Updated: Feb 9, 2021
I discuss the craft of writing with my author friends J. T. Ellison and Ariel Lawhon all the time, and we thought we'd bring some of these conversations to you. We've been soliciting questions from our readers, and this month’s topic is a great one:
"How do you go about creating your Villain / Bad Guy / Opponent?"
Patti Callahan Henry: I need to know what my character really wants, what their deep-down desire is that is driving them forward. I need to know what they will give up almost anything to have. And then…I create the person that is trying to keep them from that very desire. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that “villain” means a terrible person, a cliché of Darth Vader, but for those of us who don’t write thrillers, the villain might take on another name: the person who is keeping my main character from getting what they want. They could be evil as the title villain suggests, or they could merely be the controlling mother who keeps her daughter from becoming who she is meant to be. So in short, my villain is an outgrowth of my main character’s desires. JT Ellison: Normally, I tap into an idea: what scares me the most? Then I use that to give my shadow hero a goal. Every story is different, and I firmly believe your main character is only as good as her opponent. The dance between the two is vital for the story to sing. In my series books, my villains tend to be larger than life, with mad scientists or evil geniuses, but in the standalones, it’s much more an opponent who is thwarting my main character by systemically ruining their life. For those stories to work, I need it to be someone with depth. I interview the villain. I find out all their flaws, all their motivations, what they will kill to hide or achieve. The WHY behind a villain is as important as what evil deeds they perpetrate in the story. If I understand them from the inside out, I can make them betray or terrify at will. Ariel Lawhon: How do I create a villain (Opponent)? By giving them a competing desire to my Hero. For example, if I’m writing a murder mystery and my Hero wants to solve the murder, my Opponent wants to stop her from doing so. (But why does he want to stop her? Excellent question. We’ll explore that throughout the story.) If I’m writing a thriller, perhaps my Hero and my Opponent are both trying to steal the same famous painting. (Who will get to it first? Ah, conflict!) In a love story, I might have two different women in love with the same man. (One the reader roots for and one they hate.) The point is that the Hero and the Opponent want the same thing but go about it in very different ways. And the process of HOW they reach for their desire reveals what kind of people they are and what lengths they will go to along the way. As the story progresses, those very different approaches are in direct contrast with one another and create the foundation for a complex story. But everything begins with the Hero and the Opponent. The relationship between those two is the most important in the entire book. See why I like to talk about writing with these brilliant women? Sign up for their newsletters below for more insights...and send along your craft questions! ASK US ANYTHING about the craft of writing and the writing life. Each of us will answer two questions every month in our newsletters. Feel free to send questions to email@example.com
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