All fiction is based on conflict. In order to have a story, you have to have conflict. Without conflict, there is simply no story. All GOOD fiction has well-rounded, realistic, believable characters. These are characters that stay with you, that – years after reading a story – you’ll think of and wonder what else might have happened to them had the story continued. Even the villains. Sometimes, especially the villains.
Here is all that I have learned about writing good villains. I’m still a learning writer (and a writer who doesn’t do a lot of writing these days, and hasn’t for well over a year now), so it’s not that comprehensive. But this is what I know. My sources for this are various writing workshops and groups I’ve been part of, listening to master storytellers (word and visual) talk or write about the creation of villains, reading blog entries and books and essays about what makes good writing, and then just watching the world myself and seeing how the process of good storytelling & villains just reflects in the world around all of us. I once read Elizabeth Gilbert say that she found writing fiction actually leaves her far more vulnerable than when she’s writing memoirs, because fiction contains such honest truths about the world and what’s in a writer’s heart and soul reflecting that, that if you really want to know what kind of person and who an author really is…go read their fiction.
I’ve been thinking about this all day, in relation to what is going on around the world but specifically America right now, and I’ve been thinking about that all day, in relation to what has happened and is going on in my life. (Please don’t read into that – it’s far more complicated and nuanced than you’d think. …See? Memoir is actually less vulnerable. Wait until I write a piece of fiction, and then come to me with your questions.) (I have some more to share towards the end of this, but stay with me on the villains stuff first):
1- There are true villains in the world, both real and fictional, in this world and in other realms. None of them ever believe they’re villains.
2- There are flat villains – one-dimensional characters that are pure evil and have absolutely no redeeming qualities. These are the most vile of all villains, but they’re also very weak and because they’re very weak they’re uninteresting. They weren’t damaged as children, they don’t have any particular goal they’re trying to achieve – they just revel in being evil for evil’s sake. If you replaced them with a natural disaster, the story would change very little.
3- There are well-rounded villains – three-dimensional characters that are pure evil, but gosh if they were only just more of this instead of that, they’d actually be likable, even salvageable. These are the hardest to defeat, the ones that create the most conflict. The best kind of villain, if there is such a thing (there is such a thing).
4- Sometimes a story has more than one villain.
5- Sometimes the hero can also be the villain.
6- Believable – fictional and real life – villains are always driven by something. Lust, greed, revenge. Something.
7- Villains always have an end goal. Sometimes, the end goal is selfish. Sometimes, the end goal is for the good of the group. Whatever the end goal is, others always suffer as they help – either willingly, unwillingly, knowingly, or unknowingly – the villain reach his/her/its goal.
8- We are all just a choice or two away from being villains in our own stories, our lives. This is why we love stories with good villains; on the surface we hate them, but in the smallest, quiet recesses of our hearts, the deepest, darkest parts that contain thoughts and feelings and wants and hopes and desires that no one will ever ever know about but ourselves and God (if we believe in that)…in every villain, in every story we’ve ever read, we recognize ourselves.
I always think about what I know of How to Write Good Villains whenever I read news stories about real things happening in the world. Always. And when I watch a leader make choices that hurt other people – whether it’s for selfish reasons or the good of the group – I always think about what I know about villains.
One thing I’ve been doing today in between testing children to death (and myself…I’ll go ahead and put it out there bravely – I’m officially tested out, Internet), is read about JK Rowling’s rise from the ashes of her life. Do you know her story? Ironically, I don’t know Harry Potter all that well, but I know lots about his creator…and I’ve met people who aren’t that familiar with her Phoenix-like life story, yet know lots and lots of things about her globally successful book series Harry Potter. Verily, I say unto you, some of these people are walking Potter Bible scholars and quote whole passages of text from memory. I’ve watched most of the movies and read the first book and only understand 1/4 of what the crap these people are even talking about. People will throw out a Potter thing to me, and sometimes I’ll catch it and be one with the Potter Universe and feel community with many many geeks…other times, I’m hitting Google like an addicted rat in a meth lab. I have no idea. But the one thing I do know from what I know is that Jo Rowling writes the truth. This is why her books about a little boy found sleeping under a staircase, who had a big purpose and a special talent, who was called to go on a Hero’s Journey, have resonated so deeply with human beings of all cultures, all ages, all genders, all languages, all life backgrounds and experiences. We are all Harry Potters and Hermione Grangers. We are all capable of turning into Voldemorts and Lucius Malfoys. It’s my belief this is also why people with limited understanding of spirit and humanity try to burn and silence her stories. It’s my belief this why anyone tries to burn or silence anyone’s story – when the truth is spoken, that’s bad for villains.
I follow Jo on Twitter and I know her story, for reasons far beyond Harry Potter. On the surface, her story is a rags-to-riches tale, one that a lot of people hear about or read about and get stars in their eyes and go: Oh please, let that happen to MEEEE! Enough people in my own life have come to me and gone, “You know…you could write a series of books about magical kids and make a billion dollars, too. You’re talented.” At this point, I don’t even say anything. I don’t say a word. Cuz (a) I’m not that talented and even if I am, I’d have to you know…actually write real stories and quite frankly I don’t even know where to go once I’ve written the first two lines, (b) lawsuits, (c) one does not simply just…WRITE…and then earn a billion dollars, and (d) that is NOT how magic works.
So the reason I was re-acquainting myself with Jo Rowling’s life history today was not with big dreams or stars in my eyes. No. I just needed…something. I watch her bravely tackling Twitter dragons these days, and I remembered how very very desperate she once found herself. I needed some hope. I needed to know that other people have found themselves in impossible circumstances and have survived them. I needed to know that transformation is doable and real.
I admire Jo Rowling not just because she’s a good writer, but because she understands how the world actually works. And that, in spite of knowing how the world is, still believes magic is possible. And the only reason (I believe) Jo understands how the world works is because she’s been to hell and back. Once you’ve fought dragons and been burnt over and over yet survived, there is very little in the world that can hurt you…even if it kills you. There is nothing scarier than a survivor who’s not afraid of fighting some more. And I needed to know that today. That’s what I took away from reacquainting myself with her life story, and I really needed to know that today.
I suck at titles, I have always sucked at titles, and quite frankly I plan to continue this fine tradition. But for this blog entry, I used a Walt Whitman quote from his work Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little.” And I used that title because I love Walt Whitman and have loved Walt Whitman since sophomore year of Advanced Placement English when we took a weekend-long field trip to the woods to pretend to be Walt Whitman. And also go snipe hunting. Which is when I learned about how stupid boys are. But I also used because of what I see happening in my country, as well as what I see happening in my life.
I think Life is about journeys, and many many different story arcs. I believe in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey monomyth because I see it in the life stories of people I know and people I don’t know, because I see it happening in America right this very second, because I think it has – and is – happening in my own life. There are no easy choices, and sometimes on your journey you have to fight dragons, and sometimes you feel like giving up. Today I felt like giving up (to be quite honest with you, I still do…I am physically exhausted – there’s a precise reason why and I need to see a doctor about it, and I will if it doesn’t change by this weekend. For now, just know I’m bone tired. As in, I may need to see a doctor bone tired). I really need a miracle right now. Not just money – money is a huge source of stress for me at the moment, but it’s a lot bigger than just money. I’m having a bit of a spiritual, self-confidence crisis.On a certain level I feel completely selfish and self-centered and ignorant of TRUE crisis – I am not riddled with cancer, and neither is anyone I love; I do not live in Aleppo; I am not from Yemen trying to get a border guard to understand why Donald Trump is an asshole; I have food in my fridge and I am warm at night with a bed to sleep in. And yet I am still drowning. I just am.
But I will not give up, because that’s never been my style. I am stubborn as the year is long. I’ve had a lot happen to me over the last year, year and a half. Good things and bad things. I’ve fought a lot of dragons, met a lot of fairies and been helped by some very sweet elves. I’ve met villains and heroes, and I’ve lain on my living room floor ululating through the darkest of dark nights of the soul. I’ve also had moments of sheer blessings, where I know what Love feels like; I can almost hold it in my hands. I’m in another dark phase right now, because a lot of things have descended on me all at once. The last thing I needed was a man who admires Darth Vader to be given a seat at the Knights of the Round Table. This is bad, and the stress I’m under personally is kind of overwhelming. Not going to lie.
But just to give you an idea how I operate as a human being: I hate competing with other people – I want to live on a commune and sing Kumbayah every night around a fire and listen to stories and cook casseroles and pick greens for our salads from our gardens and the wild forest. I want to love and be in love with as many people at the same time as humanly and as sanely possible. I want to read and write and nap and look at the stars and float on my back in a lake with tiny little fish swimming in and out of my floating hair and then pick wildflowers for necklaces and headbands and make homemade patchouli and just BE.
But if you come into my life and you cause chaos, whether you’re a weak villain or a well-developed one, if you challenge me in ways that aren’t constructive or aren’t helpful, if you create a situation in my life that causes me to sit and cry a lot on my sofa or in bed as I lie awake at night, if you hurt people I love and adore, if you F up any good thing I love and hold dear…I get real competitive. It flares. And it drains and it stresses me, which is why I am where I am right now. But it flares and I literally can’t stop it. I have a very big flight complex to me – I do not, not, NOT like or enjoy conflict. I hate awkward silences. I am easily intimidated, daunted, frightened, cowed, subdued. But if I have to, I will fight. Because I know villains when I see them, and I know I need to fight them because I see myself in them. I fight villains inside me every day; so when pushed hard enough? I literally don’t have a problem fighting them outwardly, too. So I say this in my mind and my heart and my soul: OH, REALLY. WE’LL JUST SEE ABOUT THAT.
Yet I’m compliant. I’m quiet. I’m sweet. I don’t like that there are villains, I do not. My mom will tell you – I was always a quiet, good, compliant, sweet little girl who just wanted to read and play imagination games in her bedroom. Except. I did have a bit of a troubling stubborn streak. Once I decide not to let go, or not to give in, I don’t. I see this in my child, too, and it’s why I don’t fight with her very much. I know it’s really no use to raise a compliant girl…there are too many dragons out there in the world.
Resist much, obey little.