Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday Musings: Understanding Villains

For your story to be believable you need good characters, and you need to understand what makes them tick. Characters have to act and react in realistic ways. Their actions drive the plot forward. We spend a lot of time on our main characters, their motives, and goals, internal and external conflicts that get in the way of your satisfying denouement.

But, what about the villains?

We get that they’re bad guys. Fine, but why are they bad guys? What is their motivation and goals? To make the story realistic, we have to have those things lined up for our villain, otherwise he’s merely a cardboard figure the main characters bounce against. Cardboard figures steal tension and drama from your story. It steals the final punch of the denouement.

Oh, villains can just be evil just because. Or they can have what they perceive as honorable intentions, a reason for their actions. Sometimes the rationale can become corrupted and make them unpredictable or even create a god like persona.

Think about the brilliant, but cold-blooded commander, Colonel Tavington, in The Patriot. Originally, his motivation is putting down what he perceives as treason. A noble goal, but he also has another motivation for serving—his father has left him penniless. And Cornwallis has promised him land in exchange for his services. So recouping money and his prestige is also an underlying motive. Tavington also believes in ‘total warfare’, meaning civilians helping the enemy are also the enemy. So this justifies his often-brutal treatment of civilians. Even though he is reprimanded for his atrocities he still feels right is on his side. Tavington comes to look at Benjamin Martin, as an obstacle in the way of what perceives as his right, plus Martin makes a fool of Tavington. So now we also have personal conflict.


Tavington: You! So you're the ghost, are you? I remember you! On that farm! That stupid little boy! Did he die? You know it's an ugly business, doing one's duty. Just occasionally it's a real pleasure.

Martin: Before this war is over, I'm going to kill you.

Tavington: Why wait?

Martin: Soon.

Colonel Tavington engages the emotions of the reader/viewer as much as the hero, Benjamin Martin. The battle of wits between the two keep you engaged and builds the story tension.

You’ve taken sides. You want to see this villain die for his atrocities. The conclusion has more impact because the villain was well depicted and it leaves the reader/viewer satisfied.
The writers understood their villain. He was real.

I recently realized I had a good story premise. I had a good reason for the hero and heroine to fight to save a species, but I also realized my villain and his organization didn’t have a good motivation for being evil. Why was he hunting the hero? Why did it matter if the heroine remembered the fire? What did the villain have to lose or gain? What motivated his actions? Until I could figure that out the story stalled and took power away from the actions of my two main characters. Sort of another ah-ha moment for me.

How much time do you spend on creating a believable bad guy? Do you understand why does what he does? His motivations and goals?

  • Let’s talk villains. Who are some of your favorites? Why?



Kat Sheridan said...

Oh, I do love my villains! At some point I always do a spreadsheet with the goals, motivations and conflict of the protagaonists (both internal and external). Then I do the exact same thing for the villain. They have to live and breathe and have goals and conflicts and their own perspective, just like the protags. Then they don't steal power, they ADD to the power.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Absolutely, Kat. You want to create tension, fear, worry. If the villain isn't fully cast, how can you do that?

Helen Ginger said...

It does you and your protagonist no good to have a straw villain. They're too easy to get rid of. In order for the protagonist to achieve their story goal, they need an antagonist that is worthy of true defeat.

Great post and a good reminder to all of us.

Josh Hoyt said...

Great post. It is so important to understand our villains. There are so many reasons a person becomes a villain.

VA said...

I am a huge fan of the anti-hero more than the villain, but Hannibal Lecter is a favorite.

Andrea Mack said...

I'm actually rethinking the villain in my story now, trying to add more depth to make him more believable. Thanks for your interesting post.

Jo said...

Its a while since I read the first Song of Ice and Fire book, but I absolutely abhored the brother and sister who were having an affair with one another and caused the youngster (son of the house) to fall from the roof. Sorry don't remember the names. I saw The Patriot Just the other day, wouldn't have remembered the names, but Tavington even turned Cornwallis into a beast at the end.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I remember that story, Jo, ewww. Me, too! There was another story I read with that premise, can't remember the name but those two were just nasty and so self centered. I was glad the hero beat them.

Maryann Miller said...

Great reminder that we need to make our villains as three-dimensional as our heroes. Hannibal Lector has to be one of the best "bad guys" and part of his charm was his charm. He came across as so cultured and refined, it was hard to believe that he did such horrible things. Talk about great contrast in characterization.

~Sia McKye~ said...

That's a good point, Maryann. We seem to equate villains with bad, dark, nasty unlikable traits. Hannibal was all the more terrifying because he seemed so charming and well kept. Even nice at times.

Talli Roland said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
~Sia McKye~ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

My favorite villain is Iago from "Othello". He's systematic, calculating, committed and enterprising. He wants Othello to lose everything he holds dear, suffer and die horribly. He's a wonderful character!

In my own writing, I like a clearly defined villain. If he sees his actions as noble, so much the better. In "Indian Summer", the villain is motivated by service to God, King and Country. He believes he's doing a noble thing.

Once he falls in love with the heroine, and she spurns him, his motivation changes. He's more about revenge because of her betrayal than his noble cause. Although he's evil, I can't help feeling sorry for him in the end.

In my sci-fi novel, the villain is motivated purely by revenge. Like Iago, he wants the hero to pay with his honor, position, wealth, love and life. He plots for decades to bring about his revenge. He's very nearly successful. Again, I can't help feeling sorry for him. He had very good reasons for hating Wil and it's a whole lot of bad luck that brings him to his eventual end.

I think it's very important for stories to have well defined villains and conflict. With a cardboard villain, you might as well have a cardboard hero too. The story will be flat and uninteresting.

Dellani Oakes

~Sia McKye~ said...

Talli, sorry about that. I meant to remove my personal comment not yours, darlin' eek

But you're right, there is something about a good villain I like, too. I have a friend who is an actor and thinks villains are much more challenging and fun to play--many times better than the hero.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Dellani, I don't believe people are all bad. Sometimes, writers try to paint them that way. A good actor always finds the redeeming features, the motivations of the villain. The line where the where the villain fought and lost his battle to be redeemed or lost his battle to do the right thing. If done correctly, you find yourself sympathizing to a point, or feeling bad because he lost his personal battle. Pride, revenge, betrayal can all play into that. Like your sci-fi villain, he lets the *wrong* done to him fester and consume him to the point he feels what s/he's doing is perfectly the right thing to do.

Robert C Roman said...

@Jo / Sia - Actually, that's the one thing George R R Martin did with Song if Ice and Fire that really impressed me. Those two characters (Jaime and Cersei) are, by the end of the fourth book, at each other's throats, and Jaime, who seems to be almost a self-aware sociopath, has become an almost-sympathetic hero. Given that Jaime's the one that *threw* Bran out the window, I think it's really an accomplishment.

He pulls it off entirely because he really showcases why Jaime did each and every thing he did, from sleeping with his sister to killing his king.