Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Building a Better Villain

Thea Atkinson, author of character-driven fiction, features my thoughts on what makes a good villain. For starters, in many cases it's all about how you define a villain:

What is a villain? Various dictionaries give different answers: a deliberate criminal or scoundrel; one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty; a character in a story who opposes a hero. My favorite comes from, of all places, Google: a person guilty or capable of a crime or wickedness. Because, when pushed far enough, I think most of the characters I write for are. Depending on how we define “wicked”, Emily, the main character of my book The Smartest Girl in the Room might be accused of being a villain; certainly, stealing someone’s drugs and punching another in the jaw right before you blackmail them are criminal. But, I submit, Emily isn’t a villain at all: she’s a young woman trying to protect her friends. If her actions are questionable, her motives aren’t.

Which leads me to my first observation:

1. Villainy is about perspective. You, the reader, know immediately that Emily isn’t a villain because you know what led her to her actions. Someone else (say, law enforcement) might not be so forgiving. Emily is trying to protect her best friend Zainab from someone she hasn’t trusted since the first chapter. What she does is ill-advised (breaking the law should be avoided at all costs), but you know why she did it. If someone else did the same things but for a different reason- they really wanted to get their hands on a stash of drugs, for example- your conclusion might be different.

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