The Case for the Virtuous Villain
By Persia Walker
It can take a few books before a writer understands the importance of having a fully developed "villain," someone who is not only strong, but believable and also sometimes sympathetic. This character is the one who drives the story. He or she is the one who upsets the apple cart, derails the train, rips the carpet out from under our feet and essentially gets the story going. If it weren't for this individual, we wouldn't have anything to write about. Isn't it time that the villain had his due?
I could also call this post "The Case for the Vulnerable Villain," since many a "villain" sees him- or herself as both virtuous and vulnerable. Every now and then, you might actually come across one who says, "Yes, I'm evil and happy about it," but most feel sorry for themselves. Each feels that he has been ignored, downtrodden. He has worked hard, been taken advantage of and deserves the money he stole. She was a faithful wife, bore his kids and put him through school. She's the one who deserves his gifts, his loyalty and admiration -- not that b*tch of a mistress she shot before his very eyes.
All of us know that crooks, criminals and their assorted bedfellows have their own point of view, a very strong point of view, a sense that they had a right to do what they did. Their world was so threatened that they had no choice but to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting community. We know this, but do we reflect it in our writing? Too often, we don't. A villain is a villain is a villain. (Oh, I know that in writing schools and creative fiction classes these days, they teach us not to label anyone as a villain, but to call them antagonists. But let's be honest: deep down, most of us do still think of the person causing all the trouble in our stories as the bad one, the villain.)
We pay a price for being so cut-and-dry when it comes to characterization. Our stories are much, much richer when we take the time to see the world through our villain's eyes. Most of us have been told that motivation for crime boils down to love or money. Almost all crime, we've read, falls into one or both of those categories. Fair enough. But I think we should take a look at what can happen within those categories when explaining our lawbreaker's behavior. Below is a shortlist of explanations just to get you going. You might want to add to the list and/or review which explanation(s) apply to your "villain."
Explanation 1 is a sympathetic one. It is so sympathetic that Dear Reader finds himself wondering if he wouldn't have done the same thing if he'd been standing in the perp's shoes. It's a question that good criminal defense attorneys successfully get juries to reflect on all the time. And it's one that a good writer of mystery and mayhem also gets his or her readers to ask.
One obvious example would be the person who commits a criminal act with the intention of saving another. Remember the movie John Q? A desperate father takes a hospital waiting room hostage to force authorities to find a heart for his dying child, who needs a transplant. This was a good, but desperate man who was driven to commit a very real crime.
Explanation 2 is a trivial one. The reason for the crime seems so trivial that Dear Reader just shakes his head in absolute, profound and existential puzzlement. Why would anyone kill someone over a chicken bone? Or because they refused to turn down the television volume? I mean yes, she might have been annoying, but did you have to kill her over it? Your killer will answer yes. If this perp is a major figure in your story, who has killed again and again, then it behooves you to make the world understand that apparently trivial answer. Just remember: To the perp's mind, whether his act was planned or impulsive, the reason was not trivial at all, but key to his happiness, ambition, peace of mind.
Explanation 3: ... is that there is no explanation. We're talking the sociopath here, or a person who is simply evil. This person enjoys hurting and maiming others. The goal is not retribution or revenge, protecting anyone, or the acquisition of anything material, such as money, a house or a job. The goal, if you can call it that, is simply the experience itself. But even these people will tell you that they are victims. They are victims of the pressure within, a pressure that progressively worsened until they had to act.
Let your villain be multifaceted. Give her an admirable talent. Show him performing an act of kindness. Give insight into her private hell. It will give your story dimension, depth ... resonance.
Your villain inhabits his or her own world. The most forceful writing drags Dear Reader, sometimes kicking and screaming, into that world -- or at least to the very edges of it. It doesn't matter whether you write suburban cozies or gritty urban noir. Your stories revolve around characters who have warped views of their world and their place in it. Lend insight into these views. Make them real. Give Dear Reader a ride for her money and she'll thank you for it by buying your books again and again.
Until next week then,
Friday, January 25, 2008
The Case for the Virtuous Villain