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: 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: 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.

Story Structure: Showing Character Change and Staying on Point

Every scene in a book should have a purpose. Part of that purpose should be to show how a character is progressing through their arc.

Showing Character Change

Every scene should demonstration some form of character change. The change exhibited may be subtle, especially if it is a transition scene or largely informational. When considering how to show how a character is changing, think back to the character arc and what point the character is on the arc at that moment.

The change shown should show development and growth of the character in reference to previous scenes, or show backsliding behavior that may lead toward a crisis. The change shown should be related to what is happening in the scene.

Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level, whether emotional, mental, or behavioral. Change should match the character and the event to keep it realistic. A minor even that creates a major change will feel forced to the reader.

One character may also see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem, so be sure to consider the character’s personality developed up to that point. The character needs to react and change according to their perceptions.

Staying on Point

Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details of the characters’ lives. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not include details that are not relevant to the scene’s purpose.

If the information, actions, or dialogue don’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it out and reevaluate what is needed to move the scene forward.

Consider starting in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. This helps curtail unnecessary details that will bore or confuse the reader. Irrelevant details can make the reader focus on the wrong information, thinking it is important to the story or scene.

Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene. If a large portion of backstory explanation is needed, structure the scene around that information rather than trying to insert it into scenes with a different purpose. It’s also important only to share relevant backstory information needed for that particular scene to keep from bogging it down.

Crafting scenes that stick with your readers

What is a scene from a book or movie that has stuck with you? Why did it connect with you? For writers, recognizing and evaluating these scenes is a great learning experience!

There are several important elements to crafting an impactful scene:

concept-1868728_1920Purpose

Every scene should have a purpose (advance the plot, reveal something about the character, or provide information about the overall plot). The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. Scenes with no clear purpose are filler and should be cut or rewritten.

Point of View

A scene needs to be told from the most impactful point of view. Usually this is whoever is most impacted by the events of the scene. If emotion isn’t coming through in the scene, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene: Who will learn the most? Who will change the most? Who will react more strongly? Who has the most to lose?

The High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure: beginning, middle, climax, end. The high moment uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s). The high moment should come at or near the end of the scene and it should be something that produces a reaction. The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, that affects their perception or choices.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: inner, outer, or both. The conflict needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing. Conflict should get progressively worse throughout the story, increasing the stakes. Keep this in mind while planning scenes and make sure there is an overall progression. Scenes with mostly inner conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

portrait-1634421_1920

Showing Character Development and Change

Every scene should demonstrate some form of character change. The change may be subtle, but it needs to show development and growth of the character, or show backsliding behavior. Whatever happens in the scene should have an impact on the character, eliciting change on some level. Change should match the character and the event. One character may see an event as not a big deal, while the other sees it as a huge problem. They need to react and change according to their perceptions.

Staying on Point

Scenes should leave out all the boring and non-important details. Life may be filled with the mundane, but scenes should not be. If the info, actions, or dialogue doesn’t pertain to the purpose of the scene, cut it. Start in the middle of a scene, with action of some kind, and leave out the movements in and out of the scene. Only insert backstory when it doesn’t slow the present scene.

Strong Beginning and Endings

The beginning and ending should not only be strong, but should be related in some way. This may be theme, symbolism, situational, a specific action or piece of information, etc. Tie the beginning and the end together in a meaningful way that relates to the purpose of the scene.

Adding Details

Find the right balance of details to create a full scene without bogging it down. Descriptive details should be pertinent to the action, help create mood and tone, or accentuate the dialogue. Details should use all relevant senses to create a full picture of the setting, the characters, and the emotion. Details should reveal something. A clenched fist shows anger, fidgeting conveys unease, food and clothing choices set the stage and reveal preferences, etc.

Evaluating Scenes

Whether you’ve watched Dead Poet’s Society or not (if you haven’t, you should!), this scene is a powerful one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j64SctPKmqk

What is one thing about this scene that sticks out to you? What impression does it leave and why?

Writing balanced action scenes

Writing action scenes can be extremely challenging due to their chaotic nature, the pacing, and the possible lack of firsthand knowledge. It’s also very easy for action to overtake a scene to the exclusion of the characters and story. Below are some tips to writing strong and balanced action scenes.

Man with Sword

Do NOT write an entire action scene as blow-by-blow description

This becomes tedious and confusing for the reader and slows the pace. Action must be balanced with description, exposition, internal dialogue, and emotional reflection.

Strive for clarity

If the reader can’t understand what’s going on because it’s too chaotic, they will likely miss the point of the scene. Use simple language and shorter sentences. Be clear about who is involved, where it happens, weapons/powers used, risks involved, and consequences.

Focus on the experience, not the individual action

Use all five senses to describe the action. Don’t rely solely on visual and physical elements. Tastes, smells, and sounds are important factors in action scenes. Make the character connect with and react to the devastation going on.

Know the purpose of the scene and write in a way that fulfills the purpose

Why something is happening is just as important, or more important than, what is happening. Makes sure the WHY is clear during an action scene so the reader knows what to pay attention to and absorbs information relevant to the purpose.

Pointing a gun at someone

Avoid the passive voice

The characters are involved in the fight scenes, it’s not happening to them as passive bystanders. The scene should be told through the character’s experience. For example, “Alan was punched by Greg” is a passive description while “Greg punched Alan” is an active description. In the first example, something HAPPENS TO Alan while in the second description Greg actively TAKES action.

Use action scenes as opportunities to explore a character’s motivations and goals

Why do they fight or make the choices they do in the scene and what is the source of that action or decision? Guns are pulled at pointed at people for no reason. It may be a panicked reaction in the moment, or a lifestyle that breeds that type of reaction as instinctual. There are also consequences to taking action. Does the character consider the consequences first, or are they too in the moment to think beyond it?

Make action unique

Use different settings (going into a gunfight from a stairwell presents different challenges than bursting through a window). Vary the number of people involved (a one-on-one fight will play out much differently that two groups battling). Change the tempo (a chase scene has different pacing than a single explosion). Give them different weapons (a spontaneous fight using items lying around has a very different feel than fighters trained to use particular weapons). Create different goals for each scene (rescuing someone requires different types of action than wantonly killing everyone in the room).

Integrate action into a story to drive the plot forward, improve characterization, and provide excitement.

Stereotypes in Character Devlopment

What are Stereotypes and why should you be careful when using them?

StripedShirtWomanStereotypes

A character that is so ordinary or unoriginal that they seem like an oversimplified version of a person, class, gender, etc.

Why should you avoid this?

Stereotypes are rarely accurate. Not only can they be offensive, they make for poor characters because readers can guess exactly what they will think, do, say, or respond. That’s boring.

Straight stereotypes lack depth and are predictable. Readers immediately think they already know how their story will go because they feel like they have already met this character and read their story in a dozen other similar stories. Your goal as a writer is to surprise your readers with new and unique characters and stories.

Should you NEVER use a stereotype?

OSC quote stereotypesStereotypes develop for a reason

High school for example: there are jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, emos, skanks, etc.

  • At this age, being defined and having a “label” provides safety and confidence (“self” on some level)

Now think about the adult workplace: there are brown-nosers, slackers, workaholics, gossips, etc.

  • You have a wider variety of personalities, but there are always those few in nearly every workplace that fit “the mold”

How do you use this the right way?

Start with a level of stereotype to instantly familiarize readers with the character’s traits…then delve deeper, expand on what is on the surface. You still have to be careful with starting out an introduction with a stereotypical portrayal because it can turn readers off if they think all they are going to get is a stereotyped “blah” character, i.e. the handsome and charming billionaire out to sweep Miss Innocent off her feet.

Make it clear from the beginning that even if this character exhibits stereotypical behaviors, the reasons behind them are deep and layer, and there are consequences for the way the act or live. Hint at complexity so your readers are left wanting more and searching for the truth rather than sighing and thinking, “I’ve already read this a hundred times before.”

SURPRISE YOUR READERS

If you want to hear the full discussion now, listen to “Episode 5: Creating a Character with Depth” on #WritePublishRepeat Podcast.

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Writing a Character With Depth: Where to Start

Characters can make or break even the best of ideas, but where do you start when building great characters?

It might depend on what type of writer you are. Here are a few options for getting started.

Character Profiling

Invisible Cast

Start with the basics: Who is your character?

  • Create a character profile sheet and be as detailed as possible
  • Physical characteristics
  • Eye/hair color, weight, height, etc.
  • Personality traits
  • Happy, gloomy, morose, optimistic, etc.
  • Likes/Dislikes
  • Fears/Dreams
  • Talents/Goals
  • Secret or otherwise
  • Flaws (We’ll talk about this on in more depth later)

Start with a picture

Car Man Head in HandsInstead of starting from scratch, find a picture you think is interesting and describe what you see. Go deeper than how they look.

  • What motivates these characters?
  • What are there goals?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • How did they end up in this situation?
  • What emotions are they dealing with?
  • Where will they go from here?

Start making a list of character traits that will help bring them to life.

The key with the beginning stages of character development is to get to know your characters, find out what problems they are facing (there MUST be a problem), and what the first stage of their journey looks like.

If you want to hear the full discussion now, listen to “Episode 5: Creating a Character with Depth” on #WritePublishRepeat Podcast.