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Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Let’s talk about the hero and the fatal flaw. No one is perfect, therefore the hero has to have at least one flaw to be overcome during the climax.

Hero + flaw = character arc = believable character.

But, how does the hero get to the point of needing to grow beyond their flaw? We need a catalyst to reach the next step in the equation.

Enter, the villain. For many stories there is no clear villain, therefore the hero falls flat, and the plot doesn’t advance, as if the whole idea is waiting for something—or someone—to push it forward.

Flawed hero + golden villain = growth opportunity

The Golden Villain
Your villain can be another person, the hero’s own self, a deity or other supernatural being, an animal, or the environment. In any plot structure, the villain’s job breaks into three primary functions.

1-Build plot tension by creating a clear need for the hero’s success
2-Further develop the hero by providing a basis for comparison, and inciting change
3- Be a focus for opposition and conflict in order to give the reader someone/something to root against; aka: inspire the need to annihilate (from 101 Dalmatians, starring Glenn Close)

Theoretically, the more diabolical your villain, the more the reader cheers for the hero. If only it were that easy. Your villain has to be believable for the equation to work effectively.

Evil for evil’s sake does not a good villain make
Most of us can’t conceive of perfect evil or perfect good as anything more than ideals.

Mother Nature is impersonal, not malicious. Luck, ingenuity, and willpower, if applied correctly, can conquer the elements and environment, as well as animals, not to mention hubris and mishap.

As for deities, you’d think lightning bolts would be more accurate or their aim more precise. Whatever the case, the deity can be impressed, placated, distracted, or otherwise outsmarted.

Check your cinema, check your literature, check your history. Because we can’t imagine anything or anyone being more perfect than ourselves, we accord them our same flaws.

There are no perfect heroes; there are no perfect villains. Each has limitations, each has vulnerability, each has flaws, because we have them.

In a villain, these factors allow the hero the possibility of winning.

Traits of the Golden Villain
Conviction. Charisma. Leadership. Decisive. Follow-through. Powerful. Desire. Ambition. Integrity. Tendency to think in absolutes. Never wishy-washy. Intelligent.

Wait. From the above, I could be talking about the hero. That’s right; your villain is a foil for your hero. (see https://genrebender.wordpress.com/2008/07/19/characters-dimensions-and-foils-long/)

In one respect or another, each of the above traits can be admirable or detestable. If amplified, twisted, or misplaced, any trait has horrific potential.

For example, intelligence is a good trait in a hero. Intelligence denotes the ability to reason, to logic, to plan, and to discard morality. This last ability—with or without conscience—is what frightens us. A beast can be scary; a beast that just might be smarter or more cunning than me—as well as stronger, faster, more relentless, and more ruthless—is terrifying.

In my opinion, the more intelligent the character, the higher the stakes and opportunity for bad behavior. Besides, it’s hard to be a mastermind if you can’t reason your way out of a wet paper sack.

Mining for Gold
To get to the root of your villain, you are going to have to dig. This process works equally for all characters, not just villain and hero. When considering the following points, answer the basic questions of who, what, when, where, why, how. Dig. Don’t shy away because the reader will know if you do.

1-Characteristics
What personality traits do you most admire? What traits do you most despise? Study both lists. Which ones are in your hero? Your villain? Any similarities?

BE CAREFUL. Neither your villain nor your hero can encompass all of what you listed. Yes, it will make them complicated, but you won’t be able to portray them all effectively. Pick a handful of major traits and explore them, then develop them into a memorable character. How?

Consider body language, behavior, speech patterns, quirks, and standard operating procedure (SOP). These behaviors, no matter how small, buff the edges, and add depth to your character.

Notice I say nothing of physical traits. Physical attractiveness or repellence is window dressing though it can serve motivation, goal, and plot. The question is, for your villain, which aspect will better instill fear, loathing, and abhorrence: the beauty that masks the viper, or the depraved disease-ridden leper?

2-The Prize and The Bane
What does the villain want? The villain must have goals and objectives, be that gaining a love object, power, money, knowledge, or a godhead. These wants can be simple or multi-layered. Drop the bomb: let the reader know precisely what the villain considers to be the gold nugget. Be specific.

What does the villain believe to be the bane of their existence? Be specific. Is this belief accurate? How does that figure into their plans? Their prize? What do they do to offset the bane?

3-Second Place is for losers.
As with your hero, your villain is driven to succeed in their ultimate purpose and intent. In my humble opinion, they can’t waver. What true villain would be happy with a consolation prize or a platitude?

Most golden villains deal in absolutes, but you still must quantify the scale of “winning.” To what ends will the villain go to achieve their desire? What line won’t they cross, if any? As long as the prize is won, can the competition live? Can there be compromise?

What will the hero have to do to thwart the villain? What will stop the villain in their tracks, and has the villain even considered this possibility, and/or made contingency plans?

4-Disgrace vs death
Delve deep on this point. Would the villain or hero prefer to die than not achieve their goal and live in disgrace? If not death, does disgrace need to be avenged?

Would the villain prefer the hero to die, or live in abject humiliation? Which of those would be the better goal, or does the villain even care? Perhaps disgrace first, followed immediately by death? At what point would the villain allow the hero to survive, and why?

5-Pearls in the past
The reader does need to understand the villain’s motivation, or at least that they have one. Nature can only go so far before we have to consider nurture.

The seeds of present and future actions, behaviors, and thought processes were sown in the past. Culture and/or heritage; socio-economic position; education; family and personal relationships—all have a place in shaping the character. Happy memories and tragic or emotionally scaring events also play a part. In a sense, your villain needs to have more of a past than your hero.

What event made a boy into the Jason of Friday the 13th infamy? Who was Count Dracula before his vampiric star rose? Why did a highly intelligent psychiatrist become Hannibal the Cannibal?

When considering the villain’s past, we can often come up with more than a few traits and flaws. However, if they see them at all, the villain can’t see those flaws as being impediments to their plans. Villains are just as self-deluding as the rest of us, so maybe they see those flaws as strengths.

Writing the Golden Villain
Readers seek a connection to your characters, and the characters are what will keep them reading even if, heaven forbid, your plot becomes predictable. If they don’t find that connection, your book is dismissed to the used book counter.

When writing your villain, you can take a direct approach and write in the villain’s POV, or you can have another character or plot device betray the villain’s motivations, goals, and objectives. This is a style choice on your part.

By writing in the villain’s POV, you can see if they come off as diabolical and nasty as you intended, or if they come off flat. In their POV, you can study their body language and behaviors, how they think, what they think, what they feel, why they feel. In their POV, you can make the villain real. This has value.

Even if you write in single POV, make an exercise of writing in the villain’s POV for a few important scenes. You don’t have to use them in the end product, but it can be instructive. It also takes extra time, but if you can’t find your villain’s voice, if you can’t make them multi-dimensional, this exercise might make a difference.

However you accomplish it, you have to know your character inside and out, what makes them tick. You have to understand them, the lengths they will or will not go. You have to understand the whys and the wherefores in order to relay villain’s dark glory to the reader. If you don’t get it, the reader won’t either.

Remember the villain’s job within your plot. The villain spurs the hero to overcome their flaw and to triumph over adversity. If the reader doesn’t understand the villain’s motivation, doesn’t see the logic behind it, and doesn’t understand the prize, your house of cards will crumble because the reader won’t understand the imperative for the hero’s success.

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Character Beliefs

Kudos to Ken for setting this up. Great idea. Character Beliefs behind the cut.

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