Books, Publishing, and the Creative Life

Villain 1In fiction, the second most important character (after you create a hero or heroine) is the villain. This person forms a contrast to all the good people in your book. The stronger he is, the better they look and the harder they must work to defeat him.

Your villain. . .

  1. Should be smarter and craftier than the average person—maybe even smarter than the main character.  She is definitely capable of overcoming your protagonist.
  2. Can be lucky.  The main character has nothing but bad luck, but things go well for the villain until the end, when he’s defeated.
  3. Should be significantly bad. No one wants a lackluster villain.
  4. Can be anyone who has the potential to do serious harm to your hero. Sometimes the best villains are the ones we least expect.
  5. Must have believable motivation for his actions. Evil and greed aren’t good enough. You must dig deeper into the psyche.
  6. Feels his actions are completely justified.
  7. Shouldn’t be all bad. The best villains show a human side that almost makes us feel sorry for them. At the very least, we understand why they’re so bad. Consider Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
  8.  Should not be a cliché. The wicked stepmother, the other woman, a crazy ex-husband, the psychotic who moves in next door—you can probably name half a dozen candidates. If you decide to use these tried-and-true villains, find ways to make them different and believable.
  9. Needs a distinct voice.
  10. Needs closure, just as your hero does. By the end of the story your villain should accept defeat, see the error of his ways, or be  killed. Unless you’re doing a sequel, of course.

But what if your story doesn’t have a human antagonist? Perhaps you’re writing a disaster tale where the “evil” force is a tornado, the sea itself, a meteor, a shark (think JAWS), or killer lions (The Ghost and the Darkness).You have two options: 1) give your dark forces human qualities, and 2) develop a secondary antagonist to work against your hero. This secondary person will add to your hero’s problems and make the story more harrowing.

Even if you don’t use dark forces or villains, in order to shine, your characters need obstacles to overcome and things working against them. The dark force may be within your hero’s mind or part of his history, but it can still be powerful and disabling. Your hero will be much more interesting with personal issues to overcome.

Writing Tips

Make a list of your favorite villains and consider what made them memorable for you. Your story may not have room for an arch villain like Darth Vadar—he would overwhelm the other characters—but you need people who Villain 2act in villainous ways.

Give your villain chances to compromise, be reasonable, or change. In spite of this, she will continue to obstruct the heroine and cause problems, and your readers will feel sympathy for the heroine.

Instead of weighing down the villain with backstory (a bad childhood, abuse, and other clichés), show him interacting with people in an ordinary way. Maybe he loves animals or children. Perhaps he’s afraid of the dark. Give him interesting traits.

No matter who you choose for a villain, this person (or thing) is your catalyst of external conflict  who stands between your heroine and her ultimate goal. This villain must carry a heavy load in your story, because he’s the one who raises the stakes and creates a sense of dread, danger, and suspense. Where would you be without him?

Sammie Justesen is a publisher and the author of Dialogue for Writers, released in May, 2014.

A great investment for writers

She is also an artist and president of the Lawrence County Art Association.

New review of Dialogue for Writers

This is a wonderful little book. I’ve published five books — three medical books and two literary books — and I thought I had figured it all out,until I ran into this little treasure titled: Dialogue For Writers. Like Justesen, I too learned that clumsy substitutes for the verb “said” interrupt the flow, but that became even more clear when I read this comprehensive book — an absolutely must-have tool for every would-be author. This book can transform a writer into an author, so every writer must have this precious book on their desk. The book reminded me of another essential book every author must have: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style— yes, that’s where this book fits in terms of utility.

I was surprised at the fluidity of this how-to book.  That’s because Justesen sounds like an admonishing, warm teacher; as if she is talking to you, saying “Oh,c’mon! you can do better than that !” No I’ll always remember that my character’s words are the most important elements of their personalities–without lengthy taglines or repetitive adverbs.

Justesen makes convincing arguments and cites apropos examples to convince readers about following book-saving, story-salvaging points:

1.First person lends itself well to internal monologue, but don’t fall in love with the character’s lengthy internal thoughts.
2.Use Silence. Sometime it reveals more than what could be said by a plethora of words (What? this comes from an author of the book on dialogue? Correct! It shows Sammie’s honesty and forthrightness).
3.It’s okay to use disjointed, broken sentences because that’s how people normally talk.
4.Make sure character’s speech sounds natural and reflects his/her personality, background and circumstances.
5. And finally, use dialects and slang sparingly, because alittle goes a long way.

Reading this book was a delight. It does not have the plot of a thriller or mystery but it is so funny, so convincing and at the same time so educating. It was an enjoyable, rewarding experience. I recommend this book to writers as well as non-writers, or to anyone who wants to effectively communicate by using just the right word at the right time with just the right emphasis.

Kudos to Sanmie Justesen.     –Sattar Memon, M.D.

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