“I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being—what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.” – Maya Angelou
Earlier this week I was watching a TV show and in the closing scene, one of the villains confronted another character in defense of his son. It was an utterly cruel action, one where he exercised his power to make an unjust lawsuit disappear in favour of his son. But at that moment I saw his character in a new light. He had gone from a villain that I despised to one that I found myself understanding and rooting for even if it was for a second. The scene got me thinking about memorable villains from some of my favourite books and TV shows and I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on creating characters so here goes…
In my opinion, the best books and TV shows tap into the complexities of their villains to writes stories that are full of suspense and tension. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself but no one wants a villain that is two dimensional and purely evil. We love 3-dimensional characters, characters who are complex, characters who reflect the messiness of our human experiences. The antagonist or villain of any story naturally is a character that you are rooting against since they stand in the way of your protagonist getting what they want. But the best writers know how to write their stories in ways that allow you to see the humanity in the villain, and maybe even a bit of yourself.
No one wakes up one day and decides to be evil. It’s a slow and gradual process that is fuelled by self-interest and the desire to survive. Great writers know how to exploit this in storytelling. It’s what generates tension and keeps you glued to the screen or the book.
I decided to do some more reading on this since I was so fascinated, for more insights read this article by Jerry Jenkins on what makes a good villain.
Other thoughts on writing
- Writing is a deeply personal and sacred act. You have to honour it for it to honour you. And the first step is to learn how to be a listener. We take the skill of listening for granted but the truth is so many of us do not know how to listen. Listen to your inner voice, trust it and write.
- Writing requires emotional clarity. I have discovered over the past few months that writing becomes more difficult for me when I feel emotionally blocked. In those states, writing becomes useless as a tool to work through my emotions or make sense of them.
- Strong emotions are the best friends of a writer. Whenever you feel them, tap into it but beware of sharing your work in those states. It’s like being on a high then coming back down. The high state allows you to channel with rawness and honesty, the low allows you to see with clarity and assess.
- If strong emotions are the best friends of a writer – apathy is the enemy. Indifference to your own thoughts, to observing and recording can be incredibly dangerous. Don’t fall into the trap of ‘my words don’t matter.’
- Writing is an age-old tradition that will never be lost. The story of our lives began with a pen. We are wired for stories.
Tell yours even if the only audience you have is yourself.
- Jodi Picoult once said, “You can always edit a bad page but you can’t edit a blank page’ and friends, that is a mantra to live by! Writing as I am discovering is mostly about rewriting. Much like writing an essay, the first draft that you write isn’t your best work and it doesn’t need to be. The process of rewriting is where the joy is (Guess how many edits this took?).
- Imposter syndrome is real. Sometimes when I sit down to write, especially for a big project, the overwhelming stream of thought is ‘who are you to even write on this subject?’ but it’s during those moments that I remind myself of the words of writers that precede me. Maya Angelou’s especially gives me comfort
“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”
- Lastly, writing is teaching me a lot about discipline and perseverance. About finding joy in the mundane and having the courage to dare!
Join the conversation below by sharing your thoughts on villains and writing. Have you come across any memorable villains in your reading journey and what has your writing journey taught you?