The Danger of One Dimensional Villains

Villains are fun, or they should be. Even if they make us physically ill there is entertainment from loathing their very existence. So why is it so many villains end up cackling mustache twirlers? The answer is the same as why so many protagonists end up reading the same as others, writing a role and not a person.
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As I was typing this up I almost wrote that the mistake was making characters evil for the hell of it, but I realized that has never been a problem. A well written villain can just enjoy being wicked or flat out evil just like a protagonist can enjoy being good for compassion’s sake. Some of my favorite villains have been those who are just quite simply evil. In my opinion one way to make these characters work is by giving them the illusion of having other motives and complexities. Another way is by making the villains motives unknown until the protagonist gets to ask. I don’t remember what show this was, but years ago I remember this exchange between a protagonist who’d just been captured and the villain of the show. The hero basically asked why, and ,without a single laugh or any other stereotypical sign of insanity or wickedness, the villain just said “Because its fun for me.” That moment always stuck with me.

The reason that stuck with me is because so often villains are just evil to fill the role of being evil without ever convincing you that they are the villain for a reason. Often there are mitigating forces writers mistake for backstory such as insanity, which is borderline offensive in most cases, or not being loved. But those traits and a thousand others don’t automatically make a villain complex. Those traits like any plot element become cliches when you fail to understand how to use and portray them well.

Why do people love Loki from the Marvel films?

tom-hiddleston-loki-scenes-thor-dark-world
Well, look at him.

Putting aside Tom Hiddleston’s acting(And face) Thor begins by showing Loki as an outsider not because of who he is, but because he is a methodical intellectual more than a traditional fighter. He is constantly compared to his brother who is more traditionally handsome, more of a warrior, and the first born. Thor is arrogant, but light in all places where Loki is dark. Thor’s arrogance came from entitlement, while Loki’s arrogance came from his actually being smarter. Loki’s most complex relationship comes from a father, Odin, who is moderately detached, set in his ways, and quicker with punishment than with a kind word. The great irony of their interactions is Odin, in trying to bring out the best in his sons, often brings out the worst…and the funny part is Loki’s worst parts are in many ways the parts that make him most like Odin. Does he hate Thor? Does he hate Odin? Yes…and no. He is a man who would gladly kill them both…and we constantly get glimpses that despite that he still loves them…and hates that. He is in conflict with his actions, wants, and feelings which are shown to be somewhat justified. All of these things make Loki a complex character and a protagonist in his own head.

When you watch him these things aren’t just thrown out to the audience. The complexities of his character play out in how the characters move, how they respond to traumatic events, and what brings them together just as much as what pulls them apart. Loki doesn’t spend all his screen time being the caricature his comic book persona really is(trust me on that). Loki isn’t just a villain, but a whole present person in a world where he chooses to antagonize the common good. Those traits are elevated because Loki doesn’t just act like a boring villain whose one purpose in life is to be in Thor’s way. He has his own goals…and Thor is just the one in the way.

Our villains can be simple, but that doesn’t stop them or their motivations from being complex. Another example? Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He is a complete bastard who gets away with everything because he is a “man’s man” with good looks and supposedly little fear. Why does he fascinate people beyond his inflated sense of ego? Gaston thinks he is doing everything right. Everyone thinks he is. Belle is the problem, not him. In his eyes she should be fawning over him because that’s how it should be. His entire view of the world isn’t just based on him, but on a value system of how everyone should and should not be. In his mind every passive aggressive “compliment” at Belle is legitimate help, and he is doing her a favor by even speaking to her at all. Why be smart, he wonders, when you are a woman…and a beautiful woman.

I love the picture below because it captures everything about him and how he sees himself in an image. You understand him the moment he comes on screen because the moment he strikes that pose you learn everything. He is arrogant, self-absorbed, and superficial. Oh and a jackass. But the movie takes the time to situate him and those traits in his world. It’s not just him, but the whole village who is superficial because they all hold the same values. He is just the embodiment of every wrongly held value of that village. He is still a person with  insecurities that make him lose all of his senses. Insecurities he probably never knew he had. He isn’t like the wicked step-mother from Cinderella who just is evil. Side note: the film Ever After does an amazing job of conveying why she is so cruel. Gaston is a product of toxic masculinity, of hubris left unfiltered, and of a world where pretty things become trophies even if they aren’t things at all.

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Some of you may be wondering what is the solid difference between a villain having traits of substance and not. I said earlier I hate when insanity is used to justify a character’s evil actions. I am an advocate for mental health, but I will tell you that I still disagree with people who say mental illness should never be a part of a character who is evil. The problem with mental illness is that it is just glued on. All traits tend to be exaggerated in fiction, but mental illness is exaggerated to the point of mockery without any nuance. The villains run around talking to themselves doing crazy looking things because crazy. That’s just fucking lazy. It’s poor writing. It’s a cliche. And it sure as hell ain’t your average mental illness. There is a way to craft a character with mental illness as an aggravating factor to their actions. The trait has to be there not as an excuse, but as part of the character. No mentally ill person is defined by just being mentally ill. The problem too is plenty of mentally ill people are perfectly regular members of society, but we rarely see that portrayed. Instead we get a lot of mustache twirling justified because…evil.

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Keep your villains as complex as possible.

When you are creating your villains don’t ever say “Ok here is the villain” because you should be creating a person with goals, dreams, and insecurities. Unless you intend it to be so don’t make your characters just be empty roles with traits glued on. Make those traits have real weight. Portray them as being individuals who are no less fully realized than your main character. It may take some time, but your story will be all the better for it. My dearest hope is people will take my advice, and I will never have to see a shitty villain again. That won’t be the case, but a girl can dream.

Reblog/Post: “How To Write Better Stories: Action”

Chapter 9, 10 & 11 of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets teaches us a lot about great storytelling – and I was no J.K. Rowling fan when this started!   Chapter 9 Chapter 8 ends …[read more by clicking the link]

Source: How To Write Better Stories: Action

Surprise! Romance stories need action too. Action isn’t necessarily  about a fight or an epic battle. Action is tension. In romance novels the action comes from interpersonal conflict more than anything else. This doesn’t mean the action can or should only come from the couple because plenty of stories put couples in a greater situation. A lot of people in Hollywood say “Throw a romance story line in for the girls” as though that wins the female population over. No throw in a romance riddled with enchanting story telling. A story focusing on a couple facing the mob or the Machiavellian plots of their rivals who want to tear them apart adds outside forces that test a couple. It isn’t just about having obstacles, which is a mistake a lot of romance novels make. It is about having action that comes from how the characters react, and tension due to what the characters want v.s what they do v.s what the situation/others allow.

Action and conflict is what engages the readers emotional core and intellectual curiosity. Your story ,if done well, should make a reader ask “What is going to happen?” and if you make it clear what’s going to happen “How is it going to happen?” Through exposition you lead a path of crumbs to the greater actions that solidify your story. The action moments are those where your readers are gripping the pages of their book or the corners of their tablet with a mixture of hope and dread. Those moments remind your readers the stakes of your story whether it is through a couple’s fight or through an epic chase seen.

One word of warning, don’t use action scenes as a hook because you think your book needs a burst of excitement. There are times you need to add more scenes and more story for your writing to be interesting. However, adding a traditional action scene for the hell of it is usually pointless. One of the classic mistakes of teenage writers is mistaking drama for a story. I know because I did this in every love story I wrote as a teen…which is why only a handful were ever finished. You put dramatic event after dramatic event without real tension being established because it is “exciting”. OR ,and this is a crime so many authors commit, they dump a chase scene or a fight scene at the beginning of the book as a hook. The rest of the novel may be about a vet nursing a horse back to health, but it begins with an irrelevant chase scene or fight because ACTION! However, throwing a scene in doesn’t just improve your work or hook your reader because eventually they realize that the scenes are just there for the hell of it. Even if they like your story, they’ll probably put it down or roll their eyes into the next dimension. Why? Because the action is insincere to the story being told. Action is a necessary component to any commercial story, but it must come naturally from the storyteller.

Every story has action in some form or some way. How that action unfolds is the question. By keeping in mind the overall theme in your story, the character’s conflicts(both internal and external), and by building tension to make action feel natural you will enhance your story. I promise you by remembering to include action it will help move your writing forward.

Good luck and good writing!

I Don’t Want to Be in Love Today

It may sound traitorous,
But I don’t want to be in love today.
Want just me and myself to sail away.
To feel the breeze instead of on my knees,
To be apart except for in the heart,
To be like one yet spread apart,

Even when I love it…there are storms.
Even when I’m with you I’m always torn,
I’m a loner whose living unnaturally,
I’d give it up,
Because I love you naturally.
But with that said
I don’t want to be your love today.
Just pack my things and run away,
And it is nothing that you’ve done
But I’d like to be just me originally,
To be,
Alone like a person,
Even though I’m half a person without you.
Somehow it seems the best thing to do.

You’re not like me.
No you’re desperately in love,
In a way I cannot be,
Because I like to be alone with me,
Does that change a thing?
When I sing my songs about you?
When I only want to dance with you?
If so what shall I do?

Don’t tell me I’m not a lover,
If everything isn’t about him,
I love and I do miss him,
But I miss me myself alone too,
So the wisest thing to do,
Is temporarily to try  to be,
Alone with me.

*Poetry for an introverted lover.

Avoiding conflict in your stories

One of the easiest things to do is write a story, but 90% of stories need conflict. The other 10% also need conflict, but they themselves result from conflict, and simply carry the resulting tension through the story.  There is a strong need for conflict, but for a lot of people that doesn’t come easily. It is the most intriguing part of a story because it impacts characters greatly, and yet there are some people who can construct everything but conflict. I’m sad to say that I believe I am one of those writers. A lot of times I ask myself if that makes me a bad writer, and truthfully I don’t think it does. However it does mean I have a very significant hurdle to becoming a better writer.  I supposed my interests have always been more on everything around the conflict than the conflict itself. There is one other component though. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like tension, conflict, or disharmony. I grew up in a house where my parents were often at each other’s throats both overtly and silently. Don’t think there weren’t good times. There were, but with those factors my natural avoidance of conflict.

You can imagine how moving into the romance genre goes if I can’t do conflict. There are so many times when I sit down and work out these convoluted conflicts and plots and I throw them away. Quite frankly plenty of fun stories in our heads are worth more than a penny. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized having a nonsense conflict is often worse than having little or no conflict. But this has been something I’m been working on and as a result I’ve begun using a few of the practices below, which I reccomend to you.

  1. For thirty minutes I work on a piece starting from the middle, it could be an old story or a new one. This scene may have nothing to do with the actual book, and I set up a conflict between the characters. How? I give them each something they want that clashes. It could be Lita wants to go to the movies and Jon wants to stay home, but I deepen these to deeper clashes. His social anxieties versus her need for excitement. The conflict is who they are as represented by two opposing desires. Or it could be as simple as Hannah doesn’t like Lou and doesn’t want Pete to like him either. It isn’t about some grand plot, but about what Hannah will do to keep them apart. The goal is to write towards a moment of pure conflict. Assume the situation is underway and you have to work up to a point of direct conflict between the characters
  2. I will take two books or movies and or games, then pull a plot from one and a conflict from another and then write with new characters. Similar to above it forces me to think about characters in conflict, but this allows me to work on presenting the conflict without having to worry about constructing it. You take a new character and put them in the Matrix as Neo and another Mr. Smith.
  3. Alternative to the above you take two well known arch enemies and put them in wholly different story of conflict. Neo is a greaser, Mr. Smith a principle, and you ask yourself what conflicts do they have as characters regardless of setting and what would be the equivalent of the battle on the roof and slow motion.

Truthfully, what you have to do to engage with conflict and to improve is to not simply read more, but actively put your characters at odds. We see conflict everywhere in the real world both physically and internally. The key to unpacking conflict begins with one character’s wants conflicting with their actions or their wants conflicting with the actions available to them. They want to move left but are forced to go right. They want to move right but someone is blocking the way off for them. You have to dig into the difference between what one person wants and another in order to better craft intriguing stories.

For those of us who squirm at the thought of conflict, but want to write compelling stories we must forced ourselves out of the box. We’re already in a conflict between that desire and our ability to act, our job now as the protagonists of our own story is to work through that aversion to conflict so we can get what we want.

Masculinity, Male Heroes, & Romance Writing

There’s nothing worse than reading a romance book and coming across some idea or notion in the text that makes you roll your eyes and disassociate from a character. The nature of romance and erotica is deeply tied to projecting and emotionally relating to the characters in a book. There’s just something about that fact that can make coming across certain views or elements in a story become an instant turn off. The other night I was reading an erotic romance where the female lead is a bartender and basically every few pages near the beginning she brings up the fact that she’d never date a man who’d order a cocktail or anything except beer. Call me a whiny liberal if you want, but that snuffed my interest in her or him. I’m reading the book purely for research purposes now. It was such a good and thorough turn off to me that I never realized how much stuff like that affected me. For the author it was a simple fact of the character and supposed to make the handsome protagonist a down to Earth “man’s man”. To me it was traditional propaganda at best and a sign of utter weakness in the male main character at worst.

Shocking?

Well, to me a man who is comfortable in his masculinity is more attractive than anything else. We’re supposed to accept the female MC’s view and see him from that angle. His ordering a beer puts him outside the realm of other “hipster” men, and yes the author uses that description. For the author this detail was important, and important for the main character for excellent reasons. She’s a bartender. Makes sense. In this book his earthy masculinity is represented by beer. It killed my interest and my libido because while I fully admit certain feminine traits turn me off when they’re very present in men…my notion of a “real man” orders whatever the fuck he wants. Further I don’t backdoor insult men who don’t fit that notion whether they wear nail polish (which is a major personal turn off ) or work on trucks and think of appletinis as girly drinks. I physically cringed as I read because of this one thing, which came up a few times early on.

In a book designed to tease, titillate, and entertain this one element altered my ability to enjoy it. The male lead and female lead became emblematic of what I rebel against. A lot of people have told me “Oh just shut up and read and enjoy”, but why would I if there is an element and an attitude in the work that I don’t enjoy. The male protag ordering a beer is the main thing that solidifies the female protag sleeping with him. That’s the crutch, and for a woman who sees masculinity as being about comfort, and being attracted to more traditionally masculine men as in no way needing to undermine other expressions of masculin this makes a difference. This makes me say “Wow this chick seems like a douche bag and this guy isn’t as attractive as he was.” . And as, to paraphrase a quote from Downton Abbey, as my world comes closer and the notions of “real men buy beer” slip away this will be a more common reaction. Hell plenty of women prefer hipsters who do craft beer than to the corona lovers of the world. A confident man who can order a cocktail and not give a shit about what anyone thinks tops a man who thinks cocktails are girly.

It’s a silly thing to harp on, but it seriously had an affect. It pulled me away from these characters, made me like them a bit less, and most importantly turned me off.  And maybe this is coming from me because my 60 something year old, ex-cop, private security, former bouncer father who carries a gun everywhere has never hesitated to order a cosmo. Maybe it is because I’m a progressive liberal who has friends across the gender expression spectrum. Ultimately it doesn’t matter because you bet your sweet hiney that I’m not a rare case. Because even those who keep reading and think it distasteful have pulled away a little. It isn’t about political correctness or forcing conformity. It’s about the fact that this writer made one of the most important choices in the mainstream straight romance genre, which is how you construct the male romantic protagonist. She not only included this, but centered these beliefs about masculinity at the core of his appeal. And while that’s her choice the fact is it didn’t work for me, and I suspect it turned off others because it wasn’t just the female protag saying “I like a traditional guy who drinks beer over cocktails”. It was holding up the romantic lead by that fact juxtaposed with the inferiority of men who have ordered her cocktails.The ever changing social norms and standards affect what people are attracted to and as writers when we put something like real men drink beer on the page we’re committing an idea and saying “We’re willing to turn off those people who disagree” and I’m certain the author didn’t even think about that. For her this made her male romantic lead strong. For me it made him week. It made the female lead pedantic and hypocritical…honestly a little sexist. And undermine the think I find most attractive in men (but can never seem to land in a partner myself, sorry, but love ya beau!)…confidence.

Her entire notion of masculinity and the romance leads romantic appeal had the exact opposite affect that she intended and as our society evolves it will be interesting to see because I’m not alone. I’m not a minority. And when an author makes choices like this they have to be aware…you might just dry a reader up like an old Virginia ham. You’re not going to forget that metaphor any time soon.