Bad to the Bone: Creating the Ultimate Villain

Jan 31, 2012

Yesterday, Hubby and I took the Kiddo to the bookstore. I have a Christmas gift card that's burning a hole in my pocket, so I got some books I've been wanting (yay!) and let the Kiddo browse for something for him. This is what he picked out.
He is completely obsessed with Star Wars lately. OB-SESSED. He wants to watch the entire trilogy every day (no, I don't let him). He picks up his toy sword for light saber battles with mom and dad. He runs through the house shouting, "Open-a blast doors!" and "Power of-a dark side." He pretends to use the Force on us when he doesn't want to be tickled. And his favorite character is Darth Vader. The villain. I've got to admit, I think Darth Vader is pretty darn cool myself.

Villains-- especially GOOD (as in bad)--villains can make or break a story. Think about the Batman movie The Dark Knight. What does everybody remember about that show? The Joker. The bad guy. The twisted, evil, fascinating bad guy that makes the hero go through that harrowing emotional journey we love so much.

I'm the first to admit I haven't given my villains appropriate attention in my previous books, which is half the reason I'm writing this post (I swear I learn more writing blog posts than I do reading books about writing). Before we jump in, I want to clarify something. There are different types of ANTAGONISTS. At its most basic, an antagonist is simply someone whose goals oppose the protagonist's. They don't necessarily have to be evil. I'm going to be talking specifically about VILLAINS, which (for me, anyway) fall into a category within antagonists. Villains are the ultimate bad guys-- their goals aren't just opposed to your protagonist, their goals are BAD, and the protag has to stop them.

So how do you create your ultimate villain, like Darth Vader or Voldemort or Hannibal Lector?

1. Make them as three-dimensional as any other character
Yup. Three dimensions, just like any other character. Your villain is possibly THE most important character next to your protagonist. You don't want to flesh out everybody but the bad guy. You need to know the mask they present to the world (dimension 1), the history behind why they do what they do (backstory- dimension 2), and who they really are behind their mask-- what they will do when the pressure is on (dimension 3).

Example: Darth Vader shows the world a mask literally. He looks and acts powerful and cruel. But underneath he hides a broken body and spirit. He's a slave to the Emperor and the dark side of the Force, still lusting for power he's no longer capable of wielding, which makes him bitter and even more cruel. When it comes down to it, though, we discover that his good side is still fighting to get out-- and he gives up his own life to destroy the Emperor and save his son.

2. Give them SPECIFIC goals and reasons behind them
Their goal can't just be "stop the protagonist from doing his thing." They need a concrete goal that OPPOSES the protag's goal, of course, but usually the villain was being his bad self before the protag even comes on the scene. And the villain can't just be bad because he is (even if he really is that bad). What are the reasons behind the villain's goals? How are those reasons tied to the villain's character?

Example: In Star Wars episode 4, Vader is practically desperate to find the stolen plans for the Death Star, as well as to find the rebel's hidden base. He needs the plans so the rebels can't use them against him, and he needs to find the base to destroy the rebels. Simple reasons, right? But a little deeper, if we look back to the character we saw in Revenge of the Sith, we see that he thinks destroying the rebels is a good thing. They're bringing disorder and even violence to the orderly Empire that he sacrificed basically his entire body trying to help set up. Sure, his actions are evil, but he believes he's in pursuit of a noble goal.

3. Give them something memorable-- try for contradictions
And here we have the really fun part. Make your villain stand out above the crowd. You can do this in a myriad of ways, including cheap tricks. Darth Vader had his evil-looking armor/life-support suit. The Joker has his scars and makeup. Voldemort has his snakey face. These end up not being cheap, however, because they all tie in to the character and their backstory. Even if you don't use visual uniqueness, try to give them a unique character instead of using the stock bad guy. An easy and memorable way to do that is through contradictions. Maybe your evil, puppy-killing villain has a weakness for unicorns, and draws them on the wall as his trademark whenever he kills those puppies.

Whatever it is, make your villain MEMORABLE.

So, my friends, who are your favorite villains in fiction? Why do you love to hate them? Who is your favorite villain you've ever written? How do you make them come alive?

Do you finish books and movies you don't like?

Jan 26, 2012

I was pretty excited last week when I got an email that this blog was nominated as a top writing blog by eCollegeFinder! This was me when I got the email:

And now...see that nice little button over to the right? ---->
You can vote for the blogs you love that have been nominated! You can vote as many times as you want for as many blogs as you want, and there are some other fabulous writing blogs that have been nominated. I'd love it (and I'm sure the other bloggers would too) if you'd hop over and vote at least once! (If you love my blog, that is. If you don't...I guess I'll never know.)

Now, on to the post.

So for Christmas, we got a brand new huge TV from my in-laws. We were just a little shocked and ecstatic (our own pawn shop TV had been dying a staticky death). I was even more excited when I discovered it connected to the internet. I get all my Doctor Who on Amazon, so now I can watch it on el giganto flat screen!! *dies*

Ahem. Anyway. One of the options we get is a bunch of free movies via the internet from Crackle. Most of them...well, they're free for a reason. The other night, I found one with Val Kilmer and Cuba Gooding Jr. They're good actors, I thought. It can't be THAT bad.

It was that bad. And it was so much more than that bad.

First off-- this is the cover:

And here is how Val Kilmer actually looked in the movie:

Um...a;lkjdfweokjljkwe?? It's like the marketing department thought it would sell better if they showed Val Kilmer's cover photo from The Saint. But it wasn't just the wacko hair-- I can handle wacko hair. It was the fact that Cuba Gooding Jr.-- THE MAIN CHARACTER-- had fewer lines than anyone else. He had no goals, he just did whatever anybody told him. He was the flatest, most boring character EVER. The not-so-futuristic world...flatest, boringest EVER. The I-will-take-over-your-mind plot...unoriginalest, boringest EVER.

Sorry. That's a lot of caps.

You'd think I'd have turned it off. I didn't. I hoped I would maybe learn something to help in my writing, because I usually can even if the movie/book is terrible. Not this time. I already know not to make everything boring and one-dimensional. For the first time ever, I actually had that "I can never get those hours of my life back" moment.

So, my friends, do you finish books and movies you don't like? Why or why not? Do you try to learn from even the bad ones?

Worldbuilding-- How to develop the culture of your novel

Jan 24, 2012

Because I write mostly science fiction, building up the worlds in my stories is a huge part of the planning and writing. But even if you write contemporary fiction, your book is set in some kind of world-- a high school, a certain city, a flavorful region of the world.

There are lots of components to building that setting and world, and I've been thinking a lot lately about culture.  Culture is basically the shared knowledge, values, and practices of a group of people, and it is a HUGE part of any fictional world (or at least it should be, in my opinion).

I didn't really understand how different culture could be until I traveled to Ghana for the first time. Before I went, I was all, "Culture shock? Ha. I can handle anything."

Then I got there and freaked out a little.

At first, I thought the culture shock came from having to bathe from a bucket in cold water, and cramming with six people I didn't know in the back seat of a taxi, and being asked why I didn't eat the chicken bones (they suck the marrow out). Then I realized that the biggest problem with culture shock is that I couldn't forgive Ghana and its culture for not being MY culture. I didn't understand the values behind the behavior, so I couldn't accept it. Once I was able to learn from the people around me, and to look at behavior or customs and say, "this is the way it is because of this reason," I was able to love it.

So today I wanted to talk about how you can look outside your own culture to create a new culture for your stories by using that basic principle. (If you're really interested in learning more, this is where I pulled a lot of information from.)

Building a culture in your story is as simple as this diagram. Ha! Okay, if only it were that simple. But once you understand and can identify these different things in your fictional world, voila! You've got the beginnings of your very own new culture. And it centers around, as I mentioned, values.

A value is anything a group of people considers important-- objects, conditions, thoughts, characteristics, etc. What do they identify as "good" and "bad"? Maybe they're a warrior culture and value the ability to be cunning and ruthless, or a culture of dispossessed jesters that value wit and sarcasm. Whatever values work for your story, your culture can value them-- or even NOT value them, if that's the point you want to make.

Rituals, in the next circle, are actions performed that have some kind of symbolic value as dictated by tradition. Maybe your high school crowd has a hazing ceremony for kids coming into a certain club. Maybe there's a certain greeting people exchange, like the hand-shake-while-snapping-fingers-together that I learned in Ghana. It could be birth and funeral customs. In The Hunger Games, the Games themselves are a ritual. Even if you never fully show them in your story, they're an important part of culture to develop.

Heroes-- well, that's easy. It's people (alive or dead) who are role models. They represent those values your culture prizes. They could be Oprah or Michael Jordan or Alastor Moody. Maybe some parts of your culture-- a certain class, maybe-- values one person, while another class holds up someone else as a hero.

Symbols are what we think of most often when we think of culture. It's dancing, or slang words, or objects, dress, food, hairstyles, or even events that define the culture and are significant to them. It's the dish fufu that is the national pride in Ghana that they insist every foreigner has to try, and the light sabers of the Jedi in Star Wars. It can even be national holidays that commemorate events (though this often ties into rituals as well).

These three things-- rituals, heroes, and symbols-- make up the practices of a culture. They are almost always tied to your culture's values. There are a lot of ways these things can show up in a culture: in gender roles, politics, and communication. They can vary in the same culture between social classes or generation gaps.

In other words, it can get really complicated.

Which, honestly, I like. Not every book needs a complicated culture; in some books, it might get in the way. But even if it only comes out through your characters, culture can strengthen a story. How does the main character feel about her world, in contrast to how other characters feel about it? How was your character shaped by the culture? Even if you can develop just enough culture that you can use it to strengthen your characters, you'll strengthen the whole world.

So, my friends, have you developed a strong culture for the world in your book? How do you approach worldbuilding? What books do you think did a particularly fantastic job of developing the world and culture?

How to Spice Up the Boring Parts in your Novel-- A little less talk and a lot more action

Jan 19, 2012

So during my month-long blogging break, I managed to squeeze in another revision for my current WIP, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. This was mostly because my crit group had a deadline to critique our full novels, and I wanted it to be in the best shape possible. The first half of the book has suffered from pacing problems since the first draft, and I wasn't sure what to do about it. It just didn't feel like much was happening for several chapters.

Then, by some miracle, I found this blog post from agent Kristin Nelson: Big Reveals Shouldn't Happen in a Conversation. You should definitely read it, but basically, it states the simple (and obvious) fact that your book should not consist of a character running around and talking to everybody. Bo-ring.

And, well, yeah. I took a look at my problem chapters and went, "duh!" They all contained important points, but they all involved long chats-- and very little else. No wonder they were boring and the pacing was slow! It was a little embarrassing it took me so long to figure that out.

At that point, I had four days til the crit group deadline. So I turned on lots of movies for the Kiddo, ignored lots of dishes, and feverishly rewrote large sections of the first 150 pages of my book. It's not perfect, but it's much better. Here's what I did:

1. Look at each chapter/scene and determine what needs to be communicated in that scene.
Especially in first drafts, it's common to have that important information come out in conversations as you the author try to figure it all out. And it is important! There are better ways you can relay that information than long conversations, though. So I went through my chapters one by one and wrote down what the goals were of each one. I didn't want to lose important things just to insert an action scene. I made a sort of outline for each chapter as it currently stood.

2. Determine how you can still achieve those scene goals in some way OTHER than conversation.
By having my little outline in front of my eyes, it was a lot easier to think of new ways to achieve those goals. Instead of having a "meeting" where everyone discussed a potential bad guy (I know, ew), what if the group went out to spy on this guy to find out if he was the bad guy? And then...this thing could happen...and I could even bring in this other bad thing that would happen...and people could be running and fighting and getting caught...yeah. Much more exciting that sitting in a restaurant discussing "is this guy a suspect or not?" And still gets all the necessary points across.

3. Write out another outline of what changes need to be made so you can integrate it into the existing story.
I know, I know. Outlining. A lot of people hate it with a passion. But when I was trying to work in new stuff and figuring out what old stuff to keep, it helped to just write out short descriptions of "this happens (new)" and "move scene 1 of current chapter 5 here." Then I had a plan, and could plug in all the new bits, move old bits around, and do it quickly without too much confusion.

4. Write it!
Funnest part, of course! You get to take all those new ideas and make them come alive, bringing new and exciting things to your story. Don't be afraid to go beyond the outline if you get a better idea as you write. And, though it made me sigh a little, don't be afraid to cut, either. I had to cut one of my favorite scenes because it no longer worked with the rewrites. Just remember, it's for the ultimate good of the story.

So, my friends, have you ever had this problem? How did you inject "a little less talk and a lot more action?" (And yes, I'm humming that Toby Keith song right now...) How is your own writing going?

The Two Secrets to Writing the World's Most Incredible, Amazing-Sauce, Best-Selling Novel

Jan 17, 2012

AAAAAAAND, I'm back!

Hello there, folks! I'm excited to be back among the land of the blogging (and the land of the living-- I swear, I slept through at least three-quarters of my first trimester of pregnancy). I'll be around to see how ya'll have been doing over the next few days.

In the meantime, I'm honored to say my blog has been nominated as a Top Writing Blog by eCollegeFinder! Today, in that spirit, I want to talk about the best advice I ever got in my college years about writing. It was freshman year, and I sat in my first college-level creative writing class, eager to fill my somewhat empty brains with knowledge that would make me the world's most beloved, inspiring, and best-selling writer by the time I turned 19.

My professor walked in and proceeded to give the lecture that started the foundation for all the writing I've done since then. That day, he gave me the two secrets to helping me achieve all my writing dreams. In a fit of generosity, I have decided to pass on those secrets.

So, my friends, I would tell you this: have a take, and don't suck.

I know, right? And here we've spent all this time on stuffing our brains full of writing knowledge, and it's just that simple! Well, sort of. Let's break this down.

Have a take

My professor described "having a take" as giving a story that unique, personal touch that only you and your life experience can bring to the table. Story ideas are a dime a dozen. What makes that idea come alive and turn into that incredible tale that only you can tell is your take on that idea. What experiences in your life have given you insight that lets you turn that ho-hum idea on its head?

So find the thing YOUR life has made you believe in. Find a way to look at that story through a lens no one else has seen it through before-- because it's the one that belongs only to you.

Don't suck

You'd think I could sum this one up with a simple, "Well, duh." But this is the part that made it impossible to achieve by the time I turned 19. You see, with writing, we've all been doing it since elementary school. We wrote little stories and essays and journal entries at teachers' bequests, so we all think we're pretty darn good at it. So hey, we may as well write that best-selling novel because, after all, we already know how to do it.

Nope. Sorry. The craft of writing fiction is a whole different ball of wax. It's like playing the piano. Anybody can sit down and plunk out a few notes. But it's only the ones who learn the theory and then PRACTICE it who actually manage to play the piano well. So in order to not suck, you need to learn the theory. You need to practice. And unfortunately, that takes time.

But hey, just think of all the fun you can have with writing while you're learning not to suck!

So, my friends, there are the two secrets to writing the world's most incredible, amazing-sauce, best-selling novel! I'll, uh, let you know when I finally achieve that some day... In the meantime, what is the piece of writing advice that stuck with you over the years? And, hey, how are you all, anyway? It's good to see ya'll again. 

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