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42: How do you write villains?

This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain discuss how to write villains, what comes naturally to them when writing villains, and various examples of villains throughout different genres.

Transcript

Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn.

J: What’s up, Crys?

Crys: I am back in the land of super burning hotness. We took a week to go visit the town where I lived for most of eight years and see all of our friends. The first morning I woke up with toucans and monkeys and I was like, why did I leave? Have I made a terrible mistake? And then as the week went on, all of the reasons why I’ve chosen to move reaffirmed themselves. And I was like, I can find toucans and monkeys a little closer to where I live now if I need to. But it has been a lovely trip.

J: Have you and Smalls adjusted to your new setting now?

Crys: Yeah, like we’ve adjusted to our city life and then we come here and ruin it all. And he has been a massive D-I-C-K this week as five-year-olds are wont to do when their routines are upset and they don’t know what to expect out of life. So I’m very excited to get back to the city at this point.

How’s your week been?

J: Good. Good. I’m heading out as soon as we’re done here. My youngest is going to take her driver’s exam today. So fingers crossed, breath held. We’ll see how that goes.

Crys: No new dents. I never dented my car because it was a 1983 piece of steel Ford LTD. But I did dent the church with it. So there’s a dent in my childhood church, on the corner, from me driving my car for the first time. These cars these days, they dent themselves, not houses.

From our episode that released last week, which was on getting to know your audience and where to find them, in our group on Slack, our friend Adam says, “as someone who loathes social media for the ease of it being a venomous cesspool,” which I think is a lovely description, “he does like to find ways to connect to people while avoiding all that useless chaos.” So the discussion was hopeful for him.

J: Good. Good.

Crys: Yeah. That’s all we ask, to provide hope and some information.

J: Yeah. And while we’re talking about him, we should give him a shout out. His guest blog post was the number one news story on the 400th episode of The Somewhere Book Show this past week.

Crys: Excellent. I did not know that. Congratulations to Adam. Adam is one of the Three Story Method editors that I got to hang out with when J did a certification. I think that was October. It feels like centuries ago, but I think it was only October. Two months ago.

This week we’re turning our brains a bit more towards craft. And this question came up for me in a conversation with another one of our members, Marianne, because I’m working on that story that JP and I over on the Write Away Podcast started with our tarot, writing a short story with tarot. And we gave ourselves this goal of writing villain stories. I don’t think either of us succeeded in writing an actual villain story for the short story, but we did write villain origin stories.

And as Marianne and I were talking about this, because I was running some ideas past her, she said, “I thought villains were always selfish.” But this character who is going to do terrible things has altruistic reasons for them. And so this prompted a short conversation with her, but it’s been one of those topics that’s popped up on purpose for me over the year.

So I wanted to throw this to you and to our audience about like, how do you write villains? And what pops out for you as things that you find come naturally to you in writing villains, the depths of your dark soul?

J: The blackness of my heart is one thing. I almost want to say, just go read Sacha Black’s book, she can tell you all you need to know about writing villains. But in all seriousness, I know you mentioned this question before, so I’ve been thinking about it because I knew we would probably address it on the podcast at some point. I think the reason why I feel like this is a part of the craft that I don’t really think about is because in the kind of stories I write, like you have to have a villain. Like it’s a convention, like it has to be there.

And I know that in all genres, you need some type of obstacle for your protagonists, but it doesn’t always have to be a villain. Like it can be a force of antagonism, right? So my case, almost all the stories I’ve written have had not just a force of antagonism, but an antagonist, a villain. And I think it has come naturally to me because the villain, in the most basic sense, is the force that is trying to prevent your protagonist from getting what they want.

And so when you look at it from that standpoint, it lets you off the hook from creating this very flat, sort of mustache twirling villain that does evil things for the sake of evil. They’re the hero of their story. They have their own agenda, the thing that they’re trying to do, and it just so happens that’s in conflict with what the protagonist wants.

So as I think through the question and about this idea of villains, I think the most interesting ones are the ones that are complex. They’re just not that simple on the surface.

Crys: One of my favorite villains in, and I didn’t really enjoy the show that much, and it’s not because the show wasn’t very good, the show was great, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea or whatever, but I love the villain, is Daredevil’s Kingpin from the Marvel TV show. If you have not seen that show, I think he might be the villain of season two. I’m not 100% certain on that.

And one of the things that they did not have to do because he was a really good villain on his own without going into like his personal life, is they showed him as a child and the abuse he endured that made him feel, one, untrusting of systems or of other people in power, two, that he was the only one who was able to protect those he loves. You get to see the actual people that he loves. And he does horrible things for the goal of his idea of the better good. And he’s just one of my favorite antagonists because of that.

J: Yeah, and I’ve watched Daredevil and he was excellent in that. And, yes, you had empathy for him. Like you could get where he was coming from. A show that I think does a really good job of this too is Sons of Anarchy. So it’s a bit violent, so just trigger alert there. But what’s really cool about Sons of Anarchy is because it’s a show about an outlaw biker gang, the biker gang themselves are villains to the people in the town, but the perspective of the show is through the lens of the bikers. And what they believe is that they are protectors of the town. Like they are the ones controlling the illegal activity and protecting the townspeople from the outside.

And the more you watch the show, you see that there are other biker gangs, and they all think the same thing. So the hero villain, like even down to particular characters like Jax Teller, who’s like the protagonist, he does terrible stuff and he’s a dirt bag and he’s terrible, but like he’s also the hero of the story. And it’s those very complex characters I think, are the ones that have the most interesting.

Crys: Yeah. And I’m trying to think of stories that I really enjoyed that don’t have as complex villains because I don’t think you always need that complex of a villain, even though I adore complex villains. And my mind is honestly going blank right now. I’m trying to think of shows that I’ve watched. Because Umbrella Academy, it has complex villains that sometimes change into good guys.

J: More like masterworks. If you take something like Dracula, Dracula is the villain and there’s nothing good about him. He’s not complex. Like he’s a vampire, spoiler alert.

Crys: Yeah. Yeah. So I think that actually is a good example. So I’m going to talk about what I do for my villains and then slip into that as a contrast, because for me, the villain is often the shadow image of the main character. That they are someone who had somewhat similar choices or circumstances in life and chose differently. I really like that kind of mirror, the concept and the tool of mirrors in general. And for the serial that I’m working on, it’s really more just epic fantasy told in serial format, I have a lot of villains. And I have like third tier, second tier, main villains. And each of them has a different, like kind of piece of a broken mirror, of choices made differently from the main character.

I don’t normally prepare that many characters ahead of time, but this just fell naturally for the story. I never write a book the same way twice, it seems. And pulling out all of these different antagonists, these different villains, who all had a different challenge that they reflected of the main character, is something that helps me envision how they progress from like, you know, not super powerful beginning character to able to fight the big battle, is thinking, okay, what is the small problems that the villains are going to reflect that they have to fight against?

And so in contrast to that, something like Dracula. I think subconsciously whether Stoker planned this or not, that often stands in for societal fears. And I think that’s a really cool way to approach villains as well. It’s not a way I do it. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I’m much more on the character level than the societal level. But I do think that there’s a lot of allegory there, and I don’t know whether Stoker intended that or not, but he was a pretty smart guy, so very possible.

J: Yeah, I think too, talking about your example of epic fantasy, there are great examples in that genre. You look at Gollum, Smeagol just made different decisions than Frodo did. And so like as a villain, like you’re talking about, they do mirror each other in a way. But the fact that like one of them made the decision and went this way and the other one went this way, and that’s what creates the dynamic between the two.

Crys: I actually really like that example of Lord of the Rings because I would say the Sauron and the tower does, again, stand in for that societal level of evil. And that story has both the societal and the character. I like talking through these things because I have new insights that wouldn’t have come up without the conversation.

Now, when you are building your stories, because I know you’re a plotter, you look at the global stuff beforehand, do you find that you often come up with the circumstances, the obstacle, villain, or the main character first?

J: I’m like you, I never write a book the same way twice. I wish I could, but I just can’t. I think most recently what I did, is I came up with the protagonist and I came up with what that protagonist needed and then the villain came out of the obstacles that would be standing in the way of that.

Crys: Now I’m curious, with your comedy, how was your villain in that and like their creation as you were figuring them out different from everything else you wrote? Or was it?

J: I don’t know if it was that different on that level. So the parody is what I’m writing right now, and the villain in that is like the Paul Blart Mall Cop archetype. He’s like a cop, but he’s a bumbler, and he’s high on his own authority. And so because it was an archetype, it was really easy to slot him in as a villain. I think comedy lends itself to that because you’re looking to place archetypes in situations that make them funny instead of coming up with gags, because that’s hard, like writing jokes and gags is hard.

But if you create an archetype and then you just put that character into a situation, they’re just going to do what they do. So if you look at something like The Office, Dwight isn’t necessarily funny because of what he says, he’s funny because of what he says in The Office, which is often inappropriate. And same with Michael, same with some of those other characters. And I think that would work beyond comedy, but I think for comedy it works really well is that you just use the archetypes.

Crys: Now, I have not watched The Office because I can’t. The secondhand embarrassment is too difficult for me. I’m like, they should feel embarrassed and they do not. I feel it 10 times for them.

But, and this is more of like a comedic cereal, like TVs styles, so stepping a little bit outside the conversation. But in that kind of storytelling, does the villain change from episode to episode?

J: So it’s an interesting question. And I think it applies to all levels and forms of storytelling, in that I like to build in multiple layers of villains or forces of antagonism. You have your big bad. If we use Star Wars, as an example, you have layered, right? You have Darth Vader and the other characters, but then like the forces, and you have different bad people in different situations. And so I think that’s one way to keep it creative and keep the reader on their toes is to nest your villains inside of each other or have a hierarchy of evil in your story.

Crys: Yeah, I do think that there, at least in my mind, whether it’s real or not, I do have a difference between antagonists and villains. With villains, and this is not a clear, thought-out thing, this is just me rambling right now, in that villains do represent a purposeful kind of wrong. And I don’t know if I would say that they acknowledge that they’re wrong, but they are doing wrong, like purposeful wrong to others. Whereas antagonists may be more of like the Paul Blart Mall Cop who is just super focused on following the rules, but it’s not necessarily wronging anyone else.

I don’t know if that’s fair, but that’s what popped into my head.

J: I think that is a good distinction. And maybe it has to do with genre too. I can imagine villains in a superhero universe would be much more commonplace and expected than villains in, I don’t know, a love triangle story.

Crys: Yeah. Because what just popped up to me was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. And I would not say that there’s a villain in that story unless it’s cancer itself. But like the antagonist of that story is the looming, pending inevitable death of these teenagers of cancer. And there are other mini obstacles along the way, but there’s never a human that is the villain.

J: Yeah. So that’s a good distinction to make. I think they’re not necessarily the same.

Crys: Thanks for indulging me in this conversation. This is lovely to chat out because I’m still forming my own personal definitions, as our listeners have been able to hear me mumble through.

J: We’re all trying to figure it out, right?

Crys: J recommended Sacha Black’s book on villains. And we will link that in the show notes because that has definitely been one of my resources. There’s another one, I think by the author Rayne Hall that I will link as well. And one of the things I like about Rayne Hall, because you mentioned archetypes in your parody, Rayne Hall has specific villain archetypes that I’ve found very useful as well.

My question for our listeners this week is simply, how do you write your villains? What are the things that pop out that either you do naturally or you do very consciously? I’m really curious to hear how everybody else writes.

J: Excellent question.

Crys: If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Success Mastermind is all about.

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