A Villain With a Smiling Cheek

14 March 2013

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Back in August during my blog tour for Violets Are Blue, I wrote up a guest post for Scribbles and Ink Stains in which I mentioned how most villains require a reason for their villainy. At the time, and within the context of the post, I was not at liberty to go into extensive detail, and so the topic was kept to one paragraph among many others. Several of Abigail's readers commented on that aspect of my post afterwards, though, and I thought I'd take this opportunity to expand upon my thoughts that I only briefly mentioned last summer.

As a young child first writing overtly dramatic plays à la Josephine March, I had a tendency for dropping haphazard and altogether deadly antagonists into the plots of my stories. The logic behind this endeavor was simple: what is a book worth without a good villain? Pulling names and titles from Little Women, I would build a world in which innocence was thrown against turpitude and delight in the conflict that resulted. (Rodrigo always came to the rescue in the nick of time, of course — what else would he do?) 

My short stories often began with a humble setting, typically a small town right outside the woods, and the characters with which I populated my tales were just as modest and unassuming as their homes. Going about their everyday business with no particular vigor, they would be startled by the sudden entrance of a messenger whose sole purpose in coming was to announce the approach of a horrific monster (also known as an earl) who desired to pillage and plunder the town, slaughtering and feasting on its inhabitants as he pleased. (I never promised that I was a normal child.) About ten minutes later, the villain himself would arrive and go about the business foretold by the distressed messenger.

Contrary to my family's opinion, the greatest of my problems as a new writer was not the fact that I was unaware that "earl" is a formal title given to a British nobleman and not just a fancy term for a vile monster who delights in rampaging kindly village folk. Besides the marked juvenility of the plot detailed above, I rarely gave an introduction to my villain before his great hour came, and once I had made use of his brute strength, he exited as quickly as he had entered. The characters would find some way of defeating the monster, and then the air filled with the sound of much rejoicing. Never did I mention why the creature was so bent towards destruction, and for that reason, my plots remained flat and predictable.

Every antagonist, whether he's a small annoyance to the protagonist or a full-blown villain incarnate, must have two things: a motive and a guise. Without these two traits, he is nothing, and your book will never progress beyond that of a young child's. A motive pushes the villain forward in his immoral actions — it remains the single driving force behind him throughout the story — it is his reason for acting as he does. Though you may not realize it, everything you do in life has a motive. When you're hungry, you go to the kitchen for a snack. When you're tired, you lie down and rest. You eat to satisfy your hunger. You sleep to ease your fatigue and refresh your body. If you have motives for such menial, everyday tasks, shouldn't a character whose intent is to destroy your protagonist's life also have a reason for his actions?

Likewise, a villain is useless without a guise of some sort. Think about it: what good is a blackguard if he goes about revealing his intentions to all and sundry? He may still have his power and brawn, but he has lost the element of surprise, and the reader has, too. When I read Frankenstein in January of this year, I was greatly disturbed by Frankenstein's monster, and not because of his propensity for murder. It was his very appearance of goodness that so unarmed my emotions. The character pleads innocence, claiming he's only a product of his environment, and in the space of one page he spins the reader's emotions into tangled knots, twisting his or her preconceived perceptions of good and evil. The monster commits horrific murder on several occasions and deserves to be put to death himself, but the reader cannot bring himself to convict the creature because he appears outwardly contrite.

Writing villains properly, like any other writing practice, only improves with experience. I'm happy to say that the villains I've crafted recently are a deal more rounded than the ones I molded at age eight, but I still have much to learn, and only time can play the instructor in this case. At least I now understand the proper definition of an earl, which proves I've made some progress in the past eight years.

6 epistles:

  1. Loved the post, Elizabeth. Villeins are such intriguing characters to work with =). I loved hearing of your 'early' antagonist endeavors, etc 'earl' and all that ;). My attempts were pretty similar!

    I agree with those tips about motive and a guise - I always enjoy 'the motive' factor. Guise is always a little more challenging, particularly with how much he/she reveals to both the readers and the other characters.

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    1. Well, it's nice to hear I'm not the only one who has a rather interesting collection to show for my early works! I still have a distinct memory of Bree at age seven or eight drawing up a haphazard sketch of what she believed to be an earl and proudly presenting it to our father, who glanced at in bewilderment and amusement and promptly set us straight. :) (It still took me a good year or two to adjust to the idea of an earl being an entirely respectable character.)

      I agree with you — a guise is much more difficult, as it must be both original and realistic at the same time (then again, what writing of ours *doesn't* have to be both original and realistic?). It all boils down to the villain's nature — is he more of a mild annoyance, or is he a black-hearted gent intent on conquering the world? Each will have their own approach, naturally. But you already knew that. ^.^

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  2. This was spot on! I have been mulling over this exact thing myself. I'm rewriting, you see, and decided to take the opportunity to, erm, *enhance* the villiany of my villian. So thank you! You have given me much food for thought!

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    1. I cannot take full credit, as my thoughts have been bent and molded by those of other more gifted authors of my acquaintance. Thank you for your compliments all the same — I'm glad the post was helpful!

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  3. "Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain." :)

    It drives me crazy when a story has a evil person who has no reason whatever for being evil...or even nasty.

    Thanks for putting this out there; it needs to be said.

    The blog looks lovely...blue and brown can be so versatile.

    Love to you,
    K

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    1. Me too, dear, me too. A villain without a motive is like an unsharpened pencil: it has no point. ;)

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