Thursday, July 23, 2009
Know the Complexity of Your Villain
I'll admit it. For me, creating villains is one of the most rewarding things about writing. I noticed yesterday as I wrote a scene that all my great villains are complex. This is one of the reasons I'm rewriting my book instead of revising it. The first version had all simple villains. And too many of them. This new version has one main complex villain - and he's the kind of guy I'm starting to root for. Why? Because he used to be a good guy, and I feel bad for him.
They are just that: simple. If you had to sit down and write their backstory, it would probably be boring, if not completely nonexistent. They were pretty much born evil. They want evil to rule for the sake of evil. They might even have that mwhahahaha laugh in some scenes. These characters exist in melodramatic works, and are oftentimes comical. But if handled well, a simple villain can work in genres other than comedy.
I have one simple main villain in my novel. I never show him. He's just there in the background running things with his evil, malicious hand. He might have a backstory. He might be sympathetic, but I don't explore that. His right hand man, however - the one my hero interacts with - is where all the fun lies. Because his motivations are complex.
An interesting blog post, A True Hero Makes The Movie, speaks about a story's strength building directly from the strength of the villain. The more evil a villain, the stronger the hero must be to conquer him. Thus a stronger story. I'm not sure I agree with that completely, but it's an interesting concept. This would mean that it doesn't matter much if your villain is simple or complex. Maybe it doesn't, but we can leave that for another post.
I like complexity. Some of the most exciting moments in fiction for me are when the story dives into the reasons why a villain is evil. Sometimes this is the story. Sometimes that complexity exists simply to deepen a character. There are, of course, varying degrees of complexity. My friend Natalie let me read one of her novels, and it blew me away that her villain almost made me cry. She tells part of the story from his point of view, and by the end of the book I realized he was never evil to begin with - at least now that I understood him. The misunderstood villain is perhaps the most tragic character of all.
I stole my picture today from an excellent post, How To Write A Complex Villain. Melissa Donovan gives a writing exercise on where to get ideas for your villain's complexity. Seeing the villain in everyone around you is quite fun! Although maybe a little dangerous.
But one of my favorite exercises to discover the complexity of my villains is to write from their point of view, as in a journal entry, a letter, etc. Like my friend's book, some novels use the villain's point of view in the actual story. I have yet to do that, so it's important for me to completely understand my villain before writing too far in. Melissa Donovan has another exercise for this in her post, Become Your Nemesis.
Maybe all of this is old hat to most of you, but the reason I've decided to touch on this today is because at one point I though my villains in my current novel were complex. But when I sat down to write out their story I realized I didn't know what really made them tick. It was weakening my plot, my hero, and my writing. Like I said before, I do have one simple main villain. If I made him complex, the story would get too messy.
So lay out your villains and ask yourself what you really need to know about them in order to strengthen your story. Do they need to be more simple or more complex? Does your reader need to know all the backstory? Remember that sometimes you do, even if your reader doesn't.
~MDA (aka Glam)