Villains and Secondary Characters: Altering the Focus

When you begin plotting or developing a story idea, the main characters are necessarily the focus, however, once you are into the details of the story it’s important to alter the focus occasionally to better develop the secondary characters.

If a secondary character seems to be falling to the wayside or not sticking in the reader’s mind, that can be a good time to turn the focus toward that character. This can provide a needed break from the main storyline and give the reader a change to process information or a big event or change while still progressing the story in an interesting way.

Shining a light of a secondary character’s motivations and desires may also give insight into his or her relationship to the main characters and overall storyline.

Consider questions of this nature to help you give a secondary character more meaningful page time: Who does this character love or hate and why? What does he or she fear? What are his or her thoughts about the journey taking place in the story? What personal issues of a secondary character may impact the main character’s journey?

It’s okay for a secondary character to have a life away from the main character. Most of their page time will relate to their interactions with or impact on the main character, but not all of it. Allowing a secondary character to exist semi-independently in the story provides more opportunities for that character to influence the story and main character because he or she is more fully developed.

A great example of a secondary character with an independent story that is only occasionally given focus (to great effect) is Cliff from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The viewer never gets his full backstory, but it certainly exists and seems to be quite interesting. It led to his connection and interactions with the main character, but it’s only brought to the forefront of the story when needed to explain why he sticks around and can’t find consistent work elsewhere in Hollywood. Even thought the viewer never gets to know Cliff fully, he feels quite complex and realistic.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Determining Role

Secondary character should have a distinct role in the story in order to avoid becoming filler and getting lost in the greater plot.

The role of a secondary character should NOT exist only in relation to the main character. This creates flat characters who are difficult to develop into more meaningful elements in a story. Consider why a secondary character is involved with a hero/villain and why he or she continues to associate with them. Taking a deeper look at motivation can help confirm their role in the overall story.

A secondary character with a strong sense of duty may struggle to disentangle themselves from a main character making harmful decisions, or a secondary character who is a friend and coworker of the main character may be riding that character’s coattails of success in hopes of moving up themselves. The deeper you dive into why a secondary character exists in a story and how he or she will impact it, the more engaging and interesting the character and story will be.

It is very easy to fall into stereotypes with secondary characters. Stereotypes can be a good starting point, but should never be the end development of a secondary character. Be mindful that you are not pigeon-holing a character into a role such as the comic relief, love interest, lovable rogue, wise old mentor, token diversity character, etc. If you can describe a secondary character in a few words or less, he or she needs further development. Where did that most noticeable characteristic come from and what purpose does it serve for that character?

A secondary character’s thoughts, actions, and choices should be largely based on their own needs and desires and not always fall back to what the main character needs or wants. While secondary characters do serve to aid the development of the main character and move the story along, be sure to weave in his or her own development and progress. This will add important layers of realism to a story.

If you aren’t sure yet why a secondary character might do or say something, take some time to create a backstory for him or her. You may not use most of the backstory information you develop, but it will help you better understand the character and write them in a more realistic and relatable way. The backstory may only be a paragraph or two, but it helps cement that character as an individual in your mind while writing.

Understanding a secondary character’s role in the story will help you better integrate them and make them stand out as memorable and interesting to the reader.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Secondary Characters with Impact

While secondary characters are typically less integral to a story, that doesn’t mean they should be any less real.

Secondary characters should still have some level of a character arc, though it will necessarily be less complex than the main character’s arc.

Even though much of a secondary character’s backstory may never see page time, it’s important that you know their story and personality so you can weave it into their interactions with the main characters. This will not only make them more memorable, it will also make the interactions more meaningful and provide a fuller scene with the main character.

Secondary characters should also have a purpose. They should, in some way, help to progress the storyline through their presence or interactions with the main characters. This may come in the form of providing assistance, revealing information, being an emotional support, etc. How a secondary character progresses the story depends greatly on the type of story it is, but be mindful that they should be serving a purpose and not be acting a page filler or a basic sounding board.

It’s also important to consider a secondary character’s motivation. Why is he or she helping this character? Because you, as the author, need them to is not a good enough reason. Reach into their backstory to find and then develop their motivation. Help doesn’t have to be entirely altruistic either. The secondary character should have mixed feelings about providing help, or be reluctant to offer it. It could also be self-serving or their presence could act as a hindrance or barrier rather than being helpful.

Secondary characters exist on either side of the protagonist-antagonist spectrum. Don’t short change secondary characters involved with the villain/antagonist. These characters can be important cogs in the overall mechanism of how the antagonist’s path and ultimate resolution unfold. An antagonist taking something too far could prompt a secondary character to walk away, leading to him or her reconsidering what they are doing. Alternately, a secondary character who wants the antagonist to fail could give the final nudge to push him or her over the edge and initiate a chain of events that leads to his or her downfall.

Secondary characters may have less page time than main characters, but their influence on other characters and events can be profound when the time is taken to full develop them and integrate them into the story.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Developing Secondary Characters

It can be very challenging to make secondary and even tertiary character stand out in a story and not be overshadowed by the main characters.

Before discussing how to make them stand out, let’s define what secondary and tertiary characters are and how they impact the story.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters typically impact the main storyline and/or the main character(s) in some meaningful way. They are more than filler or background material.

Secondary characters are also recurring character throughout the story and/or series. How often they pop up in scenes depends on the level of impact the have on the story or characters.

Secondary characters also have a moderate level of intimacy with at least one main character. This may come in the form of having known the character for a long time, having shared a difficult or meaningful experience, being a current main part of the character’s life, etc.

Tertiary Characters

Tertiary character appear in a story once or only a handful of times. They may have some impact on a particular scene, but generally do not have a strong impact on the overall storyline or main character’s development.

Tertiary characters have a limited purpose. They may provide information on a particular subject, serve as a catalyst in a specific or limited way, introduce another character or situation, etc.

Tertiary characters typically have low intimacy with the main character(s). They may only know the MC incidentally, knew them in the past but lost touch, or even be a relative stranger who comes into a scene for one specific reason.

While developing secondary and tertiary characters, be sure to know which one a character is and what their purpose in the story is. This can help you determine how much effort to put into their development and how much to integrate them into a storyline.

***Apologies for being away from the blog for a few weeks. I was moving and without internet for a while. I’m back to regular, weekly blogs now!

Villains and Secondary Characters: The Easy Way Out

It can be very tempting to take the easy way out when it comes to creating, developing, and wrapping up a villain’s character arc by deeming them “evil” and going no further.

A villain’s motives are one of the character aspects that can easily be neglected without even realizing it. When creating a villain, he or she must be motivated to do something that will make the hero’s journey more difficult. These motives have to be believable and realistic, though. They have to be TRUE motives in order to be believable.

Mental illness is not a villainous motive, though it can be part of the villain’s overall character profile and influence his or her motives.

Motives also need to make sense. If villain’s goal has to be met simply because it “HAS” to be met in the story, that is an Author-Created motive or will not create as strong of an interest with readers as a motive which comes from deep within the villain’s personality and backstory.

An example of an author-creative motive that doesn’t make sense and irritates readers/viewers is from the film “Hocus Pocus” when the witches have a whole group of children hypnotized and arriving at their home to be drained of life, yet the witch Winifred insists they put off their ultimate goal of endless youth to hunt down the trio of main characters who escaped their clutches, which of course leads to their ultimate downfall. Logically, the witches should have sacrificed the children in their possession, assured their youth and power, and then went after the characters who escaped.

Having characters demonstrate a few stereotypically “evil” characteristics or acts with no substantive backing falls flat with readers. True “evil” is complicated and complex and is built off villains who are equally complex.

How Do You Create a Complex Villain?

Start with these 5 questions…

  1. What is the villain’s motivation to reach their goal?
  2. How will they determine success?
  3. What can the villain NOT lose?
  4. Why does the villain fight the hero?
  5. What will the world be like if the villain “wins”?

Answering these questions will help you dig deeper into why a villain does what he does, wants what she wants, and believes what he believes.

One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.

Charles M. Blow, journalist

When developing villains, strive to make villains human, but a human who has been twisted and warped into doing and believing despicable or immoral things.

Villains and Secondary Characters: Show vs. Tell with Villains

Because is it so important for readers to connect with the villain or antagonist, show vs. tell is a necessary discussion.

The two extremes of the show vs. tell villain spectrum are the Throne-Sitting Villain and the Hands-Dirty Villain. There are, of course, myriad points between these two on the spectrum, but finding the right balance for a particular story can make or break a reader’s ability to make and maintain a connection to the villain.

The Throne-Sitting Villain

This type of villain rules tyrannically, but never takes direct action. He or she remains apart from the hands-on aspects of the plan or journey. He or she makes decisions and delegates the dirty work.

Readers never “see” this type of villain actually being evil. The reader must rely on author “telling” him or her that the villain is bad news. This creates a weaker connection with the reader, in most cases, and makes the hero’s connection to the villain more abstract.

Secondary antagonists become more important barriers or stumbling blocks than the main villain and readers typically form stronger bonds with those characters instead. This may be an effective tactic over the course of a series, where individual lower-level antagonists are featured in specific books or sections with the overall villain remaining in a “throne-sitting” role until entering the story for a final confrontation.

A good example of this type of villain is Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Minor villains such as Saruman, Gollum, The Witch King, the Goblin King, etc. present multiple barriers along the heroes’ journey to keep them from destroying the One Ring, all while Sauron quietly directs things from his tower. Sauron never really presents as an embodied, physical villain the heroes need to fight, leading to a weak connection with the readers as actual main villain of the story.

The Hands Dirty Villain

This type of villain takes direct action against characters who the reader cares about, creating an immediate and recognizable sense of threat and dislike in the reader’s mind.

Direct action by a villain against a hero creates an emotional investment for readers. Rather than simply an overarching feeling of conflict, every action and decision matters to the reader because it could directly impact the characters who the reader is emotionally bonded to.

The close conflict between and hands-dirty villain and the hero creates an intensity in the story that is hard to match with a non-present villain. Tensions run higher with more frequent or up close interactions or battles.

A good example of this type of villain is Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. Umbridge is an agent of Voldemort, but while Voldemort rarely makes appearances in the series, villains like Umbridge inflict physical and emotional pain on Harry on a regular basis, constantly reminding the reader how much he or she dislikes the villain and wants him or her to fail and be punished.

Finding Balance

A villain in a story doesn’t have to be only one or the other. It’s important to evaluate a story carefully in order to determine what point on the spectrum will work best. A villain may also move along the spectrum during the story in order to control pacing. When planning interactions between heroes and villains, consider how that reaction will impact the reader’s connection to both the hero and the villain.

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