Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
September 2009

How to Write a Villain

I like a good villain as much as the next guy. But what is a villain? A villain isn't someone who exists solely as a counterpoint to the hero, to do simply the opposite of what the hero does, to stand opposed to him no matter what he does. I would have said that a villain isn't someone who does pure evil for the sake of evil, except that I recently saw Dark Knight and realized that it was absolutely convincing to have a villain who did evil because he wanted to cause chaos. That was what gave him pleasure in life. It's still not a Snidley Whiplash kind of villain; however, the villain who is the Joker/Heath Ledger in that frightening portrayal. He wants results of a particular kind. He isn't standing on the principle of evil, if that makes any sense.

I've heard writers say that a villain is the hero of his own story, and I think that is a good beginning point for writing a villain. You as the author do not have to agree with the villain's point of view, however, and you can make that very clear, no matter what POV you are writing in. I am not a fan of novels where the villain gets as much play time as the hero or heroine. But I do want to understand what makes villains evil, and so I have some questions you as the writer might ask about the villain.

1. What makes the villain evil?

The easy answer to this is to go back to the villain's (or villainess') childhood. They were abused. Yes, but that is an insufficient answer. Most abused children turn out to hate abuse. They don't turn into abusers. So by saying childhood abuse, you've only started the explanation, not finished it. And showing it in graphic detail isn't the answer, either. That will sicken me and may make me throw your book across the room, but it won't make me believe your villain. I need to get into the mind of the villain. And it doesn't have to take you pages and pages. You don't have to give the story over to the villain. You also don't have to tell me in advance what the villain is planning. (I actually am often annoyed by this because I read to be surprised and I don't want to know the ending before it comes -- I shudder at the thought of someone turning to the last page of a book and reading the ending first. Why bother?)

2. What does the villain want?

I need to know this just as much as I need to know what any other character wants. Even minor characters want something. If they don't, why are they in the book? Villains oppose the hero because that makes for good plot, but they need to do it on a deeper level. They need to have a different vision of paradise, or maybe they just think that hell is the only way they have any chance of being king.

And related to #2:

3. How will the villain know that s/he has been successful?

The villain doesn't have to succeed in order to see this. There can be dialog or a description of a vision. Or the villain can begin to succeed, and crow over it, and that gives us a good idea of what the future will look like with the villain in charge.

4. What is the world that will come about and what will be his/her place in it?

I need to know this because if a villain is to be defeated, I want it to be on more than a physical level. I want the villain to be defeated in his heart, for him to admit his defeat. I also want to admire the villain even as I hate him.

5. What does the villain loves?

If he loves a woman, I want to love her, too. If he loves chaos, I want to see something of the beauty in it that he sees. I as the reader have to become the villain at least in part. And as the writer, even more so.

6. What is the villain's weakness?

It should not be the door to the castle being left unguarded. I mean, what are the ways in which his/her logic fails? How does his/her world view fall when it comes in contact with the hero/ine's?

In Barryar by Lois McMaster Bujold, there is a great scene where the Betan, civilized heroine (Cordelia) beheads her enemy. His last words are "You can't --" His weakness is that his imagination is too small. He sees women in a particular way, and he sees Betans as weak. His belief is what makes him vulnerable to her strength.

7. What does the villain hate about the hero? Is it a personal slight? I want to know. Is it the smell of him? The look of him? The fact that he has everything the villain does not?

You can write a story in which there are no villains, in which everyone is completely misunderstanding everyone else. I think that Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead is that kind of story, and it is very satisfying. That is taking the idea of understanding your enemy to an extreme level, but in a sense, that is what all of the Ender books are about. To defeat the enemy, you must understand him. Maybe better than he understand himself.

As the author, to defeat the villain, you must also understand him. Your hero does not have to. He can be heroic and bumbling. He can defeat evil without earning it, or by simply being good. But evil cannot be a strawman set up to be defeated easily. You've seen movies like I have where the hero takes only one shot to get the villain, but an army of the enemy can fire a thousand bullets and the hero will dodge them all. This invariably annoys me. Unless there is an explanation of why. It could be that the enemy really are all bad shots. But why? I want to know the why of everything, good and evil.

There are even times when I want the villain to win.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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