Saturday, April 19, 2014

Touching the Evil that Lies in the Hearts of Men

Picture taken by David Alan Lucas at St. Louis Comic Con.
Copyright to characters portrayed are owned by their prospective creators or companies.
Decades ago, an old time radio drama, The Shadow, always asked “Who knows what evil lies in the hearts for men?” The answer is writers, especially those who explore the nature of evil in their writing.  When we make a memorable antagonist in our stories, we are touching on the darkness around us and within us. Even though we know we would never commit some of the acts that our antagonist—and sometimes even our protagonist—commits in our stories it can frighten and even thrill us in the core of our being where the dark part of ourselves lies.

Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, once wrote, “In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer.” Sometimes we have to draw from that sleeping monster the essence of our story villains. These villains can range in evil from the nosey neighbor who likes to start neighborhood gossip to the genocidal dictator.  It is by drawing on this darkness in us that we are able to create memorable villains and even villains who are loved.

In trying to understand how to create these characters, let’s start very basic and then dive deeper. What is a villain or antagonist in a story? They are the character or element that is preventing your protagonist from achieving their desired goal. The act of prevention may be malicious or may be an act of the world itself.  in Jack London’s  “To Build a Fire” the villain was nature. It didn’t care what happened to the protagonist, it acted as itself. However, in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening , the main antagonist is the society in which her protagonist lives that has a strict code of expected conduct and the consequences of that. Or, we can look at Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome where the antagonist is Zeena who just wants to be needed—either as the object of care or as the care giver.  From these examples we have clearly missed the archetype villain who is twisting their evil mustache, wearing a dark cape, and laughing as they blow up a planets. But wait—those can exist as well. But how do you create them and are they really any different from the ones I have used?

Unless you are going for paper thin villains who are over the top, your villain should grow organically either from the darkness within yourself or from the darkness you have experienced—be it a bad storm or a bully or someone even worse.  If you are trying to build an archetypical villain, then he or she will be paper thin. It is your experience with darkness that takes this two dimensional character and beefs it up to the memorable villain and allows you, as a writer, to even imagine being able to write the story as if THEY were the protagonist.  How to start: First ask yourself and honestly answer if you have ever done something that was inappropriate? Did you react to something violently? Have you ever been provoked to desiring, if not out right seeking, revenge?  If you answered no,  then you are either a saint (and even most of them had a dark side) or you are lying and should explore the darkness of that lie. If you answered yes, take that experience and apply your imagination and ask—can I extrapolate and exaggerate it to the length of the story.
Picture taken by David Alan Lucas at St. Louis Comic Con.
Copyright to characters portrayed are owned by their prospective creators or companies.
If your own darkness isn’t working for you, try to think about someone in your life. Has someone stopped you from achieving something? Has someone picked on you? Has someone just been the biggest pain in the –ahem-neck? Let them be the seed for your villain. Identify how the real person caused conflict for you? Can that be extrapolated into the conflict the character that sprouts from the seed of your villain has with your protagonist?

Now, grab your shovel and let’s dig for the gold behind this character. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go anywhere to dig. The digging will be into your own psyche.

Shovel load one (as in step one)
Grab a pencil and paper or other favorite writing instrument and a timer. Set the timer for 30 seconds.  Now hit start and then write down all of the villain, regardless if they are from novels, short stories, movies, tv, plays, or myth, you can recall.  Once the timer announces your time is up, stop. Don’t go any further. You may be thinking of other villains but stop when the timer stops.

Shovel load two
Picture taken by David Alan Lucas at St. Louis Comic Con.
Copyright to characters portrayed are owned by their prospective creators or companies.

You may have to re-write the list to give you space to do this next exercise. Beside each name, list the top five reasons why that villain was memorable to you.  Do you have more than five? Then write them all down. Do you see a common pattern or many common patterns? If so, jot the pattern or patterns down and try to see if you can put them into your villain.

Shovel load three
In your story, what would happen if your villain actually was the one who was right? Make them think they are right. It may be a delusion, but still. Think about any conflict—from a sports game to all out war. Each side believes that right or some divine being representing righteousness is on their side.

Shovel load four
Think about your villain now. Is he or she stereotypical? My guess is, if you are honest, the answer is yes. So how do you get rid of this melodramatic character and make them into a full fledge memorable character? Go back to your list of villains. Now write down, in a different color ink if you can (not required), how each of these characters broke the mold of being stereotypical? Maybe the villain was a victim once. Maybe the villain was once a hero, but has been manipulated to become the villain. Maybe the villain loved kids but hated society. Maybe they wouldn’t mind killing someone, but had a soft spot for kittens or puppies. Every good villain has a light side just as every protagonist has a dark side (even Superman).  Explore this light side.  There is noting more powerful than a sympathetic villain.

Shovel load five
Picture taken by David Alan Lucas at St. Louis Comic Con.
Copyright to characters portrayed are owned by their prospective creators or companies.
Is either the villain or the protagonist more powerful than the other one? Is the villain stupid or is the hero naïve? You may have a real yawn of a story. What do you do? Put them on equal footing. The villain may put himself in a position of power—think of Kahn from Star Trek his weakness ends up putting Kirk on the same level as him. It is through this equal footing that makes the battle interesting.  Let the characters reflect each other and bring out their intelligence and cunning. Give the villain and the hero a mental database of knowledge that they use to engage in this battle—this could be knowledge of real weapons or a special skill or a special knowledge.  It makes for a much better battle.

Shovel load six
Make the threat of the villain real and tangible in the story.  Show the nature of this threat, let it fill the reader and the hero with dread. Then give the villain a true motive for turning the threat into a reality. Blend the lines between the hero and the antagonist into a field of grey and try to get the protagonist and antagonist to be sympathetic or (even better) empathetic to the reader. Remember the best story can be written with either the hero or the villain as the protagonist of the story if only by shifting points of view.

Shovel load seven
It is stereotypical that the villain wants to run the universe, the world, or the company. Make the motive of the villain want something more tangible or sympathetic.  Maybe it is the destruction of a system that the villain sees as abusive or that they have been the victim of. Maybe they want to restore glory or honor to their family or nation? Maybe they want to stop an even bigger villain. There are two old sayings and it is good to keep them in mind: Only a few ever want to rule the world, most just want control of their corner; and one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter.

Shovel load eight
Picture taken by David Alan Lucas at St. Louis Comic Con.
Copyright to characters portrayed are owned by their prospective creators or companies.

Shovel load five touches on this, but let’s dig it up. The best way to build your villain is to make them the shadow of the hero. A good example is Professor Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes. Boyd and Raylan Gibbins in the TV version of Justified. (The novels start off differently.) Or, how about something a little less drastic: Zeena to Ethan Frome. Give them a relationship with each other to explore this. One of my personal favorite relationship styles is the Batman/Joker relationship. Don’t think that relationship can exist in any other work? Have you seen the TV show “The Following”? The hero and villain in that show have the same relationship. 

It doesn’t have to be that relationship to work. But the key is, regardless if they know each other from the start or they meet in the story, there is a relationship that develops. The question you get to play with as you make your villain more memorable and realistic is where that relationship takes the hero and villain together.

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