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:
Happy New Year, everyone! We’re starting out the new year with Part Two of our series on Writing Believable Villains (Part 1: THE 7 WAYS TO WRITE A BELIEVABLE VILLAIN.)
Your villain is oftentimes not only as important as your protagonist, but also moreso. How can this be? Aren’t they just the opposite of each other?
The answer is, “They are the opposite of each other.” But how and why are necessary to understand before blazing in there and creating another stereotypical villain, because let’s face it: we all want to create a killer villain! (No pun intended.)
In musicals, isn’t it often the villain songs that are, for one reason or another, some of the best? Well, we want your written villain to feel the same—and this week we are going to use a song to demonstrate how creating those moments works.
Last week we discussed how to write a believable villain, and this week we take those theories a step further and examine one of the most important ways your villain differs from your hero: their code.
The villain’s code is law for everyone but the villain.
Let’s use Javert from Les Miserables and Frollo from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame as examples.
Javert, even musically speaking, represents the straight, never-changing arm of the law. Essentially, he is the law. He follows it to such an extreme, without an inch of give, that it ends up being his downfall when he realizes reality does not exist on blind justice, but rather accounts for at least some mercy.
Judge Claude Frollo is fundamentally the same. He is a member of the Catholic Church, clearly a heavily religious man, and he is the bad guy—how? Why?
He follows the Law to an extreme. He believes he is acting out of justice, enacting the Will of God. But he enacts the law without mercy (something actually condemned in Scripture), and it is because of this stubbornness and refusal to see and pursue opportunities of mercy that make him a bad guy (and a great one).
Characters like Javert and Frollo follow their law, their code, which usually belongs to a higher power than themselves, such as the military or the Church, to the absolute extreme. This is what makes them pitiful, because in their own minds, they are trying to do what is right. But justice, real “you get what you deserve” justice is not kind, and it is certainly not merciful.
In my opinion, what makes Frollo particularly pitiful is that this supposedly great man of the Church and the law somehow appears “less Christian” than a gypsy and a “half-formed” man, to use the language of Disney’s film—this is purposeful, and it is the genius of his character.
Let’s look at a section of lyrics from The Bells of Notre Dame:
Judge Claude Frollo longed
To purge the world
Of vice and sin
And he saw corruption
Clear motivation: Make the world sinless
Clear corruption of that ideal: He sees himself as uncorrupted
Sometimes what can make a great villain is when they contradict themselves in their desire for justice. They seek strict justice for others, and often punish themselves when they feel guilty, whether emotionally or physically.
At the same time, they believe this self-punishment or self-imposed guilt suffices as their punishment—however, this contradicts their own code. They would never let anyone else’s self-imposed punishment suffice: the villain enacts justice to others, regardless of their story, situation, apologies, etc. He is often unforgiveness embodied.
Essentially, what all of this boils down to is this:
Villains often hide their sin until it consumes them, while heroes admit their sins openly and choose to be good where they can.
Your hero isn’t perfect. Neither is your villain. What separates them is how they use both imperfection and the attempt for perfection. For instance, do they attempt perfection, or do they attempt to be good? Are they doing [X] for themselves, or for the greater good, i.e. something beyond only them?
These are some questions to consider when considering the opposition to your hero, and in the creation of your hero, as well, to be honest. No one should expect anyone to be perfect. Villains do—they expect themselves to be perfect and they are either disgusted with themselves when they cannot meet their own standard, or believe they’ve already achieved perfection, thus believing the whole world to be below them.
When you’re creating your own villain, don’t be afraid to ask questions like the ones above—the better you know your villain, the better you will know your hero and your story, and vice-versa.
Allow your readers to empathize with the villain, but also to notice that he sees corruption everywhere—“except within.”
Alyssa Grace Moore
You can also find Alyssa on Twitter: @alyssagracem
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