Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Like Em Bad, Do Ya?

83,000 words (and it's like two trains on a collison course, shovelling on more coal)

Charles gave me a good idea for today's post. He was talking about identifying with fictional characters, even if they're a different race, gender or even species. Except Charles seemed mostly to talk about the heroes. I'm going to talk about the villains.

We see ourselves in others. We can't help it. It's some of the deepest hard-wiring the human brain has.

Long before we had speech, or even tools, we had body language and tribe. Today we're able to see faces in everything from a light socket to a car's front grille, to accept a dog or cat as a member of the family (Midge sits on my lap right now) and to see our own heart's pain in the projected drawings of animals (Bambi, anyone?)

You want to really give your readers a good time? Make them see themselves in the villain. Want to make them remember you long after they close the book? Make them halfway cheer the villain on!

Having a clear and consistent motivation for your villains is the bare minimum for any story. Otherwise, the baddy runs the risk of sounding like the mad scientist in Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town: "I didn't do it for money, and I didn't do it for glory. I'm... just.... MEAN!"

On the other hand, Frankenstein's monster wants an end to his loneliness. Iago is well and truly pissed off about being passed over for promotion, and Mrs Danvers resents the intruder trying to replace her former love and mistress, Rebecca.

We see a bit of ourselves in these villains because we know their pain. We've been lonely. We've been rejected. We've been jealous. Even if we don't approve of their actions, we know where they're coming from.

Want to make that identification stronger? Give the baddy a bit of the postive. When Hannibal Lecter defends Clarise's honor by killing Miggs and helping her with her case, he becomes a little more real to us.

But be aware. making strong, rounded villains is harder than it looks. Too much 'rounding out', and you've got your hero fighting a milksop. Now, while I'd pay good money to watch Jack Reacher bitch slap the holy tar out of I-molested-my-foster-daughter Woody Allen, it wouldn't exactly be a worthy challenge for Mr Reacher.

Also, it's not altogether necessary. The out-of-tribe Others are ancient storytelling villains. Part of us doesn't *want* to know why they're coming over the hill. We just want them defeated. Making them alien and unknowable is part of how we justify the terrible things we'll do to them (Native Americans in 19th century penny dreadfuls, anyone?).

And some villains are little more than the personifications of the vast dark beyond that fragile circle of firelight. That's a balancing act with its own set of tricks and challenges, but I'd be lying if I said it couldn't be done.

Dracula's got a clear motivation, the need to feed, but at the heart of it, the guy's basically just an asshole. Why'd he do it? He's evil, that's why. Now shut up and turn the pages.

On a lighter note, recut trailers! Watch these here and here. They're a hoot! (Links from Neil Gaiman's blog.)


Charles Gramlich said...

Great discussion on villain development. I ended up posting something on this today too, before I checked out your blog. I think we make pretty similar and complementary points about villains. The youtube stuff was hilarious. I've seen the one with the Shining but not with "Scary Mary." What a...scream.