26 July 2009

On Villains

I've started writing a new book, and so far I love it. Except for one bit, which I hated and already rewrote. Which is usually the way it goes - I have book-love/book-hate. The problem was that I just sat down and wrote, which is okay, but all this backstory came out. Long block of narrative. So I figured out a way to weave it into some character-revealing action and I like it better.

Anyway, not what I wanted to talk about. This book that I'm writing is a Cinderella retelling set in 19th c. Philadelphia. I have all the characters in my head, if not yet on paper, and I was thinking about my villain. It's no secret who the villain will be - the step-mother- but the other day I was considering something that came up in my course on Narration. About the depth of characters. Characters have depth, or dimension, when you 'round' them out. What the heck does that mean? In the case of villains, it means that they can't be all bad. If they're all bad, they become the moustache-twirling cartoon villains that tie girls to railroad tracks. Melodramatic, and flat.

A good villain has personality. Maybe he's got witty comebacks, or does things with unusual flair. The point is that you see him as a person and not just 'the antagonist', or 'the bad guy'. There are reasons for what he or she does, and the reader needs to understand them, even if they don't agree. I don't mean that villains need to be sympathetic, although they certainly can be - that's another issue altogether. But the best villains are those that the reader can look at and say, 'yes, I get it'. There can't just be random meanness. Villains have feelings too, you know.

In most fairy tales, the villain is a little flat, though not always. Snow White's stepmother was jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty. Vain, yes, but it was a reason and one most can relate with, although we would never go to such extremes in order to see our vanity fulfilled. The Sea Witch in the Little Mermaid was a business woman. She wasn't evil, per se, but making a transaction with a tough contract.

You see where I'm going. A good writer will try and see the villain's POV and make is come through. You don't have to like the bad guy, but unless you want the readers to laugh at them, they need to have dimension and substance. Even Voldemort. I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last week, and re-read the book. This was the book where we learned more about Voldy, whom up to that point was just a big meany. But when we find out he was an orphan, and get a glimpse into his life before he turned into Voldemort, well, I don't necessarily feel bad for him, but I can finally kind of get where he was coming from. It didn't play well in the movie, they skipped most of it. So much more the shame for those who haven't read the books, because Voldy is a great villain, even better when you know where he came from.

Back to my WIP. Cinderella's stepmother sometimes gets a bad rap, but I see her POV. She, like Snow White's stepmom, was jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty, but not for herself. She wanted her own daughters to get ahead. To marry the prince. No matter that they were all horrible people, it was a mother's love. I thought about it for awhile, and my stepmother has a whole other backstory that involves 19th c. society, property laws, and all this other stuff. You won't like her, but you will get her. Because I had to in order to make her more than just another cardboard villain. (the stepsister is a whole other story, I've got glorious good plot twists in store for her!)

So, think about the best villains you've ever read, and see if you can't figure out why you like them so much, or rather, like to hate them.

Christine Norris
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