From Sarah, With Joy

Sarah Allen on the craft, business, and joy of being a writer.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why I can't write villains

I've tried. And I'll keep trying, but the problem is that I end up sympathizing with them too much, and then they turn out much more anti-hero than straight up villain.

See, all the best villains have back story, right? And there are few villains, particularly good ones, who don't believe that what they are doing is right. The notable exception to this is The Joker. But really, every character is simply trying to get what they want the best way they know how.

Because of this, I pity my villains and want them to get what they want, and because villains are layered and complex I usually end up rooting for them way more than the boring, unrealistically perfect hero types.

This is why Severus Snape is my ideal character. He's definitely not a hero in the traditional sense, but he's not the villain either which puts him in the anti-hero space, which makes his efforts at goodness way more heroic, in my mind, than it would be otherwise. He had to work for it, consciously choose good over bad. Although to be fair, Rowling does a pretty darn good job of making all of her characters complex, including Harry.

Basically what I'm trying to say here, is that when I try to write villains they always end up more Snape than Voldemort. Which I suppose isn't a bad thing, unless I really want a Voldemort. But really, we all just write what we write, right?

Sarah Allen

16 comments:

  1. Maybe the key is sicking a giant snake on the villain? Kidding aside, I think you're not alone; great villains are extremely dynamic, but tend to be that way in easy to understand ways. Not a simple thing to pull off.

    Gollum from Lord of the Rings is a perfect example.

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  2. I used to be in the same predicament. Then I saw this biography drama film in German called "Death Is My Trade" (1977)
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075708/
    It portrayed the story of how an honest hard-working man eventually became one of the most sinister villains in history: The commander of the death camp in Dachau. Of course it's not a pretty story, but it's an excellent example of how villains become villains. They never start off that way.
    The villains are just antagonists who form the opposite pole of the story. Without them, no story. So for every story where there is a struggle, you have a hero and villain. Perhaps you should use their change their names to "protagonist" and "antagonist" to remove the black & white colouring. Because in this film story, "Death Is My Trade", the villain was essentially the "hero of the story", and his "villain", or antagonist, was the moral judging society who sentenced him to death after the war.
    I think once you stop assigning black & white colours to your characters, and assign them motives they think are good & important, it's easier to write about so-called "villains". Try an experiment: pick a villain like Adolf Hitler, Nero, Attila the Hun, General George Custer or Napoleon, and pack your own moral judgement in a suitcase for an hour, and try to focus on the positive things these men were trying to achieve. Maybe you can write a short piece on their goals and things which motivate them. Why do they think they believe what they're doing is for the greater good of all?
    Hey, wouldn't this be a fun blogfest challenge?

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  3. It's one thing to pity them. I usually pity villains to some degree if they're at all well developed. But want them to get what they want? Really?

    Voldemort wanted a world where all muggles were slaves and muggle born witches and wizards were killed. All of the villains you show at the top there did horrible, evil things to get what they want.

    I can pity them. But I always remember that they are responsible for their atrocities. And they cannot be forgiven unless they repent and ask for forgiveness.

    That said, not all stories need that type of villain. Many stories don't need a character as an antagonist at all. It just depends on what you're writing.

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  4. Sarah, you're not supposed to pity them. Like I said, pack your personal feelings in a suitcase. That means you can't empathise, sympathise or pity them. You have to concentrate on what the antagonist (villain) finds important (his motives).
    .
    In Voldemort's case, he thinks the world would be a much better place without muggles, and that witchcraft would be more dynamic and effective, if it was practised only by pure bred witches. He's also pissed-off at the wizard world because they punished him, when all he was trying to do was restore magic to its former glory. In his own mind he thinks he's doing everyone in the wizard world a great big favour.
    .
    You see what I mean? I'm looking at what Voldemort thinks is important - NOT whether or not what Voldemort does is morally right or wrong.
    .
    That's the way you have to look at villains. You have to concentrate on what THEY think is important, right and good - NOT on what YOU personally think is important, right and good.
    .
    Take a story like Wuthering Heights. The 'villain' of this story is Heathcliff, Kathy's lover. He's not really an evil person, but he IS the villain in this story.
    .
    Yes, it's true. Character stories and Bildungsromane don't have villains. But plot-driven stories ALWAYS have villains and heroes.
    .
    If you don't want to write about villains, then you will have to limit yourself to writing stories about maturity, character transformation, chick literature, or non-fiction. You'll never get any kind of YA adventure story off the ground without villains (antagonists).
    .
    Villains aren't always evil, and heroes aren't always good. That's why you it's easier to deal with them if you label them "protagonist" and "antagonist". Because they aren't always apparent. For instance, the hero of Moby Dick, is Moby Dick himself - not Captain Ahab (he's the villain), and not Ishmael (he's the hero's helper/sympathiser)
    .
    I found some links with expert advice so you can research about this topic. I hope it gives you a fresh look at villains (I call them antagonists) and they help you understand why they are so vital for plot-stories:
    .
    http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/beyond-bastards-bullies-and-bad-girls/
    .
    http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1226682-Antagonist-in-Fiction-He-Is-Powerful
    .
    http://www.creative-writing-solutions.com/creative-writing-topic-badguy.html
    .
    http://www.how-to-write-a-novel.net/antagonist.html

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  5. I actually LOVE writing villains. It's the protagonists that keep me sweating as I write!

    xoxo
    -S

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  6. Wow, such great advice guys! I really, really appreciate it. Keep it coming :) I'll need this next time I try and write villains.

    @Sarah, I mean the Snape Anti-Hero types should get what I want, definitely not Voldemort :) But yeah, I would love to see an alternate universe where Snape and Lily end up together, but of course that's not going to happen.

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  7. I quite like writing villains! I think it's a way of channelling all my negative emotions. :) But yes, you have to write what makes you happy and works for you.

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  8. This is why Snape is so awesome. He's the kind-of-a-bad-guy-but-not-really type of character. I agree though, it's hard to create a villian. I think it's because, like us, they're imperfect. So we somehow relate to them more.

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  9. I also <3 antiheroes. Though, for me it's about the character's interestingness, more so than sympathetic/unsympathetic. I found Voldemort more interesting than Snape because his view on...erm...everything was different from mine. But at the same time Snape was my *favorite* character. Gosh, I sobbed through the whole chapter of his memories with Lily.

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  10. I think Snape is a good place to start, and it's always good to have a "Snape" in your story to stand in the way of your hero/heroine from getting what he/she wants. But Snape isn't what one would call a true villain. He's definitely a menace to Harry, but when he redeems himself at the end, he becomes more of a hero than a villain.

    True villains are characters like Volemort, and The Joker. The reason those two are so evil is because they believe that what they're doing is RIGHT. They kill because they think those people deserve it. Of course, all characters need to have back story (Voldemort had a GREAT back story). It's what makes them who they are (along with humanistic traits, like how Voldemort still showed affection for his snake).

    So, Snape is a good place to start, but maybe when you're writing your villain, think of the most despicable person (or character) that you can, and focus on that emotion while you create them. You just might create the next Voldemort. :)

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  11. Oh, I hear this. I think it's okay to have a villain be Snape-ish, but I do think that you need to have someone who IS like Voldemort too. Why can't there be both?

    Because you're right, as we're writing, we realize that our villains are complex and often likeable. But at some point, we have to also make them evil...

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  12. I don't really have a problem writing villains/antagonist. I actually find it more fun telling their side of the story. The issue for me is tending to make my heroes a little too villainous.

    I know the ideal hero (or character in general) needs to be flawed in some way. But mine tend to walk the thin line between good and evil, even when I didn't intend to create an anti-hero.

    As for sympathizing with the villains, the fact that we are able to makes the story and the characters all the more plausible. After all, no one is born purely evil... even the Hitler's of the world.

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  13. I'm actually confused. I thought all those villains in your picture did, at some point, think they were doing what was right or necessary.

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  14. I like to paint my villain by his/her choices, so even if they had a tough life they go down the wrong path. Mwahaha.

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  15. If your villain has back story or can justify their reason for being bad, then they will be an anti-hero. Once people care about the villain, they are no longer one.

    One thing you can do is detach the villain from back story as well as reason for their actions. This is why the Joker from the last Batman movie was so good. We know nothing about him, where he came from, or why he even bothers being so bad.

    You can write a villain and as an author know why they are doing what they are doing, but leave it out of the story. Make them an anti-hero in another book. Like Vader in Episode 4 when it first came out. He was a great villain then.

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  16. I would much rather read about Snape than Voldemort. I love villans I can sympathize with - but still see on the wrong side of the line. It makes it that much more emotionally heartbreaking when they lose (or that much more 'well.... they we're THAT bad' when they win ;P)

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