Tag Archives: Snidely Whiplash

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 Villains

Why is it so hard to find a truly bad guy (or gal)? In our efforts to render multi-dimensional characters, have we gone too far down the road of understanding and/or excusing wrong behavior?

Fiction needs conflict in order to test the protagonist and advance the story from its opening to its closure.

Conflict comes from the antagonist. For years now, I’ve been carefully using the term antagonist most of the time because I wanted to convey to my students that the opponent in a scene need not be Snidely Whiplash.

However, I’ve grown weary of that namby-pamby approach. What I’m looking for is a well-designed villain, someone who’s evil and intent on harming or thwarting the protagonist.

Serial killers qualify, but they’ve outworn their welcome. Let’s get over the psychotic insanity and find a motivation that’s a little more clever, shall we?

How can a villain harm an individual? Let me count the ways ….

Embezzlement? Blackmail? Ruin? Identity theft? Robbery? Abduction? Emotional slavery? Abuse? Bullying?

On the surface, embezzlement seems rather tame. A bit dusty. Certainly dry.

But is it? It was, if you recall, the underlying motivation for the villain in the film GHOST. Patrick Swayze’s best friend electronically transferred a few million and got himself in trouble.

John Sandford’s novel, BROKEN PREY, features a trio of geeks that electronically drain the bank account of a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

Real-life crook Bernie Madoff siphoned off the pensions of so many people who are now facing uncertain futures and impoverished retirements.

This year, I assumed management of one of my father’s business accounts. It only took a quick comparison of my checkbook balance versus his to show me how easily a person in financial trouble could stumble down the road of temptation.

Embezzlement is more than taking someone’s money. It breaks trust as well, and that hurt can stab deep.

Blackmail? Oh, tosh! No one can be blackmailed these days. Modern society no longer deals with guilt or its sister, shame. People behave as they please. All kinds of indiscretions float through Facebook, and even a princely scandal fades fast.

There is, however, emotional blackmail. One family member coercing another within the entangled webs of dysfunctional families. A wealthy, elderly relative can force her children and grandchildren to put up with her demands in order to inherit her money.

A rebellious teenager can manipulate his parents, pitting them against each other and possibly even pushing them toward divorce.

Blackmail operates best on a foundation of guilt, but it’s really about the inequity of power between two people.

Robbery? Muggings happen. These days, the fear of having your identity stolen due to a robbery preys on people’s peace of mind–less for the inconvenience of losing cash in the wallet and more for the supreme nightmare of juggling bureaucratic red tape to restore everything.

But what if you’re a courier entrusted with the formula for a remedy that will cure cancer? The formula has been sold to a pharmaceutical company, and you’re supposed to deliver it. Only you never arrive.

Robbery, in today’s world, needs to have enormous consequences.

Wait! Let’s define what “enormous consequences” means.

Consider a little girl in the year 1900 that’s given a dime–all the money the family has until payday a week away–and she’s sent to buy a loaf of soft white bread because that’s all her ailing grandmother can eat.

If the dime is stolen, or if the loaf of bread is stolen, aren’t the consequences to that child and her family also dire? What happens to the grandmother if she can’t eat anything? She will weaken and possibly die. If they love her, they’ll be devastated. The child will blame herself. What if no one helps her understand this isn’t her fault? Or what if a grieving parent does blame her? How can she make restitution?

There are so many ways for characters to hurt each other, and so many paths of evil that the bad guy can take. In writing, remember to think through why an antagonist selects the course of action he or she chooses. The motivation doesn’t have to be one that will activate compassion in the reader. Sometimes, villains are just mean because they enjoy it. Effective story conflict doesn’t always require readers to feel that the villain is justified in some way. As my father would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The bad guy’s mother may beat him black and blue every morning before school, and that won’t justify his bullying a scared little first-grader out of her lunch.

No matter why, he’s practicing extortion. We can understand where it comes from, but we don’t have to paint it a sympathetic color in an effort to have a complex character. Wouldn’t it be better to keep reader sympathies with the six-year-old who has nothing to eat all day?

Or, if we want to make a protagonist out of the boy, then he should not let the beating drive him to commit wrong. It takes a mighty strong character to break the cycle of violence and abuse. If this boy has that kind of character, then how will he defeat the abusive mother without degenerating to her level?

Fiction needs villains in order to keep story conflict going. Study James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY for examples of how banal evil can be.

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