How to Write a More Effective Villain

Eric Porter as Professor Moriarty, archnemesis to Sherlock Holmes, in “The Final Problem.” Copyright © 1985 by Granada Television.

All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.

Sometimes, you have a story where the natural villain is the Evil Overlord who threatens to enslave or wipe out every good person in the world. But other times, you have a guy who, if the hero weren’t around, wouldn’t be evil per se. In fact, he might be the hero of his own story and just have a goal that runs counter to our protagonist’s mission. It’s easy to give your antagonist the qualities of being an absolute, irredeemible bully, if not a monster, but sometimes that’s too much.

The difference between a villain and an antagonist

When you write a villain, you can write someone who exists solely to oppose the hero. They have no life or purpose outside of that original desire. But that’s not always a bad thing. The Joker is still a compelling nemesis for Batman, after all. He’s admitted in multiple stories that his life and his schemes would have no meaning without the Dark Knight to oppose him. But an antagonist could well be the hero of their own story.

Ask yourself: “Who or what does my villain care about, if they care at all?”

We learn, for example, that Darth Vader cares about finding his son in The Empire Strikes Back, but that knowledge doesn’t take away from his menace throughout the movie or its sequel. If anything, it sets up the battle for him, because Luke sees a chance for his redemption, while everyone else (including the audience) sees a man bent on twisting his son into a copy of his dark self, all while serving a tyrannical regime.

We also know, from shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, how a drug kingpin like Gus Fring can be utterly ruthless, but still likable. He truly does care about his employees at Los Pollos Hermanos, and he does mourn his friend Max Arciniega, whose death motivated his whole revenge plot against the cartel and the Salamanca family. We might still be rooting for Walt to overcome Gus, but we still can sympathize with the latter for his positive qualities.

Getting better with villainy

So, how can we advance our idea of a villain in the story we’re writing? Let’s start with a few simple steps.

1. Give your villain an opposing goal to the hero.

Take a film like Guardian of the Galaxy. If Peter Quill wants to make a profit by selling the Orb, then Ronan the Accuser wants to take the Orb and use the dark power contained inside. Or how about The Godfather? Michael Corleone doesn’t want to be involved in his family business, but rival Dons like Barzini and Tattaglia are willing to kill his father and brothers in order to take control of the Underworld.

The better you can define what your villain wants and what he’ll gain by it, the more clearly you can define the stakes for your story.

2. Look for opposing qualities.

If your hero is a rough-and-tumble girl from a bad neighborhood, then your villain can easily be a well-bred gentleman from an aristocratic family. If your hero is too proud to admit their faults, then your villain might well be humble and diligent about correcting every mistake. It’s not enough for these characters to have opposing goals. Their very traits need to distinguish them, even if they belong to the same profession, like two rival cops in a police department or a pair of athletes facing off in the big tournament.

3. Consider what your villain does offscreen.

This is a big factor that some writers don’t take the time to think through. I should know; I’ve done it loads of times.

When you’re writing your story, it’s easy to think, “Okay, so my hero is doing this in Act One, and then this in Act Two, and then he does this…” But if you have an active villain, then what are they doing throughout the story? Sometimes, you’ll see their actions onscreen. Sometimes, you won’t. It’s those offscreen moments that matter.

For example, when we look at the first Star Wars movie, we don’t just follow Luke Skywalker and his attempts to rescue Princess Leia. We also follow Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who manage things on the Death Star. They have to convince their allies in the Imperial leadership that they have everything in hand, and that they are on the verge of wiping out the Rebellion. They also face setbacks with their prisoner, Leia, when she resists torture and later lies about the rebel base to save her planet. Small details, perhaps, but they also raise the stakes for our heroes, and they reveal a lot about the character of our villains. They have a story arc that exists outside the heroes’ efforts.

Villains come in all shapes and sizes, and some are more noble or more vile than others. The only question you have worry about is how effective they are for the needs of your story. Because if your story isn’t pulling its weight around the hero’s actions, then your audience might end up rooting for the villain to win out of sheer annoyance.

Character Studies: How Did Writing Star Wars Fanfic Get Me Here?

Me in the summer of 2008
Me, circa 2008. Because I can’t find any photos of me from around high school and this is as close as I can get. :)

Confession is good for the soul, or so I hear. It’s amazing what a little introspection can do, especially when you’re wracking your brains for new story ideas, waging that never-ending war against writer’s block. Of course, I’ve spent almost half my life now writing, and it’s good every now and then to stop and look back at the progress I’ve made. I think it’s a habit that every writer should get into, just to appreciate how they’re improving.

So let’s talk about Beren Teleriand, my Jedi Knight OC from my high school-era Star Wars fanfiction.

Who really was Beren? Well, he was an amalgamation of everything I liked at the time: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He was named after Beren from The Silmarillion and his love interest was a blatant ripoff of Arwen, Aragorn’s love interest. Even his last name is just Beleriand with a “T” because the name sounded “cooler.”

He hailed from Naboo, because that was a planet with culture, you see. But Beren wasn’t just a man of culture, who read history and philosophy books in his spare time. He was man of action! He was at the forefront of every battle! He was the first to volunteer for every secret mission that would turn the tide of the war. He was so awesome that the canon Star Wars heroes and all the other Jedi Knights couldn’t help but talk about his accomplishments.

Beren was a man whose every struggle came out of nowhere and then resolved itself just as quickly. He’d always come up with some B.S. superpower, some newfound deeper connection to the Force, and he’d win the day.

Beren Teleriand is the sort of deep-minded action hero that a philosophy geek like Teenage Alex would create. But, of course, all he wanted to do was stay at home and enjoy a quiet life with his wife Arwen, who ended the entire fanfic series with a pregnancy after he defeated his final villain, another B.S. warlord who was somehow responsible for sponsoring every other villain he’d ever fought. Of course, I will say that the villain didn’t set out to ruin Beren’s life. He’d just sponsored these warlords and Beren kept getting in his way, so the villain went after Beren directly in the finale. So, in that sense, my writing wasn’t totally horrible then.

I never gave Beren a chance to be anything but wish fulfillment. But that’s okay. Beren was supposed to be whatever cool thing I wanted him to be. A self-insert into a Gladiator-style plot? Done! A chance to recreate the fight between Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls? No problem! Reenacting every single battle from the Lords of the Rings movies with Star Wars? I mean, that’s why I got into fanfic in the first place. I wanted to tell stories as awesome as that. I wanted an outlet for all the nonsense that I put up with in my teens, all my stress and insecurities. And I got that with Beren.

Years later, I did something similar with my recurring protagonist Edward in college, and that ever-changing Alpha Trilogy. It wasn’t until I wrote Trace Wilson (from my anthology Digital Eyes, Family Ties) that I wrote someone who wasn’t me in fiction. It wasn’t until I got into heroes like Trace and Holly (from “The Joy of Deduction” and other short stories) that I got better at storytelling. I stopped trying to escape into a fantasy world and tried to find a good story from someone else’s world instead. I stopped looking for wish fulfillment victories and started writing heroes who could only win when they made a serious sacrifice by the tale’s end—something that High School-era Me wouldn’t have considered.

So here’s to you, Beren Teleriand. You were my first creation, and you’ll always be a reminder of how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go.

So, readers, do you have your own embarrassing, fan-inspired skeletons in the closet? Do you still revisit them from time to time for your own writing? Share your experiences in the comments below!

4 Pieces of Advice for First-Time Storytellers

Congratulations. You’ve done it. You’ve decided that it’s time to fire up the old laptop and write an honest-to-God story. Not just another fanfic like you did back in high school, but a story that you’ll put your name on and get published.

And then you find you’re struggling to get past Page One. Or that you’re not satisfied with your story premise. And then we get to the round of second-guessing ourselves and wondering why this was even a good idea in the first place.

I get that feeling. All writers do. And if you’re starting out for the first time, here are some guidelines that can help you avoid some simple mistakes in your plot and your pacing.

1. Find out what’s going on behind each scene.

Picture this classic setup. Person A sits in a room. Person B enters the room and begins a conversation. Something is revealed in this conversation, and the story moves forward from there.

That’s a basic scene, and while it moves the plot forward, it doesn’t tell us much about the characters and how their conversation went. Is Person A working on something, only to be interrupted by Person B? Is Person B concerned for Person A’s feelings when something important is about to be revealed? Now we’ve moved from text to subtext. We’re going into what each character has behind their actions and their dialogue.

Subtext isn’t something you state out loud. It’s something you keep in mind when you’re writing out the action of each character and the progress of each scene.

2. Set a sequence, not a scene.

It’s easy to write scenes that do nothing but deliver exposition or feature a kickass action burst. However, the trick is to ask yourself this: What’s the story here?

Think of each scene as a sequence, as a miniature story in and of itself. It might be the scene where the Hero meets their Love Interest for the first time, but think of how we get to that point. If you know that they’re going to have a “Meet Cute” in a shopping mall, then set up the encounter. Show us the Hero trying to get to the store before it closes, his mind resolved on everything but romance, and how that plan falls to pieces the moment he has an awkward bump down the escalator with the cute girl in the college sweater.

Not only does this process help you avoid writing unnecessary scenes, but you’ll also get better at seeing how your plot and your characters develop overall.

3. Look at your work like you’re a first-time reader.

I know how hard it is to stay objective about your own work. But here’s a handy idea. If you’re reading as much as you’re writing (and you should be), then how would you react if someone else handed you this exact manuscript to read?

Imagine that some version of you from a parallel universe breached the walls of reality and delivered this exact story to read and review. They’d ask you to be honest, to help them point out mistakes and tell them what they’re doing right. And so you must. When you’ve written a new scene or actually finished your story, put it away for a day or two. Then come back and read it with a fresh point of view. Does every line of dialogue fit? Did you follow up on your characters’ initial goals or motivations?

This is where you get to be your own editor. Your future readers will thank you for the effort.

4. Publish a good story rather than a perfect one.

By the same token, as much as you should reread and edit your work before publishing it, you’ll also have to avoid the risks of perfectionism.  Some artists will keep their work locked away from the world, obsessing over the tiniest details because their self-esteem will suffer if they don’t put out a “flawless” product. Quality matters, but not at the expense of your sanity.

In any case, talk to any major author or screenwriter today. They’ll tell you about negative reviews and disappointing sales, even when they’re the hottest names in town. They’ll chuckle and shake their heads over what they first got published and how far they’ve come since then.

You’ll only get better if you open yourself up and put your stories out into the world. Suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, and you’ll get a better understanding of who’s reading your work and who appreciates it.

Are there any fellow writers or editors in the audience? If so, feel free to share your thoughts or advice for new storytellers in the comments below.

10 Key Steps to Writing a Meaningful Story

Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.
Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.

If you’re like me, then you’ve read, re-read, and absorbed tons of stories over the years, from novels and short stories to comics and interactive fiction games. What I love about any good story is how you can get lost in a fictional world or in a character’s quest for something. And since I come from a background in literary criticism (even though it focused more on “the classics” than genre fiction), I’ve worked out a few ideas on what generally makes for a good story, regardless of plot or genre.

So to all you fellow writers now reading, here are 10 things to keep in mind for creating your own meaningful story.

1. Pick a genre for your new story.

In a perfect world, we’d judge anything worth our time by its story and its characters. In the real world, genre matters. Some people prefer horror and suspense, others prefer science fiction set on alien worlds, and still others care only about the everyday trials of 21st-century teenagers in suburbia. So this really comes down to deciding what kind of story you’re going to be telling and what kind of audience you’re looking for.

Some Examples to Consider: Science fantasy for Star Wars. Crime drama for The Godfather. Teen romance for Romeo and Juliet.

2. Identify your inspirations.

No story comes from out of nowhere. Maybe you get your ideas from a real-life occurrence, like how losing her child was what inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. You can also get your ideas from someone else’s story, like how Twin Peaks continues to be a source of inspiration for the cartoon Gravity Falls and the video game Life is Strange.

Some Examples to Consider: Akira Kurosawa films, Flash Gordon, and Westerns for Star Wars. Real-life organized crime stories for The Godfather. Pyramus and Thisbe for Romeo and Juliet.

3. Build your own world.

So where does your story take place? What are the customs there? Who’s in charge or who’s at war? These are the kind of questions that not only give your world depth, but also help you frame the conflict that drives your tale.

Some Examples to Consider: A galaxy far, far away for Star Wars. New York City under the Five Families for The Godfather. The Montagues and Capulets of Verona for Romeo and Juliet.

4. Decide whose story you’re going to tell.

Not every protagonist has to be a hero or even moral, but they should be sympathetic. We, the audience, should be able to care about their struggles and their goals, no matter if they’re guaranteed a happy or a tragic ending. It’s also important that they do something to achieve that goal, even if we’re only watching them through some passive narrator’s eyes (think Jay Gatsby being watched by his friend Nick Carraway).

Some Examples to Consider: A young farmboy who gets involved in a galactic war (Star Wars). A war veteran forced into his father’s criminal empire (The Godfather). Two young lovers caught between a family feud (Romeo and Juliet).

5. Create a goal for your main character to pursue.

Fame and fortune. Find true love. Bring down the empire. Expose the truth. Overcome personal flaws and achieve a better relationship with the world. These are just a few (concrete) examples of what your character can be seeking. At least give us something that we can see them achieve, whether it takes place on the page or onscreen.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke wants to go to Alderaan and save the Princess (Star Wars). Michael wants to protect his family from a gang war (The Godfather). Romeo and Juliet want to get married  (Romeo and Juliet).

6. Develop every obstacle in the path to the hero’s goal.

So this is a bit tricky. Yes, bad things happen along the way to the hero’s goal, but they should at least make sense within the story’s context. Having random stuff with no lasting consequences impede your protagonist isn’t good storytelling. It’s an excuse of a plot. This is where your antagonist(s) come into play. They should be opposed to the hero’s goal, whether for good or bad reasons. And they should be a threat to everything the hero holds dear, even if they’re sympathetic characters in their own right.

Some Examples to Consider: The Empire destroys Alderaan and Darth Vader kills Luke’s mentor (Star Wars). Michael loses both his brother and the woman he loves while hiding in Sicily (The Godfather). Romeo is banished from Verona after killing Juliet’s cousin (Romeo and Juliet).

7. Figure out a plot device to aid the hero in their goal.

“Plot device” is a term that gets tossed around a lot, usually as writer’s shorthand for “I made this up so we could move the plot forward.” But is that so bad? A plot device can be anything that helps move the story forward, from a ring that turns the hero invisible when enemies are near to a best friend with a truck who helps you get away from the monster.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke has a team of unlikely heroes to help him rescue Princess Leia (Star Wars). Michael uses his father’s advice to expose the traitors in the family (The Godfather). Friar Lawrence helps Juliet fake her death so she and Romeo can be together (Romeo and Juliet).

8. Create a setback for the hero and a showdown with the adversary.

Eventually, whether it’s a short story or a feature-length film you’re writing, your main character will need to confront their biggest problem (the plot device can only do so much, after all). Of course, the climax is also a good chance for your character to show off how much they’ve learned along the way or how they’ve changed. And if you’re writing a tragic story, then you show how their fatal flaw has ultimately doomed them by this point.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke joins the Rebel fighters as they try to destroy the Death Star (Star Wars). Michael’s father dies, leaving Michael to set up a meeting with Don Barzini (The Godfather). Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb and encounters her suitor Paris (Romeo and Juliet).

9. Bring about the hero’s victory with a sharp price.

Victory can mean a lot of things: the end of a long battle, a confession of love, a verdict in the courtroom, or even the chance to leave town and start over somewhere else. Of course, don’t make it easy for the hero. Your audience won’t forgive you if the plot is resolved with no serious struggle or even a few lasting scars (well, maybe it will if you’re writing a fairy tale or working for Disney).

Some Examples to Consider: Luke loses his friend Biggs, but is able to blow up the Death Star (Star Wars). Michael takes out his enemies, including his brother-in-law, and becomes head of the Corleone family (The Godfather). Romeo and Juliet are reunited through suicide (Romeo and Juliet).

10. Capture the story’s theme by the final scene.

The final scene of any story is always important because it carries so much weight. It’s a chance to see what the hero’s victory brought about. It’s our chance to see whatever tension was in the story resolved, a short breather at the end. And if you’ve been developing a good theme throughout—like, say, how far you can go into a life of crime to protect your family—then we’re going to see how well that premise has paid off in the finale.

Some Examples to Consider: Luke, Han, and Chewbacca are honored as heroes for their bravery (Star Wars). Michael lies to Kay about his family business as the new “Don Corleone” (The Godfather). The warring families make peace while grieving for their fallen children (Romeo and Juliet).

So those are my tips for putting together a solid and memorable story. Do you have any ideas of your own you’d like to add? Any anecdotes about your own writer’s journey? If so, please share them in the comments below and thank you for reading.

How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, By Orson Scott Card

Cover design by Grace Ring. Copyright © 1992 by Orson Scott Card. All Rights Reserved.

Orson Scott Card is a renowned science fiction writer, perhaps best known for such stories as Enders Game and Speaker for the Dead.  In 1990, he came out with a guidebook for aspiring writers on how to write to good science fiction and fantasy stories, with the straightforward title of How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy.

The best thing about this book is that it doesn’t just apply to the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, but to good writing in general.  Card goes through his experiences of fashioning ideas into solid stories, along with how to set up the environment and obstacles for a captivating tale.

It isn’t enough, he says, to just describe an alien culture or a fantasy-based city.  Every writer must figure out the past behind every established element in their story, instead of just letting them be convenient for the plot’s sake.  A balance has to be set up between the milieu, ideas, character, and events of a story–what he calls “the MICE quotient.”  With all these elements considered and fleshed-out, a writer can create a story that respects the reader’s intelligence by being just as thoughtful in its construction.

Some of the ideas that Mr. Card presents as examples are interesting.  Admittedly, he does spend a lot of time discussing in Chapter Three a story by Octavia Butler called Wild Seed, but his analysis is worth the read, as the tale highlights all his points about solid characterization, where to begin and end the plot for good effect.  I’m half-tempted to go and read this story for myself based on his recommendation alone.

This is an invaluable resource for any aspiring sci-fi and fantasy writers out there.  And if you’re not a writer, it’s still a good read for what makes such stories worthwhile.

Bibliography: Card, Orson Scott.  How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy.  Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.