Thursday, November 7, 2013

Under the Black Hat: Writing Believable Bad Guys

Heroes and heroines tend to be the characters readers root for. Whether they're ass-kicking monster slayers, knights in shining armor, or everymen and women placed into extraordinary circumstances, it's their collective duty to get the job done. Without villains though (who see no need to differentiate based on gender), the whole story falls apart. What's the hero going to do without an evil count to oppose, a shady corporation to investigate, or a monster from the depths to slay? Absolutely nothing, that's what.

More often than not though, villains get the short end of the stick when it comes to an author's creativity. They receive stock lines, ham-handed backstories, laughable motivation, and dozens of other hiccoughs that render them paper tigers to be slain by charismatic leads. Great villains make the heroes up their collective game though, and they create better stories overall. So here is the Literary Mercenary's guide to helping you make your antagonists more awesome, brought to you courtesy of Notes From the Editor's Desk.

1. Avoid Accidental Tropes

Let me guess, you call yourself...
Every writer's first step when creating a villain should be to carefully read this list. Go ahead, I'll wait. Did you read it? Good, then I don't need to go over every trope you've just seen.

The Evil Overlord List hits on some of the biggest, most common tropes that writers have used for villains in novels, comic books, movies, and television for decades. These tropes aren't inherently bad, but they are tropes for a reason. Sometimes recognizing one of these tropes, like the hero stealing a bad guy's uniform to sneak into the castle of doom undetected, will end with readers rage-quitting and not even reading to the good part.

2. What's Their Motivation?

But why is he tying Nell to the tracks?
This is a major problem I've seen both as a reader and an editor. Readers understand villains are doing bad things... but why are they doing them? Sometimes that why is just as important as the actions themselves.

I'll give you an example. In Shakespeare's "Othello" (if you haven't seen it there's a fantastic film with Lawrence Fishburne, which I highly recommend) the title character's life is ruined by the meanness and duplicity of a fellow soldier named Iago. Iago pours poison in the cast's ears, raising every hand against Othello until the big O murders his loving, loyal wife, alienates everyone he once called friend, and is driven to suicide. Why did Iago do this? Because of rumors that Othello slept with Iago's wife, and because Othello passed Iago over for promotion.

Is that petty? Of course it is. The reason such a petty motivation makes sense is because Iago is a man playing for very small stakes. His reputation and livelihood, neither very great to begin with, are trod underfoot. Othello didn't do this maliciously, but Iago needs someone to blame for his problems. Once he has someone to blame he uses every resource at his command to bring absolute ruin to that man as a way to lash out and feel like he's getting revenge. A villain's goals, and the reasons for those goals, have to make sense in the context of that character's story. Otherwise the character is pushing the big red button without provocation, and that is the surest way to bore readers.

3. Just Because They Are Bad-Guys, That Doesn't Mean They Are Bad Guys

Art Thou Wroth, Brother?
Generally speaking, no one thinks of themselves as the villain. Dr. Doom views himself as a benevolent dictator, taking care of his people and his country. Dracula is an ancient being leaving behind a country that's killing him to seek out richer opportunity among the fresh blood of the new world. Darth Vader is the right hand of the emperor, a man who brought order to a galaxy that was tearing itself apart with war and corruption. Every character on this list, and thousands of others besides, could very easily have been the hero if the book was written with a slightly different take. No one sits around twirling his mustache and laughing wickedly about the wrongs that have just been successfully perpetrated.

It is important to mention this rule only applies to human characters who possess all of their mental faculties. A character like the Joker, who suffers from mental instability, can perpetrate acts of wanton destruction and murder for no reason other than the sheer, personal pleasure it brings. Other characters, like H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu or Clive Barker's cenobites, are not human. The idea of good or bad as humans know it doesn't really apply to forces of nature, or beings with a truly alien view of reality. That's why characters like these tend to have human followers whose motivations and purposes we can more clearly understand.

4. The Sliding Scale of Villainy

Just how big of an inconvenience is awakening the Old Ones going to be...?
Villains come in all shapes, and sizes. They come with a bevy of motivations, desires, goals, and wants. They are characters. It's also important to remember that villains dictate the scope of a story. Bad guys always make the first move, and they're the ones who decide just how epic a story is going to get.

Take one of the oldest stories in fantasy; the knight in shining armor fighting a dragon. The dragon has kidnapped a girl, and the knight steps in to save her. This basic setup is exciting, but the stakes are only the lives of the knight, the girl, and the dragon. Maybe the knight's horse as well. Now, say the dragon stole a princess. This implies the bloodline of a royal family, and possibly a nation, is also in the balance. Take it one step further; say the girl who was kidnapped is tied to the well-being of the world, and if she dies then the world's life force will also be snuffed out.

Villains can always escalate a situation, but writers need to ask why. What will be added to the story by increasing the stakes? Do the villains need to be on the big screen, or are their motives and goals meant for a small scale? Take Jack the Ripper. Jack terrorized White Chapel, killed a dozen women, and carved a reputation as a fiendish serial killer that lives to this day. But how much of a threat could a lone, knife-wielding killer be? Could he affect the fate of an entire city? A nation? The world? Probably not, and especially not without some serious plot-stretching or historical re-touching. This is why murder mysteries tend be very small, and very personal. By contrast, a character like Azathoth (pictured above) simply cannot work on anything less than an epic scale. A crawling chaos who devours worlds and rends souls from galaxies without truly noticing is a major league force to be reckoned with. Just the implication of his existence ups the ante.

5. Kill Your Darlings

Yes, editing feels like this. Every Time.
To paraphrase the great sage and eminent junkie Stephen King, "kill your darlings". Nowhere is this truer than with your villains. If a goal makes no sense, if dialogue feels forced or grandiose, or if the bad guy is making decisions that don't jive with the setup you've given, uncap the red pen and get to work. Most importantly, ask yourself why. Why does your villain want to rule the world? Why does he keep murdering his lieutenants when they fail? Why does he play chess, collect art, or give the hero a fighting chance? In the end, why is the most important question you can ask.

Thank you, as always, for dropping in on Notes From the Editor's Desk, and the Literary Mercenary. Remember that we run on Google AdSense (for an explanation of what that means, go here). Follow me on Facebook, or mainline me on Tumblr. As always, feel free to submit requests or ideas for future blog entries.

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