perhaps worse, let them listen and then change their mind!)
5) Establish a twisted reason for them to decide to stay on the unfortunate path
6) Have them continue down the path of bad choices, but to an extreme, and for a reason.
7) DON’T let them be seen as only a hero.
A lot of these reasons are very straight forward, but the one I would like to take the opportunity to stretch is number seven. Your audience is supposed to feel conflicted about your villain. Asking questions like, “But if X happened, would they have turned out good?” OR “I think he’s still good!” “But he’s bad!”
Discussions are arguments like this from your readers are a great thing, and mean you’re doing something right. It’s when your readers can say without a single doubt that your villain is actually a good guy that it’s extremely sketchy—and not in a good way.
If your readers debate, that’s great! If there is a unanimous vote that he is actually the good guy? That’s where it can get weird. You want him to be relatable, yes, but remember—he is the opposition to your good guy.
And has the right to remain that way! You know how Loki is always almost good? That’s what makes him such a great character. We almost pull for him just like we almost want him to win—but here’s the thing: we don’t necessarily want Loki to win, but rather we want him to have love and be accepted and understood. Essentially, we don’t want him to be the outcast black sheep anymore, and we want him to fit in with his family (and to have one).
So we don’t (hopefully) want Loki to kill Thor and the rest of the Avengers—we just want him to have a good life.
And that’s a great way to create villains because that’s how we create empathy and believability. Think of ye olde villains of past books and movies who were just bad because they were bad, and they never had one shred of goodness to them: they were boring!
The potential for goodness is what makes a villain human, and it is their poor choice, rather than their innate personality, that can make a human a villain.
When creating your villain, consider the questions they bring up, and ask them of your readers. Ask them what makes a good guy good, and a bad guy bad. Ask them the hard questions. Ask them who has rights to love and receive love, ask them who deserves to die. Pose the question—and don’t necessarily answer it. Allow your readers the chance to think. After all, we all enjoy the chance to be treated as intelligent and come to our own conclusions.
Alyssa Grace Moore
You can also find Alyssa on Twitter: @alyssagracem
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