Villains, From the Villain’s Point of View

What is a villain?

As writers, we know the answer to this (or we should, anyway):  a ‘villain’ is an antagonist. They’re the person standing between your protagonist and what they want. Almost every genre has them.

The question is, are those antagonists really villains? How do you think the poor Wicked Witch of the West felt to have some strange, rude girl crossing her lands and killing her pet flying monkeys?! How did she get to be the Wicked Witch of the West, anyway? Who made up that rule? What if she wanted to be a shoe designer instead? Well, sadly, I’m not the first to consider those questions – Gregory Maguire beat me to it by several years, and the result was Wicked:  The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

It is, as author Anna-Marie McLemore points out, all about the point of view.

Yesterday, I attended the Nimrod Writers’ Conference at the University of Tulsa. One of the sessions I attended was by McLemore’s “Unpossessed:  Reconsidering the Demonized in YA and Speculative Fiction.”

This was one of those great sessions that makes you think about things in a new way, that makes you reconsider tropes and villains. Even if you already subscribe to the notion that ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’ (and you SHOULD subscribe to this notion, because it’s true!), a lot of what McLemore said made me look at this in a slightly new way.

First, she said, we need to consider who is a villain? Who decides that? In history, villains are your opposition. The Brutus to your Caesar. The Jefferson to your Hamilton. The Al Capone to your Elliot Ness. The Donald Trump to your Constitution. Need I go on?

McLemore writes stories based in fairy tales, and in fairy tales, who is always the villain? Well, think about it this way:  who is the villain not? The villain, in a fairy tale, is never the young pretty princess, is it? It’s never Snow White, or Cinderella. Nope. Why? Because the villain is always the old ugly woman. But when that young pretty princess is no long young, or pretty, she disappears from the story . . . or maybe, just maybe, ends up the villain, the Wicked Queen, in someone else’s fairy tale.

Let’s take the example of Snow White. Imagine if Snow White got old. Imagine if some other young, pretty princess – let’s call her Silly Sally – came along and decided to ruin Snow White’s quiet existence with Prince Charming. Snow White might go all rogue on Silly Sally’s ass, right? Right. But is she the villain? Well, for Sally she is. IF it’s Sally’s story. Which brings me to my next point:

So not only do you need to ask yourself who is the villain, but you also need to ask, whose story is this? McLemore used the example of Jane Eyre to discuss this idea. Obviously, the heroine of Jane Eyre is Jane Eyre. No mystery there. She gets her happy ending; she marries Rochester, so Rochester gets his happy ending, too. Who doesn’t get a happy ending? Poor Mrs. Rochester, locked away in that attic for years and years before committing suicide. But. Does Rochester deserve that happy ending? Do we know – do we really know – what happened after that? How did Mrs. Rochester end up in that attic? Did Rochester drive her insane? Will he do the same to Jane? What if that ending is just the prelude to a horror novel? (Obviously, Mrs. Rochester did get her own novel, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which makes that her novel. And in her point of view, wouldn’t Jane be the interloper, trying to steal her man?)

The last point may be the most important:  The villain of a story is often an inconvenient character. Not inconvenient for the author – though sometimes that is the case – but for the culture and society of the book, and for the other characters. They tend to challenge the world and its norms and laws. They tend to revel in rebelling against society. At the very least, they are standing in the way of what someone else wants. Their rebellion might be about race, ethnicity, gender, or anything else they find important. They might be engaged in illegal activities that, for whatever reason, society has driven them into. (Or it could literally be almost all of the above, like my rumrunner, Nicky.) They might be gay in a world where that is illegal. They might be an outspoken woman, fighting for feminism in 18th century America (the heroine of my new work-in-progress, Sarah, does precisely this; her argument is that if we’re going to be asked to fight for liberty from Britain, what are the women going to get out of it? She is incredibly inconvenient!).

Truthfully? The worlds wants this character to be convenient. The world wants them to slot into their rightful little place. The world wants them, really wants them, to do what they’re supposed to do, without complaint. But this character simply cannot do it. It might be just who they are (Alex in Red, White, and Royal Blue – he can’t help that he’s bi and in love with the Prince of England, but that is sure inconvenient!). It might be that they’re fighting against injustice in the world (Harriet Tubman), or fighting for a Great Cause that isn’t popular at the moment.

But this is where point of view comes in . . . and villains are all about point of view.

As readers and writers, we have to ask ourselves:  when a character is demonized, who is making that choice? Is it society? The hero? Who finds the villain inconvenient? Does the villain find the hero equally inconvenient? If so, why? You’re writing about this person, after all. You should know them as well as you know the hero. Why does your villain – your antagonist – do the things he does? What drives him or her? Remember, in a good story, your protagonist is just as much a villain to your antagonist, as your antagonist is to your protagonist.

You may have heard the saying ‘history is written by the winners.’ That, to an extent, is true. When you win, you get to tell the story however you want. You get to demonize the enemy. You get to make it all up. So . . . when it comes to the villain, who tells their story?

Or . . . is this the villain’s story?

Are they not the villain after all? Are they, in fact, the hero of their own story? Are you sure you’re telling the right story, with the right hero?

It’s all about the point of view.

 

 

 

 

Can you relate to your antagonist?

This past week, I’ve been deep in the bowels of rewrites – and just printed the draft yesterday! I’ll be going through it this weekend, making changes and edits next week, and hoping to get it to my betas soon. 🙂

But let’s be honest – that’s not all I’ve been doing. 🙂

There were a couple of things this week that provoked some deep thoughts. (Besides Trump thinking it’s okay to murder an endangered species.) Both had to do with how we think about our antagonists, and how we can humanize them.

Writing books, conferences, tutorials – they’ll all tell you the same thing:  you can’t have an antagonist/villain who’s completely bad. Sometimes, that comes across (and I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking this) as your antagonist has to do something great like rescuing kittens, or donating 30% of his ill-gotten gains to charities and orphanages, so the reader, you know, has to sort of root for him.

But it’s not really like that. What all these tutors and books really mean is this:  you need to make your antagonist relate-able. And here’s a couple of examples of making your antagonist human, without necessarily making them heroic. 

The first came with my 134th watching of Ever After. If you’ve never seen this movie, do go watch it, please. It’s a historic retelling of the Cinderella story, and fairly historically accurate as well (to those who say that Leonardo da Vinci was never in France – well, he was!). Drew Barrymore plays the title heroine, Danielle du Barbarac, who will catch the eye – and heart – of Prince Henri. Now, in the original fairy tale, the wicked stepmother is just that. Wicked. She hates Cinderella for reasons we don’t really understand, dotes on her horrible daughters, and makes Cinderella’s life a living hell. She’s a villain.

9302f59bf71b5164267079b635e71deaBut. In Ever After, the stepmother, Rodmilla de Ghent (played masterfully by the incomparable Anjelica Huston), is a woman widowed and having to do whatever it takes to raise three daughters – well, two daughters and one stepdaughter  – alone. There is one revealing scene in the movie in which Danielle is brushing her stepmother’s hair, and Rodmilla allows her – for a brief moment – to ask about her father. “You look so much like your father,” she says . . . and when Danielle asks if she loved him, she replies, “I barely knew him.” Yet it’s clear that his death shook her to the core; she could have married again, and in fact it would have been much easier if she had. But she didn’t. Now, this could be because no man in his right mind would take on a total witch who’s already been through two husbands, sure. But it might also be that, having been married twice, she has chosen a different path. At any rate, though it’s a small – very small – scene, it gives the ‘wicked stepmother’ a hint of humanity. We can identify, in a way, with her. And when she finally gets her come-uppance, we almost feel a little sorry for her. (Almost.)

Then, last Sunday, I was listening to The Moth Radio Hour (which, if you’ve never listened, you HAVE to!). One story in particular had me spellbound. A young musician, living in LA and working as a super in an apartment complex, was called by the FBI and asked to identify a couple of photos. The woman, he said, didn’t look all that familiar. But the guy, sure. That was Charlie. He lived upstairs with his wife.

Only Charlie was really – Whitey Bulger. Yeah. THAT Whitey Bulger.

Here’s a link to the episode:  https://themoth.org/stories/call-me-charlie But as you listen, you’ll understand why this one made me think. The musician, Josh, didn’t know Charlie as the FBI’s Most Wanted. He didn’t know him as a ruthless mob boss who has since been convicted of money laundering, extortion, and nineteen murders. Josh knew Charlie as the guy who came downstairs one day, listened to him play his guitar, and then gave him a Stetson. He knew Charlie as the guy who gave him Christmas presents, and then – when he forgot to write a thank-you note – gave him a box of stationary. He knew Charlie as – Charlie. Not a murderer. And when the FBI wanted Josh to participate in taking Charlie down, that’s how Josh thought about it –  not that he was helping arrest a wanted criminal, but that he was helping arrest someone he considered a normal, quiet tenant who might even be thought of as a friend.

In this case, it’s all about perception. Could a notorious mob boss be – a nice guy? To someone who had no idea who he was, maybe. Take author Ann Rule. In the early 70s, she famously worked a late-night shift on a suicide hotline with none other than Ted Bundy. They became friends – and even after he was arrested and charged with the murders of thirty women, she remained friends with him because he was charming and – well, to those he liked, he was nice. In a jailhouse interview, he apparently once told her, “I liked you. I would never have hurt you.” (Here’s a story from the Washington Post about her relationship with Bundy:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/28/crime-writer-ann-rule-and-killer-ted-bundy-were-friends-before-they-were-famous/?utm_term=.b8ed8134155a )

So maybe this is all there is to it, then. Make your antagonist someone your reader is able to relate to. That makes it harder for your readers to know what they want to have happen. And it makes it harder for your protagonist, maybe, to do what they have to do. Ann Rule is the one who tipped off police about Bundy. Imagine the doubts and second doubts she had to go through before she placed that call. What if your antagonist is someone that, under other circumstances, your protagonist could actually like? How much inner tension could that add?

This is part of the revisions that I’ve been making. My antagonist was – well, to be honest, he was sort of what we call a ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Motivated by greed, he was callus and dismissive of Erin’s concerns, and clearly didn’t care about the ghosts he hunted. I also never liked him and never felt comfortable with having him in my story. It didn’t seem like that’s really who he should be.

So – I hit the rest button. What would add more tension? For Erin, going up against a jackass is just par for the course – that would never keep her up at night! But what if he wasn’t an ass? What if he was actually a halfway decent guy who just truly didn’t understand that the things he was doing were actually harming the ghosts he was after? A bit bumbling, a bit stubborn, and a bit clueless. We all know someone like that. That’s easy to relate to. We can’t hate this guy, because he’s not really a bad guy. We can be aghast at the things he does. But even Erin, as much as she wants to, can’t really dislike him. That puts her in a bind. That adds a little tension.

I encourage you to at least listen to the Moth segment. 🙂 But also, to think about these things if you’re in the middle of your own rewrites, or if something seems slightly off-kilter about your antagonist. Sure, we like to hate villains. No one minds hating Jafar, or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Trump. They’re evil. We get it. But in fiction . . . sometimes, just evil doesn’t quite get the job done.

Sometimes, being able to relate to your antagonist is what you need.