Wednesday, April 29, 2009

GuestEssay: Riting Skool by Gondolier

Before I even dive into the dastardly deeds that make a fictional baddie, I need to squeal about how excited I am to blog for TLYDF. Huge thanks to Smellyia and Emibella for allowing me to “stick it to the Man” by sharing, free of charge, creative writing techniques I have learned in two years of rigorous graduate workshops, often spent crying over strong chickoree coffee while other wannabe Hemingways ripped on my masterpiece, Quit Tollin’ That Damn Bell. Just leave me my six-toed cats and booze, people. (Actually, I do have a polydactyl cat. His name is Thor and he’s very clumsy, which is sad to see in a cat.) Anyway… Now, on to creating those shady bad boys and girls we all love to hate!

You’re Having a Baddie! Part 1: The Basics

Everybody repeat this with me once, so we can get it out of our systems… What if I’m not the hero? What if I’m…the BAD GUY?

Oh Edward, don’t we wish. Bad guys are so much more fun to write than heroes. Now gather round Auntie Gondolier’s feet and I shall tell you why, and how.

Where do Baddies come from?

Alfred Hitchcock, the king of drawing fear from an audience, whom I will henceforth refer to as “Alfie”, said that “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” The same applies when writing fiction.

A villain is the manifestation of a story’s conflict (you know, that pesky little thing that drives your plot? Plot, you ask? Hoo-boy). Villains are typically people, supernatural monsters, or even animals (down, Cujo), but don’t let that limit you. Conditions, such as disease, poverty, death, relationship strife, can all be considered “villains.” Even then, a conflict becomes tangible when writing a character—even a minor character—that represents these conditions. It allows readers to hate on a physical body—it’s harder to hate on a “situation,” because situations don’t fight back.

Why do well-written villains evoke those emotional responses—hate, anger, fear, sadness—in us? Because villains expose vulnerability in our heroes. Our culture teaches us to fear certain things. Fear is also connected to our personal memories, reaching all the way to childhood. Ever since we were tiny tots, we have learned to fear vulnerability—monsters in our closet, being kidnapped, thunderstorms, losing a loved one. We fear powerlessness to react in dangerous situations that beg for our action—e.g., being trapped in a car on railroad tracks with a train barreling toward us. We fear unknown futures in the face of evil—violence, enslavement, just plain nastiness. It’s the eternal battle of good vs. evil (you’ve probably heard of this, all of you hobbits, muggles, and jedis). Villains are often are wildly effective because of this premise, dating all the way back to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Malory’s Mordred in Le Morte d’Arthur, and Grendel in Beowulf.

Dear Alfie also said “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” I tend to agree with him—just ask my HL5 readers (muwahaha, bet now you’re wishing you hadn’t latched on to a nefarious writer). Strong villains play on all of these above-mentioned fears. They threaten our heroes, frighten them, and craft nearly insurmountable obstacles that make us wonder if our hero will really triumph or not. In fact, well-written villains actually cause a physical reaction in readers.

In her book Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write & Bad Guys of Fiction, Jessica Morrell (you’ll be hearing a lot from her in this Baddie series) explains that villains trigger “flight-or-flight” in an audience. “The fight-or-flight response sends a cascade of hormones via the nervous system and bloodstream to help the body deal with the threat.” (It’s called an adrenaline rush. It’s very common—you can google it.) Fight-or-flight is what keeps a reader plowing through suspenseful portions of a story—they need some indication of how the hero will react, so they too can vicariously react to the villain / conflict.

Now we know why readers react to well-written villains. Don’t you feel really enlightened? I do! Let’s write a haiku about it, together. Or not? Fine. I didn’t want to write a haiku with you, anyway (taking a moment to sulk like a Bella who’s just been given a surprise birthday party). We’ll just go ahead and dive into the basics of how to sketch a strong villain for your story, shall we?

How are Baddies made?

So you’ve got a conflict decided upon (that’s a discussion for another day, along with “Why plots are kind of a big deal”). Here comes the fun part—creating your villain. Not just a cookie-cutter villain: the wicked stepsister, serial killer, lovesick stalker, hardnosed bitch. Face it, just like every storyline has been done, so has every villain. What makes your villain unique is the fresh detail you bring to them. It’s all in the detail, folks. And where does detail come from, you ask? Simple—you mine your own personal experiences.

Have you run across school bullies, bastard bosses, social-climbing tarts, or psychotic exes? What about real-life villains in the news? I cannot stress enough how important it is to write about what you know. If you are familiar with what or who you write about, it rings true. Readers connect. If you don’t understand what you want to write about, dig in and do your research. This is your chance to exorcise those demons left over from traumatic childhoods, people. As long as you use fake names and disguise recognizable traits and details about real-life people (where they live or work, appearance, any distinguishing aspects), it’s fair game because they’re your experiences. If they are recognizable, then you are just as big a douche as they are.

Before you start typing that first chapter (or write longhand if you fancy yourself Hemingway), create character sketches. It’s been mentioned before in this blog, but sketching a character is a valuable way to understand said character’s personality, appearance, desires, motivations, strengths and weaknesses.

Character sketches should include:

1. List of defining character traits, strengths and weaknesses
2. Paragraph with brief history
3. One to two sentences on character’s primary and secondary conflicts/motivations
4. Picture closely resembling your character.

For example, a character sketch of Milton’s Satan (the ultimate bad boy) might look like this:

Satan by Gustav Dore in Milton's Paradise Lost.
Character traits:

Is evil and wicked, but sure could fool us!
‘Father of Lies’
Speaks beautifully
Oozes sex appeal
Epic warrior qualities (brave, fierce fighter, regal appearance)
Desires power
Filled with hate, rage, vengeance
He’s the first rebel (today, he’d ride a motorcycle, smoke ciggies, wear a leather jacket, and have a sexy bouffant ala James Dean. Dean, I said. Not the other bouffanted beauty).
The great Mick Jagger describes him as “a man of wealth and taste, been around for a long, long year…” (Smellyia has reminded me that this might be an ideal time and place to toss in a Rolling Stones reference. I’m really ashamed I didn’t think of it first.)

Backstory: He’s been cast out of Heaven by God after leading an epic rebellion, and is trapped on a rock in the middle of a fiery lake. He was an angel of light—Lucifer—who fell after growing greedy for power. His tragic flaw is his desire for power and revenge. While he may be beautiful, speak seductively, and sometimes appears as a phallic serpent to a virginal young woman whose name starts and ends with an ‘E’, don’t be fooled—he’s sided with evil instead of good.

Primary conflict: Satan wants revenge on God for booting him out of heaven and into, literally, the fiery pits of Hades. He’s out to hit God where it hurts the most.

Secondary conflict: Adam is such a goody-two-shoes, there’s no way in hell Satan (pardon the pun) will get him to bite the forbidden fruit. Eve, on the other hand…

“Gondolier,” you might say, “Milton’s Satan is all very well and good, but how do I even start to develop a baddie?” Well, reader, I’m glad you asked!
My home boy Alfie said that “In the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don't want their villain to be thrown at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.”

Clever essayist Agnes Repplier wrote that “A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.”

And from Jessica Ellis at “For the most part, the best literary villains remind us that they, too, are human. No matter how twisted or dark they might be, they are not so different than you or I. The paths that separate the hero from the villain are complex and uncertain, and great writers are often able to accurately depict not only the evil done, but the humanity abandoned.”

Even Will Shakespeare, the master of villains wrote: “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Creepy, Will, creepy.

Are you seeing a trend here, people? And no, I’m not saying your bad guy must literally be human (hell, that would kill any fic that isn’t All-Human right there. And half of Stephen King’s stuff); only that your villain must retain some element of humanity to make them deceptive.

To have a believable baddie with depth, give them some humanity. A hinted-at back-story, a weakness or two, or even a philosophy that, while not embraced, is disturbingly understandable. If they are plainly, blatantly evil, every character with a peanut brain will stay away from them. Even rats will run, birds scatter, ants will flee from a baddy that physically oozes evil from his pores…and nothing else. Characters won’t be fooled by someone or something that is so obviously wicked. But when your baddie has recognizable human tendencies, other characters find themselves being seduced by the villain. Heck, even readers might find themselves relating, even just a little, with the bad guy. We call this “sympathy for the devil”—thank you for that, John Milton. (I could write an entire blog on Milton’s Satan, anti-heroes, and dangerous men we love, hate, and love to hate. I just might do that sometime.)

[Extra credit assignment: Here’s a trick—come up with the baddest baddies you can think of, and just see if you can’t find a reason a character might be fooled by them. Make a list of those reasons, and that will give you some ideas about how to make your own villain strong.]

How bad is my Baddie?

How bad should your villain be? Villains fall into different categories, ranging from Unlikeable Protagonists to Pure Evil Villains. I’m going to borrow (pilfer) a morality chart from Jennifer Morrell (the author of Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches, remember her?). You can use this chart for all of your characters, but it’s particularly helpful when deciding where your baddie would draw the line (or even cross it):

Jennifer Morrell, p. 18 of Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches

Morrell writes that “As in real life, fictional characters can often be most known and defined when the curtains are drawn and they think no one is looking. When a character is alone, is his routine fairly normal with work, meals, hobbies, and rest? Or, in these private moments and behaviors, are the reader’s neck hairs starting to prickle?”

These moments could be anything from behaviors that hint at a traumatic past (e.g.—disorders or compulsive behavior), ugly secrets (e.g.—kiddie porn). The face your characters put on in public is often different than their private face. A supposedly upstanding citizen might abuse his girlfriend. Someone seemingly nice might have a pet or child that is afraid of her. Think about these telling details, and start listing them in your character sketch.

Remember, it’s okay for villains to have traits we admire, along with traits we hate. In fact, you need this. It’s what gives depth to flat characters.

What NOT to do with your Baddie.

Very briefly, I want to touch on a few traps that writers fall in to when writing villains. Some of these have been discussed, but it doesn’t hurt to mention them again.

1. Cookie cutter villains, aka, clich├ęs. Avoid stereotypes, like serial killer, stalker, evil mother-in-law, snotty head cheerleader. Don’t get me wrong—you can USE these, but give them your personal spin. Give them humanity.

2. Inconsistent characterizations. This is true of any character, but can really disappoint a reader if the baddie suddenly wimps out in the end ala the Great Volturi Battle That Never Was. If you’re promising a fight, a battle of wits, an epic confrontation then by god, brush up your suspense-writing skills and follow through. Study other hero vs. villain battles in fiction for ideas.

3. Villains with stupid motivations. If your villain is stalking your hero just because they cut them off in traffic, that’s stupid. BUT, if your hero cut your villain off in traffic and your villain is now stalking them because said villain is psycho, that’s different.

4. Heavy villains. If much more development attention is paid to your villain than your hero, the story gets boring fast. Nothing sucks more than reading a flat hero and a fantastic villain. It’s a see-saw—they need to balance each other in character depth, development, wit, and tenacity. In fact, your hero needs that one single element that tips the see-saw in their favor. Please note that by development, I don’t mean actual page time. We might not ever really see the villain, but the effects of the villain can be well-developed (e.g.—Sauron, Voldemort, Moriarty, or again, any conflict that is not an actual human being, such as plague, poverty, etc.).

[Additional extra credit assignment: I highly recommend reading The Telegraph’s “Top 50 Greatest Villains in Literature” list, as well as each short explanation as to why these villains earned a spot. If you want to sound really intelligent in conversation about the great literary baddies, this is the ultimate cheat sheet! And you might even glean some useful ideas, too.
I’d argue that Lady MacBeth, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cujo should have been included. I mean, seriously! But to each his/her own.]

So, feel like you’ve got a good start? Itching to dredge up the filth, plague, and despicably sordid rogues of society and splatter them all over your word processor? Yay!

Next blog or two, I’ll cover how to write specific types of villains, such as anti-heroes (hot bastards), mischief makers (bullies), and dangerous ladies (bitches), psychos, evil-doers, and supernatural monsters. Until then, happy writing.

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wrodcraft knowledge with the likes of fandom. She demonstrates her tremendous skills with every chapter she posts of her wondrous story, Hydraulic Level 5. Bitch Leah anyone?


  1. So, on top of being beautifully informative, this was beautifully-written. Thanks, Gondolier. :-)

  2. Pastiche Pen -- beautiful, just like Milton's Satan (kidding). Glad you find it useful. You're welcome!

  3. go team G! this was excellent and informative. i am wishing death upon charlotte and i cannot wait to read what's next. and i can't wait to read your original stuff when it's published


  4. Loved this. So much. And by the by... I love Milton's Satan as well. I think my favorite thesis statement I've ever written in my life was in an essay for Paradise Lost, lol.
    I'm glad we have a villian section of the blog now, and I'm looking forward to seeing more, as I'm in the process of fleshing out an "evil" character right now for a story. Great timing! XD

  5. Thank you so much for taking your time and knowledge and sharing it for free with us. I agree about writing a villain is much more fun than writing the hero, though I think I'd enjoy writing a hero-turned-villain even more. My friends and I hregulary have discussions on who we would want to play if we were cast in the Twilight films (I know, we possibly, actually may need to get alife one of these days) and my answer is awlays the same 'Victoria', much more fun than Bella.

    I've been eyeing for some time. It's on my Amazon wish list, but I'm now about to move it to my shopping cart. thanks for the rec. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series as it's posted


  6. Yes, this is BEYOND useful for our writers and fabulously done. It truly is our pleasure to have you share your insight and intel with us amateurs ;)

  7. Ha! The new column's chalkboard graphic is beautiful--I love it. Thanks!

  8. what wonderful humor, wit, and terriffic advice. i can tell you'll be a fave columnist.

  9. My eyes, my eyes. Thank you for writing and sharing your knowledge of this subject which is ever so close to my heart. Beware. Stalking may ensue.

  10. This was interesting and really thought provoking - I'm in charge of ILL at a Library and immediately ordered myself a copy of the Morrell book you mentioned because it just sounded so damn COOL. Thanks!

  11. So true...haha, I'm still laughing at the 'Great Volturi Battle That Never Was.' That was such a big disappointment. It's like Stephenie Meyer always wimps out at the last minute.

    Reading this blog series, I can now see how you think when you wrote HL5. That fic is killing me with the angst! But yes, like you said, the angst is what keeps readers hanging on.


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