All right. We are going to talk some more about the ever misunderstood antagonist today. As a side-note, I am going to actively work to make these posts shorter. I tend to get excited and pee on the rugs when the doorbell rings.
Wait, that’s not right. That’s my dog. I’m tired. It’s Monday.
Anyway, I do tend to get excited and try to teach you guys everything you ever wanted to know all at once. So I am working on brevity. See, we all have our weaknesses. Even me. Although mine are waaaay smaller than yours :P.
First, a quick review. Last week we talked about that Oh, but he is his own worst enemy. That isn’t an antagonist. That is arc. There must be an outside story that drives the inner arc. If your protagonist is up against alcoholism, then he doesn’t just one day decide to sober up. There must be an outside event that ignites the need to change and gives the protag stakes and a ticking clock.
For instance, the protag could lose his marrage if he doesn’t beat his addiction to alcohol, and thus his quest is to save his marriage. The outer conflict might be that his wife has filed for divorce and plans on moving across the country with the protag’s children. The inner conflict is what drives the need to drink and that must be battled and conquered by the story’s end. The inner arc must be satisfied (demons conquered) in order to realize the outward story goal (marriage saved).
We, as readers, must see what the end goal is (saving a marriage) or it will be almost impossible to generate dramatic tension. We must know what is at stake and what could be lost if the protag doesn’t get his act together.
When our protagonist is up against a culture or a belief, there will be a representative that will be the “face.” In the 1984 hit movie Footloose the protagonist is a big city dancing boy who now is up against hellfire and brimstone fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the face of this culture that forbids dancing? Reverend Shaw Moore.
The plot is not that complex. Big city boy trying to find his place in a small town. The real story is in the characters and how they grow…but note the story goal that drives the changes.
Have a dance. That’s it. But it creates more than enough conflict to make a great story.
Today I want to introduce the villain. Villains are wonderful and some of the most memorable characters. Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Joker, Blackbeard the Pirate, Dracula, Rasputin, and I could go on all day. Villains can be the stuff of nightmares and can elevate a story to legendary heights.
But let’s get this straight. Villains are only a type of antagonist. Yes, a Chihuahua is a dog, but all dogs are not Chihuahuas.
A lot of new writers use antagonist and villain interchangeably. That will limit your writing. The more we understand the antagonist and all his multi-hues, the more color and richness we bring to our storytelling palette.
Villains do not have to be the guy in the black hat twirling his mustache. That is not a villain; that is a one-dimensional flat villain born of a writer who failed to do proper planning before she wrote him.
Any character that only exhibits surface elements—what we see externally—will be a caricature. Villains I think tend to me more prone to this because:
1. We like to think more about our heroes than our bad guys.
2. Villains don’t generally arc, so we often overlook the villain’s motivations
3. We fail to appreciate that most bad guys don’t think they are wrong. They always have a good reason why they are doing what they do.
Larry Brooks has a wonderful book called Story Engineering, and he has a really neat way to craft characters with psychological depth. Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit and Bob’s workshops are also a great place to learn great techniques for layering your characters.
Great villains reach deep into our psyche and torment those soft places we try to protect. I personally believe villains are the toughest characters to write. I think it is a real feat to be able to create that kind of darkness, and it is so easy for us to botch…ergo why villains are often the subject of cackling parody.
In my opinion, I feel the most terrifying villains are the ones we relate to. One of the most disturbing books I ever read was The Shining. What made Jack Torrance so frightening was that he started out a fairly normal guy with a dark side. Hey, we all have a dark side….but Jack’s took over to frightening proportions. Thus, the real question in the back of the readers’ minds is, “Under the right circumstances, could we spiral into darkness just like Jack?”
In The Dark Knight Joker was the premiere example of chaotic evil. Chaotic evil is not easy to write, and yet, somehow great screenwriting and unparalleled acting merged and birthed a villain that will live on for generations to come.
Joker scares us. Why? Well, we normal folk generally have motives. We don’t go out of our way to hurt, torment and destroy others for no reason. We can’t wrap our mind around the idea of annihilation simply for the fun of it. Joker is chaotic and unpredictable, yet below this veneer of bedlam is a masterful planner who preys off the goodness driving those around him.
Villains when done properly can live on as literary legends. Botch the villain and he will be a cardboard caricature bent on ruling the world. Aside from the writing books I recommended, I would also advise that you read a lot of books on psychology.
John Douglas, the father of modern FBI profiling, has some great books. I recommend Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive. I also recommend The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD.
To create great villains, you are going to have to crawl into the dark spaces of their minds. Probably a good idea to read about real evil before putting pen to paper. Play BAU profiler. Evil behaves in accordance to patterns. That’s how profilers catch evil men and women. They look to the behavior of evil to look into the mind of evil to see the face of evil.
Same with great writers ;). We will talk more about villains next week.
So what are some of your favorite villains of all time? Who kept you up late at night with a light on? What villains scare you and why? What are some resources you might recommend?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Until next time…
In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.
Pennywise from Stephen King’s It ruined clowns forever for me. Although, now that I think on it, one of the scariest villains to me is probably Magneto from X-Men because he makes so much sense. He grew up in Hitler’s Germany, learning how horrible humans are to those who are different. He’s seen how humans react to mutants and wants to make the world safe for himself and others like him. It’s a noble goal if he weren’t so hell-bent on genocide to accomplish his ends. Then there’s Nicodemus from the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Yes, he’s sharing brain space with a fallen angel, yes he’s pure evil, but his arguments all make sense. They’re logical and terrifying thanks to his millenia of experience with the human race. **shudder**
Pennywise *shudder*. I was already afraid of clowns. Aren’t clowns inherently creepy? All that makeup and pseudo-sad faces? *shudder* Plus, there was that clown doll on Poltergeist.
One of my favorite villains is Angelus from Buffy/Angel. Angel is all sweet and (annoyingly) guilty but Angelus is pure evil for the fun of it. He knows exactly where to strike for maximum damage and loves it. Couldn’t quite think of Angel the same way after Angelus came out.
I can’t say that I have a favorite villain. I enjoy the ones that appear and act normal only to discover later that they are sick, twisted people who kill with no emotion.
I always try to put myself in the villains shoes and if it scares me I know that the writer created a great character.
BTW My weaknesses are so small they don’t exist. I have none. 🙂
You too? I am glad someone can relate with being so close to perfect :D.
Hmm as for a fave villain I don’t really have one. I think the best one’s are the type you don’t suspect till it is too late. They seem perfect but turn out to be nuts…A good villain always makes the story more interesting.
I must admit, that when I first saw your blog and though, I must try this blog thing, I was excited. Then my efforts to start a blog failed due to ineptitude, on my part. Then I got irritated because I received emails from you every day, among the hundreds of others. I finally took the time to read another one and realized what I was missing. As an editor, ghostwriter and author, I am often limited to the walls of my cave, never venturing far from my beloved PC. When I read things like your blogs, I realize I am depriving myself of expanding my thinking. So thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Charlotte, I so feel your pain. I often put off getting out and even taking time for R&R because the e-mail turns into this THING with a life of its own. But, it is what it is and it is just part of what we do. If we are going to be a firefighter, then we will have to get used to our stuff always smelling like smoke, LOL. I am happy the blog brought some happy feelings and I hope the series on blogging helps renew your love for your blog <3.
LOL I see I made a typo. That will teach me not to rush off emails. when I email I client I have to be so careful and here I am making errors. By the way, I joined this WordPress, but for some reason I can’t seem to get my blog on. some of it came on, I think. Oh hell, I give up. I don’t have the time to fight with it 🙂
This is JUST what I needed today. My writing goal for this week is to really figure out who (or what) my antagonist is. (Apparently, it’s not who I thought it was.) My story is stuck because I have been so namby pamby in creating my antagonist. Conflict, conflict, conflict. I must create more conflict. And use my antagonist to drive it. And here you are letting me know it is okay to go to those dark places and figure it out. Thank you.
Your series on antagonists and the BBEG has had me exploring mine quite a bit deeper than normal. To the point that last night, during my planning, I realized even my primary antagonist is going to have a character arc. It was odd to notice it, but I’m glad to see it amongst the rest of my plans and plotting.
The strangest thing to me is your comment that villains aren’t the only antagonist, and again, just last night I stumbled on that truth the hard way. I realized that one of my protagonists would end up, at least for a time, as the antagonist for the other protagonist. It added a new layer of depth to the second character that would have been impossible to show if he started as a ‘good guy’ to simplify the mindset.
I think I’d have to go with Hannibal Lector. I think the best villains are three-dimensional. I want to know why they’re evil, twisted, or just plain scum. I want to know what happened to them–either real or perceived–to skew their outlook and their actions.
My least favorite villain is Robert Vaughn’s character from Superman 3–the one with Richard Pryor. There was no motivation for his evilness and that bothered me.
For me? Voldemort. He’s similar to Harry, he could have gone the other way if he wanted, but he chose to be bad. You can see other sides of him. Darth Vader for sure. He’s complex, he was once good and became bad due to the fear of losing someone he loved. We can all relate to that.
Great post!! Love the blog.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this. I don’t read a lot of books with true villains in them, but I do see them in movies and the character I kept thinking of while reading this was Rachel McAddam’s character in Mean Girls — mostly because it was so satisfying to see her get hit by a bus in the end. You very rarely get such a hilarious and yet satisfying consequence for a villain. Love it. Man, maybe I should write comedy.
I don’t know who my favorite villain is, but one that sticks out in my mind is the Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera, the play or the book, either one, he’s great. I find myself cheering him on despite the fact that he murders, kidnaps, etc.
Beyond that, George R.R. Martin does a wonderful job with villains in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Villains I hated in the first book I find myself really enjoying and sympathizing with in later books because he explores their motivations. Others are so creepy or twisted that they give me goose bumps.
I think a great villain can transform a story from good to great.
Kristen, you are amazing at getting to the heart of question and not wasting any time. Amazing. Love this helpful post.
Does a) leaving a comment, b) tweeting your blog and c) creating a blog post linking to yours enough? 😉
On the question of adversaries, get them right and you have yourself a winner, get them wrong and well, you can toss that manuscript into the garbage. Be careful of villains that outshine your heroes. Those cane be a real pain. 😀
Thanks for the post! I thought over the WIP I’m editing, wondering if I’m doing justice to my characters. I may have to change a few things.
My favorite villian? Carrie was the first one that popped into my head, but is she a villian?
How about Umbridge in HP? She drives me crazy.
The joker makes my stomach hurt. He has no remorse.
Hmmm…good question about Carrie. I think I would consider her an anti-hero more than a villain.
Sorry, the post is not about this blog, although I did mention it today:
Apologies for the mix-up.
I was just thinking of villians last night as I watched Iron Man2. Hammer was laughable. I wanted him dead by his second scene. Viktor, on the other hand, made me shiver. Although I could guess what he was going to do, there was no “big show” before he did it. In fact, most of the time the bad dead was already accomplished and we just saw the result. I much prefer understated villians to those with big mouths.
My favorite villains? How about
1. Norman Bates (in Hitchcock’s Psycho);
2. Scrooge (A Christmas Carol);
3. The Grinch;
4. The wolf (in Little Red Riding-Hood) especially the version in The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang (a quick read).
That last one is a re-telling in English based on the original German story and is quite different from the modern version most of us are familiar with.
My favorite villain is Marsuvees Black from Showdown, by Ted Dekker. Just about the creepiest, darkest (and yet somehow coolest) villain I’ve ever read.
You’re probably going to answer my questions in your next posts, but just in case, I do have a couple:
First, how much of that antagonist can we portray fairly in a novel that is told from the protagonist’s first-person perspective, especially if our protagonist sees him as more one-sided than he actually is (knowing that we don’t always look beyond the surface of people, especially our enemies).
Also, how soon does the antagonist need to be introduced? Do we need to know, as readers, exactly who the “bad guy” is right from the start, or can he be sort of lingering in the background as an “I’m-not-so-sure-what-I-think-of-this-guy” sort of character that may not be directly antagonistic to our hero (yet)?
Love your blog!
In answer to your first question, “Show, don’t tell.” We judge people by their actions and actions (and dialogue) can tell us a lot. First-person has limitations. The limited POV is more confining to work with, which explains why a lot of thrillers use omniscient.
Your antagonist is introduced at the inciting incident. The main antagonist (I call the Big Boss Troublemaker) is responsible for what turns the hero’s life upside down. Thus, he is responsible for the Inciting Incident. Now, often what will happen is that there will be a proxy of the antag who does the deed. For instance, the inciting incident for Luke Skywalker was his family getting butchered. The Emperor didn’t go do this personally, but it was an extention of his influence.
Thank you, that helps a lot! 🙂
Oh my gosh, this helps so much. I’m struggling with this exact idea of how to bring more depth to the villain in my story and you just made the answer come to me. Duh, I have an omniscient narrator, so the narration doesn’t have to be on my protagonist at all times. Wow, aha moment. You’re completely right about reading millions of examples and when you try to do it yourself, forgetting what you know. Ok, this will definitely help me move forward as you’ve been so gracious to give me a grace period on my critique. Thank you immensely!
As I commented on FB, every villain is the hero of his own movie. Very few villains think of themselves as such. Two of my favorites are comic book villains, Dr. Doom and Ozymandias, both of whom sincerely that their actions are saving humanity from itself.
Great article! In reading it, movies such Fatal Attraction and Jagged Edge come to mind -in the former, the same actress (Glen Close) plays the bad guy/villain and in the latter, she is the antagonist. In both instances, the arc is a lot more complicated than a substance dependency and/or saving a marriage. Or maybe I’m just biased because I thought Close did an outstanding job in both movies.
Yes, the idea that antagonists are not necessarily villains is very important. Often in the romance genre, the hero and heroine are each other’s antagonists. Loving this series!
I read Mindhunter a few years back. It really wakes you up to the reality of evil. I mean, we’ve all heard vague stories about bad people, but actually getting inside of heads, or looking at specific examples, takes it out of the theoretical, for sure.
Cool stuff as always. I know what you mean about the Joker. Those agents of chaos are scarier than ever if done right. Looking over your recommendations for psychology reading, I’m thinking you read really fast. I’m just trying to keep up my friend.
And you should know that I unleashed my inner squeeeeee when I heard your name get dropped and appear on a handout at that conference. Go you.
What a timely post/series. Clash of the Titles has two Antagonist excerpts up for vote! Me personally, I like sympathetic antagonists better than outright villains. If I ever get to be in a production of Grease, I’d rather be Rizzo than Sandy. Even real bad guys can find sympathy though. Just consider Darth Vader’s sweet beginnings as little Annie Skywalker.
In real life, I don’t think anybody considers themselves a villain. Okay, very few of them. Most people feel justified in their evil actions, victimized even. That’s why they can be so fascinating to write (though I’m not good at this–yet!)
Hmm, favorite villain has to be Annie in Stephen King’s Misery. Oscar winning performance in the movie, even chillier creepy read. Love it! She ties bits of her hair across the desk drawers to know if he’s tampered with her things!!! *bites nails*
If I were being honest with myself, I haven’t seen Batman (the new one with Joker) because that villain scares me to death. Somehow, he still gives me nightmares. Darth Vader is fine–besides, I like Anakin in Episodes 1, 2, and 3. “I am your father.” 🙂
I would have to go with the Hannibal Lector type villain. Someone that has a defined chain of deep cause and effect reasons for becoming the evil that they now represent. Of course this only applies to villains. An antagonist can be anything and anyone that stands in the way of the hero reaching his/her goal, any goal, anywhere, which is a far broader subject.
Larry Brooks “three layers” is an excellent method for building the core of any character, hero or villain. Another great method is in James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, the Force Field of Character change, that when you consider each of the layers brings the inner nature of a character into play quite well.
Joker is definitely my favorite villain ever. Generally speaking, I prefer chessmasters. Smart guys. Which is why I loved the Joker. Because under all that chaos lies someone with a deep understanding of manipulation and instilling fear. Something that chess masters must excell at.
Definitely Annie from Stephen King’s, Misery. The woman had a reason for everything thing albeit twisted and pyschotic but that’sn what made the story great.
Great blog! Thank you.
Don’t even talk about Pennywise!!!!
What about a character like Vic Mackey from The Shield? If we consider him as an anti-hero in the storyline, who is the BBT? I was listening to some commentary from the writers of that show and they were surprised by how much people kept pulling for Vic against the characters that represented good / justice in the series.
>>In The Dark Knight Joker was the premiere example of chaotic evil.
A Dungeons & Dragons term that people might not know (Unless it was introduced elsewhere in this blog and I just didn’t see it).
D&D divides its character alignments not only into Good and Evil, but also Lawful, Netural and Chaotic.A Lawful Good character would be someone like Joe Friday; not only a Good Guy, but one who always plays by the rules. A Chaotic Good might be someone like the Mission Impossible team. Basically good guys, but prone to using “unorthodox” methods to achieve their means. A Chaotic Evil character might do just about anything, a Lawful Evil would be prone to staying within the letter of the law as much as possible, especially when advantageous to do so. And so on. Chaotic Evils might be hard to write, but I always thought that Neutral Neutral was the hardest. I can see being appalled at gunning down the Little Old Lady, and I can even sort of see approving of it, but how can you be neutral about it?
I don’t see how Neutral Neutral doesn’t by definition become a Chaotic Alignment in that you can never tell what side they will be on or when…which is Chaotic, right? Yes, I am a nerd and have actually dedicated brain power to contemplating this very question :P.
It’s been years since I’ve seen the manual, but I vaguely remember it describing neutral characters as feeling that Good and Evil were both necessary forces to maintaining the balance of the universe, or some such. Sounds like Eastern philosophy, and and I’ve never quite understood the mindset. Like, take Star Wars. We’ve got a benevolent Republic running the galaxy, things are going great, everyone is happy, prosperous, free and well educated. Yet, for some reason, they decided they needed to bring “balance” to the Force. As a result of their efforts, the Good Republic is destroyed and an Evil dictatorship takes the reins for years. Well, that is balance. But why did we want it again?
As far as Neutrals, yeah I can see the point that Neutrals are essentially Chaotic, just not as often (if that makes sense). Someone Neutral on Law vs. Chaos might follow the rules for their own sake some of the time, while a Chaotic character would almost never follow them (unless by accident). But yeah, you’re right, Neutral Good and Chaotic good are closer to each other than to Lawful good. The Neutral Good character is Lawful sometimes, but isn’t reliable.
Personally, I find it easier to imagine being Neutral on the question of Law vs. Chaos than on the question of Good vs. Evil. A person who didn’t care about either one because he only cared about himself would be Evil in my book. And, as in the Star Wars example, someone who cared about both, out of some desire for “balance” is probably confused. Either that, or I am.
Joker is a perfect example because her goes into detail why he is the way he is. He was tormented himself, which doesn’t excuse his villainy, but it sure does explain it and almost makes us sympathize with him. I’m right in the middle of crafting a villain now and wow is it fun!
Hi, Kristen. I think it’s very important to know the difference between a villain and an antagonist, as you write in this post. And that the best villains are the ones that you can empathize with. Hannibal Lecter is one of my favorites. I think his humor is delicious but I wouldn’t ever want to be anywhere near him. I find Lecter in Silence of the Lambs to be a great little conundrum: he’s evil and we’re afraid of him but he’s also Clarice’s main source of information to crack the case she’s working on. Lecter personifies the old adage: “knowledge is power” (and “lesser evil”, now that I think about it!) in many different ways.
I have one question for you: How can you avoid making your villain bigger than your protag? What sort of things can you subtract or underplay without taking away from the magical evil of the villain?
Thanks for sharing!
Good question. I think that the great villains always will steal the show, just because we tend to be fascinated with darkness. Hannibal was far more interesting than Clarice and Darth was way more interesting than Skywalker. I think the measure of a hero is in the darkness he/she conquers. Weak antag (villain) and weak story/boring protag. I believe one way it to make the hero more “real” so people can easily empathize and fit in the hero’s skin. Then narcissism will help from there, LOL :D.
You’re right, of course. Dark heroes are always the most interesting: they always keep you guessing whether or not they’re going to run afoul of the law. Xena comes to mind. And I’m reminded of Harry Potter, too, because he and Voldemort are so much a part of each other (physically, even). I think there’s so much to work with when you can play off similarities and differences between villain and hero. Thanks again!
I am such a huge wimp that just seeing the titles of those books on psychology and sociopaths sent tingles up my spine. I guess I’m just going to have to sleep with my nightlight on while I develop my villain.
One resource I recommend is to watch Criminal Minds on CBS. Awesome show, and really makes you think about killers and why they do the horrific things they do. It even makes you feel sorry for them on occasion.
I don’t like to read books on psychopaths. They give me flashbacks. I have suffered a very…shall we say, traumatizing event in my life. What I usually build my villains from is the understanding I have of evil and those who commit it because of that traumatizing event. However, I suppose I can TRY to read a few of these books.
I have the ultimate villain (what you call the BBT) and a few minor villains in my series. I know intimately what drives them to commit the terrible things they do, but…the biggest motivation they have is a secret throughout this series, as I have a plan for that big reveal in ANOTHER series. Yes, I know. I should finish the one I’m working on before planning another series, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to hint at later storylines in this series, so I needed to know what later storylines would be about. I have this obsession with circles. I like everything to connect in one, big plot circle, all of it coming together to form a perfect whole.
I spent months planning this whole thing out in an attempt to accomplish that circle, so I understand my characters and their reasoning very, very well.
I actually feel very sorry for a lot of my villains. They’re trouble, and they have to die in order for my main character to live, but…I’ve kind of grown attached to them. Some of them you can sympathize with. Others you love to hate. Anyway, I don’t know if I’m creating villains with depth yet…but they seem awfully deep to me. The only thing left is to show that depth to my readers.
Thanks for all the great advice! Have a great day, and happy writing!