Tag Archives: fiction villains

Setting & Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in generic Metropolis, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. I’m not saying you can’t set a scene in a dark alley. Of course you can! Darkness adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. Alleys are splendid places for all sorts of nefarious activities or danger and therefore useful to fiction writers.

So don’t think I’m taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for the purposes of this example, I want you to reason through your impulse to use a gloomy, narrow location.

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings?

Oh, a trap. Hmmm, then Vinny is luring someone there. Cool, but why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist? Does Vinny intend to ambush Henry Hero? Or perhaps Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation? Are henchmen and minions scattered around to put all the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way and help you shape plot while you visualize what sort of confrontations your characters will have with each other.

Now, let’s look at some additional questions:

Why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Are you thinking, who cares which one it is? Ah, ah, rebellious one! It matters.

Perhaps this alley is close to the location where a key player intends to be. Or perhaps this alley has a dead end, and Henry Hero can be trapped into a shootout. Or perhaps this alley cuts through a congested area and provides a shortcut.

If Vinny is indeed planning an ambush, then a shortcut isn’t useful or needed. But if instead Vinny is planning a shakedown and needs a fast escape route, then maybe this alley is the best for his purposes.

Remember that plotting is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a generic location and leaving the subsequent confrontations to haphazard chance.

And now, I have yet more questions:

What else is going on in the alley, or–more specifically–what features does it have? Time to decide whether the alley is located in Metropolis or Smalltown. Some alleys are unpaved, muddy, full of potholes and broken glass. Some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are to accommodate garbage trucks, so they are always littered and feature garbage and recycling receptacles. Those in turn tend to attract scavengers and prowlers, either the two-legged or four-legged variety. Is there access to backyards from this alley, or are there featureless walls of tall buildings? Are there doorways and loading docks? Do homeless people shelter in the alley? Are there guard dogs chained up in narrow yards that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras?

What does this alley look and smell like? What … but wait! You’re feeling overwhelmed. You want me to stop.

Are you thinking, Sheesh, Chester, why do you go overboard with so many questions and details? I just want a corpse found in a dark alley because I want to put a crime scene in my story. I don’t want to count how many plastic straws are lying in the potholes.

Well, fine. Allow me to focus on other questions, such as … How did the body get there? Who put it there? Again, why was this alley chosen as a dumping point as opposed to any other alley in the community? Was the victim killed in this alley and left, or was the victim killed elsewhere and brought here? If the latter, how was the body transported? Were there any witnesses?

If this is Smalltown and it’s a muddy alley where the trash cans are kept, is the villain seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew?

If your story is set in Metropolis, is the villain seen by a homeless person? And if that option’s worn too thin for you, is the villain seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater?

Get the idea? When you think through your setting and work out the details that go with it, you’ll reach less often for simplistic cliches or boring backdrops that contribute nothing.


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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.


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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Villains Behind the Curtain

“Orders are nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!”

                                                                               –Frank Baum

One of the writing tenets I absolutely believe in is that every scene needs an antagonist. Follow this simple principle, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to write.

However, sometimes I meet resistance, puzzlement, and reluctance when I try to share this with others.

“But I don’t want my villain revealed just yet!” is usually one of the biggest laments.


Last week, I read several Agatha Christie mysteries. Her plots are marvels; her twists are legendary. She’s deceptively simple on the surface level while offering complex human emotions and motivations beneath. If you’re writing a mystery you don’t want to reveal the villain at the start. The character will be present in the cast, but concealed within a deceptive guise.

Or the villain will come and go in the story, as in the case of the Harry Potter novels. Voldemort is mentioned in Chapter One, and the dread of him hangs like a cloud over the entire series. Yet he actually appears only occasionally, usually at the climax of each book. The rest of the time, Harry and his friends are coping with a succession of intermediary villains. Rowling keeps her young readers guessing by having troublesome teachers prove to be allies and friendly teachers prove to be cohorts of Voldemort’s.

I think that inexperienced writers often stumble here when concealing the real villain’s identity. They hide the character too well, and the individual simply isn’t in the story until the climax. Then a villain pops up out of the blue, and it all looks very contrived.

What a writer must remember to do is establish the villain’s role. Establish the existence of the villain. Acknowledge it either through character comments, the protagonist’s thoughts, or switching viewpoint to the villain for the reader’s information.

To return to mysteries: the identity of the murderer isn’t going to be revealed until the end, but as soon as a victim is discovered, readers and the sleuth alike know there’s a bad guy out there somewhere, a criminal who must be caught and punished.

In thrillers, the villain’s actions are pivotal to the plot. Readers often meet the villain before the protagonist. But the story’s emphasis doesn’t lie with discovering identity; it’s about stopping whatever the villain’s up to. So if you pick up a Ken Follett thriller, say a classic like THE MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG, you know who the assassin is, you watch the man dodging police and mixing nitroglycerin bombs in his rented room, and you wonder if anyone in the story is going to save the Tsar’s cousin from assassination. To keep his good guys from looking stupid, Follett lets the British authorities know there’s an assassination attempt brewing, but they can’t track down the villain in time. The girl who befriends the villain has no clue who he really is or what he’s trying to do. She thinks he’s rather nice while he makes a patsy of her.

What if you’re writing a fantasy yarn and your characters are on a quest to take back the Scroll of Magick and restore it to where it rightfully belongs? Your band of sojourners aren’t going to meet the villain until near the end, but they have a concept of a villain’s involvement with the story events. They may or may not know the evil sorceress’s name or where her dark castle stands. They may have to search a long time before they confront her. But they are seeking her, and–like Harry Potter–they’ll encounter plenty of trouble along the way. Evil sorceress isn’t going to sit tamely in her castle and wait for them to show up. She’ll throw all sorts of traps and pitfalls in their path.

To satisfy the principle of always having conflict, a writer of the hidden-villain story needs two kinds of opponents: intermediary antagonists and a master villain that’s active behind the scenes.

The intermediary antagonists are often a successive string of foes. They hinder the protagonist as much as possible. Even so, it’s important to salt the plot with a few encounters between the protagonist and the master villain as well.


Be clever. In fantasy and science fiction, you can have confrontations in dreams and via mental communication, teleportation, and spells, etc. In other genres, you can utilize phone calls and text messages. You can have the villain leave cryptic origami birds on the protagonist’s desk at work or inside her apartment as creepy little reminders that no place is safe and nothing is secure.

In my YA fantasy series, The Faelin Chronicles (under pen name C. Aubrey Hall), the protagonist is a boy who has visions. He’s still learning magic, so he misinterprets the information at times. In The Call of Eirian (April 2012), he “sees” a pair of eyes staring at him from the sky just before he and his friends are attacked. He mistakenly identifies the attacker and doesn’t learn the truth until much later in the story. The error keeps the boy’s characterization plausible, sets up for a plot twist, and continues to hide the identify of the real villain for a few more chapters.

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