Writer Wednesday: Not All Bad

*This originally appeared as a guest post over at IB Book Blogging during my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour
MC910215955Bad guys can be seriously tough characters for an author to write.  But every story needs them.  What would Star Wars be without Darth Vadar? Or Harry Potter without He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?  But writing these characters in a way that makes them believable is tricky.

You want to create huge problems for your hero, and that requires a villain and some true evil.  But write about a person who is all bad and you have a cardboard character.  Like those villains in the silent flicks who twirled their moustaches while tying the damsel to the train tracks.

In my novel Drawn I had to create several baddies. The book is about teen artist Michelle De Freccio, who moves to England hoping for a more normal life.  Almost immediately she starts drawing a guy from the 1400’s. When she meets him (Christopher) at the town’s castle, things really get strange…and when she follows Christopher into the Middle Ages, well, stranger still.  The novel needed villains in the present AND in the past, so I had my bad-guy work cut out for me.

The secret, I found, is to show another side to your villain. Even if it’s just for a moment, you want a glimpse of someone who means well at times, or who is wounded in some way, or who truly believes they are doing the right thing.  If I can get the reader for just a moment to see this side of the bad person, then I know they’ll have a different view of things.  That they may even understand how the bad person went so wrong.

Here’s a moment from Drawn when I try to do just that… In the following scene Michelle discovers that her visits into the past have seriously begun to alter history and to wound Christopher’s fate. At this point, she’s started to really fall for him, so seeing history books that accuse him of terrible things is frightening indeed. Michelle has pulled book after book off the Academy’s shelf, searching for answers. Her modern-day nemesis Constance takes this opportunity to get Michelle into trouble with Constance’s mother who is the Academy’s Headmistress:

I blink and see Headmistress Hunter looming over me. Constance peers smugly from behind her.

“Such disorder,” the Headmistress says between tight lips, taking in the jumble of books at my feet. She’s almost trembling with anger. “Horrific. We do not treat reading material so shabbily, Miss De Freccio.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“The Academy expects appropriate behavior both in school and out. We pride ourselves on being the best.” She sniffs as if I clearly don’t qualify.

Constance grins.

“Clean this at once,” the Headmistress is saying. “Understand, this will go on your record. And on your father’s. This doesn’t bode well for his future here.”

Constance’s grin fades.

“But this isn’t his fault,” I say and hate the pleading tone in my voice. “Please don’t let it affect my dad, Headmistress.”

Constance whispers, “Mother, I don’t think—”

“Are you criticizing me?”

“No, of course not.” Constance looks at the floor.

In that brief scene the reader knows that Constance didn’t mean to endanger Michelle’s father’s position at the Academy. We see Constance has some sort of a soul and some limits, and that she is terrified of her own mother.

As for the villains in the medieval part of the book? This was a tough one because there is a mystery intertwined in the plot.  Who is the traitor? Who murders the Earl? And who is killing off all the courtiers? What if all signs point to Christopher, the young man (er, ghost?) Michelle has now come to love?  I had to spread doubts and clues in a way that gave info but also made the reader (and Michelle) wonder who can really be trusted. I can’t tell you who the real villains are without spoiling the book for you, but when all is revealed, you can bet the reader understands why the bad ’uns are doing what they do.

Balancing good and bad in a way that’s convincing can be a real challenge for any writer.  Put in too much good, and the villain is not a real threat. Put in too much bad, and you’ve created someone that’s ridiculous and unbelievable. I tried very hard to balance my villains for just the right feel… I hope readers will find it all works.

Actually, a review about Drawn that popped up on the site Author Chronicles says: “not a single character is one-dimensional—each one has flaws, strengths, and depths to them. Even the snotty ‘Queen Bee’ girl, Constance, who could easily have been a stereotype, has flashes of a soul at war with the front she puts up.”

Not all bad! ;)

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6 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Not All Bad

  1. My formula when writing bad guys/gals, is that they never see themselves as evil or bad. They are the hero in their own story, and their actions are justified, reasonable, and sanctimonious. When we forget that the bad guy is righteous in their own mind, we hit that cardboardiessness of which you describe. They believe in what they are doing, even if it is despicable.

    – Eric

  2. My villains always come across all bad – at least in the beginning. Especially when the villain is a mass murderer. One thing that helped was Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel.” After a lot of thought, I wrote some scenes where the killer regrets her actions – if only for a minute. I gave her a dog that she loves, and have her buying the dog treats.
    It’s not easy, though, and I’m glad to have the writers’ groups and workshops for guidance.
    Thanks for a great post.
    Barbara of the Balloons

    • Hi Barbara,

      I love Maass’ book. So helpful. It’s hard to make a mass murderer seem human, but it’s vital to a story that you do. Sounds like you’ve got some good techniques.

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