Villains (Part 4)

In three previous posts, I talked about villains in fiction and the nature of their motivations. Today, I want to look at actually developing villains for use in a story.

Stories grow from many kinds of seeds: little bits about characters, or a setting, or plot elements, or images, or twists, or conceptual frameworks, or memories, or…

But as soon as you have a seed that grabs you, then you have to start gathering and/or inventing all the other elements that the story needs. You need characters, a setting, at least the start of a plot, and much else. If you’re the type of writer who plans a lot in advance, you’ll need a firm grasp of all these components before you get started. Even if you’re the type of writer who mostly improvises, you still need a sense of what kind of story you’ll be writing and why it’s worth your time. (I’m prepared to believe that a few good stories have resulted from writers sitting down to write with absolutely no ideas of what might come out, but this strikes me as an unreliable way to build a career.)

One of the elements you need in order to build a story is an answer to, “Who is this story about?” Who will readers be following? And why will they want to keep following that character’s experiences? Even in a story like Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains, there may not be any humans, but there are “characters” with whom the reader connects: the dog, and of course, the house itself.

Such central characters may be called “heroes”, “protagonists”, “viewpoint characters” or several other names, depending on how technical you want to get and how useful you may find it to make subtle literary distinctions. One way or another, however, they’re who the reader makes a connection with. Readers soon know whose story they’re following…and if the story is any good (or at least halfway conventional), they’ll realize when the story has come to an end, because they’ll recognize when something significant has changed in the central characters’ lives.

Villains are the agents of change. They may force the heroes out of a rut, or they may push back when the heroes try to change on their own. Classically, villains constitute the foremost obstacles to the heroes being able to change in positive ways. Remove the villains, and the heroes just romp across the finish line without resistance.

So when you’re developing a story, devising a suitable villain can be crucial. The villain must suit the tone of the story—comedies need comic villains, thrillers need thrilling ones, etc. And this is where the villain’s motivation comes in: what villains want and why they want it has a huge effect on the feel of a story. Grim motives create grimness. Sincere sympathetic motives create a sincere sympathetic ambiance. And so on.

As a simple example, consider a story about a music competition. The hero and the villain both want to win the prize. If the villain is an arrogant scumbag who wants the prize for the sake of ego, that gives you one type of story. If the “villain” comes from a poor family and really needs the prize money in order to go to music college, that’s completely different…and your hero damned well needs to have an even better reason to win the prize, or else the hero is at risk of switching into the villain.

The big question is what kind of story you want to write. The nature of the conflict between the hero and the villain determines what the reader feels as the story unfolds.

Next time, I’ll talk more about the hero-villain dynamic, and how  you can use it to convey emotions.

Villains (Part 3)

In previous posts, I talked about villains being useful in stories and about their need to have a reason for their villainy. It’s a cliché to say that villains consider themselves the heroes of their own stories, but it’s pretty much true—even villains who know they’re terrible people still tell themselves they’re justified in what they do. Their excuses are the same ones we all use: “I didn’t have a choice” or “Everyone else does it too.”

Essentially, villains try to fulfill their desires and allay their fears, just like we all do. This brings us to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as shown in the picture above. It’s a useful model for thinking about human drives.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs: food, water, air, etc. Villains driven by such needs are just trying to survive. In science fiction and fantasy, we mostly see such villains in very desperate situations, e.g. post-apocalyptic wastelands where people have to fight over everything. In such contexts, villains are easy to understand; perhaps too easy. Who can blame them for wanting to live? And if everyone is fighting for scraps of food, distinguishing heroes from villains is a characterization challenge. The usual writing technique is to show that there’s enough for all if everyone works together. Heroes are the people who play nice; villains are the ones who try to take it all.

The next level of the hierarchy is safety. Perhaps you’ve eaten enough today, but what about tomorrow? And what if there are active threats to your life? A classic example of villains in need of safety are people who want to kill anyone they perceive as a danger. “You know too much, so I can’t let you live.” “I’ll never be safe as long as there’s still a legitimate heir to the throne.” The wonderful thing about such villains (at least from a writer’s standpoint) is that their fears never end. There’s always one more person they have to kill before they feel safe. The villains can keep on driving the plot until the heroes stop them.

Next up is love and belonging. Doing bad things to win someone’s love is a time-honored tradition in stories. The villain is in love (or lust) with someone, and kills all potential rivals, or carries out some scheme to force the beloved to give in. Once upon a time, this may have even had overtones of romance. These days, however, readers are much more sensitive about anything that smells of sexual coercion. Today, a villain who kills for food may still be sympathetic, but a villain who kills for “love” almost certainly won’t be.

Then we come to esteem. Ego. Prestige. Status. These are standard motivations for villains in positions of privilege. Rich people never have to worry about starving, but they may have a desperate need to outdo their neighbors. I have a feeling that more villains fall into this category than any of the others—in a story context, such people have the power and resources to be dangerous to almost any type of hero. Often, they’re also “villains you love to hate”: people who have almost everything, but do despicable things to get even more. It’s satisfying when such villains get stomped…which is why writers use them so often.

At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization: becoming the most you can be. Occasionally, you see villains with this motivation, but it’s rare. Self-actualization is a little too spiritual and abstract to produce much villainy. A few characters in fiction do bad things for purely aesthetic reasons—Thanos comes to mind—but it takes a lot of work for a writer to pull this off. More commonly, a villain may claim to be acting from such motives but is actually driven by something lower down the pyramid.

So those are some useful possibilities for why villains do what they do. Next time, I’ll write about how this all shakes down in writing an actual story.

Villains (Part 2)

In Villains (Part 1), I talked about how useful villains can be.

  • In terms of plot, they get in the way of what the protagonists want to do, thereby creating action.
  • In terms of character, they often demonstrate qualities that the protagonists lack, thereby indicating ways in which the protagonists must grow in order to become better rounded people.
  • At the same time, villains can also demonstrate unwholesome aspects of those qualities. The reader then wants to keep reading in order to see whether the protagonists can develop the qualities in a healthy way, without becoming as bad as the villains.

Villains generally need a good reason for what they do. Admittedly, horror stories occasionally get away with villains being incomprehensible. The first example that comes to mind is Hill House, the villain in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Hill House is a haunted house that drives people mad. There’s no clear reason why it’s haunted, or why it does what it does—we get hints about its unsavory past, but Jackson never tries to spell out explicit causes. It’s simply a bad place, and it has bad effects on people who go there.

But apart from such rare exceptions, villains need a reason for their actions. Readers want to understand motivations. In fact, the lack of motivation is one reason why Hill House and other motiveless villains are so disconcerting: they’re evil just because. You’re never going to make sense of it.

But a villain’s motivations shouldn’t be trivial or simplistic. The great screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, mocked “The Rubber-Ducky School of Drama” which invented lame excuses for why villains did terrible things: “Someone once took his rubber-ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.”

Villains need better reasons for being villainous. And in the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about some possibilities.

Villains (Part 1)

I’ve been thinking about villains and what writers say about them.

Some writers say they never use villains. Often, this just means they avoid writing about people who are “only” evil. They do write about characters who actively impede the protagonist(s). However, those characters aren’t purely wicked; they just have goals that can’t co-exist with what the heroes want. Thus, the “non-heroes” try to stop the heroes from achieving their ends.

Some stories have characters who get in the hero’s way, but not out of any ill will. One example would be opponents competing for the same prize, such as people running a race. A villainous villain might cheat, or at least try to exploit an unfair advantage; a less villainous antagonist would play fair, but still try to beat the hero to the finish line.

And of course, the problems in some stories don’t come from characters at all. Sometimes the “villain” is a force of nature (like surviving a storm or the hardships of Mars). Sometimes the problems come from the protagonists themselves. People can be their own worst enemy, in which case the story arises when they try to overcome some inner weakness.

But one way or another, most stories need something that prevents a character from immediately getting what he/she/they want. If a character doesn’t want anything, the story has nowhere to go. And if nothing gets in the character’s way, the story ends quickly, without tension.

So villains are hellishly useful in stories. They make protagonists sweat. They make protagonists get up off their butts and take action. Often, a villain will embody what a protagonist lacks—villains are confident when heroes are conflicted, or passionate when heroes are just shuffling through life. Villains are often a wake-up call and they shake heroes out of a rut.

Which is why I love villains. They’re like weights that the hero has to lift in order to get stronger. And the ways in which they’re villainous can add immeasurably to a story.

But this post has gone long enough. I’ll write more about this tomorrow.

Not a Spectator Sport

Writing sucks as a spectator sport, which is why I often struggle to find anything to blog about. If things go well, I produce at least 1000 words a day…but what that looks like is me sitting at my dining-room table, either writing longhand or tapping out words on my iPad. Not an engrossing sight.

However, in the interests of upping my engagement with readers, I’m going to try to report more on what I’m doing. So here we go: I’m simultaneously working on three novels which I’ll call Project MoonProject Tech-Bro, and Project Angel of Death. (Hey, if I’m going to make up names, I may as well amuse myself.)

Juggling three projects takes a fair bit of concentration. Most days I can’t handle all of them; if I manage two out of the three, I consider it a good day. Ideally, that will be 1000 words on each project I work on. Bit by bit, the word count grows, and eventually, I get to the end.

Mostly I write. But research and planning are also important. For major research, I get books from the library, but for passing tidbits, Wikipedia will do just fine. What kind of things do I look up? Occasionally on my Twitter (@jamesagard), I note topics I’ve looked at recently. Here are some for Project Tech-Bro:

  • The Haunted Mansion
  • Stepin Fetchit
  • Navajo Nation
  • Erich von Daniken
  • Photoshop

For Project Angel of Death:

  • A. J. Raffles
  • Kitty Pryde
  • Puff Adders

For Project Moon:

  • Rapier
  • Decibel
  • Frank Frazetta

And no, I’m not going to explain how any of these fit in. But I’m always amused where writing takes me.

A Regular Day

Someone recently asked me what a regular writing day looked like for me. So…here you go (or at least the highlights):

  1. Get up & eat breakfast, during which I read email and Twitter. I usually don’t answer any email immediately unless it can be done in less than 3 lines. Also I do the NY Times mini-crossword puzzle and review my to-do list.(NOTE: I keep a daily to-do list in a straight-up text file. The file contains stuff for at least a week in advance. I also use my iPad’s calendar program to keep track of dates, but I copy any appointments from the calendar into the text to-do list. The to-do list is inspired by bullet journals but more informal.)
  2. Write a few morning pages longhand, mostly reviewing things I saw or heard the previous day. I try to record tangible experiences, rather than just chatting about ideas.
  3. Transcribe any longhand writing from the day before. Basically, when I’m writing something new, I write longhand first (yes, pen on paper). The next day, I start my writing session by transcribing the longhand stuff into Scrivener. This helps remind me where I was, and also gives me a chance to do quickie rewrites on what I produced the previous day.
  4. Use the Pomodoro technique to write longhand for two hours. That means 25 minutes of nothing but writing, then five minutes of break-time (bathroom, having a snack, etc.). Repeat the 25-on/5-off for a total of four sessions, giving about two hours of new writing.
  5. Take a longer break: half an hour. I’ll do my daily Duolingo (currently learning Japanese, and keeping up on Spanish) and have a small lunch
  6. Back to another four Pomodoro sessions: either writing or editing (if I have an editing job…and by the way, if you ever need editing services, feel free to inquire).
  7. Another longer break. Usually, this is when I go for a walk to my local library. I almost always have something I want to pick up at the library, or something I have to take back. Even if I don’t have anything to get or return, going to the library is a nice break.
  8. Back for another two hours of work. This is either editing work, or business stuff. Here is when I answer email, deal with business paperwork, etc. If I’m working on a definite project (e.g. editing), I’ll do it Pomodoro style again, but often it’s just little bits and pieces that don’t fit the work-in-depth system.
  9. Thus ends my writing/editing day. Now into other stuff. Half an hour for hobby-like activity.
  10. Walk or drive for errands (shopping, etc.) in the late afternoon.
  11. Most nights, I either do kung fu or role-playing games.
  12. Read for at least 15 minutes before going to bed.

Auxiliary reading:

For bathroom reading, I (very slowly) work through something “classic”. Recently, I worked my way through Christopher Logue’s poetry version of the Iliad. Now I’m working through Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”.

For kitchen reading (when I’m eating snacks or drinking coffee), I do idle research. In preparation for writing Miranda in NOBODY TOLD ME YOU COULD BREAK THE MOON, I worked through a first-year physics textbook. Now, I’m reading BLACK EDGE by Sheelah Kolhatkar, so I’ll know about sleazy financiers. (This is preparation for something secret I think I’ll call Project 3H.)

And for times when I want a break from reading, I do cryptic crossword puzzles. Right now I’m working through a book of New Statesman crosswords from the 1980s.

So there: if there is such a thing as a typical day, that’s how it goes. Any questions?

Quickie Writing Tips: Establishing Shots

In  movies, it’s common for scenes to start with an establishing shot: a second or two that shows the audience where the scene will take place.

For example, if a scene is going to take place in the kitchen of a suburban house, the movie often doesn’t go there directly. Instead, the movie might start by showing an external view of the surrounding suburbs. Then when the movie cuts to the kitchen a few seconds later, you understand that the kitchen is inside a house that’s in the suburbs. Otherwise, one kitchen looks a lot like any other (at least if we’re talking modern day), so viewers may not be able to tell if it’s in a city, the country, in a desert, on the coast, wherever. The establishing shot orients the audience so that they have a better appreciation of where and when this is happening.

In fiction, quick establishing shots are also useful…but typically what you want to establish isn’t just where and when but who. Who is the viewpoint character whose experience you’re going to read about?

People connect to people. It’s as simple as that. You connect your reader to a story by connecting the reader to a character. Once in a long while, the character can be a persona assumed by the writer. When I think of writers assuming a persona, I always think of Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett. Both have a habit of opening their books with little preambles, where the author directly addresses the reader. They basically send the message, “Sit down and let me tell you a story…”

But usually the viewpoint character is someone who actually takes part in the story. Whether the story is written in first-person or third, it’s almost always desirable to give the reader an immediate sense of who the viewpoint character is and what that person is like. Some simple examples:

  • I was nursing my third cup of coffee, trying to avoid going into the office because I expected I was going to be fired. This gives you an immediate feeling for what kind of person is telling the tale. You don’t know name, sex, or other particulars, but you already have a sense of personality. A connection has begun.
  • John Ling always hated trying to get the blood out afterward. In this case, you have a name, a probable sex (indicated by “John”), and a sense that this is someone who often experiences violence. Again, there’s the start of a connection—you don’t yet know if John is a “good guy” or “bad guy”, and you probably don’t have a lot of experience with bloodshed, but you can still sympathize with a guy who gets stuck with lousy jobs.By the way, it may be a cliche, but starting the very first sentence of a scene with the viewpoint character’s name is a damned useful technique. Hiding the character’s name seldom buys you anything. Even if you’re writing in the first person, it’s a good idea to reveal the character’s name as soon as possible.

Contrast the above openings with something like this:

It was a rainy night in Los Angeles. The headlights of cars reflected on the wet streets, occasionally accented by flashes of lightning and… 

<Snore…> This is the sort of establishing shot you might see in a movie—it shows the place and time—but it doesn’t connect the reader with a person. It doesn’t even present an interesting situation. Yet so many novice writers write this kind of opening. Maybe they do it because they’re used to seeing it in movies, but books and stories work differently.

People connect with people, not weather. Unless you’ve got a hell of a good reason, give the reader a person to connect with in the very first sentence. Better yet, give us a interesting person doing something interesting. That’s what makes a good establishing shot.