In three weeks’ time, my first professional sale in over a decade will be in the hands of readers. This post is one of a series of articles about the process of writing that book, and others like it.
Surviving Your Characters:
The heart of any story is the characters populating it. They are as much a part of your scenery as the world they inhabit, and for a tale to resonate with the reader they must be believable.
A good character is both the best and worst of us. They have qualities to which we aspire, and flaws we seek to overcome in ourselves. This goes for both heroes and villains, but the latter are notoriously hard to write.
The Bad Guy ™ has to be a person with whom we can relate, even though we personally may never try to steal the moon or kill the population of Topeka, Kansas. Just like our heroes, they’re the stars of their own movies, and as the director we need to deliver a good shot to the public.
When working with historical figures, part of the fun is determining just which side of the fence they’re really on. The more power a person has (or had) in society, the more places there are (were) for them to make a mistake that just never got recorded. Robin Hood helped the poor, but did he help himself at the same time? How easy would it be for a knight in armor to just destroy anyone not similarly armed and armored, and just ride away to save the day on the next battlefield?
The perfect villain is the path not taken. At one point, they were a normal person, just like those folks around him that did not become megalomaniacs. But along the way perhaps they gave in to baser impulses, made some bad decisions, or were molded into the monsters we love to hate.
To write them, we need to live in their skin for a while. Their motivations need to be ours, we have to be wiling to Go There ™. Your villain needs to make you feel bad about yourself, while at the same time letting you exalt in their twisted versions of success.
The internal struggle of the hero is just not there for the bad guy. It’s a fight they’ve won long ago, and rarely do they see a need to revisit it. The heroic cop worries about where every bullet is going, while the criminal empties the magazine and slaps in another. Blowing the top of a building is easy once you’ve done it a few times, and the villain never worries about where the broken glass is going to land.
Unless, of course, it’s meant to be an obstacle for the hero. It’s said that your protagonist is the character who drives the plot. The villain is the plot, the obstacle that the hero must overcome. And to be a real challenge, they must be the equal of or better than the hero in his/her area of strength. If the villain isn’t smart, then someone else must be pulling the strings. A thug can be compelling, but unless they’re a stepping stone to a more dangerous foe, the story grinds to a halt when they die.
Put yourself in danger when writing. Let yourself be scared. Ride through town with a burning torch and menace the populace. Blow some stuff up. Punch a metaphorical kitten. Don’t storm the castle, build its walls higher and stock the rooms with clever traps. Make the readers demand a hero to counter your wickedness and save the day.
When the time comes to bid farewell to the historical bad guy, their story needs to end where it began. They are trying to win, and if unopposed they probably will.
In the microcosm of a Robin Hood story, we’re thrilled when the outlaw tweaks the nose of Prince John. But later on in life he’s King John, who instituted many judicial reforms, successfully reclaimed lands lost under Richard’s rule and kept the coffers of England full for almost 20 years. And during that time, nobody talks about Robin anymore. Did the villain magically become a better person, or do we now see him in a different way?
Case in point: In the Mongoliad, Deitrich von Gruningen, Heermeister of the Livonian Order, does not think of himself as a villain. He’s the hero, in charge of a scattered and nearly destroyed group of once glorious knights. When people whisper at his back, he must take action to silence them. When threatened by the Shield-Brethren, he lashes out, moving ever farther way from the path of a righteous man.
Deitrich’s problems are not “his” fault. He finds someone to blame, and adjusts his worldview to make them the cause of his troubles. He believes there is a higher purpose to his actions, even though they may seem mad to others.
Overcoming obstacles. Moving forward against adversity. Striving for a better world. In another story, Deitrich is our protagonist.
A purely fictional villain can go down in a hail of arrows, bullets, by drowning, burning, or in an earth shattering Ka-BOOM if you so desire. But the end of a real and somewhat famous person is usually well-documented. Defeat does not necessarily have to mean death for the villain, just an end to whatever plot they’ve placed in front of our protagonist. Make sure the hero comes out on top, and almost everybody will be happy.
When you finish the villain’s story, don’t forget look back at what you yourself have done. As the writer, you’ve overcome challenges, struggled with your inner demons, and moved the plot to a satisfying conclusion.
You’re the hero now, and that’s not bad for an afternoon’s work.
(Hearts of Iron releases May 14, 2013)