Friday, December 02, 2005

DR: The Vicissitudes of Villains

In a recent discussion on a writer’s loop, author Laurie Alice Eakes said, “In the manuscripts I critique—and maybe those I write, too—the villains tend to be the weakest characters when they need to be amongst the strongest. If you don't have a villain, you may not have enough conflict. But you may have a villain and not realize it. In the manuscript I'm working on, my villain isn't really a person—it’s a circumstance, a situation, the heroine's own fears and attitudes. Villains aren't always mustache-twirling, cape-waving, maniacally-chuckling men behind the curtain.”

I cheered when I read these words because I’ve often fretted about my “villain problem.” The books I write aren’t mystery or suspense or legal thrillers or science fiction or even, usually, “high concept” novels. I write women’s fiction—stories about ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges. But the situations I write about are usually realistic and possible. I get letters from readers who say, “I went through the exact same experience your character did.”

I seldom have a flesh and blood villain in my novels. This is worrisome because books on the craft of writing spend chapters on the importance of creating strong villains. And often it seems the human (or at least living, breathing) villains of best-selling novels and movies are even more memorable, more newsworthy, than the protagonists of the piece.

I have a long way to go before I master villains, but I’m learning that it is possible to take a set of circumstances or a dilemma and imbue them with traits that make my protagonists feel and react the same way they might toward a human villain; and in ways that thwart their desires just as powerfully as any human villain could.

One of my villains was Alzheimer’s disease, bringing confusion, frustration, anguish and ultimately grief to my suffering heroine and even worse to her caregiver husband. I’ve also written some pretty malicious villains with names like Addiction, Poverty and Death. There are so many circumstances we can create for our characters in order to bring about conflict and inflict the anger, pain, bitterness, and vengeance usually meted out by a flesh-and-blood villain.

But perhaps we relate better to the concept of a villain when he has a beating physical heart, however metaphorically heartless he may be. Fellow novelist James Scott Bell once advised that an inanimate villain usually works better if there is a human character to represent the opposition. So if my villain is cancer, I might portray it more convincingly through a doctor who is gruff and lacking compassion, or through a pharmacist who feeds his own drug addiction by substituting a placebo for the medication that could ease my hero’s pain.

The quintessential villain, whether human or circumstantial, brings a sense of hopelessness to the plot. And that’s where things get fun. Because our ultimate job as Christian writers is to return Hope to the reader. A holy Hope—One who is able to vanquish the most evil villain our writerly minds can conceive.

Deborah Raney is the author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters


At 10:07 AM, Blogger Robin Cynclair said...

Hey Deb! I use a "person" villian, but I also use other things such as weather and setting to be "villians" as well!

Thanks for sharing! :)

At 10:22 AM, Blogger JSB said...

The thought of this Kansas gal with the sweet smile, thinking up nasty villains for her stories, makes my heart sing.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Well, it's all YOUR fault, JSB! ; )

And Robin, if you like "weather villains" you should move to Kansas. We've got tornadoes, flooding, hailstorms, name it. And you know what they say: if you don't like the weather in Kansas, just stick around 5 minutes and it'll change. Too true! : )

At 6:06 PM, Blogger Dineen A. Miller said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Dineen A. Miller said...

Hi Deb! I think writing an intangible villain would be the greatest challenge of all. I like Bell's idea, though, of giving it a human representation. Especially if he's a victim of the system and has given up fighting for his patients. That would be a very interesting actualization of the intangible becoming tangible. The possibilities are exciting.

My current WIP is a new direction for me. The villian is VERY charismatic and is actually potentially good. The circumstances turn him down the wrong path and in a way he becomes the tangible represtation of a larger evil. I can't wait to see it all play out.

Thanks for sharing this. Great article/blog!

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Robin Cynclair said...

Deb...same can be said for Louisiana and Arkansas. LOL Did you see on the news where we had all those tornados rip through this past weekend? about scary!

At 4:57 AM, Blogger Camy Tang said...

Wow, great post, Deb. I especially liked your idea about embodying your conceptual villain in a character. That's so cool!


At 8:12 AM, Blogger Adam said...

Your first statement in this post, about the need for the villain to be the strongest character really made me think. In the novel I am writing, my villain is not seen very much. He is very active in the story, but the protagonists don't meet him until near the end. They are being pursued but do not know much about him. I wondered if my villain would be too weak.

The rest of your article reassured me that this might be okay. Besides the human villain, I guess the main villain in my story is fear and uncertainty, as my charactera struggle to outrun those who mean them harm, and discover the secrets of their past.

Thanks. I'll have to come back to this blog and read it often.


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