Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Creating an Authentic Villain


It’s easy to create a villain or an antihero that readers love to hate, but it’s hard to create a nuanced, complex antagonist. We are so used to Darth Vaders or Draco Malfoys that we, as writers, tend to forget that when we want to portray someone as evil, it’s important to make that character well-rounded, real, and authentic.

The best way to do this is to give your bad guy/girl some attributes. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but everybody, even the worst criminals imaginable, has redeeming qualities. I will never forget watching a movie years ago about Hitler’s secretary. It was a documentary, and there was real footage of a person interviewing the woman who had been a secretary to Herr Hitler. She was most apologetic; it was obvious that she wanted to say unkind things about the man, but she couldn’t. She needed to be true to her experience and wanted people to understand that the Fuhrer had been extremely kind to her. He was a nice man to work for. I know you’re rolling your eyeballs right now and saying that can’t be possible, but, yeah, it can be. I would go one step further and say that not only is it possible, but it is likely that the scum of the earth person who has committed vile, despicable acts also had some nice traits. We can be two things at the same time. We can be good mothers but cheat on our taxes. We can be great parents but cheat on our partners. We can be good citizens but racist in our private thoughts and practices. We can be like the infamous Aaron Fernandez from the NFL, who was convicted of three murders but loved his daughter.
Look for ways to humanize villains in your stories. Maybe your bad guy is a killer, a brutal, sexist, wife-beating, child-beating nightmare of a man. How would you round out that character? Give him good taste in music. Make him a fan of animals or a vegetarian. Maybe once a week, he volunteers to work with somebody with Down syndrome or visits his aging mother. Or make him a victim turned victimizer. Maybe your villain was molested as a child or neglected. Give us some ambivalent feelings about him or her. This is why the show The Sopranos worked so well—because we grew to know Tony Soprano as a person before we found out that he was a very bad guy. This gives the viewer or the reader ambivalent feelings toward your character. That’s good. You’re not turning your bad guy into a good guy. You’re just rounding out the picture so that we see a full person rather than a one-dimensional stereotype. Also, be careful about using clichés and overly common plot devices, such as dressing your bad guy in black or giving him lots of tattoos.

The same is true of your protagonist. As writers, we want to make our protagonists likable, but we can easily fall into the trap of making him or her too good to be true. Most of the girls I knew liked Jo best in the book Little Women, followed by Amy. Beth was almost ethereal; she was too sweet and selfless. But Jo? She defied all stereotypes. She was a tomboy. She said what she felt. She had a temper. Jo was on fire in an era when girls were supposed to be uber-feminine and subservient, and as a result of being feisty, she became a fan favorite.

The best way to rectify a one-dimensional character is when you are proofreading and reviewing your story after it’s already been written. Go back into the text several times and look for sections where it’s appropriate for you to add some good qualities to your bad character. It will pay off in the end.

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