Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Sargas Chronicles: Part 1

 Define "Villain"

As some of you may be aware of already, I am currently working on a second major rewrite of the science-fiction novel, Phoenix Rising. I'm not far off from my goal: finishing it by the New Year.

My focus, at the moment, is tightly on this novel. And, in the process, on the final chapters that deal with one of my favorite characters--Sargas. I've received from most of my beta readers a response that suggests I did something right with him. And, my hope is that talking about creating him will in turn help you craft better villains and antagonists. (Don't gasp. I know the v-word is a nasty thing to most writers anymore. And yes, I consider those two types to be separate classifications, rather than lumping them together. More on that in a moment)

This is more the introductory blog post, with some basic groundwork. The nitty gritty of character creation will come later. 

First off,  buy this book.  The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. It's relatively cheap. (ranges from about $5-$20 depending on if you want brand-new or slightly used)

Now, those of you that follow my blog know, I don't recommend a book lightly. And certainly do not state things so emphatically. But I'm very serious. If you write a story that has a bad guy...which pretty much means any need this book.

Even if your villain/antagonist is not a bona fide mental patient, he is likely going to have some of these qualities that Stout discusses. Don't believe me? Did you know that  4% of the human population has some form of sociopathy? That means out of every twenty-five people, one of them is likely at least mildly sociopathic. Name me any bad guy in a book, and I'll bet I can find a sociopathic quality in most of them. So seriously, this book is well worth the money. Every time I start a new novel now, I re-read it and use portions to create my bad guys.

Enough of that plug. On to classifications.

Most of you, I suspect, have read some of these "how-to-write" books, or subscribe to a writing magazine, or lurk in online writer's groups and forums. (which is good, by the way.)  So you're inner writer is probably screaming right now at the word Villain. Am I right?

But, there is no such thing as a villain anymore. Someone who is inherently, undeniably evil...that's old school.

That's what you're thinking, isn't it? Well, in a sense this is true. And in a sense it isn't. Yes, you should never, ever have a guy who is evil simply for the sake of being evil, that is so nasty that there is no sympathy or way to like him.

Unfortunately, however, in our fear to drift into the "evil overlord" realm, the bad guys in most stories have grown weak and not really a challenge for our hero. And do we like to lack that challenge in a book? Ask the pile of books on my floor after being hurled at the wall. They'll give you a resounding no.

So, here's my take. There are three important types of characters in any story, four if you want to count the supporting character roles.  You have your protagonist--or main character. (and supporting characters)  You have your antagonist (which functions as a supporting character for...) Your villain.

Let me clarify now with some definitions, which are all personal opinion.  First off, let's start with antagonists. In my mind, an antagonist is something or someone that in some way opposes or prevents your main character from fulfilling his goals. This can be something inanimate--the gulf of an ocean, the swath of desert, a mountain ridge--or another character--Gollum in LOtR, Commodore James Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean,  Vizzini in Princess Bride, etc.

These typically are minor setbacks/problem-makers. That is, for example, though Gollum causes problems and slows or even endangers Frodo and Sam and all the Fellowship, Gollum is not truly capable of causing utter defeat for any of them.

A protagonist and a villain have linked definitions. The protagonist is typically your main character, and the villain is typically the main problem. And their definitions are best revealed as follows:

The protagonist is always the one who has the most to lose.
The villain is always the one who has the most to gain.

This is why I separate the villain from the antagonist. To stick with my previous example: Gollum is a nasty guy, who does cause problems, but does he really have the most to lose? Oh yes, he needs that ring...but Sauron needs it more. Gollum would be miserable without it; Sauron would die.

The antagonist disrupts; the villain destroys. Now, this doesn't mean that your villain should be inherently evil. He still needs to have flaws and problems and a motive for doing what he does. But he needs to always be the most evil, the most powerful, the most dangerous, and the most driven, of all your bad guys.

The shadow of his influence should hang over your protagonist as an insurmountable problem. Where would Lord of the Rings be without Sauron?  Where would Sea Wolf be without Captain Larsen? Where would Jungle Book be without Shere Khan?

Think about it.

1 comment:

  1. That's great, Liz! Keep up the work on Phoenix. That is a terrific story.

    And I'll look up that book. More perspective is always helpful. I've been studying Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. It's given me some fantastic insight into not only my antagonists and villains but also my tarnished knights, bad boys, and dark heroes.