Writing Villains


Writing Villains

Oh, for the good old days when villains wore black (Stetsons, if appropriate), twirled their handlebar mustaches, and revealed their evil ways in every word and deed. Think Uriah Heep from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Scoundrels we love to hate.

But while we can still appreciate the all-out, no-holds-barred malevolence of these anti-heroes, most modern readers expect a more nuanced approach to their (well, your) villains.

Villains are needed

You write the story from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s a challenge enough to show this character as real and sympathetic. The antagonist/villain is there but frequently only as foil to demonstrate the hero’s sterling qualities.

Now, you need this kind of a dynamic to make the novel work. For interesting reading, the leading character cannot sail smoothly to his promised land. Wants to be an Olympic athlete? Gets the gold. Wants to write a famous opera? The new Mozart. Not only is this progression boring but it doesn’t do anything for how we feel about the protagonist. You like people whose success comes easily? No, we like people who struggle and then conquer.

Enter, the villain. He can be the personification of the world blocking or thwarting the hero’s objectives. But if that is the only role he plays in the novel, the villain can also become boring or at least repetitive and unidimensional. And, not particularly believable. Or only in the style of the mustache-twirling from above.

So, you need the villain to be as believable as your hero. And if you can, you have a great opportunity to deepen the story.

How do I make my villain believable?

So, the big thing is to make your heavy as human as possible. What he needs is:

  • To be well-motivated. It is not enough for him to say, “I’ve always hated Harry [your main character] and I’m going to stop him.” Show, show, show. Why does he hate Harry? What did Harry do to him? Is he perhaps justified in his wish for revenge?
  • To care about something or someone. And getting Harry doesn’t count. It could be a dog. Or a place. Could be a lost love. Whatever. But he needs to have more in his life than retribution. (Unless of course you want to make him a psychopath but that has its own writing challenges.) Showing him with loving emotions both humanizes and makes the reader reassess him.
  • His own agenda. He cannot just act in reaction to the hero’s goals. He needs his own ends and desires. He has a plan. He will walk all over Harry to get them. But necessary in his mind to reach his destination.

Playing with antiheroes

In fact, if you make both the villain and the hero very human, and dare I say, sympathetic, you may be able to do the coolest thing: you may make it hard for the reader to decide which is which. Is the villain the tyrannical father who refuses to let his daughter take art lessons? Or is it the well-meaning teacher who tries to help a young girl be free? The ‘easy’ villain is the father. The ‘interesting’ villain is the schoolteacher who is imposing her morality on a situation she doesn’t understand.

This is one time when it’s okay to confuse the reader. She’ll love it.

Next post: the unreliable narrator. Also a winner with readers.

Acquiring Author Credibility


Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.

Authority of the Author—What is it?


Authority of the Author—What is it?

Sounds a little New Age, doesn’t it? Authority of the Author.  It is, kind of. I think the best way to start is with an example.

As always, I remember reading this but can’t remember the source so you’ll to have to take my word for it.

In her earlier writing, Margaret Atwood published a short story about girls at a summer camp who collaborate on writing a novel. A bad, clichéd one as it turned out. The humor is in how inept it is.

But what would have happened if the writer herself had been a bad writer? The joke would fall flat or disappear because the reader wouldn’t see a difference between the quality of the writing of the novel-in-progress and that of how the story itself was being told. For the short story to work, Atwood had to establish that she herself as a good writer before she introduced the girls’ efforts.

She does this by her vivid description of the setting and the dialogue through which she introduces the idea of the group effort, among other ways. Atwood has established her authority to tell the story.

What is this authority of the author?

The Atwood example is the clearest I’ve found where a lack of authorial authority makes a difference. But it gets murky beyond that. Honestly, there’s not even unanimous agreement on what it means.

Brooke Warner in her Huffington post article believes “getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority.” That doesn’t quite sit right with me as I’ve read plenty of unpublished pieces which have authority.

The blog Wistful Writer comes closest to a definition I agree with:

Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.

However, the blog then gives an example which doesn’t actually capture the concept for me.

Memoirs should have this power

Memoir writers presumably have this completely covered. They certainly are experts on their own story. They have sort of spontaneous authority, no?

But even with this presumed knowhow, memoirs can also be seen as self-serving, light on truth, or verging on the unbelievable. So they don’t automatically get a free pass into being trusted.

Defining authority primarily as a writer’s expertise on the topic of the narrative doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree a writer needs to know what he’s talking about in both content and craft, I think authority encompasses a realm which I may not be able to adequately define but will nevertheless give a try in the next post.

But for a final word:

Why does it matter?

Really, who cares if you have authority? Big deal.

But actually, it is. If you do, your reader will relax into your story and go willingly where you want to take her. You have put her in the continuous dream state.

Authority has another, practical advantage. With it, you can probably rely on your readers to stick with you through bumpy/puzzling plot bits or necessary but slow scenes. So they can experience your dazzling ending.


Why Now?


Why Now?

In a previous post, I discussed what you can do if the first draft of your novel is too short. This post covers another question you may need to ask yourself as you are strengthening the manuscript: Why now?

Obviously, your novel is set at a particular time, even if an indeterminate present, and at a particular point in your hero’s life. I suppose the exception might be a family saga which is going soup to nuts.

But generally, writers pick a period in the main character’s life to focus on. Might be middle age, might be just starting out, might be on the brink of death. Whenever it is, a good question to ask yourself is why you picked that age/state of life. Why does your hero do what he does at this moment in his life?

An example of why now?

For example, your hero (Todd) might be a downtrodden spouse who has been married for twenty years and then suddenly announces he wants a divorce. Why now?

Why didn’t he do it early in the marriage when it became clear that things weren’t going as envisioned? How come he didn’t see the signs before the wedding? Why wouldn’t he leave it until his dying day and make it his last words?

Asking yourself this question can prompt two possible lines of thought.

First, you might need to adjust or rewrite so that it makes sense to the reader why this is the right time in his life. Sure, he might have fallen in love and that would be the impetus. But isn’t there a compelling inner reason why Todd chooses this moment to allow the new love to be the dominant factor in his decision?

Second, although I know you’d have to be dragged to this option, is there a dramatically more interesting time in his life to leave the marriage than the one you have used? Is there a stronger reason to justify the act at some other point?

Why not earlier, later, or not at all?

So, let’s continue to play with the why now? issue.

What if it is earlier?

What if Todd makes the decision to leave early in the marriage? What prompts it? Could be another woman but then are you painting a picture of a man who can’t make a commitment? What about him allows him to break from the easier path of putting up and going along?

Or later?

What if he decides leave the marriage much later?  Does he struggle with abandoning what he might think of as his duty? Or does the angst come from how he has to change himself to make this move? Or does he revise his personal definition of duty?

Or not at all?

I know—this is the all-bets-off option. If he doesn’t do the central thing of the novel, it’s a whole new ball game. But if you have created a truly interesting character, might there be more scope to explore who he is in a different situation? Just asking.

Who cares?

I know that reading this may cause a certain level of discomfort, especially if you believe you have completed a first draft. But playing with the concept of why now? at very least encourages  you to make sure that what Todd is doing in the present tale is well grounded in an understanding of why he chooses to act at this moment in his life.

Playing with options may open up possibilities that hadn’t occurred to you. Might not mean a rewrite. Could just be a deepening and strengthening of your story.

Next: subplots.

Who/What is the Tale About?


Who/What is the Tale About?

The tale is about?

When you’ve finished the first draft of your novel and looking to strengthen it and even lengthen it, who or what your tale is about is a good question to ask. This may seem quite simple-minded. You might think, “Well, my tale is about Minisha because she’s the main character.”

You’d be right, of course. Your novel has taken Minisha in a particular direction. She might have traveled to experience the world. She might have never left town, but longed to. Or she didn’t want to leave—just more leeway from a strict mother. Any of these and many others could be interesting paths.

Who/what the story is about shapes choices

I am a great proponent of just writing whatever comes up. Minisha meets a smarmy charmer. She almost gets run over in the street. She realizes that she can tackle the mountain after all. Whatever interests you.

But somewhere near the end of the first draft or when you are editing, you need to consider who or what the novel is really about. For example, is the story about Minisha discovering who she is on her journey (whether physical or mental) or is it about her romance with the professor she meets along the way?

Which path you choose can and should shape your thoughts on what scenes can be kept; which deleted; and which rewritten or reoriented.

The novel is about self-discovery

So, let’s say you’ve decided that the novel is primarily about Minisha’s self-discovery. Review your scenes to ask questions like:

  • The romantic scenes are appropriate still but do the number, length or even emotional impact of these scenes outweigh those of the self-discovery? If they’re very prominent, does the relationship overshadow the self-discovery?
  • How do you make the self-discovery more show than tell? This is an important way to signal your main theme. What does she DO which indicates her changes? Much of self-discovery happens in the character’s mind. But can you have her taking a physical risk or buying clothes more fashionable than she usually buys? This can show increasing self-confidence.

The story is about love

But what if the story is primarily about falling in love? You might ask similar questions:

  • Can you/do you want the self-discovery to revolve around the falling in love? E.g. she didn’t realize she could be lovable; she is getting in her own way in romance. If so, do you need to tone down the angst and revelation around her faith or career?
  • How much of the self-discovery do you need to show on stage, as it were? Slowing down enough to give a thorough picture of the internal struggle Minisha is undergoing should be compelling and hopefully, more intense than the scenes about the love interest.

Why do I have to make a choice?

Well, of course you don’t have to. It’s your novel after all. But considering the question helps to bring focus to the novel. It also helps decide what scenes you need to write in SHOW mode and what can be TELL or shorter or perhaps not needed.

Decide later or at the end

Again, ask yourself these questions when you’re near or at the end of your first draft. Examining this too early in the process will wreck the spontaneity of allowing the tale to take the path it needs to.

You do need to ask it. But only after the first draft is in the bag.