On Villains Real and Imagined, by Lindsay Bandy

Our theme for the month of November is A Creative Life, and for me, it all comes down to making sure my “creative” life and my “real” life are one. I never stop writing because I never stop thinking or noticing or wondering, even if I’m far away from my computer screen or notebook. Okay, I’m rarely far away from either. But every bit of life – the beautiful, the wonderful, the heartbreaking, the confusing, the hideous, the annoying – it’s all fuel for creativity if you think about it that way.

So, speaking of annoying, a while ago, I was pretty annoyed with Someone. I was going over my mental litany of everything that really irks me about this person when my sweet daughter said out of the blue, “Mommy, isn’t Someone just so wonderful?” And I was like, what? Yeah, sure. Wonderful. I walked down the hall mentally muttering.

But this exchange didn’t go away in my mind like I wanted it to. I began to try to think about what my daughter saw in this person that I was missing. There are good things. There are annoying things, too, I reminded myself defensively. But there really is good. And there are reasons beyond my knowledge for how this person behaves, just like they only know the tip of the iceberg about me. Things have happened to them that I have no idea about. Things have affected them in ways that just wouldn’t affect me the same way because of personality or past experience. It’s not an excuse, but it sure helps in dealing with people when you can remember this. And it helps you as a writer, too.

As writers, we notice things. And sometimes, being the perceptive breed we are, we especially enjoy noticing other people’s faults and our own glowing attributes. In her blog post “The Moral Villain,” Becca Puglisi offers this suggestion for developing your antagonist: “Unearth his backstory and show readers that, at one point, he was human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves.”
(I can’t say enough good things about Becca’s writing resources….Read the whole fantastic article here, guest-posted on K.M. Weiland’s Blog http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/12/moral-villain-giveaway.html And check out the blog she does with Angela Ackerman, Writers Helping Writers!)

Characters that are pure evil or pure good are neither believable nor interesting because they’re not realistic. Even the young Hitler, villain of villains, was crushed by his mother’s death from cancer and his own failure at achieving his dream of being an artist. One of my favorite antagonists is Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey, because there are times when I have so much compassion for him and want the best for him, even though he’s slimy and devious and conniving. He’s human. And didn’t we love Sybil because she knew that?

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We loved and identified with Tris in “Divergent” even when she wouldn’t forgive Al, even when she beat Molly to a pulp, because as a protagonist and heroine, she was still human like us. Good people mess up. Bad people got bad for a reason, even if we don’t think it’s a very good one. It’s true in real life, which is why it has to be true in fiction, too.

I would suspect that as writers, the reasons our characters sometimes fall flat is that we fall flat. Our heroes are too perfect because we put so much of ourselves into them, thinking WE’re perfect. Our antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil because we fail to see the backstory possibilities in the antagonists in our lives. Admittedly, it’s all much easier in fiction. After all, after we round them out, we can give our antagonists what they deserve, making sure they’re properly humiliated, imprisoned, or dead.

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It’s harder in real life, when we’re usually stuck putting up with them indefinitely…but that’s where it counts! Let your quest for rounded-out, believable characters help you to notice and care more about the real people in your life. And, let the annoying and infuriating people in your life find their way into your characters! (Appropriately disguised, of course!)

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8 Responses to On Villains Real and Imagined, by Lindsay Bandy

  1. Loved your post today! It’s making me think of how to add some evil (or at least more flaws) to my picture book characters! Thank you, Lindsay!

  2. Kim Briggs says:

    Thomas IS the perfect villain. We sympathize and cheer for him and then he turns despicable again.

    Great post in Character Development!

    Lindsay, you have us A LOT to think about!

    Evil laughter…hah hah hah ha!

  3. Michelle says:

    Great article Lindsay. There are always two sides to every story and good verses evil is one of those important story lines. It be easier if these villains were so
    black and white without all the grey matter but alas
    thats what makes the character real and convincing to
    those who read it . Somehow they will
    empathize and maybe see the weakness that is just being human.

    • I know what you mean, Michelle! One thing that I find helpful is to do a character interview with my antagonists. It sounds silly, but sitting down to “talk” with them does wonders! Critique partners are huge helpers, too 🙂

  4. hmmmmm says:

    Thanks for the great post Lindsay! I always seem to start with very flat characters that only end up getting puffed up with more dimension over time abd writing/editing (or not!). In that statement of yours about us thinking that *we* are perfect is a good idea: maybe if we force ourselves to (in a not-beating-ourselves-up way, of course 🙂 look at our own *flaws*, we can find a wellspring of ways to fill those good, flat characters out. Hee hee.
    You also touched on another thing that I’ve come to really love about writing: I find that working on and thinking through characters has helped me to tap into my compassion vein in such a different, stronger way. And whether I ever publish a THING or not, that is one great up-side!

    • Thanks, Anna! I definitely start cardboard, too, and then work on getting to know my characters better. The more I think about it, maybe instead of saying we think we are perfect, it’s more accurate to say that we like to *appear* perfect to others! I think that digging into our own flaws and uncertainties and being honest about them in our writing takes bravery….and sometimes I’m a chicken! But it’s what makes for relate-able characters, because we’re all hiding something, all flawed, and all wanting to be understood. Easier said than done! And, I agree, having more compassion and seeing the world in a new, more empathetic way is worth the work – even if that is the only payoff! Hopefully our work will then allow others to experience the same kind of empathy and character growth in the real world 🙂

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