Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Characters: Villains

Everyone Thinks They Are The Hero (Particularly The Villain)

No one thinks they are the bad guy. There are bad people in the world, but they don't wake up thinking they are bad people. Oddly, I know a lot of lovely people who, due to depression and mental illness, do wake up thinking they are bad people. However the more you are out there, affecting other people, changing the world around you, the more confident you have to be in your motives and justifications.

Racists genuinely believe there is a conspiracy against them. They actually believe they are protecting their families and defending their nation when they harass and beat innocent women and children. Paedophiles genuinely believe children want to be in a relationship with them, or that they won't remember the abuse. The worst things you or I can imagine a person doing, someone has an excuse and justification for.

To write a villain well, you have to know what lies they tell themselves. You have to know how they justify their beliefs and actions. You probably don't agree with them, but you have to understand. Because if you don't know and believe, the reader won't either.

Everyone Antagonises Someone

You are the antagonist in someone's life. Right now, someone thinks of you as a villain (or just an asshole). Even if you work very hard to be nice to everyone, your gender, your race, your age or your political beliefs mean there are people who disapprove of you, people who think YOU are what is wrong with the world. Hopefully, you are also someone's hero too.

The hero in your story will be someone's villain too. Most likely, your hero will be your villain's antagonist.

When developing your villain, it helps to come at them from a place of empathy. Realising that there are people who hate you too, realising that everyone in the world is both hero and villain, allows you to see from the villain's point of view easier. No doubt you see yourself as a hero, or, at least, not a villain. But to someone you are. Your villain in your story will probably feel the same way you do. Or, at least, have comparable excuses to your own: Those people who dislike me are wrong. They don't understand me. They wouldn't feel that way if they knew me or if they were in my situation. I'm doing what has to be done. I can't help being this way.

Yeah, you and everyone else, buddy.

Resonance And Empathy

I think we empathise with the best villains. We don’t agree with them, but we still empathize with some aspect of their motivations or back story. Remember the most powerful stories make us feel things strongly, but abject terror is virtually impossible to maintain over long periods. You can’t rely on your villain making people feel afraid for long periods, they have to invoke other emotions too.

Resonance in villains can be powerful, if done correctly. You’re not trying to ‘copy’ someone else’s work, you’re trying to invoke echoes of the same feeling, the same excitement and passion as when they read or watched something else they loved, and also make them feel like they are in familiar territory.

Its why we us comparisons so much when recommending books, movies and games. If you loved X you will also love Y. Resonance is the reason.

When I was planning a YA novel recently and began doing the character profiles, I asked some of my teenage friends who their favourite villains were. I made a list and sorted them into archetypes. There were clear preferences. Teenage girls have a type, apparently. Which was fantastic, because I knew exactly what sort of villain I had to write to appeal to them most.

What Makes A Villain Compelling?

Villains are compelling if they feel threatening to the reader and the reader should want to know more about them. The more intense these two feelings are, the more compelling a villain will be.

I have talked about villains needing to be more powerful and have more resources than the hero many times. It's hard to be scared of someone who is less capable than we are. However to make them both compelling and more interesting to learn about, it's time to go back to the profile.

Your villain's motives are going to make them interesting. They need to have a good reason for what they do. They have to want something, a lot. They have to be driven by a powerful need. The villain themselves doesn't always have to be completely aware of this, but it should be clear to the reader. It's even better if the reader empathises with the motives, if not the method.

What if the villain is getting revenge for the death of his child? We would all feel that compulsion, even if we didn't act on it. Maybe some of us would act on it, but maybe this villain is so driven by his need for revenge, he is willing to kill innocent people, maybe even other people's children, to achieve it.

Or perhaps consider a villain like Draco Malfoy. Here was a child who was raised to be a villain. Raised to be racist, violent and competitive. If he had been raised differently, perhaps he would have been a very different character. However he was driven to continue his cruel ways, because he was seeking his father's approval and wanted to feel a part of his family and their traditions. We can all empathise with that. We all want to feel accepted by our family, even if our family is terrible. To Harry, Draco seems like a powerful adversary. However as readers we can see, particularly in the earlier books, that he is just a little boy who has been raised terribly. That empathy allowed many readers to really enjoy Draco as a character, and I think many of us wanted a lot more for him.

Weaknesses and strengths (are still the same thing)

Remember when I said most weaknesses are also strengths? This applies to your villain too. Confidence becomes over-confidence. Leadership becomes pride. Beauty becomes vanity. Thwarted hope becomes bitterness. When you are considering their weaknesses and strengths, flip both. Which weaknesses do you want to also be strengths? Maybe they are old, but since people pay less attention to the elderly, it allows them to move around, unnoticed and underestimated. Maybe they're in a wheelchair, which allows them to sneak weapons through a metal detector? Maybe they are breathtakingly beautiful, but at a critical moment they shy away from a fire that would scar them, allowing the hero to get the upper hand?

Where a hero's weaknesses are designed to make them relatable to the reader, a villain's weaknesses are often designed to foil them at a critical moment. A hero overcomes her weaknesses, a villain succumbs to his.

Remember though, a villain is most effective when they seem to posses more resources than the hero. If you villain is ugly, weak, sick and unintelligent, it's not very impressive when your hero defeats him.

I think it is easier to get away with wish fulfilment in a villain than in a hero. The villain can be smarter, prettier, richer, more talented, wittier and all the things we wish we were. The villain, in short, can get away with being a bit of a Mary-Sue. Loki from the Marvel movies, played by Tom Hiddleston, leaps to mind. He is larger than life, effortlessly confident and bold, capable, sexy and evil in all the right ways. Could he be a protagonist? No, as much as many of us wish he could have his own movie. We may love Loki, but it is difficult to side with him when we've seen him kill innocent people, people who did nothing more than refuse to kneel for him.

If you are compelled to have that character who can do everything, is perfect and awesome and loved and impossible cool, make them your villain. It's what I do.

Relationships With Other Characters

A villain who exists in a void is a bit... boring. Seeing how villains interact with their families, their loved ones, their underlings, their superiors--it makes them much more interesting. A villain who can show compassion to the people she cares about causes a sort of cognitive dissonance. How can he love his own daughter so deeply, yet allow these other little girls to die? How can she run into the road to save a kitten, then torture another person to death in front of their family?

Its these relationships that allow you to show your villain's depth of character. That they are not just one dimensional evil entities. It allows you to make them human. Flawed and beautiful. It makes it easier for you to blur the moral lines.

However you villain will have other relationships too. Relationships with their other victims. Relationships with your hero. Relationships with themselves. Be aware of these. When you are planning your synopsis, map these out too. How they change, how they grow, how they fall apart.

Your villain is on the same journey as your hero, but when one rises, the other falls.

Failure And Darkest Moments

You villain's highest moment will probably be your hero's darkest moment. It is the moment it looks like the villain will win and is at his strongest, but the hero has failed and been abandoned by his friends. In contrast, your villain's darkest moment will be the climax, when all their success is ripped away from them as the hero triumphs.

Since the villain is the bad guy, he will likely end up defeated, possibly dead. In the case of series, sometimes he will live on, manage to escape and crawl away to lick his wounds and muster another offensive. But the story isn't over until the evil is vanquished somehow, unless you are going for a very unsatisfying ending.


The worst bad guys are the ones who just sit around, waiting for someone to stumble into them. Tell me what is worse:

            1. You're in a maze and you know there is a minotaur guarding the exit
            2. You're in a maze and you know the minotaur is hunting you as you desperately try and find the exit?

I know which one would scare me more. The minotaur with agency. The minotaur who is actively looking to hurt me, not just standing around, waiting for me to come to him. Your villain should be active. A threatening villain is always a few steps ahead, with your hero desperately trying to catch up (using her own agency, not just passively reacting).

A good tip I have heard from a lot of authors is: If you get stuck and don't know what happens next, ask yourself, what is your villain doing? Usually their goals and actions will serve to move the plot forward.

The Difference Between A Hero And A Villain

The key difference between the hero and the villain is at the critical juncture, the hero chooses to do the right thing and the villain chooses to do the wrong thing.

Voledemort and Harry had a lot in common. A rough start, a magical school, access to unnatural power. By the time they met, Voledemort was already past the point of redemption. However through the series, we learn about him as a child. Where his path branched, over and over and each time he chose the wrong one. Meanwhile, Harry chose goodness. Despite being an orphan, despite his abuse at the hands of his own family, he chose to protect others. To be brave. He didn't always get it right, but he tried to get it right. Tom Riddle did not.

If you're still wondering who you are a villain to, you should keep this distinction in mind. When you choose to do the right thing, the brave and compassionate thing, the unselfish and generous thing, you are being the hero.

And, well, none of us are the hero all the time.

NEXT WEEK, we look at character consistency and wrap up the character series.

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here:

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tag's Top 5 Tips For A Productive 2017

So we all know I am super productive and we know I love jumping on a good bandwagon. So here are my top 5 tips for a productive 2017:

1. Don't give up on things because they will take too long. The time will pass anyway.

Will saving to buy a house take too long? Will getting a degree take too long? Writing a novel? Getting to the top of a new career path? Learning to paint? It doesn't matter how long something will take, a year, ten, twenty, that time will pass. And at the end you can either have the thing you wanted or be a lot older and still not have it. Your choice.

2. Most of our goals feed into one or two bigger goals. What is your big goal in life?

In Angela Duckworth's 'Grit' she discusses goals and how most of our smaller goals feed into one or two major goals. It was suggested to her that we should all choose one main goal for our life and cull of anything that doesn't contribute to that one central focus.

Goals should be thought of as a pyramid, feeding upwards toward the primary goal. Let's say your primary goal is to be a world famous author. It would be the top of the pyramid. Writing many first drafts would be somewhere near the bottom, followed by editing them. Above that would be getting them published with a major publishing house. Above that would be selling a million copies and so on, as you get close to that primary goal of 'world famous author'.

Maybe you also think it would be cool to have a dog grooming business. However that would take time and effort away from your primary goal, while not contributing in any way. In 'Grit' Angela Duckworth says if we really want to achieve our primary goal, we should cull any projects that don't contribute to it.

When you know your main goal in life, deciding how to spend your time is suddenly very easy.

3. What do you wish you had started doing five years ago? What will you regret not doing now in ten years time?

Saving $100 a week?
Learning a new language?
Playing an instrument for half an hour a day?
Starting part time study?

If you had started saving $100 a week, five years ago, today you would have $26, 000. Which is what I paid for my half acre of land in Nanango. You could have mastered another language or racked up over 900 hours of practise on an instrument. You could be finished a part time degree.

Make a list of the things you wish you had started five years ago. Try and look forward. What will you regret not doing in five years? In ten years?

4. One thing today that will make tomorrow easier.

Every single day, I have a goal to do one thing that will make tomorrow easier. Usually its small things I am putting off. Paying bills, gardening, some mess that doesn't need to be cleaned up, but is messy all the same. After I have finished my primary objective for the day, I cross of one of these 'tomorrow' goals. There are times when I even run out.

Yes, there are times when everything in my house is clean, my bills are all paid and I have no projects sitting around waiting to be finished. Its real. It's possible. They are finite. With persistence and consistency, you can experience it too.

5. Life passes faster as we get older, because our experiences are less novel.

I read a psychology article recently (which I have no misplaced) that discussed that feeling we have that time passes more quickly as we get older. The reason, the author said, was because as adults we have more routine. We do less novel things.

Since I read that, I have tried to do something novel several times a week. I go somewhere I haven't been before, look in stores I've never been inside, try something new--be it a food or a skill. Even moving your furniture and decorations around helps. The first eight days of 2017 felt longer to me than entire months of 2016. It's really changed my life.

Also cucamelons are quite nice, eaten fresh off the vine.

Next week, we are back to the characters series, I promise!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Characters: Heroes - Part Two

Character Series
Part 10: Heroes - Part 2
Finally, part two of the Heroes blog post, lets begin:


Relationships With Other Characters

You should use your profiles to map how different characters feel about each other too. Different dynamics between different characters are interesting. If everyone just likes or dislikes each other in the same way, characters lose their identity.

In my Lifesphere Inc series, each book is written from the perspective of a different protagonist and they all have very different feelings about each other! The first book is from Eli's POV and he is fiercely loyal to Squall, bored with Cain, threatened by Aquillis and suffers an intense dislike of Locke.

Book two is from Squall's perspective and she is also fiercely loyal to Eli--however she is also aware of his flaws and how they're holding them back as a team. Despite the fact Eli dislikes Locke, Squall and Locke are excellent friends. Likewise, Squall spends a lot of her time with Cain and enjoys his company. She's infatuated with Aquillis and not very comfortable around him.

I have to remember who's head I am in all the time. I can't let Eli's feelings for Locke show when I am writing Squall's point of view. I also can't let MY feelings for characters affect how they interact with one and other.

Failure & Empathy

A character who does everything easily and always succeeds is both unrealistic and very boring to read about. If you find yourself writing those characters, you are probably creating a kind of wish fulfilment for yourself—writing about the sort of person you wish you were, without taking reader’s interests into consideration.

Maybe you are worried your character won’t seem ‘cool’ or ‘impressive’ if he fails. When you fail, you feel ashamed or embarrassed and you imagine a reader will look on failing character with scorn. However the deciding factor in a reader feeling intense empathy or scorn for a character is not in their results, rather, their motivation for taking the action.

Let’s say we have a young boy and he attempts to steal money. He is caught and imprisoned.

How do you feel about that?

What if he was stealing the money because his mother was dying and he wanted to buy medicine. He’d never tried to steal before, but he had run out of people to ask for help. It was a desperate, last ditch effort and his failure will cost his mother her life. While he waits in the cell, he knows she is dying, alone.

How about if he stole the money because he wanted a new phone? His old phone is fine, but the dorky kid in his class got a better one for his birthday last week and he can’t stand a dork having better gear than him. Thankfully, his father will come and bail him out of the cell. He should be home by dinner.

As you can see, it’s not the actions or the failure that alters our opinion, it is the MOTIVATION. Failure can make a reader empathize a lot more, after all, we all fail at times. Its only human.

Darkest Moments

What is a darkest moment? The darkest moment is when your main character has failed, everything looks lost and it seems there is no way the book can have a happy conclusion. Emotionally, it is the lowest point of the novel. In most emotional arcs, it will happen between the middle and final third of the book, with everything afterwards focusing on the final rise to conclusion. It will also likely be your villains highest point--they believe they have won. Secondary characters may have their lowest point at other points in the story, however your protagonists lowest point should be the worst, the one the reader feels the most deeply.

How dark can you go? You should make your darkest moment as dark as you can, while still bringing the reader back with you to the conclusion. The more skill you have as a writer, the darker you can go. You want to push the reader to their emotional limits (within the context of the genre and target audience), but you also need to be able to bring them back up and have them where you want them for the final scene. If you can't bring them back up and leave them feeling satisfied, they won't put the book down eager to read your next work.

Your character's darkest moment may also be the point they make the wrong choice. They do the selfish thing and walk away from what matters. Again, how badly they fail may depend on how skilled you are at redeeming them. Though not all heroes have to turn their back and do something evil to make a darkest moment powerful.

The most important thing to remember is the darkest moment is a turning point. It's the first step in redemption.

The difference between a hero and a villain:

A hero may do the wrong thing, but he does it for the right reasons. Maybe in his darkest moment he does the wrong thing for the wrong reason—or the right thing for the wrong reason—however at the critical moment the hero makes the right decision. He grows, he sacrifices, and he is selfless.

The other difference between the hero and the villain is that the villain has more resources. If your hero is more powerful than your villain, he's not a hero. He's a bully. The hero has to be the underdog in some way.

If I steal candy from a baby it's not a great victory, I'm just an asshole.

NEXT WEEK, we look at villains and how to craft one that will have your readers squealing for more.

The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here: