That’s probably because while I feel comfortable expounding on how to create and structure a story, I am not so clear about how to explain how to create character. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a very explicable process, for me. I think what I do is create a space for them – a situation, a theme, the beginnings of a story - and pray that the characters will show up to inhabit it. Which, thank God, they always do. And then from there they do most of the work.
In other words, it’s magic – or possibly my friend Dusty Rhoades is right, it’s mental illness - and I don’t know how to explain magic OR mental illness. Quite possibly I don’t WANT to know.
But I think – I’m pretty sure - most writers have characters in their heads from a very early age. Maybe ALL people do – because that’s what fantasy is, and we all daydream being other people, or superfantastic versions of ourselves. So in a way we’re all creating character all the time.
I do think there are things that are teachable about creating character. My best advice is always – take an acting class. Take a lot of them. Read books on acting and creating character – Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, Stanislavski’s acting series, Michael Chekov. Learn how to develop and play characters yourself, and it will translate to writing.
All that being disclaimed, I want to start talking about character, and I’ll start today with great villains and how one might – MIGHT – go about creating them.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a villain will just come to you whole, right? I’ve dreamed a few. I love that, when your subconscious does the work for you.
Sometimes you have a real, heinous person in mind, either a criminal you’ve read about who sparks such an outrage in your soul that you have to create him on paper just to destroy him the way he needs to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s a heinous person you really know – in the novella I recently finished I took great pleasure in detailing all the banal viciousness of a producer I know and then bashing his brainless head in.
But other villains I’ve written have been more conscious creations, have grown out of the specific situation of a story. So, while allowing for the pure magic of it - it’s not purely magic, is it?
I’d like to suggest that you can develop a great villain – or any other character you create – through the same process that I’ve been advocating for creating the structure of your story.
Make a list.
Who or what are your top ten villains? And I don’t mean make a list for the ages, or for popular consumption – I mean FOR YOU. What is it about these particular characters that makes them so delicious, or terrifying, or both? What turns YOU on in a villain? What particular qualities are you responding to?
You don’t have to think too hard about it, either, when you’re listing. It might be more useful to do it fast and see what comes up, because that non-thinking list will be more relevant to your present project, or a brewing project. These lists are never written in stone, either – you can make a whole different list tomorrow.
Breaking it down, analyzing the specifics, is like doing scales on the piano, or doing dance technique exercises at the barre. It gives you the foundation and the strength and mental coordination for the magic of art to happen.
My favorite villains, off the top of my head.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
Tony Perkins in PSYCHO.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9.
Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD.
Now, I can look at that list and already identify a lot of patterns going on. I like my villains sexy, perverted, bizarre, insane, diabolical, and preferably a combination of the above.
But now it’s time to go deeper. What is it about each of those villains that really works for me?
Rumpelstiltskin. The twisted dwarf is an archetype I particularly respond to. In Jungian psychology, the dwarf, or perverted little old man, is a strong recurring archetypal figure for women who have been sexually abused or have sexual trauma issues. I haven’t been, but with all my near-misses with predators, I can relate to that analysis. And studying Jungian and other world archetypes is great fodder for brainstorming interesting villains.
Dracula. The sex thing, obviously. Vampires are supposedly about addiction issues. I can relate to that, too. Marion Woodman has some hugely intriguing books about these archetypes.
Hannibal Lecter. The devil archetype, my absolute favorite. Thomas Harris created a monster for the ages by turning a serial killer into a mythic archetype (although for my money he should have stopped with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). But what really does me about Lecter is the magician/mentor aspect of him. Here’s this evil, psychotic genius – who sees something in Clarice that makes at least part of him want to mentor her, even protect her. More than that, he UNDERSTANDS her – better than any other living soul. That to me is the ultimate seductiveness of the devil – that he GETS you - right down to your very soul. There’s no greater intimacy – and that’s a lot of what I was exploring when I wrote THE PRICE.
Atia of the Julii in the HBO series ROME. Gorgeous, sensual, ruthless schemer, played by one of my favorite British actresses, Polly Walker. Her relationships with her son and daughter are completely perverted and I love it. I understand her, because living in such a patriarchal society would twist any intelligent woman, and I love seeing her WIN.
Mary in Lillian Hellman’s THE CHILDREN’S HOUR - one of the most chilling portraits of a sociopathic child that I’ve ever seen. The final scene with the grandmother taking responsibility for her is particularly haunting. I love stories about evil children. I have to admit, I find small children frightening. They are ruthless, narcissistic and irrational; they operate according to some inexplicable set of rules that they are constantly making up as they go along. And they wield enormous power, totally out of proportion to their actual physical strength and stature. Is that not the definition of a villain?
Norman Bates in PSYCHO. The concept of multiple personality fascinates me even though it’s been done so badly so many times that I’m not sure I would ever attempt such a character myself. But you feel such poignant sympathy for Norman even as you fear “Mother” – it’s a terrible portrait of an imprisoned soul.
“Julian” in Brad Anderson’s SESSION 9. Is he a demon? A fragment of personality in a multiple personality patient which has assumed autonomy? It’s, well, mindblowing to try to wrap your brain around. And the slippery inexplicableness of evil is a theme that draws me again and again.
Bob Sugar in JERRY MAGUIRE - the blond, blandly sociopathic agent. Not hard to see why I respond to that! But I love Sugar as an example of an effective comedic villain. He’s pitch-perfect – there are hundreds just like him in Hollywood, soulless, narcissistic, casually malevolent. But he also makes a perfect foil for Jerry because he is a mirror image of Jerry – this is what Jerry is on his way to becoming before his attack of conscience in the opening scenes – Sugar is the thing we don’t want him to become. A villain’s story function is often to be the dark mirror of the protagonist, and Sugar is a stellar example.
Stringer Bell in THE WIRE. Oh, all right, that’s pure sex. No, also I love the reversal that Stringer is trying to get out of the drug lord business – that he’s taking business school classes, investing in real estate – and it’s the far greater sociopathy of the politicians and city developers that destroys him in the end. As with Atia, this is a man who has been forced toward villainy by the ruthless inequities of society.
Al Swearengen in DEADWOOD. Also pure sex – I’ve had a crush in Ian McShane forever. But there again, the devil archetype – a powerful, brilliant, sexual, violent man who has his own occasional staggering moments of morality and transcendence – the kind of man that draws women like moths to the flame. As with Lecter and Clarice, there’s a Beauty and the Beast undercurrent here - the monster that we just might be able to tame. I will never forgive creator David Milch for ending that series before Swearengen could have his way with Mrs. Garret – and she with him.
You see how that starts to work? I truly believe that taking the time to analyze what you love and respond to in a villain in the stories you love will get your subconscious working on crafting that perfect villain for YOUR story. So much of creativity is the DESIRE to get it right. Make your wishes specific, and the magic will start to happen.
Next post I’d like to talk more about villains and get into not just the story functions of single villains, but the idea of forces of antagonism, and non-human villains, since the opponent in a story can be multiple, animal, environmental, historical or societal, as well as just the classic single bad guy.
But for today – you don’t have to give me all ten, but who are some of the villains that really do it for you, and why?
I’m going to be teaching an online workshop of these techniques we’ve been talking about, for the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, during the month of February, and it’s open to non-members for just $20 for the whole month-long class. Yes, I know, you’re getting it all for free, anyway, but if you’d like to sign up for a more private intensive with assignments and whip-cracking and everything, here’s the info and sign-up page. RWA and its local chapters does amazing things to promote and support authors and reading in general, so that very minimal fee goes to a good cause.
All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.
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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.
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