Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gondolier’s What I Learnt in Riting Skool

Class time again! Ringing the bell. No seriously, recess is over. Yes, I mean it—quit snogging your Byronic antiheroes under the bleachers and take your seats, please.

Thank you. (I swear, you randy bunch of pervs are unskoolable.)

You’re Having a Baddie! Part 3: The Wicked Antagonists

This is it, the third and final installment of the Baddie series. What you’ve all been waiting for (along with Edward to climb through your bedroom window and undress you with his piercing gold eyes. Can we say stal-ker?)

Last article, we covered the protagonists: unreliable narrators, unlikeable protagonists, and antiheroes. In summary, I bring you glorious haiku of enlightenment:

Protags with great flaws

Tipping scales of right or wrong

Will they win the day?

A baddie protagonist is still a protagonist: a main character who is a stand-in for an all-out hero. They walk the line between good and evil, and often (but not always) lean toward good in the end. Antagonists, however, are NOT our heroes. They may have heroic traits, but ultimately, they face off against the protagonist. These are our true baddies in the traditional sense.

On Jessica Morrell’s fabulous morality scale, as illustrated in her book Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to write the bad guys of fiction, antagonist villains fall on the bottom half of this scale, depending on how wicked they are, which lines they’re willing to cross, and their motivations.

[Jessica Morrell, p. 18 of Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction]


You know those characters that bring out your basest, most violent tendencies? The ones you want to bitch slap then hurl over the side of a cliff? YeS, that character is probably an antagonist.
Sherlock Holmes wisely noted the following about Professor Moriarty, his arch-nemesis: “You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.”

Strong antagonist characters meet your hero head-on. They are neither weaker nor stronger, save for one fatal flaw that allows your hero to defeat them (if that’s the path you choose). For every character trait your hero has, your antagonist will have a trait that neutralizes your hero.


The true villain: the wickedest of the baddies. The woman who’s probably going to sue me for calling her my “bff”, Jessica Morrell, says that “evil is the source code of writing a villain, and you want to understand its ramifications in all your characters’ lives.” While a villain may be an antagonist, not all antagonists are villains. The villain is defined by their morals, which are twisted, complex, and terrifying. The key to creating a three-dimensional villain, like any character, is to understand the following:

1. Their values
2. Their motives
3. Their traits

All three of these are intertwined and influence the other. Villains’ motives stem from their values, as do their traits. The more depraved their values are, the more depraved the motives will be—to create terror in some fashion. And the more depraved their motives, the darker their traits will be—merciless, ruthless, calculating, etc. What you as a writer need to do is decide what quirks sets your villain apart from scores of other villains. Again, this is where you tap your personal experiences. What annoys you in certain people? What do you find fascinating? Perhaps someone you know obsessively collects tea sets or impressionist art. Maybe they studied architecture, or are trivia fanatics. It’s the little details like these that will make your villain memorable and up the creep factor.

Also keep in mind what we discussed in the first article—the fight or flight response in readers. To truly have a villain that is frightening, dredge up the shadowy tendencies—such as sexual predators, violent racists, opportunistic control freaks—that everyone fears. Those characteristics that we can’t recognize in ourselves, but fear, deep down, we may be capable of. Readers scorn villains because it’s easier to hate them than examine how, if our lives had been different, we may have ended up like them.

Something else to tackle once you’ve sketched your villain is designing their lair. And I’m not talking about bringing in Sugarbaker’s. The villain’s setting is an extension of his or herself. It is where they are strongest, and your hero is most vulnerable. You can have so much fun with this—everything from their gadgets and collections, to evidence of their dastardly deeds. Where does your villain sleep and work and unwind? The lair is often a good place for your hero to be at their lowest before the climax of your story. If you bring the protagonist into the lion’s den, winning the day will seem next to impossible and your suspense quadruples, giving you a bigger pay-off when your story reaches its peak in action.

Well-known Bad-to-the-Bone Villains in literature:

“Corky Laputa” in The Face by Dean Koontz

“Jape Waltzer” in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

“Svengali” in Trilby by George du Maurier

“Iago” in Othello by William Shakespeare

[Extra credit: Look at your story map or outline, and pinpoint when your villain comes into play. Make certain that the baddie doesn’t show all of his cards at once—make him a growing threat. Once you hit the midpoint or two-thirds-point of your story, the reader needs to understand at least some of your villain’s true intentions. While you may not want to expose everything about your villain, at least foreshadow the final-act unraveling of his grand scheme.]


Writing a bitch or dangerous woman baddie is a study in and of itself. Yes, women are different from men—not only physically, but in the double standards they historically have battled. And as literature is a reflection of society, look at some of our famous bitches and baddie women:

Delilah: emasculated Samson with a little va-va-voom and snip-snip

Lady MacBeth: wants power and murders to get it, only to presumably off herself at the end

Madame Bovary: cuckolds her hubby, runs up debt, also offs herself

Miss Havisham: old and withered, bitter and loveless, she works revenge on the young and beautiful

Traditionally, women are supposed to be sugar, spice, and everything nice. (And men are manly with their snails and tails.) Likewise, readers assign gender roles while reading, without consciously thinking about it. For example, a man who is opinionated may be considered “confident.” But a woman who is opinionated may come across as “shrill.” Pandora got the shaft for being curious. What if a man—let’s call him “Pandoro”—had opened the box? Something to think about.

Creating a female baddie automatically brings a special tension and enigma to a story; simply by being a naughty female, the character is defying the odds. (Did you know that only 8.5 percent of convicts in the U.S. are women?) Society has long equated women with home, hearth, and gentleness, and you bet that’s in the reader’s subconscious. For all their spunk, characters like Anne Shirley, Clarice Starling, and Jo March are heroes because they value honor, justice, and family. However, bitches’ motivations are typically self-serving. They may be manipulative, cunning, power-hungry, or vengeful. And bitches own their sexuality.
When you create a bitch character, highlight her femininity, then give her a solid dose of kick-ass. And as always, create a believable backstory for her. What is she trying to prove? Does she struggle with self-hatred? Was she ignored as a child, and is now hungry for the spotlight? And what type of bitch is she? Adulteress, slut, antihero, bad mommy, sociopath, warrior, femme fatale, just to name a few.

Well-known Bitches in literature:

“Lydia Bennett” in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“Margaret White” in Carrie by Stephen King

“Solana Rojas” in T is for Tresspass by Sue Grafton

“Moll Flanders” in The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe


What is a super villain, you ask? To better illustrate, I shall reenact the pivotal scene from the movie Unbreakable, in which Elijah Price has an epiphany:

Elijah Price: “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I'm not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain's going to be? He's the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they're friends, like you and me! I should've known way back when... You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr Glass…”

David Dunn: “Wah-who??” Sob sob, walks out of comic book store in eerie blue light that Catherine Hardwicke totally pilfered…


That’s right, the super villain is the antithesis of the super hero. The Lex Luthor to Superman. Joker to Batman. While they are prevalent in graphic novels, super villains aren’t limited to the pages of Marvel. Hello, Lord Voldemort. I see you, Sauron. Super villains are completely unredeemable and unsympathetic. They are pure evil. They are striving not only to destroy, but to destroy a facet of society. They are dangerous to anyone who is a pitfall to their cause. They cause multiple victims to suffer. And they often seem unstoppable, operating in shadows with brains the size of Texas.

So, how do you craft a super villain that isn’t cheesy or contrived? A lot is riding on your protagonist. Make sure that your protagonist triumphs on his own merit, and not by a deus ex machina to win the day. For example, say your super villain kidnaps your protagonist and sticks them in a helicopter that is going to crash. And oh my goodness, your hero just happens to have his go-go-gadget super-parachute in his pocket that he totally forgot about, allowing him to coast to safety from the helicopter. Nuh-uh. Your protagonist has to save his own sorry ass—make him kick some tushy and pilot that helicopter to safety.

The biggest challenge in using a super villain is to equip them with weapons and skill sets, but still tie them to reality. For the millionth time, you can make them realistic by drawing from your list of real-life characteristics, stolen from real-life people. Your villain can have a stockpile of hand grenades, martial arts expertise, and a photographic memory. But make him a disgruntled web designer by day, and you’ve got yourself a super villain! It’s those quirks and unique mannerisms that make a baddie fascinating.

Well-known Super Villains in literature:

“Lord Voldemort” in The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

“Sauron” in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Professor Moriarty” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmesby Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Dr. Fu Manchu” in The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer


Did you know that 4 percent of the population is sociopathic? And nearly 50 percent of all heinous crimes, like murder and kidnapping, are committed by sociopaths? So the likelihood that you have met or will meet a sociopath in your lifetime is pretty darn high. (Yeah, that would scare the crap out of me, but I swear I’ve met my quota and then some in my college years alone.) Sociopaths aren’t necessarily the obvious evil genius stroking a hairless cat and sporting diamond cuff links. Real life sociopaths could be the dude three cubicles down. Your vice president of marketing. The neighbor lady with an impeccable yard. Someone’s child. Someone’s grandma! You’re friendly resident vampire who climbs through your window (don’t let him in, he’s not Edward!).

The sociopathic baddie may not be brilliant or criminal, but they are master manipulators. They are only in it for themselves, whatever the situation. And they play to win, regardless the path of destruction and victims they leave in their wake.

When crafting your very own sociopath, you need to play Profiler:

* First, understand what makes a sociopath. Generally, they are cold-blooded in their pursuits. They are unable to feel remorse. They may not necessarily be criminal (yet), but sociopaths are controlling, aggressive, dishonest, parasitic, and unable to learn from mistakes. They believe they are entitled to behave the way they do because they have been dealt an unfair hand (and are often paranoid because of it). They are also very charming and entertaining, drawing their victims in with a smile, then go for the kill.
* Second, research, research, research! There are tons of criminal cases in which a sociopath was involved. Take notes, define what made this particular sociopath unique.
* Next, craft your sociopath’s Modus Operandi. What are his tactics? Does he have a signature, like preying on the elderly and cleaning out their bank accounts? Perhaps she seduces other women’s husbands because her father cheated on her mother. Often, children who torture other children or animals grow up to be sociopaths.
* When you decide on your baddie’s M.O., knowing their backstory is key. Did some sort of childhood trauma influence their M.O.? For example, Hannibal Lecter’s sister was eaten by Nazis when he was a child. And we all know what he grew up to be…

After you’ve crafted your sociopath, you must decide at what point in their character arc your protagonist will meet them. Are they just beginning a crime spree? Or, like Clarice Starling, does she meet Hannibal the Cannibal after he’s already been caught and incarcerated? Maybe your protagonist has known this sociopath since they were kids in the same daycare. Think deeply, not only about your baddie’s traits, but also the damage they do. In order to realize the full extent of their villainy, what happens to his or her victims is just as important as what crime they committed.

Well-known Sociopaths in literature:

“Tom Ripley” in The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

“Casanova” in Kiss the Girls by James Patterson

“Annie Wilkes” in Misery by Stephen King

“Mark Kinney” in Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan

“Alex DeLarge” in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

“Hannibal Lecter” in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris


And last, but not least, we have our inhuman bunch. Yay ghoulies and vamps!! How I have longed to write about you!

All fiction is basically a lie the reader believes as they come to know and care about characters. In horror stories, the reader must believe and be afraid.

Since the beginning of civilization, monsters have been at the heart of oral tradition to explain uncomfortable realities: mental illness, infant death, deformities, as well as exotic animals like whales and elephants. Monsters started appearing in literature as early as the ninth century, with Grendel in Beowulf. They pop up throughout history in the Arthurian legends, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Brothers Grimm fairytales, lost souls like Shelley’s Frankenstein, and into the nineteenth century with Edgar Allan Poe, Stoker’s Dracula and Verne’s early science fiction.

Morrell explains that “we have always had a morbid fascination with death, fear, and suffering. Monstrous tales are a way to transform our traumas and wildest fears into a story with the belief, though perhaps not justified, that this form of entertainment makes our fears manageable.”

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes that horror fiction “exists on three more or less separate levels, each on a little less fine than the one before it.” He writes that the finest emotion is terror, and below that layer lay horror and then revulsion.

So how do you craft a monster that accomplishes all three layers?

* First, start by asking yourself a simple question: “What if?”
* Second, once again, mine your personal experiences. Your nightmares, your friends’ nightmares, the things you were scared of as a child and are scared of today.
* Once you have a list of specific details and fears, decide which category they fall under:
o Fear of monsters
o Fear of the demonic
o Fear of Armageddon or human annihilation
o Fear of the monster within
* After you’ve sketched your monster, start defining your story. Will this be an allegorical tale with a broader statement about society? An exploration of human frailty? A warning about curiosity, greed for information, or control over the unexplained?
* Last, outline your story. For horror stories to work, you have to pull readers in pretty quickly, but without showing your cards. Start hinting that something is off almost immediately. Next, elevate the tension by delaying answers about the unknown. But don’t delay too long. By the time you hit a midway point, your readers need to be involved with the reality of the monster, both as a physical and psychological threat.

Monster tales are such an ingrained part of society, it’s hard to make them fresh and unique. Here are some ways to avoid pitfalls:

* Make your monster powerful and seemingly unstoppable. Don’t water them down (unless you’re writing a kids book).
* Know your monster’s traits, biology, history, and any other essential qualities.
* Research and read widely, so you know what’s been done to death. Read up on news stories and scientific discoveries for “prompts.”
* Avoid cliché endings. Please, no more vampire stories in which the vamp melts in the sun, is staked, or burned with a crucifix.
* No gratuitous gore. You want to scare us, not make us itch for a bar of soap and a bath.
* Give us the atmospheric setting to match your monster. Nothing ups terror like sensory details.

Well-known Monsters in literature:

“Birds” in The Birds by Daphne du Maurier

“Overlook Hotel” in The Shining by Stephen King

“Risky science” in Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

“Death” in The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

“Big Bad Wolf” in Little Red Riding Hood by the Brothers Grimm


And finally, lost souls. Lost souls are those monsters who have lost a vital piece of their humanity. They are repulsive, yet are somehow sympathetic. Most lost souls are not pure villains; rather, they are closer to antiheroes. Frankenstein’s monster is one such lost soul. Hugo’s Quasimodo is another. And I know the gallery of Twilight vamps and wolves is running through your mind. (Undead? Check. Drinks blood? Check. Still want to sex them up? Um, yeah. Lost soul, woot!) Lost souls are often lonely. They are outcasts or prisoners of events. They are damaged, and sometimes a deep loss has led them to seek revenge.

When writing lost souls, remember that their emotions and desires create conflict within the reader. At first, your reader may fear them or think them hideous. But as their story unfolds, they will waffle between that revulsion and sympathy. Lost souls still retain a frightening supernatural quality, despite the glimpses of humanity in them. They function best in a story when readers are given some insight into their minds—whether it’s through point-of-view or dialogue—and can see the world through the lost soul’s eyes.

Well-known Lost Souls in literature:

“Frankenstein’s Monster” in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“Joe Pitt” in Already Dead by Charlie Huston

“John Coffey” in The Green Mile by Stephen King

“Robert Neville” in I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

“Count Dracula” in Dracula by Bram Stoker

Aaaannd there you have it, kiddos. Consider yourself skooled in baddies. Now, your homework…write a haiku about how this article enlightened you (this should be good, coming from you pervy bunch). Hit me with it. If Emibella likes it, you might get an A.

Gondolier is officially sticking it to the MAN by sharing her wealth of wordcraft 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. Terrific article and series. Very intelligently written, full of great stuff!

    BTW, this -(Yeah, that would scare the crap out of me, but I swear I’ve met my quota and then some in my college years alone.)-made me snort my tea out of my nose!

  2. Gotta say I love me some Hannibal Lector.

    Maybe that makes me a creepster, who knows?

    Good article!

  3. Very interesting...

    I think that perhaps I only have one tiny disagreement, and that would be with the selection of John Coffey as a Lost Soul. Perhaps he fits in, but I find it hard to see a "Christ figure" (the initials JC) as an anti-hero, slightly deranged, or seeking revenge.

    Twas the only sticking point for me; the rest of the article was very interesting and the character choices wonderful examples of their catagories.

    Well done!

  4. I love this article. I have bookmarked it for rereading. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to pull up a chair and chat.

    I am a bit of a fangirl for villains/anti-heroes. I am constantly being disappointed by unimaginative, lame ass villains in fan fiction, or fiction in general. One of the rules that I follow, when writing them, is that the villain is the hero of their story. I always approach their motivations and characterization from this angle.

    I could go on for days on this, but I will spare you. Thanks again, this is wonderfully written, insightful and inspiring piece.

  5. I am once again impressed by the quality of writers you have on this blog, especially when they talk about what it takes to craft a quality story. I learn more from these articles than I ever remember learning in school. Thanks to emibella for steering me in the direction of Gondolier's article once again (through the HL5 thread) it's always great to get inside the heads of authors and you both do such a great job at it.
    I love baddies and as another commenter said, there are way too few in Twilight fanfic. I wonder why that is?

  6. yet another great 'Riting Skool' article. Baddies are so much fun and yet I think they can be very hard to write, especially if you're writing a truly evil Baddie - travelling to one's very own Dark Side can be a disturbing journey. On more than one occasion I've imagined a baddie and then been unable to write about it.

    As and aside I live about 3 hours form the "Overlook Hotel". It looks much more ominous in the photographic treatment than it does IRL.


Spread The Word