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Villains and Secondary Characters: Characteristics of a Villain

AMC ranked the Top 20 villains from films, which I think gives writers a good starting point when considering what characteristics make for a good villain. Let’s take a took…

  1. Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  2. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (1960)
  3. Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  4. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  5. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
  6. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
  7. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction (1987)
  8. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)
  9. Regan MacNeil (Satan) (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist (1973)
  10. The Queen (voice of Lucille LaVerne) in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  11. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Part II (1974)
  12. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  13. HAL 9000 (voice of Douglas Rain) in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968
  14. The Alien (Bolaji Badejo) in Alien (1979)
  15. Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List (1993)
  16. Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974)
  17. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Misery (1990)
  18. The Shark in Jaws (1975)
  19. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
  20. Man in Bambi (1942)

What characteristics do all or most of these villains share?

POWER

Villains shouldn’t be easily defeated. It must be challenging for the hero to overcome the villain or it won’t be an interesting or fulfilling quest. This could be physical, mental, emotional, or some combination of power.

A villain can’t be unbeatable, though. Develop valid reasons that the villain is difficult to defeat, such as having more experience, knowledge, physical ability, connections, etc.

Vary the types of power a villain has in order to create interest and multiple avenues of challenge. Types of power might include, physical strength, magic, intelligence, money/influence, resources, etc.

Make use of opposing powers. The villain should have power that corresponds to a hero’s weaknesses. This will push the hero to develop and grow and create a more interesting storyline and character arc.

Changeability

It is important that a villain be changeable. A villain having the ability to change threatens the opposition and has the potential to stall the hero’s progress. A stagnant villain is boring and easier to defeat.

Possibility of change also opens up avenues for a villain or antagonist becoming a reluctant ally. An unexpected turn can increase reader interest and allow for the goals of the hero and villain to temporarily align before returning to battling against each other.

The villain achieving his or her goal is often more important than individual conflict with the hero and can break ties and push him or her to accept temporary alliances in order to further a goal.

Personality

Villains must have rounded personalities with depth in order to be believable and interesting.

To be rounded, a villain cannot be all evil or do evil things for evil’s sake. He or she should have multiple motivations, which are often conflicting and a source of inner struggle.

To create depth, villains should have a complex history and challenging experiences. Often he or she will have suffered some level of psychological or emotional damage that has skewed his or her perception of love, power, and/or right and wrong. The villain’s initial state at the beginning of the story should be shaped by past experiences without relying too heavily on common tropes.

Evolution

A villain must evolve and have a definable character arc. His or her goals, motives, and agendas should change throughout the story depending on what is experienced.

Evolving doesn’t necessarily mean “seeing the light” or changing for the better. Villains can become worse or more damaged if that is what the experiences dictate.

Villains should also learn from his or her mistakes. Do not allow a villain to repeatedly make the same stupid mistakes. It will be seen as unbelievable and irritating. Villains should be trying to defeat the hero just as hard as the hero is trying to defeat the villain.

Questionable Morality

Villains are rarely completely immoral. They simply have a warped sense of morality due to past experiences. This atypical morality may be derived from superior intelligence that makes a villain believe he or she knows better and sees more clearly than others.

This leads a villain to develop their own moral code. The villain usually believes in the “rightness” of his or her own code and believes that societal or religious morality does not apply because he or she is above it.

Determination

Well-crafted villains don’t give up easily. A villain is most often single-mindedly driven or obsessed with achieving a goal. However, it’s important that a villain still have moment away from this drive where the reader can learn more above him or her and see more deeply into his or her psyche. Truly obsessed characters are tiresome to read.

A driven personality is one the focuses intently on the idea of winning, and this attitude can be a consuming aspect of a villain’s nature because it ties the self to the achievement of the goal. It also pushes a villain to refuse to fail, which can push a person well beyond what a regular person would be willing to do.

When developing a villain, consider these elements and go beyond concepts of good and evil or right and wrong and focus on making a villain as interesting and, in some ways, relatable and likable, as your hero.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Basic Traits of Villains

This writing craft series will focus on tips for making readers love the villain and remember the side characters.

What is a villain?

“A cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness and crime; a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.“

Random House Dictionary

“Villain” is a simplified term. These tips apply not only to writing villains, but to developing antagonists, oppositional characters, and those characters whose purpose is to act as a stumbling block or interference. For simplicity, I will use the term villain.

These types of characters are important because they often set the tone of the conflict and influence how and why the hero or protagonist is struggling.

Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a great triumph.

Roger Ebert

Basic Traits of Villains

Villains have a negative effect on other characters. The type of negative effect can be wide ranging depending on the type of story. He or she might cause emotional, physical, or mental damage, act as a hindrance to the hero’s goals, actively work against the hero’s mission, etc.

The villain provides conflict for the hero through his or her negative influence or impact. Whatever actions a villain takes should have a purpose directed toward making the hero’s goals more difficult to achieve. These can be very subtle actions or direct and apparent actions.

A villain most often “mirrors” or “contrasts” the hero by exhibiting characteristics which oppose the hero’s desirable characteristics. This shines a light on the development of the hero and provides an example of what the hero may become should he or she not fulfill their goals.

A villain’s motives for doing wrong must be GOOD motives. Being evil or evil’s sake is not a good motive. Every villain must have good reason for thwarting the hero, even if he or she doesn’t fully understand those reasons. The villain may believe he or she is right in what they are doing, may despise the hero and actively wish to harm them, etc. Developing a good reason for a villain’s behavior stems from a great backstory.

“In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil… Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus of what they know in life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.“

Ben Bova

Next week we’ll dive deeper into what characteristics are important in developing a villain!

Effective Outlining: Learning from the Outline

During the outlining process, take note of inconsistencies, missing information, and dangling plotlines. These are opportunities to improve the structure, characters, flow, or pacing of the story and should not be ignored.

Consider these questions while outlining and address each one before completing the outline:

  • Do any scenes present an idea that is left hanging?
  • Do any scenes need a bridge to improve the flow?
  • Are any scenes redundant or irrelevant?
  • Are there any plot holes?
  • Are any hints or questions left unanswered?
  • Are any character arcs left unfulfilled?
  • Does the ending provide a satisfying conclusion?
  • Are there any lagging sections where there is little to no progress?

Just as a story takes multiple drafts before reaching completion, so should an outline. Review the first draft of an outline for the issues mentioned above and rework those areas that aren’t working.

And remember…

Outlines should act as a guide, not a box.

Outlining is a great tool for developing all the big-picture aspects of the story, but the process should still leave room for flexibility while writing. The end goal is a great story, not a perfectly followed outline.

Effective Outlining: Creating An Outline

Step 1

Start with the big picture by crafting the premise/underlying idea of the story.
Expand on this premise, asking:

  • Who is the main protagonist and how will they change from the beginning to end?
  • What is the situation and central conflict?
  • What are the character’s objectives and wants/needs?
  • What are the stakes—what will happen if the character fails or doesn’t get what they want?

Write a one-paragraph summary of the novel

Step 2

Determine the setting. Setting should relate to the story, either because it directly effects the story or characters or because it sets the right tone/mood.

Research the details and plan how they will interact with the story

  • What elements will impact the story?
  • What elements will set the tone/mood

Determine secondary scenes.

  • Determines which scenes will play out in what settings
  • There should be a good reason for each placement

Step 3

Write character profiles

  • Include backstory, current situation, and endpoint
  • Determine what the character needs to learn by the end of the story
  • Plot the steps the characters will need to take to resolve internal issues
  • Determine what external forces will push the character to develop

Develop secondary characters

  • Develop limited backstory
  • Develop how they influence or support the main characters
  • Determine their mini-arc in relation to the main storyline

Step 4

Construct the plot

  • Construct a timeline of events broken into the 3-Act structure
  • Act 1: Meet Cute, Refusal/Rejection
  • Act 2: Giving in, Testing the relationship, Midpoint crisis, Reconciliation, Falling in love, Breaking up
  • Act 3: The sacrifice, the HEA/HFN

Break the timeline events into chapters

  • Each chapter MUST have a timeline event
  • Don’t cram too many events into each chapter

Step 5

Develop individual scenes with a chapter-by-chapter outline

  • Organize major events into appropriate chapters
  • List one major event/scene for every chapter
  • Each chapter should have its own theme and major/minor plot point

Add limited details about what will happen in each scene

  • Something must happen in each chapter: action or character development
  • Each plot point should move the story forward and be relevant
  • There needs to be constant progression in the storyline and the characters

Add as much details as necessary to guide the writing

  • Develop setting, character traits, backstory, and more
  • Focus on the big picture elements first

Effective Outlining: First Steps

Knowing where to begin with an outline can be daunting. A story idea may form in the middle of the story, with a character idea, a what if, or various other types of ideas. To build around that beginning idea, here are some guidelines:

Develop a clear beginning, middle, and end. This may only be general plot points, but it is important to have a concise path between these points.

Storylines should not be lopsided (front- or end-loaded), and should have a balanced arc. Consider using the three-act structure to create the roller coaster-like pattern of rising and falling action. Make sure all the action or revelations are not crammed together in one section of the story.

Identify the main plotline and subplots, and make sure all have a full arc. Every arc, whether story or character, should have a purpose. Determine what that purpose is and the steps required to fulfill that purpose.

Dangling subplots leave questions and frustrate readers, so make sure that every subplot is not only relevant to the story, but complete and satisfying. Those that cannot be completed satisfactorily should be removed.

Develop strong character arcs that have beginnings, middles, and ends. A character should change throughout a story, and those changes should make sense and provide the reader with a sense of satisfaction by the end.

Underdeveloped characters leave readers unfulfilled. Ask whether or not a character has reached his or her full potential dictated by the events of the story. Everything that happens to a character should have an effect. Consider effects individually and in total.

Develop a strong ending that makes sense and wraps up the storyline. Readers who feel unsatisfied when a book ends are unlikely to read that author again. A strong ending fulfills all plots and subplots and provide interesting development for the characters.

Flat, confusing, or illogical endings deflate the entire story. Endings that are wrapped up too quickly are likely lacking something. Make sure the ending links back to the beginning and the characters’ goals and desires, and that in some way those goals and desires are met, have changed in a way that makes sense, or have reached a satisfying conclusion.

Make sure you have enough story to fill an entire book. Don’t force content into a story just for the sake of length. Cut what isn’t relevant to the story. The story should not be stretched to fulfill a word count. Either write a shorter story or develop more pertinent subplots and character conflict.

Effective Outlining: Outlining Methods

There are a variety of outlining methods, and which one works best depends on individual preferences and organization styles. Here are four of the most popular methods to try:

The Synopsis Outline

This is a 1-2 page document that roughly sketches the structure of the story and leaves room for flexibility. It hits all the major plot points but does not go into great detail on scenes or character arcs. This method creates a loose framework that can be further developed while writing.

The In-Depth Outline

This is a comprehensive chapter summaries that break up individual scenes. It includes detailed timelines, character details, plot points, and subplots. Scene-level description is usually not included, but full character and plot arcs should be developed with major pinch points noted and the scenes they are included in pointed out. Particular attention should be paid attention to flow between scenes and pacing of the overall arcs.

The Snowflake Method

This method begins with a one-sentence summary of the story idea, then builds into a paragraph, which is then used to create character descriptions and storylines. The structure remains fairly loose and branches into different story aspects. This may be especially helpful for storylines which are not fully fleshed out yet and are in need of brainstorming.

The Bookend Method

In this method, you begin by plotting the beginning and end of the story and the main characters, leaving everything else to be develop during the story writing. It is important to consider how the beginning and ending relate to each other and whether there is a meaningful link between the two that is believable and achievable. While this method does not detail out the steps between the beginning and end, you should have a sense of what steps will be needed to bring the two together.

Regardless of which method you employ, stay focused on creating a strong flow from beginning to end and pacing that will maintain the interest of the reader.

Author Interview: Boshra Rasti

Today I’d like to welcome author Boshra Rasti to the blog!

Boshra Rasti

Q: When did you begin writing stories?

It’s a really embarrassing thing to share, but I began writing out of childhood jealousy. There was this girl in grade 1 who was just what you would classify as the “perfect North American girl”. This was in a time in the 80’s, in small-town Canada, where there weren’t very many people like me: a dark, Middle-Eastern immigrant. So, this girl was just the best at whatever she did. She was the teacher’s pet, she had normal parents, her eyes twinkled every time the teacher would call on her or praise her (and that was often). I was the odd one, the girl who had parents who couldn’t speak proper English, who didn’t have many friends, and the friends I had were weirdos like me. So, I just felt so rejected that I plotted to write a poem for the school writing competition to spite her. The contest theme was: Mother’s Day. I basically took the template for a poem we were reading in Grade 1 that was about a cat. It went something like “Some cats are pretty, but my cat purrs the most beautifully” and it went on and on for several stanza’s purporting this and that about the writer’s cat. So, my poem went like this: “Some mothers’ are beautiful, but my mother is most beautiful…” etc. I still laugh at myself to this day, because the intention of the poem was to one-up her. Long story short, after 30 some years, me and this girl are friends of Facebook.

Q: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

A few years ago, a Canadian writer visited the school I was teaching at and afterwards at lunch we were talking about books and writing. She said something that has stayed with me for quite some time now. She said, “writing is a verb, it is an action. It isn’t a noun. We can’t call ourselves writers because to write is an action word, an engagement that someone partakes in.” I really like that and have adopted it as my motto too.

Q: COVID impact? On writing, on creativity?

It’s a double-edged sword. There are so many things that are being swept under the carpet. So many wrongs with our political systems and our treatment of people that are brushed to the wayside because of the threat (real and perceived) by COVID, that I can’t really say it is a blessing worldwide for all writers, but I can say the moments of lockdown have been a catalyst to make something beautiful out of this mess.

Q: What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?

Probably taxidermy. I am from Canada, so you often see monuments of some man’s over-production of testosterone hanging around on the walls. In Qatar, I’ve seen people keep exotic pets (although officially against the law) in Qatar. A few years ago, a tiger escaped and was roaming the highway. It’s funny in a dark way. Such a symbol of our absolute irreverence of animals.

Q: What’s your elevator pitch?

An 18-year-old girl against a database; but will those behind the algorithms get her before it’s too late.

Q: Why is storytelling so important for all of us?

Humans are storytellers. The whole reason we have a frontal cortex that is so developed is probably due to story and imagining the light in times of darkness. I really believe without story; we’d be the most debased form of dust and clay that has ever been envisioned or invented.

Learn more about Boshra and her writing online at:

Facebook

Instagram

Goodreads

LinkedIn

Website

Effective Outlining: The Purpose of an Outline

Strong planning can help create a strong storyline.

What is a story outline?

An outline includes planning information about:

  • Structure
  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Scenes
  • Events
  • Conflict

Outlines provide a skeleton or map of the full story.

Having skeleton or map can help writers visualize the big picture of the storyline, organize story details and keep the story on track, create full character arcs, plan scenes and structure them in a way that keeps the story moving.

Outlines can also help improve writing efficiency by preventing writing blocks, dead-end plot lines or subplots, and allowing the writer to research needed aspects beforehand rather than during the writing process.

Questions and outline should answer:

  • What is the main contract made with the reader?
  • Are all promises resolved by the end?
  • What pressures are working on the characters?
  • Does the pressure grow more intense as the story progresses?
  • What is at stake for the main characters?
  • Are those stakes high enough that failure inspires stress or anxiety for the reader?
  • Does the ending make logical sense and fit with the rest of the story?

When a question can’t be answered by an outline, dig deeper or step back and consider why a certain question has no answer. Does the storyline need to be altered, or is there an issue with the character that prevents an easier answer? Unanswered questions are prompts for additional development and can provide a writer with new avenues to explore!

Apologies for disappearing from the blog for the past couple months. Writing graduate school and getting through the holidays were kicking my butt and I needed to take a step away.

‘Getting New Mexico’ by Rhenna Saint Clair wins New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Fiction

I’m so excited to share that a lovely friend on mine was recently recognized for her wonderful book!

“Part love story and part comedic hero’s journey, the story is filled with quirky and diverse
characters and unlikely situations right out of real life. A fun read from start to finish.”
—Anne Hillerman, author of the Manuelito, Chee and Leaphorn mysteries.

Getting New Mexico by Taos, New Mexico, author Rhenna St. Clair has won the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Fiction, presented by the New Mexico Book Co-Op.

A comic novel about second chances, redemption and finding latein-love love, Getting New Mexico tells the story of Aaron Schuyler, a drunk, cheat, exploiter and — worst of all — a lifelong New Yorker, whose life and character is transformed by the quirky, anti-elitist culture of New Mexico.

After his alcoholism and wayward behavior lose him his family, livelihood and home, Schuyler is forced by his formidable Winston Churchill-worshipping mother to move to Santa Fe. Schuyler finds himself in a culture where self-reliance and compassion counts more than power or status. Stripped of his former wealth and reduced to wearing clothes from Walmart, Schuyler finds that people no longer excuse his bad behavior. With his survival depending on keeping a real job, Schuyler is forced to develop new habits of responsibility and sobriety.

Along the way, Schuyler meets unconventional people unlike any he’s ever known — the enigmatic Indian artist Lone Goose; his aloof landlord who was the lover of Schuyler’s beloved uncle; the blue co llar Sam’s Club workers who accept him as one of their own; and above all, the beautiful and no-nonsense Anita Chatterjee, HR director at Sam’s Club, with whom Schuyler is immediately smitten. For the first time in his life, Schuyler wants to be a better person — and shaking scorpions out of his boots seems like a fair trade.

Upcoming Book Signing

I will be signing copies of my award-winning novel, Getting New Mexico, at Amy’s Bookcase in Farmington, New Mexico on Saturday, November 27 from 10:00 a.m. to 12 noon.

Getting New Mexico was a winner in fiction, and was a finalist for Book of the Year.  I hope to see you at Amy’s!

About the Award and Author

New Mexico Book Co-Op is New Mexico’s largest not-for-profit volunteer organization serving authors and publishing professionals, the New Mexico Book Co-op numbers over 1,200 participants. Since 2004, the New Mexico Book Co-Op has executed its mission to showcase books, authors, presses, and related professionals; to promote literacy; and to raise public awareness of quality books produced in the Southwest. In 2007, the Book Co-op launched an awards program for excellence in books, which is now one of the largest and most prestigious programs in the Southwest, attracting entries from across the region as well as from major national presses.

Rhenna St. Clair, a Portland, Oregon, native, arrived in New Mexico in 1992. Fascinated by the beauty of the land and its history, the archaeological sites and the mix of cultures, she “can’t imagine living anywhere else.” A retired acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, St. Clair has traveled in China as well as in India and other parts of Asia. She now resides in northern New Mexico. Her poetry has been published in Perspective(s) Magazine, the literary journal of San Juan College. Getting New Mexico is her first novel.

Storytelling: Narrative Modes

Narrative modes are individual elements used to relay a story to the reader, and include dialogue, action, description, exposition, thought and scene.

Dialogue

Dialogue is the talk that is exchanged between characters. It is spoken communication and is punctuated with quotations. Dialogue can be used to impart information to the reader, show a character’s personality and unique qualities, or progress the story.

Action

Action is events portrayed as they happen in a story. Action takes time to develop and happens in a specific place at a specific time.

Action is not a “report” of something that happened. It should be described “blow-by-blow” and not as a summary. Action should have meaning and purpose. It should serve to progress the story in some way.

Description

Description is details about how something, a place, or a person looks, behaves, or functions. Description should always have purpose and not be superfluous filler. It should develop setting, characters, situation, and time period.

Description should not be self-serving or irrelevant to the situation or story. It should help orient readers in the scene. Only give the reader enough description to make sure they can accurately picture the image you want them to picture. Leave the rest to the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Exposition

Exposition is the telling of the story through the act of relaying information. It is used to explain, transition between scenes, and offer narrative summary in order to skip details of unimportant but necessary events such as average day-to-day activities like hygiene or traveling to and from locations.

Too much exposition or exposition instead of showing how a character experiences an event is referring to as “telling.” Not every part of the story should be told as exposition.

Thought

Thought, or internal dialogue, is character self-talk or the inner thoughts of a character. It may be only thoughts, or actual talk (self encouragement or disparagement) that a character tells him or her self.

In third person narration, thought is italicized to mark it as different from dialogue. First person wording (“I”) is also used in thoughts. In first person narration, thought is woven into the exposition and narration.

Scene

Scene sets the stage for a particular part of a story or event. It informs the reader of the situation the story section will take place in and offers pertinent details that help develop or provide context for the events taking place.

Special attention should be paid to the opening and closing of each scene so it does not begin or extend beyond what is relevant.

Choosing Which Mode(s) to Use

Every story has a unique balance of narrative modes based on which ones create the most appropriate feel. Modes should be varied. Stories that rely to heavily on one or a select few become monotonous.

Vary modes used to open and close scenes. Break up big chunks of dialogue with action. Avoid long sections of thought. Space out action scenes to give readers a chance to reflect and anticipate what comes next. Keep description to what is relevant and helps develop the story, setting, or characters.