Friday, November 11, 2011

Villains

CE Jenkins

           …Are one of the most important elements in a story. In my opinion. Which is right.

When I say villains I really mean antagonists, because not every story needs a pale thin man with a goatee and a penchant for dark castles and evil laughter. But every story does need conflict of some kind, because readers are evil people who love to watch characters suffer in elaborate ways. Even in character driven stories there must be a source of inner turmoil or whatever the kids are writing these days that will lead to character development. Characters are defined by their problems, so if you don’t have a good antagonist then your story could end up as stable and coherent as a drunken one-legged tyrannosaurus.

A lot of times baddies get the short end of the stick when it comes to character development, when there’s so much potential for a stronger story with a stronger antagonist. So here are a few general tips on building a good bad guy.

Decide what kind of villain the story needs. For responsible, organized writers, this step occurs naturally when they are neatly outlining their plot. But if you write like I do, you’ll just throw in an evil space monkey that you’ll realize 30,000 words later bears an unavoidable resemblance to Mojo-Jojo. No matter how you go about it, in the end the choice is yours. There are some categories to help get you started, though:

·         Man vs. Nature- Think disasters or survival in the wilderness. May also include the drinking of one’s own piss.
·         Man vs. Man- Someone or thing out there doesn’t like your character very much. What do?
·         Man vs. Self- Whether it’s demons from your character’s past or an existential epiphany, most of the conflict in this type will take place in your protagonist’s head.

Plenty of stories have more than one of these, or even all three. We’re going to be focusing on the Man vs. Man model this time, because I don’t feel like talking about the other ones.

Once you have your villain, find out where they come from. What was their childhood like? How did they get so evil? Why do they have an irrational fear of cheese? Most people don’t wake up one day thinking, “My, I quite feel like turning evil today!” Put your villain on the couch and ask about their childhood. Just be sure you have a taser or a thick sheet of bulletproof glass between the two of you, because you know they won’t stand for that Freudian shit. You don’t have to go too far in depth in the actual story, but the key is knowing it yourself and then working it in subtly as you go. This will make your baddie feel much more rounded, and studies have shown that being hit with a Frisbee hurts less than being hit with a wrecking ball. Think of characters like Voldemort, Loki, or Darth Vader; that last one got three whole prequels dedicated to how he got so evil.

Come up with your villain’s motivations. This can go hand-in-hand with backstory, but because this is an evil post of evil we’ll just pretend that metaphor was a lot more ominous than it was. So, why does your villain what to do that wicked thing he wants to do? If you answered that question with “Because he’s evil,” take a moment to enjoy this wonderful gif I found for you: http://gifsoup.com/webroot/animatedgifs3/1290449_o.gif
You need at least a simple reason for why they do things. Otherwise it’s just silly.

Consider their personality. No matter how much backstory you give a character, you still have to pay attention to where all that history has brought them. So many villains seem to be made with the same mould; they monologue, they kill their underlings and messengers like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re always very sinister with occasional bursts of insanity to remind us how evil they are. Don’t get me wrong, I love those guys. But at the same time, it doesn’t hurt to shake things up a bit. Villains are people too, unless they’re an evil squid dragon. They still should have the courtesy of having their own individual personality, because that will make them much more interesting to read about. Grey morality and sympathetic characters are fun, but on the other end of the evil spectrum you have buds like the Emperor and Sauron, and clearly those two franchises aren’t doing too badly. So no matter how you choose to do it, make sure you make the character unique.

Lots of good stories out there have a weak or clich├ęd villain. It is possible to pull it off, but my question is why would you want to? Baddies are a well of awesome story devices just waiting to be mined, and if that wasn’t a mixed metaphor then I don’t know what is. So build your villains carefully, folks. That is all.