Villains: the good, the bad and the (very) ugly

what are villains
Is this a villain? Or is he the good guy? (Image – pixabay.com)
When my group decided that we would perform an extract from King Lear for one of our A Level Drama pieces, I was adamant I wanted to play Goneril or Regan. Why? Goneril and Regan are two of the “mean” sisters, two of the play’s villains. I consider myself to be quite a pleasant person really, so I thought pretending not to be could be fun. Snarky comments, evil glares and a general sense of haughtiness.

Everyone loves a villain, from Hannibal Lecter to the pantomime variety. But why? What makes the worst villains the best, and are the good ones really so bad (if you see what I mean…)? Can a villain be something other than a person?

What is a villain?

Conventional wisdom has it that every story, whether film, play or novel, needs a villain. Villains cause problems, up the stakes for the protagonist and generally make things just that little bit more interesting. Villains can provide comic relief (think numerous lair-inhabiting Bond villains). Villains can inspire terror and dread, like Voldemort. Villains can be complicated and psychotic, neatly turned out and polite, or even a little bit like you or me.

So what do such varied villains have in common?

In a word, antagonism. An effective villain needs to “antagonise” the protagonist, to get in their way at every twist and turn. An effective villain tries to stop the protagonist from achieving what they set out to do over the course of the novel, whether that’s win the girl (or boy), kill the beast or bake that perfect Victoria sponge.

What about stories without a traditional sharp-fanged, gun-toting, evil-spewing villain?

This got me thinking about my own book, and I started to worry. What are the goals of Sadie and Umiña (my two main characters)? Who is trying to prevent them from achieving those goals? I had an answer to the first question, but not the second. I mean my book has characters of questionable morals, sure – Mama Izhi, Mollie the acrobat and Teddy the equestrian performer, just to name a few. None of these characters, however, are at the core of the story. Their antagonism of Sadie and Umiña is mostly the fodder of subplots.

But before you decide never to read my book on account of the lack of snarky comments and haughty stares (there are plenty, I promise), neither Sadie’s nor Umiña’s journey from beginning to end of book is entirely simple and unopposed. They are just a different type of journey, that’s all. In the case of each of my protagonists (particularly Sadie), her own mind is the villain she is battling, in the form of memories and unruly emotions and her general sense of injustice with life.

So no, to answer a question I posed above, I don’t believe a “villain” needs to be a person, although this does depend on a large extent to the genre in which you are writing. Extremely plot-driven narratives (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) will generally feature a story arc with a tangible objective and a villain of a more traditional vein. Extremely character-driven narratives (like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) tend to focus on the protagonist’s transformation, whether emotional or otherwise. Of course, a large number of books fall somewhere between the two extremes, with protagonists battling both inner and outer demons simultaneously.

This leads me, then, to conclude that conflict or tension, not villainy, is the key to a story, whether that conflict is with someone else, yourself or the world at large.

But let’s suppose a villain IS a person. What makes them a good one?

Attributes of a villain

  1. First and foremost, and again, conflict is the key. It doesn’t really matter whether your villain is good or bad, just that they are “other”. I mean your protagonist might be the bad guy right? Which means their antagonist might be the good guy. As long as they are striving for opposing ideals, then it’s all good. After all, nobody thinks they are the villain in their own story, not even Voldemort. The “villain” might actually be somebody the protagonist is very fond of, a spouse or parent for example.
  2. A villain is more believable as a character if we understand where they are coming from, and what motivates them to be such a villainous villain. It might not even hurt if we empathise with them a little (see below). When pulling together Mama Izhi’s character profile, I spent just as long on it as Sadie’s or Umina’s. It lists her hopes, dreams and deepest, darkest past, and, to read it, you probably wouldn’t even know she was the villain. A villain should amount to more than just a list of actions and reactions. A villain should just be doing what is natural to him or her given their background – it’s the reader’s closer relationship to the protagonist that makes the actions of the villain seem villainous.
  3. It might just be me, but I really like morally ambiguous characters. I find it fascinating when you can’t quite decide whether the guy you are rooting for is the good guy or the bad guy. Wanting Cersei Lannister or Draco Malfoy to succeed, even if in some small way, can cause you to question your own morality. This is why I like villains with a little bit of light in them, whether it’s a love for their children or a moment of compassion for their adversary. A glimpse of humanity or the mundane can also makes them seem more threatening sometimes. Would Hannibal Lecter be quite as frightening if there was no chance he could ever be the guy next to you in Majestic, scanning the label of an Italian red?
  4. Having said all of the above, the opposite sometimes holds true. In certain stories, particularly those of a supernatural bent, the unknown is what we fear. I can name countless occasions (most often in films but in books too) where the SCARY UNKNOWN THING stopped being frightening as soon as I found out what it was. I believe though, that in stories like this, the fear itself is the source of tension, not the villain. Getting to know the villain and his/her/its motivations is no longer necessary, but convincingly written fear and its implications for the protagonist are now required.

(All of the above holds true for a character battling an inner demon too – we need to understand WHY they are feeling a certain way, what their deepest desires and dreads are, and how it affects their life right now.)

So, are the worst villains really the best?

In short, an effective “villain” might be evil or lovely, short or tall. They might like chianti or they might have a penchant for cognac. They might not even be a person, but an emotion, say, or traumatic event. It doesn’t really matter as long as they are fully developed and believable, and they do their job, which is to provide a source of tension or conflict for the protagonist.

After all, nobody wants to read a story about a woman who goes out for a walk on a lovely, sunny day, doesn’t encounter a rabid dog or the man of her dreams, thinks happy thoughts about how idyllic her life is, and then goes home for tea and cake. The end.

-Kirsty

Writing the first draft – 8 things I did right and 5 things I would change

The first draft of my book - 8 things I did right and 5 things I would change
Keep putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) (Image – pixabay.com)
After 20 months of writing, I have finally finished the first draft of my first book! I don’t feel even remotely guilty for drinking sparkling wine on a Monday night in celebration.

Yes, the arduous labour of self-editing is still to come, but let’s not think about that yet. I’m giving myself a month off Mamacona. I want to forget every word I have written so that I can come at it afresh and brimming with ideas in four weeks’ time. Mid-May, I’m sure you’ll be along soon. In the meantime, I will be reading fiction A LOT (it’s research, right?), carrying out some fun writing exercises and attending one of the Writers’ Workshop’s taster courses at Waterstones Piccadilly – on The Transformational Arc, in case you were wondering.

So, what have I learnt about writing so far? As well as asking what genre my book resides in, upon hearing that I am writing a novel, people frequently offer up pearls of wisdom. Over the last year and a half, I have acquired enough of these pearls to string together the world’s longest necklace. While any and all help is appreciated, writing is not a science and, as such, does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Which pieces of advice did I follow, rightly or wrongly? Which did I ignore but kind of regret doing so? I am sure my stance on at least some of the below will change when I am finished editing my current book. But, right now, in my slightly smug, bubbles-induced glee, this is what I think.

My first draft – what I did right (in my humble opinion) and will most likely do again

  1. The most common advice I have been given by far is to power through the first draft as quickly as possible. Instead, I chose to write entirely at my own pace, looking for the perfect adjective and pondering my next plotting move as appropriate. This suited me, pretty much for the reasons stated in this blog post by Harry Bingham. I know I will still have an editing challenge, but I honestly believe it will be a smaller task as a result of taking my time over the first draft.
  2. Despite the point around plotting below, I think my hybrid planned-unplanned approach worked well. I had a vague idea where the story was going, but didn’t particularly plan sub-plots and details in advance. This allowed me the flexibility to change course slightly if my mind wandered in a more interesting direction. I liked not knowing exactly what would happen every time I sat down to finish a chapter, and I felt a little as though the characters were leading me, and not vice versa.
  3. Given I was writing about historical periods I did not know too much about, I did a lot of research before I wrote even a single word of my story. I think this allowed me to soak up the essence of the periods, which then influenced the mood of my book.
  4. I thoroughly enjoyed not writing about what I know – I now feel I have an extra few pub quiz topics buried deep inside my brain, and the novelty kept the writing process exciting. I already have a few equally random topics / settings set aside for future books.
  5. A few online sources I consulted prior to beginning my book stated that a first time author shouldn’t attempt anything other than a linear, single point-of-view narrative. I ignored this, partly because I am horribly stubborn and partly because I really wanted to write this book, which just happened to be non-linear and multiple point-of-view. Time will be the test of how wise a decision this was, but I don’t regret it right now as I managed to achieve what I set out to do with the first draft. My advice would be to write whatever you want to write, no matter what that is!
  6. Not setting daily word targets – I like to write when I feel like writing so I continue to enjoy it. I have a flexible weekly target that isn’t particularly difficult to achieve, and I usually exceed it.
  7. Not writing with a hangover – I read this in an interview on a website I can’t remember right now. Excellent advice! A glass or two of wine while writing, is, however, perfect…
  8. If I found myself unable to figure out how to continue my story (I refuse to use the term “writers’ block”), I put my book aside for a few days in the belief my brain would figure it out somehow. This usually worked. On the rare occasions it did not, I tried my best to power through anyway, safe in the knowledge it was only a first draft.

What I would change next time

  1. After drafting the first chapter, I read and re-read it literally about 20 times, editing it in various ways upon each reading. Despite this, when I looked back on chapter one half a year later, it was… not quite as good as the rest of the book. You learn and evolve constantly as a writer, no matter how long you have been writing. Next time, I will have a quick read through for glaring errors but will leave the serious editing until later.
  2. It is not an exaggeration to say I came up with my initial plot in the space of 15 minutes. I think it has worked well, but could probably be even better if I had given it a bit more thought. Next time, I will try to suppress my excitement to start in the interest of longer-term gains.
  3. One thing I did spend a fair amount of time planning was my characters. I wanted them to be interesting and believable. Next time, I think I will carry out more fun (if slightly gimmicky) character planning exercises, like imaginary interviews – I found that my characters changed on the page as I went along (one of them even refused to keep the hair colour I had given her) so I would like to get to know them even better before I begin. I will also spend a little more time thinking about the necessity of each character – a good piece of advice I found in an online forum was to ask yourself (in the case of minor characters) whether this specific character is the one that needs to do something, or whether an existing character could fulfil the same purpose.
  4. I am a big reader. However, there were certain books I was afraid of reading, one of them being The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. As it also featured a Victorian circus, I was worried elements of it would unduly seep into my writing. I ended up reading it a few months ago and can safely say this didn’t happen. My book is MY book. I won’t worry about this next time.
  5. Buy a desk!

The list is long and will no doubt lengthen further over time. Please let me know what the writing process has taught you, or if you have any little gems you think I should follow in future (or wilfully ignore at leisure).

Backache or no backache, perhaps the single most important thing I have learnt is that the following quote from Scott Lynch sums up precisely how I feel about being a writer:

“I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions, the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding toward epic failure.”

-Kirsty

Hello and welcome to my blog

BlogWelcome to my blog! This is just a quick post to say hi and let anybody interested know my author website is up and running (which is probably pretty obvious as you are reading this on my website right now…). I’m ALMOST there with the first draft of my book (expect to see a blurb and an extract or two very shortly) – after that will come the scary business of editing and the even scarier business of trying to find an agent.

In the meantime, I’m going to be sharing my thoughts on my book, writing and life in general, and possibly linking to some of the many weird and wonderful websites I come across in the name of book research (common poisonous plants and scary Victorian wedding photos, anybody?!).

So that’s it from me for now (read: I want to carry on drinking my glass of wine)…

– Kirsty