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Villains are heroes too

In the last part of my character revision series I made the case for why all your significant characters should have some kind of arc. That includes your villains.

Look at it from their perspective: The villain is the hero of his or her own story. Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t consider herself to be a bad person. She was a person who felt she had been wronged, and wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: Exact justice on Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas). We’d call it revenge, but to her, it was justice. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it. So why shouldn’t she get a character arc too?

She should, and here are four good reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:

Believability and drama A villain who feels like a one-dimensional stereotype isn’t particularly believable. Real people are rarely so simple. If you’re doing a serial-killer thriller, say, but the whole of your villain’s development is contained in the two word phrase “serial-killer,” nobody’s going to put much faith in him as a real person. His actions and motivations will be all too predictable, and consequently, there is no drama.

A believable person is unpredictable. Unpredictability equals threat, which generates fear (both for the book’s hero and for the reader), which increases the whole book’s sense of drama.

Depth If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel more depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes, and that’s really all there is to say about that.

Message and meaning Giving the villain an arc, with its attendant set of credible, carefully considered beliefs and motivations, gives you an opportunity to play with the similarities and differences between your hero and your villain. That, in turn, creates a perfect opportunity to give your book a deeper message and meaning beyond what’s in the plot. Sure, giving your villain any random character arc at all will still help your novel. But why be random when you can be smart?

If you’re clever about what arc you give the villain, you can a wonderful possibility for playing the two arcs off of each other. By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.

Take suffering: perhaps both hero and villain are being driven by suffering from a previous emotional wound. But the hero works to overcome it, while the villain allows the suffering to drag him down into the darkness. This technique is great for giving your book a message and showing the complex, not black-and-white but gray nature of the world, without you ever having to point it out to the reader.

In this example, readers are likely to begin the book with a default attitude that suffering is bad. After all, nobody likes to suffer. We try to avoid it if we can. But by showing your hero emerge from suffering as a stronger person, while the villain succumbs to it and is ultimately defeated, you can show a more complex picture: Suffering itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how we choose to react to it. The best part is you never have to explain the message to the reader. It’s shown, right there in the two arcs.

Hope Boiled down to the barest essence, a character arc represents hope. It is a signal that some kind of change is coming, and if there can be change, there can be improvement. If your serial-killer villain has a character arc going on, then the reader can have hope that he may change and not, in fact, kill the victim he is presently stalking. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.

Now, you don’t have to redeem the villain just because you gave him or her an arc. Absolutely not. But take care: If you’re doing it right, the arc will come with a pivotal moment somewhere in the plot, where the villain chooses the redemptive path or the path of condemnation. The serial-killer either chooses not to kill, or gives in to the bloodlust and does the victim in anyway.

Whichever you choose, that pivotal moment for the villain is also a pivotal moment for your book because the villain’s choice must be absolutely believable to the reader. You can’t just write up to that point then flip a coin to see what happens. Everything that has led up to that moment must, in the reader’s hindsight, support the choice the villain makes. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph the choice ahead of time and give away the ending, but the ending must fit what has come before like a glove.

Well, I guess you could flip a coin about it, as long as you’re willing to go back in revision to add support for the result. As novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture:

As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”

December 18, 2009 19:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, antagonists, villain, believability, drama, depth, message, hope, redemption

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Making good choices for your characters

This past Saturday I spent some time reflecting on how the choices we make tell others about our own character. In that post, I promised an article on how that applies to fiction. That promise has been on my mind ever since, and I may only banish it by writing about it.

First, a quick poll. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the following in a TV show: The hero manages to get the drop on the antagonist. The hero’s gun is drawn. The antagonist is backed into a corner. The drama is high. It feels like the climax of the show, except there’s one problem—the hero doesn’t just shoot the damn villain and be done with it.

Is your hand up? Yup, mine is, too.

Now, you know, and I know, and the show’s writers know that when the show does finish the villain is going to be dead. One way or another, we all know that’s going to happen. So why doesn’t the hero shoot? Well, there’s one little problem. There’s still 20 minutes left in the show and you can’t very well dispose of the bad guy now! What would you do for the next 20 minutes? All the drama would be gone!

So, the good guy doesn’t shoot. The bad guy somehow escapes, and the story continues. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

The story problem (or to put it more bluntly, the writer’s problem of figuring out how to drag a thin story out for another 20 minutes), has only been traded for something worse: a characterization problem. It’s a solution that leaves the viewer wondering why the hero is such a friggin’ idiot: He’s got the bad guy literally in his sights. Whatever nefarious doings the villain has been up to, the hero can put a stop to it right then and there. So why doesn’t he? Within the world of the story, within the events leading up to that moment, there’s no good reason at all not to. Yet, the obvious thing fails to happen and the viewer is left with no choice but to conclude that the hero is a moron.

I hate when that happens in TV shows and cinema. But sadly, it happens all too often in books, too.

When this happens, a good writer will go back and enhance the events that have led up to that pivotal moment so they take 20 more minutes—or a hundred more pages—so the climax naturally happens at the end, where it’s supposed to, at a moment when the hero really can go ahead and pull the trigger.

A mediocre writer will turn their character into an idiot, because they’re excited to move on to the next scene and the ultimate really really big finish they’ve had in mind since they started the book.

Don’t do that to your characters. Please. You’re a writer, right? Writers are supposed to love their characters. Why would you do that to someone you love?

What I’ve described is the (sadly, all too common) extreme case of bad characterization through poor decision making. Don’t just worry about the big situations in your novels. Choices happen at all levels, throughout a book.

Good novels continually present their main characters with crises: problems, challenges and obstacles to overcome. Some will be small, some will be grand. A mediocre writer will let their characters do the first thing that comes to mind that solves the writer’s problem. A good writer will let their character do the smart thing in that situation, even if doing so creates other challenges for the writer. A great writer will construct the situation such that there is only one thing the character can do, and it’s simultaneously the smart thing but also unpleasant or difficult.

At every moment where your characters are faced with a non-trivial choice (I’m not talking about “hmm, mocha, or espresso?” situations), you must ask yourself some questions:

What do I want the character to do for reasons of advancing the plot in the direction I want it to go?

What is the smart thing to do, that a real, intelligent person would do in this situation?

If the answer to those questions are the same, you’re in good shape. If not, you know what to do: fix the setup so they are the same. You’re not done yet, though. Having decided what the character should do, ask yourself a third, pivotal question:

What does that choice reveal about the character?

This goes beyond “does it make your character look like an idiot?” Was it a difficult choice for the character to make? Does the character have to sacrifice anything by making that choice? If not, you risk making your character seem risk-averse, someone who takes the easy way out.

Did the character come to that choice immediately, or did he/she have to wrestle with other courses of action before deciding what to do? Even if there really is only one viable choice, if the character immediately jumps to that decision you run the risk of making your character seem rash or reckless. (Worse, if the choice isn’t necessarily obvious, you show your hand by making the plot seem foreordained. But that’s a subject for another article.)

If you don’t like what the choice says about the character, go back to the first two questions and start over.

Like I said in my earlier post, choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. So have a care. What your characters choose, how they choose it, how they arrive at their choices, and even how they feel about those choices: all of it contributes enormously to how readers perceive your characters.

Yes, it’s work. Yes, you may have to think hard to find the right choice for the character. Nobody said this was easy, but don’t turn your beloved characters into idiots (or worse) by worrying about solving your writing problem more than you worry about how best to portray your characters.

July 07, 2009 21:54 UTC

Tags: choice, character, hero, villain, smart, idiot

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