Tag Archives: bad guys

The Dullness of Timidity

I’m seeing a trend among my writing students these days … the avoidance of a villain in the stories they write.

No villain leads to the absence of conflict …

Which causes weak scenes …

Which creates dull writing …

Which guarantees bad story.

Is this lack due to insufficient reading in young writers? Or is the current insistence of our modern society on being sensitive to others having a trickle-down effect toward villains?

In a previous decade, just the very suspicion of something so ridiculous would have had me slapping my forehead in disbelief. Today, I’m not so sure.

Are we now trying to be nice to story villains? Are we now trying to see their side of things and give them more than the benefit of the doubt? Are we now playing the relative card when it comes to situational ethics and making excuses for their behavior on the pages of our own manuscripts?

Surely not!

And yet, where are these rogues? These outlaws? These bad guys? Has Snidely Whiplash and his descendants gone the way of the dodo? Why aren’t my students coming up with antagonists?

Granted, these young writers have often experienced a soft life. They don’t always know lack or struggle. They may have been coddled throughout their young lives, praised for efforts rather than results, and shielded from the world’s unkindness. So perhaps they don’t recognize bad guys, don’t understand them, and don’t see the need for them in writing stories.

Wow. I never thought I would witness the looming extinction of fiction antagonists.

And yet … lately, I’ve been trying to explain in class exactly what antagonists are and why they’re necessary for stories to work.

It boggles the mind.

When antagonists do turn up in amateur fiction, they sometimes have a phoney, faked lack of plausibility to them. They’re weakly designed. They seem unsure of whether it’s okay to do awful things to other characters.

Let me just say that, in fiction, timidity guarantees dullness. If you’re timid with your character design or your characters’ actions, then chances are you’ll be timid when it comes to your plotting. You’ll never take creative risks. You’ll never develop flair.

Let’s look at an example:

Here’s a character named Stanley. He works as a bank teller. He lives alone in a small rented house in a medium-sized city. He drives an aging Civic that’s a fading silver gray color. On his days off, Stanley shops on eBay, sometimes takes in a movie, and mows the grass.

Stanley, declares Wanda Writer, is going to be the bad guy of my story. Stanley is going to rob the bank.

Seriously?

Why should he? This bland character is barely memorable past a few paragraphs. He couldn’t cause any trouble for the story protagonist if he tried. And if Stanley suddenly, on page 2 of Wanda’s story, pulls a revolver from his lunch kit and waves it at his coworkers, readers won’t believe the plot.

Stanley cannot work as a plausible bad guy because 1) he lacks motivation; 2) he’s not vividly designed; and 3) he’s not a villain.

Let’s address these flaws separately:

1) no motivation

Why would an ordinary guy like Stanley suddenly risk imprisonment in order to steal from his place of employment? What would drive him to such extraordinary measures?

Maybe his mother is dying of cancer because her medical insurance won’t cover the medicine and operation she needs. So Stanley is going to help her by stealing the money.

That’s a motivation, but it doesn’t make him a villain. Let’s suspend this quandary for a bit while we examine the next problem.

2) vague design

Let’s jazz Stanley up. His real name is Artem. He came illegally to the U.S. as a child, smuggled into the country. He was put to work begging on the streets, then stealing cars, and later running drugs. Arrested and convicted as a youth, he learned computers while in juvvie. Now a skilled hacker, he left the Russian mob to work alone. He moves frequently, changing his name and identity, taking employment at banks or businesses until he figures out a way to infiltrate their accounts and clean them out. Then he’s gone, a phantom, heading for the next medium-sized city and his next opportunity to steal. When he has enough millions stashed away in an off-shore account, he plans to retire on an island where there’s no extradition treaty. There, at last, he will live the good life.

According to plan, he’s presently adopted the name of Stanley Brown. He’s renting a modest house and he’s landed a job at the local branch of a state bank. He’s driving a used Civic of no particular color because it’s harder to identify, but underneath the hood the engine is a souped-up monster that can outrun any cop car on the streets. He keeps a mistress in a nearby community, and she knows him by a different name. He refuses to make any relationships, any ties that might render him vulnerable. He’s frugal and seldom goes out for entertainment. At night and on his days off, he’s hacking, doing his best to figure out how to break the bank’s firewall of security.

3) villainy

At present, Stanley is starting to take better shape, but he’s still just a criminal and hardly a villain. It’s necessary to push Stanley over the line. Now, Wanda Writer could decide that Stanley poisons the neighborhood dogs for fun, but that’s just something crazy and doesn’t connect with the story parameters.

It’s usually helpful to think about the story protagonist and what that individual’s qualities are. The protagonist and antagonist should be tailored into foil characters — opposites of each other or characters who will stand on opposing sides of an issue. So who will stand in Stanley’s way?

Maybe, despite all of Stanley’s efforts to be a loner, a co-worker has befriended him — or tried. Let’s call this teller Nick. He’s served in Afghanistan and seen how soldiers returning home can become withdrawn loners. Nick can’t get Stanley to talk much about himself, but he’s aware of how Stanley shows evidence of possible former military training in the way he stands or watches or is alert. Or maybe Stanley acts like a guy who’s done time, yet Stanley’s background check was clean. Nick thinks Stanley is much too much on his own, and tries to draw Stanley out by inviting him over for a barbeque with the family, asking Stanley to bring his girlfriend along, etc.

Suppose Nick isn’t really a teller, but is in fact a security expert posing as a common employee. Evidence of hacking attempts have triggered alarms in the bank’s computer security system, and Nick’s on the alert for who might be trying to breach the accounts. Maybe Nick is himself ex-military. He’s suspicious of Stanley, but he can’t actually get any proof on the guy. And maybe another employee is more suspicious, so Nick is unsure of which person to watch.

As Nick closes in, and Stanley feels pressured or endangered, perhaps Stanley will retaliate against Nick’s wife or small children. Now Stanley is crossing lines. He is demonstrating — through his actions and goals — his capacity for villainy.

[I should also note here that Wanda Writer had better do some research on banks, hacking, and security systems to see if any of the above scenario is plausible.]

1) back to motivation

Remember that we suspended motivation until we knew Stanley better? Let’s now readdress this issue. How can Wanda Writer put more pressure on Stanley? Perhaps he didn’t just leave the mob. Perhaps he was made the fall guy to save his boss, and that’s how Stanley ended up in jail. For years, he’s felt resentment at such a betrayal.

Raise the stakes. Pressure on Stanley will drive him to take desperate measures. Maybe he’s just a greedy man. Maybe he’s a sociopath. Or … maybe he’s afraid to go back to prison. When Nick — a guy that Stanley perhaps likes in spite of himself — starts closing in with suspicions — and when Stanley learns that Nick, his friend, is in fact the security inside man who is trying to catch Stanley, then Stanley will feel betrayed and angry. All that anger from the past will be turned against Nick, and Stanley will retaliate.

And the stakes go up again.

This isn’t to say that a writer and readers don’t understand how villains become the way they are, but we aren’t obliged to sympathize with the bad guy, or condone bad actions, or excuse them.

So let bad guys (and gals) in fiction be bad.

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Full or Flat

When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was “Dudley DoRight,” probably because he was a Mountie–which was almost a cowboy in my young eyes–and rode a horse. The villain was called Snidely Whiplash, and I loved his name. It always made me laugh (and still does).

Snidely twirled his black mustache and leered from my television screen. He was always kidnapping Dudley’s love, Sweet Penelope, and tying her to train tracks and giant buzz saws in the best tradition of the old action serials.

But although Snidely has enough vivid character tags to stick in my memory, he remains a simple cartoon villain. He has no depth, no complexity, not even a motivation for why he is so evil.

He’s not just a villain. He’s a bad one. In other words, his design is so flat and thin he could never work in prose fiction. Especially today.

Often, new writers are bombarded with plenty of advice on character design. They do their best to juggle personality traits and external tags. They try to remember character goals. They worry with physical appearance, and sometimes become stymied over the right name. There are so many elements and details to pull together, and all while trying to wedge the character into a plotline.

I constantly chivvy my students with reminders of how an antagonist must bring conflict to the story, how an antagonist must oppose the protagonist.

With all of that to handle, is it any wonder that inexperienced writers often construct a tissue-thin villain performing wicked deeds?

If you are writing conflict between your protagonist and a villain, and the scene or story feels lifeless and difficult, or if you are plotting your story events but you can’t seem to bring the bad guy to life, consider these tips:

Look at what’s behind the villain’s goal:
Let’s say that your villain plans to steal the story McGuffin–secret plans for a new super rocket.

Why?

Uh, because the hero has designed them for the Right Cause and if the villain steals them the hero will be in trouble.

Is that all you’ve got?

Because that’s a cartoon motivation behind a flat villain.

Let’s reconsider what drives this villain. Let’s dig into his past, or invent a past for him. Let’s raise the personal stakes because even villains need emotional reasons for the actions they take.

Make the villain’s goal personal:
Okay, Vic Villain wants those secret plans because …

1) he can sell them for a lot of money.
2) he wants to mess with Harvey Hero because he can.
3) years ago, he was Harvey’s roommate in engineering school and they worked together on the prototype. Now Harvey’s getting all the credit and Vic wants a piece of the action.
4) all of the above.

Let personal stakes spark emotions:
If Vic thinks he was done wrong by his ex-roomie, then he’s going to be harboring years of resentment.

Maybe he’s watched Harvey’s career zoom to dazzling heights. Maybe he’s nursed a grudge all this time, blaming Harvey for his failures instead of himself.

(Okay, yes, I hear those of you who are clamoring with the question: what happened between Vic and Harvey? How come Harvey has the plans and Vic’s out in the cold?)

Good question, and one you shouldn’t answer for readers until the middle or near the end of your story.

Determine why the villain will strike now:
Sure, you want Vic taking action from the opening scene of your story, but if he and Harvey go back years … why has Vic waited until now in your story to act?

You need a catalyst, something that changes the circumstances for both Harvey and Vic.

For this example, let’s say that years ago Vic abandoned the project as impossible and walked away from it at a critical point. Maybe Harvey pleaded with him to have faith and keep trying, but Vic saw a better opportunity and ditched the partnership.

Now, all these years later, Harvey has finally solved the final glitch and created the super rocket. He’s making a billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon. It’s in the news. He’s nominated for a major science prize.

Reading this in the newspaper at breakfast, Vic looks at his messy pile of unpaid bills, the dirty dishes in the sink, and his dead-end job. Something snaps inside him. He forgets that it was his decision to quit, and he shifts his sense of inner guilt to blaming Harvey for his troubles.

He makes the decision to take revenge on Harvey by stealing the plans and selling them to a higher bidder.

Build your bad guy from this foundation:
Vic isn’t a fabulous character construction yet, but he’s more filled in than before. Now it’s time to layer on more complexity.

Create complexity in a character through contrasts:
If Vic is the story’s villain, what are his good qualities? Is he ever nice? To whom? Why?
Take the time to think about your villain as an entire person.
What are some of Vic’s positive accomplishments?
Has Vic ever helped anyone?
Who does Vic care about?
Does he love his mother, his wife, his child, his pet canary?

In the classic noir film This Gun for Hire, Alan Ladd plays a stone-cold killer who assassinates people for money. Yet while he’s a loner, impassive, wily, and ruthless, he likes cats. He buys milk and leaves a saucer on the open windowsill of his cheap rented room for the stray cat that comes by. He considers cats to be “his luck.” Slowly his backstory unfolds, and the audience learns that he was an orphan raised by a cruel aunt who physically and verbally abused him. From that, it’s evident why he can’t befriend people and why he can only show kindness to cats, perhaps the only creatures that have ever shown any affection to him.

If you can create Vic Villain into a multi-layered individual of contrasts, understandable motivations, emotions, and the capacity to do the right thing, then when he decides to do the wrong thing that makes him so much more villainous than if he’s portrayed as a cartoon figure or a sociopath.

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In Search of the Elusive Antagonist

Are bad guys becoming extinct?

Are villains on the endangered species list?

Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”

Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.

An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.

It’s. That. Simple.

If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.

Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.

Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.

Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.

See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.

Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.

But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.

Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.

Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?

They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.

Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.

The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.

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A Villain By Any Other Name Would Still Be Rotten

The antagonist has good reason to grumble and scheme.  The protagonist gets the star billing, but much of the story’s success depends on the bad guy.

The story role of antagonist brings conflict to the table, and conflict is what helps the story advance and stay interesting.  Conflict, after all, makes the outcome uncertain.

It’s the antagonist’s job, therefore, to oppose the main character.

     Directly.

           Immediately.

               Constantly.

Unless you intend to create a one-dimensional, cartoonish villain, however, you need to figure out why the antagonist is in opposition.  It should be a good, strong reason.

Now, beyond the basic responsibility of the antagonistic story role, we have something else to consider.  Is your bad guy an antagonist or a villain?

Villains may be cruel, wicked, and devious.  Antagonists may be annoying, obstructive, and stubborn.  There’s a whole range of traits to choose from.  Just make sure you design your character with ingenuity, determination, unpredictability, and some degree of ruthlessness.  The degree of badness then depends on your plot and the genre you’re writing in.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in 1937s THE AWFUL TRUTH, Columbia Pictures

For example, in a romance story the heroine plays the role of protagonist and the hero plays the role of antagonist.  They have directly opposing goals:  I want to marry him for happily ever after and bear his children VERSUS I am so not going to settle down, marry her, or have any kids!  The plot deals with the conflict between the couple as physical attraction clashes with opposing goals.  The hero, although the antagonist, is neither a terrible guy nor a villain.  And once the pair’s goals become the same, the story ends happily for them both.

A thriller, by contrast, requires a villain.  Someone who wants to do grievous harm–whether physically or psychologically–on someone else.  Consider the novel HEART SICK by Chelsea Cain.  The protagonist is a cop trying to catch a female serial killer but is instead captured by her and tortured gruesomely.

Book cover for Chelsea Cains bestselling novel HEARTSICK, Minotaur/St. Martins, 2007

Bad guys are seductive to the writers that create them.  After all, these characters can do or say just about anything.  They don’t necessarily have a conscience to slow them down.  It can prove liberating to write about them if you don’t try to hold them back or tame them too much.

If your antagonist starts to become a bolder, more vivid character than your hero, don’t squelch your villain!  Go back and make a stronger character of your hero.

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