Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 2 - Motivations

When you have a monster as the villain in your story, motivation is unnecessary. The beast can be considered a force of nature, a killing machine. Similarly, a lot of the human monsters, like serial killers, don't need a motivation. They are different from the rest of us, and we can watch their violence with complete belief. As with hurricanes and death-dealing meteorites, we may feel fear, desperation, and anxiety, but we won't feel any empathy.

As I've been digging into villains, many of them do inspire empathy — to the point of becoming tragic heroes, like the original King Kong. Watching one of the first Have Gun - Will Travel episodes, it occurred to me I still worried about the villain, Manfred Holt, long after the story was finished.

Here was a gunslinger who had killed eight men, but he escaped cleverly, cared about his wife and child, was articulate, saved the hero from certain death when he could've gotten away, and held to his own code. He never shot an unarmed man.

The problem was, the slightest offense would lead him to violence, and he gave no consideration for men whose skills with a gun were far below his own. When asked why he didn't just scale his outrage to a fistfight, he said he wasn't very good at fighting that way. Even so, might have escaped the consequences of his actions if he'd been willing to promise he wouldn't hunt down and kill a man who had been a witness against him. He couldn't do that. It would be a lie.

So, even with the kind of villain that is usually reduced to a cartoon, complexity can be worked in, resulting in a memorable character. (Of course, it didn't hurt that Manfred was played by Charles Bronson.)

So, one motivation that can work for a villain is a distorted and inflexible sense of honor.

Another motivation that can create a memorable villain is the need for completion of some sort. This may be tied to a humiliation or a vendetta or an ancient wound. The idea that a group of people must pay for a historical wrong (mistreatment of family members, taking of land, or impoverishment) can drive a villain to what they see as vigilante justice. This can resonate with views of wars between people and provide insights about the human drive for revenge.

Now, the hero might have this kind of motivation, too, but villains usually add a distorting ripple by either making it a grudge that reaches too far into the past or by delivering punishment to an innocent person or meting out punishment that is disproportional.

Trickier is a villain motivated seek to still the voices in his/her head. It needs to be tied to a trauma with which the audience can identify, and often must be presented to them with some immediacy. Again, it must be clear that the victims are innocent or the attacks are out of proportion to the suffering. Getting the balance on the latter right can be very difficult.

The villain may be acting out of loneliness or the need to love. Consider a woman who has been widowed, left without the love of her life. For her to become a stalker, perhaps based on misinterpreting a kindness, could create a distinct and engaging villain.



When the villain is taking on an organization or society so as to be heard, particularly after having made reasonable attempts, people are likely to have empathy, especially if they have had similar experience of exclusion and dismissal. But the direction of the evil acts must be toward representatives who don't deserve the punishment.

Of course, the old standby of any of the seven deadly sins (especially greed) out of control in an otherwise charming person can make for a strong villain. But work is necessary if you want a villain as compelling as Manfred. If a villain goes after a rich person for a small portion of their wealth so that he/she can pay for a child's operation, the balance might shift toward the villain. But explore and test until you find the place near middle point where readers can almost can see the villain's side.




Likability can help gain empathy. Talent and humor can make any character more likable. Even someone as horrible as Hannibal Lector.

Once a good motivation is thought through, it must be presented with human moments. This is often done in good films where just the look on the villain's face tells you that he or she is feeling for the opponent or reconsidering the action or briefly overwhelmed by regret. In novels, too often the writers try and build the case with back story or dialogue alone. Creating a reader experience that is in the moment and based on a gesture that exposes the inner life of the villain is a better way to do the job.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 1 - Getting under your skin

Villains have become a problem… For writers. I realized this as I was binging my way through old TV series. On some of the oldest shows, like Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66, the bad guys really got under my skin in a way the antagonists in more recent programs never did. For some good reasons — like the rejection of offensive stereotypes – and some bad reasons – like a hesitancy to present truly bad behavior as as morally bad rather than morally ambiguous — I think some writers pull their punches when they create villains.

There's plenty of room for antiheroes. They been as successful part of literature at least since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it might be time to revive some good old-fashioned villains that we can boo.

By that I don't mean creating melodramatic, all-bad characters. We do do too much of that already with monsters, aliens, and historical villains like Nazis. So giving the bad guys positive trains is fine. Similarly, it's okay – I would say essential – to have heroes who are flawed in important ways. But what's the value of a hero's flaw if the villain doesn't take advantage of it?

So here's a recommendation: create villains who will not hesitate to push against and use the greatest weaknesses or failures of character that a protagonist has. Not only does this create powerful conflict, with which readers can identify, but it makes the character arc, where the protagonist undergoes substantial and believable change, possible.

I mentioned that these villains got under my skin. I think I know why. During the stories, they caused real harm. The harm was (mostly) undeserved and certainly out of proportion. And the damage they did continued to get worse over time. As with an action film, where escalation is a requirement for audience engagement, making a bad guy do worse and worse things as the story progresses can bring out the instinct in readers or viewers to protect. Here I was, in the case of Have Gun, Will Travel, unable to stay in my chair for most of the shows because I felt such an urgency to stop the bad guy. And this response not was accomplished in a two hour movie. It was achieved in just 25 minutes. I have to tip my hat to writers who were able to do that week after week (39 episodes in season one!).

In many of the stories, there were people who could not defend themselves. They really had almost no chance. That helped to underline a very important aspect of some of the best villains. They have power. They demonstrate that power repeatedly during the story. And they create real doubt about whether the protagonist can succeed against them. In fact, in most of the stories that worked well, the hero suffered an important defeat. (This wasn't always done well. One 1950s series I watched repeatedly had the hero ambushed, clunked on the head, and tied up. I really came to wonder why he was such a dope that he didn't know enough to be vigilant as he walked down dark streets or rode his horse into canyons.)

So, an aptitude for finding exploiting flaws, an escalation of actions that cause harm, and the exercise of power all seem to be important to building these engaging villains. It's probable that many of your favorite antagonists (Darth Vader? Gordon Gecko? Hannibal Lector?) illustrate these points. But building a villain also means creating compelling reasons for their evil behaviors. What are their motivations?

We'll get into that next time as I continue this series on bad guys. In the meantime you might want to check out some of the posts I've done in the past that looked at villains.
Villains and the status quo
Crazy, bad villains
Disturb me

Why am I doing this? I'm deeply involved) creating a series of short dramas, under 30 minutes each, so I'm working to understand compressed storytelling and the roles of all the characters, including the villains, and how the best writers make these tales compelling.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Secrets of Fiction 3 - How to turn the story

Oedipus was competent, confident, and clever. He outwitted the Sphinx and knew he had managed to dodge fate (which said he would murder his father and bed his mother). But there were a few things he didn’t know. Like he was adopted. As the truth is revealed, he is tragically brought down. Such is the power of secrets.

Ishmael does one thing against his better judgment when he boards the Pequod. He doesn’t insist on getting a chance to size up the whaling ship’s captain. In fact, he doesn’t see Ahab’s face until the vessel is out to sea and it is too late to change his plans. And, other than the rants of a pesky oracle, it’s all a surprise to him.

Almost any romantic comedy you can think up turns on a secret that must be revealed before true love can find a way.

Okay. As you may have guessed, I’ve turned back to secrets after leaving them alone for a few years. Why? Because I’ve been reviewing some of my works to see how I can tune them up, and, over and over again, I’ve found hidden knowledge of what sort or another can add power.

But not every secret makes a story better. To really do the job a secret:
  • Must be significant in and of itself. If it doesn’t mean something to the reader and the characters, it can’t do its magic.
  • Must not be obvious, if readers don’t know. No one likes to guess the killer three chapters before the end of a mystery.
  • Must suggest real consequences, if readers do know. They should worry about what will happen when the truth comes out.
  • Must recast or explain what has gone before. Whether they clarify a motive or change the meaning of a comment or turn the whole story, they need to reach into the past and create new meaning and/or  bring the theme to life.
  • Must suggest “if only” scenarios. Readers should be able to imagine changes along the way that might have effected the final outcome. This is especially true with bittersweet or tragic endings.
  • Must be kept for an important reason. The reason can be wrong and may be tied to a misunderstanding, but the person keeping a secret must be strongly motivated and forced to extremes to protect the secret.
In addition, the keeping of secrets impacts relationships (and often how characters see themselves). As secrets are held, the have a corrosive effect, creating doubt and distrust.

Under the best of circumstances, it is the secret the transforms the story, creating resets on the lives of the characters and dramatically changing their fortunes.

One of the best ways to understand and appreciate secrets is to think of favorite stories with endings that you love. Chances are that most of these have surprises that matter in the last act (if not the last scene). Do any of these reflect what’s in my list of Musts? Do they illustrate the impact of secrets on relationships?

Want to use the power of secrets in you own story? Try this. Think of five secrets that your protagonist might go to extremes to keep. Think of five secrets that might put power into the antagonists hands. Think of the most important assumptions in your story and what would happen if any of them were turned on its head.

If any of these make your story better, you now have a secret to better writing.