Hey, Quit Laughing

Hey. Quit Laughing

a guest post by Danny DeCillis

It’s every fantasy writer’s nightmare: building a carefully crafted setting, setting the stage for the primary antagonist, and introducing the bad guy in a swirl of black cloaks, thunderclaps, and deep-voiced menace – only to find the reader chuckling in response.

A villain that readers don’t take seriously can be a fatal flaw for a narrative. In order for a story to be compelling, the stakes must seem genuine; if the peril is laughable, then by extension so is the hero who faces it. But creating a villain who is both credible and memorable is more difficult than it seems. Understanding some truths about stories, and people, can help inform your efforts to make Lord Darkness more scary than laughable.

You need to remember the following:

  • Humor is a common psychological defense mechanism. It’s a way people respond to anxiety and stress, a weapon that allows us to emotionally cope with scary things by minimizing them, ridiculing them, reducing them to something that we can laugh at or scorn. It’s natural for people to look for ways to laugh at villains. You have to expect it.
  • Few narrative tropes are as well worn as those of villainy. The desire for the acquisition and/or use of power needs little explanation, so many writers don’t bother to do so. The result can be an antagonist with paper-thin motivations, evil plans that have no rationalization beyond their own realization. It’s easier to dismiss a villain who has no reason for being beyond driving the plot and acting as foil for the protagonist.
  • A hero is only as good as their villain. However, the reverse is also true. If your protagonist is a whiny, unconvincing prat, yet still manages to successfully challenge the villain, it doesn’t say much about the bad guy. If the hero is mockable, then by definition so is their opponent.

So what can you do to avoid this? There are a few narrative strategies you can keep in mind to prevent your villain from becoming an unintended laughingstock.

  • Less is more. Few things are scarier than the unknown. Sauron, the all-seeing antagonist of Lord of the Rings, has essentially zero dialogue in Tolkien’s half-million word epic. Sauron is seen only in metaphor, as a flaming eye in momentary visions, as a whispered threat in the mind of those who come into contact with the One Ring, yet the menace of his presence hangs over the entire work like an oppressive fog. Likewise, Arawn Death-Lord, the antagonist in Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning Chronicles of Prydain, appears only briefly in the final volume of a five-book series, and never in his true form. Villains who remain in the shadows can be extremely effective – provided that you find a way for their presence to be felt throughout the narrative anyway, through the  actions and reactions of other characters and events. It’s hard to laugh at something you can’t see.
  • Actions speak louder than words. A villain who steps forth to proclaim an evil plan is easier to mock than a villain who steps forth to accomplish an evil plan. Look at the first screen entrance of Darth Vader in Star Wars: his faceless minions hammer through the doors of a heavily defended ship, slaughtering the rebel defenders, so that in the aftermath Vader may stride forth in silence, stepping over the fallen corpses of those who stood against him. Vader’s first lines are spoken to a rebel officer he is holding by the throat two feet off the ground; after a brief interrogation, Vader chokes him to death and tosses his dead body aside. Nobody’s laughing now.
  • Finally, you can simply embrace the wit yourself. If humor is already an integral part of the narrative, it is more difficult for an audience to co-opt it and subvert the intended perception of the villain. Many of the most memorable and scary villains are those who get the joke, in one way or another. It might be a cruel, sporadic, or randomly lunatic sense of humor, but by inserting the laughs into the story on your terms, you can actually weaponize the jokes, making it difficult for the reader to turn them back on the villain. Characters such as Loki and the Joker take this narrative tactic to the extreme, but even more serious villains such as Hannibal Lecter get an occasional ghoulish smile now and then from their horrific actions, and are all the more terrifying because of it.

The tone of every story is different; not all villains are the same. You may find that a combination of strategies works best for your antagonist. Whatever you do, remember that humor is a universal human response, and you need to account for it in building your story. That way, you can make sure that when your bad guy steps onto the stage, they get the reaction that you intended.

Danny DeCillis is a science writer by day who has been writing humor by night since 2003, principally for The Watley Review. He has been the head honcho for the humor writer network HumorFeed since 2004 and ran the annual Satire News Competition from 2005-2009. He’s also the founding editor of Check Please!, a journal dedicated to the intersection of humor, satire, journalism, and the web. He’s probably also got another humor site out there under yet another pen name that he hasn’t revealed to anyone. He’s also a game designer whose first game, Big Bad Overlord, is launching on Kickstarter shortly.  Find him at:

Snuggly Villains

Snuggly Villains

A guest post by Jabe Stafford

Villains commit some terrible deeds, but that’s not why we want to snuggle them. Lovable evildoers are such a dastardly challenge to write. Sometimes an antagonist you pit against your heroine ends up hollow like a chocolate bunny. Gas station night managers sound more exciting than your bad guy on the bad days. If your she-terror sees more couch potato time than action, kick her off it and chuck the couch into orbit. Heads-up: these better-villain tips are things you’ll need to do and re-do at some point, ‘cause no antagonist is, “eh, good enough.”

Straw Man is a term you probably heard when you weren’t listening in English class. Antagonists that are only stereotypes or are only there to be beaten are Straw Women or Men. Were you motivated to care about the cannon-fodder enemies in the latest game you played or novel you read? Then build the habit of not treating your own villains that way. A solid Straw Woman cure to practice is writing from the antagonist’s POV, whatever it may be. First Person, Third Person Close, anything. That villain doesn’t even have to be a narrator in your story. Doing this and reading your own villain’s lines back to yourself will reveal some truth. “Yep, that sounds like a B movie I’d never watch.” “I can tell this bad guy’s faking his role, so the reader probably can too.” Once you hit the point where you could hug your antagonist or see her hoodwinking others into loving her, you know you improved as a writer.

Keep writing.

Villains with the voice of a bored DMV employee are such a drag. They repel reader interest, they radiate unworthiness, and they get dismissed almost as fast as you do when facing said bored DMV employee at the actual place. Starting off with a villain who sounds like this is all right sometimes if it means you build momentum and write 2,000 words in a day. It’s not all right to let this antago-bro or antago-sis stay bland. Don’t mistake willingness to wreck the hero’s life as excitement. Most villains want hero-wrecks. Yours wants more. She wants to be branded onto the brains of readers for her twisted perspective, her daring, or how close she is to being good if only this one tiny thing would change. But it won’t. ‘Cause she’s an exciting villain your readers will savor when you build a stronger voice for her. Search for common words, habit words, and run-on sentences in your baddie. Replace them by hand, one by one, with richer synonyms and short-but-addictive phrases. Don’t know what she’d say? Write some more until you come to a confrontation where you know she’d never say basic things. If writing from the antagonist’s POV isn’t enough, try twenty questions with your antag. Jotting interview questions and answers you got from an imaginary interview with her will drag more of her voice from the sassy or pissed-off depths of her heart cavity.

Keep writing.

Bad guys gotta eat too, so get ‘em hungry. Lazy villains and plot-convenience enemies aren’t a challenge to the hero or to themselves. What’s your antagonist got to lose if the protagonist wins? Did cursed porcu-bees get him rich and the hero’s siccing lawyer clerics on him to ruin his revenue and reputation? That antagonist fought hard to be public enemy number one thru ten. (Or to get whatever reward came with that status.) The most snuggleable villains are ones that gradually descend or that are so memorably active that the reader can’t help but love them despite their crimes. So make those crimes craveable to read. Challenge yourself to write down multiple reasons for each of your antagonist’s choices or crimes. “X was the easiest way,” and, “Y got him more thrills,” and, “Z was the way to make sure no one else knew I did it.” Anything can go on that list. Desire to see the hero suffer more, or to murder the hero because death means no more guff from that hero. Passion to prove he can control or outwit others, often many others, at once. Cold devotion to one goal with a few sincere emotional moments that hint at remorse or a love before the frigid soul takes over again. Or just because it was fun. That glee on the baddie’s mug has to be earned, but taking the time to flip-flop their motivations might lead to even more unique villains. Finding the three most ready-at-hand options for an antagonist’s crimes is a good way to weed out the week and predictable options. Try that next time your villain flops down on the couch and refuses to obstruct the hero. It’s a two-for-one too: if the reader can only see the antagonist’s intent once in a while, and they see the plan pay off despite being unable to guess the intent, they’ll trust in your villain. And then you have them.

Keep writing.

“Eh, good enough” villains ain’t snuggly. A bread sandwich is more satisfying than a Straw Man antagonist losing or winning. Readers develop mistrust-o-vision when a villain’s voice sounds mediocre or skippable. Unmotivated baddies that can’t be bothered to scratch their own asses won’t kick your hero’s the way it needs to be kicked. Villains make the heroes, so keep writing and enjoy being bad. For good story’s sake.

Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.
His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

The Gray Light of Villainy 101

The Gray Light of Villainy 101 – Relationships

A guest post by Rennie St. James

Before we can delve into the gray light of villainy, we must first touch upon the definition for villain. Below are just a few:

-a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.

-a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.

-a dramatic or fictional character who is typically at odds with the hero

Any good villain can easily find several gray areas in all of these definitions. Perhaps, we can find more clarity in the definition of a hero then.

-a main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength.

-a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.

Well, that makes it as clear as mud, doesn’t it?! I like to think of heroes and villains as two sides of the same coin. However, we treat them quite differently when writing. We shine a bright light of love onto our heroes while bathing our villains in darkness. There are many avenues to right this wrong, and this particular post will focus on villainous relationships.

One of the best ways to make our MCs more likable is to use their relationships with other characters. The surprising bromance and tender spot for animals are classic examples which give our heroes depth. The hooker with a heart of gold and bad boy with a secret charity abound in romances. No man is an island after all…and neither is a villain.

Now, every good villain has an army of underlings at their disposal. It’s often the case that the villain has a twisted past with the hero as well. However, those relationships only serve to reinforce their dastardly natures. What makes the villain more complex are their more personable relationships.

Hannibal Lector and Clarice is perhaps a well-known relationship that serves to define him in a new light. For the Potterheads like me, there’s Snape and Lily. It wasn’t Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore, Harry, or Voldemort that created a complex character; it was the underlying love hidden under the snark and darkness. Always.

To paraphrase one of my favorite writing quotes – write each character as if they are the hero of their own story.

In my fantasy series, I have a number of dastardly villains ranging from political snakes to terrorist masterminds. How do you write these characters as heroes even if only in their own minds?

I write first person POV character pieces for each. My pieces are typically something short that details a turning point in his/ her past. And yes, it helps if a good relationship is explored in a new way. These stories never have to be revealed in the book. Nonetheless, they will still impact the way the villain is written. They can make the villain even more human than the hero.

Heroes often exist outside of our skill set and standards. They are far beyond what most of us can hope to accomplish in our normal lives. Must the villain’s evil nature be far beyond our reach as well?

Writers are often encouraged to give our heroes flaws, but what about giving our villains any good traits? I think should remember that it’s perfectly acceptable for villains to do somewhat good things at times or even bad things for a good reason. Those bright spots in our villains’ lives contrast nicely with the shadows of death, destruction, and mayhem constantly cloaking them. They also create more of those lovely gray areas.

It isn’t just about the villain’s relationships with other characters, but also their relationship with the reader. While the hero’s goodness may be beyond most of us, the villain’s flaws and relative goodness are things we can appreciate and understand. Forming a connection to a villain makes it easier for us to cheer for them even if they are breaking the law or set against the ‘good guy’. Frankenstein? Loki? The Inside Man? The A-Team?

There are countless examples of villainous characters making questionable choices that we overlook or even relish. Sometimes, it’s just a spitefulness inside us that celebrates their vindictive natures to punish those who have wronged them (as we would like to do). Sometimes, it’s that the villain seems infinitely more likable to us.

To again reference HP, no one is all good or all bad. Each of us have light and darkness inside. Relationships are one way to spotlight the white light of goodness in a villain. On the flip side, relationships can also reveal the darkness in a hero. These contrasts and gray areas can make all the characters deeper and more human.

Again, heroes and villains are simply different sides of the same coin. Take a moment and review your villain in a new light and see what happens. Are there gray areas in which your villain shines? Do they have a strong bond to a good character? Is there an underlying good reason for their choices that readers can understand? Maybe you already have a favorite villain you cheer for in your writing? I’d love to hear about him/ her so please share in the comments.

 


Find out more about Rennie St. James at www.writerrsj.com.  Rennie St. James shares several similarities with her fictional characters (heroes and villains alike) including a love of chocolate, horror movies, martial arts, yoga, and travel. She doesn’t have a pet mountain lion but is proudly owned by three rescue kitties, and they live in relative harmony in beautiful southwestern Virginia.  Rennie plans to release the Rahki Chronicles in 2018, but new books are always in progress.

Inspirational Acts of Villainy

What kinds of villainy might be inspirational for your characters? What kinds of evil are enticing?

a guest post by Ashildr Dorchadon.

Looking for inspirational acts of villainy? Allow us to suggest a few!

Include (but are not limited to):
• Setting fire to/annihilating natural environments/anything worth more than a temporary structure
• torturing a *cute* good guy into insanity-induced psycopathy then unleashing them on their ex-friends
• any use of Greek Fire seeing as it can burn anything and nothing less than an incredibly specific magic spell puts it out
• vocal/a capella singing while going about villainy to increase creep factor

Do not include:
• killing
• cackling
• torture
• other normal acts of villainy
As these are standard procedure and even a paragon-type hero will resort to these when necessary. It’s the specifics that set us apart from morally grey characters and the good guys.

Bonus points if:
• You do it like a hero would if they came to the dark side
• You wear pink, bright yellow, a poncho, daisy chains or anything else vaguely happy
• You defend the actions with consequences that are morally acceptable overall

Now what does this mean for your average villain?

Generally speaking, the average villain might dabble in inspirational villainy, but a master will manage to pull a new one off every time. If you can’t, that’s fine. Human history is chock-a-block with nasty examples like catapulting severed heads over the walls in a medieval seige. And mythology is practically made out of gruesome torture for the wicked and monsters to perpetrate them like the Japanese Umibozu or the Slavic Vodyanoy. Krampus is a little too well known, but if you can make it work, so much the better.

These work so well because folklore monsters are notorious for sending children mad (example of inspirational act number two – how about The Slender Man and his like) or doing acts of terrible destruction whilst justifying it to a core moral centre (bonus point three). They’re excellent ways of slipping in pre-built evil into an existing world even if the villain is low-powered, not really evil or just plain doesn’t exist. As an extra benefit, people can only hear the shamans and elderly saying “I told you so.” and will be much more likely to heed false scare stories thereafter which distracts the authorities until it blows over.

Evil Not Included – Guest Post by B.K. Bass

Often when coming up with the concept for our villains, the first thing that comes to mind is considering what kind of Evil they shall wreak upon the world.  Be it conquest of all known lands or crushing all who stand in their way under a hobnailed boot, great villains often have dark schemes in mind.

However, does a character have to be Evil to be a villain?

One advice we hear often is that a villain should be developed enough to be the protagonist in his own story.  Another is that villains should sometimes think that they are doing what is either necessary or right.

Do they have to be the embodiment of pure evil, or can they just have different opinions from our protagonists?

In my current project – Warriors of Understone – the conflict in the book is internal to the society of dwarves that I have created.  There could have been a goblin invasion or some other such external conflict, but exploring an intricate web of political rivalries seemed like an interesting background upon which to build a tale that features the oft-sidelined stout folk.

The primary antagonist in this book is Thane Volgas, a lord of some renown and influence within the city of Understone.  He is a staunch proponent of maintaining the traditions of his people. His fight is not one of conquest or oppression, but one of preserving the values which he and most in his culture hold as the best path to a stable society.

Supporting him is Shagoth, one of his warriors and cousin to our protagonist; Durgan.  Shagoth is less complicated in his motivations as Volgas, but he is a loyal follower of his lord.  He looks down upon the labor caste, and persecutes his cousin mercilessly.

The conflict herein is the struggle of change versus tradition.  The antagonistic side of the conflict wishes to maintain the status quo, and our hero wishes to make changes in society that he feels would benefit his people.  Durgan, with the help of Thane Marthok, fights to allow those born into the labor caste to make their own way in life. As a stonecutter’s son, he is fated to follow in his father’s footsteps.  He wishes to become a warrior, and Marthok is helping him to achieve this.

Our villains, therefore, are only antagonists because their political and social views oppose those of our protagonists.  Writing the story from their perspective, Durgan and Marthok could be painted as upstarts and rebels trying to upset the stability of the kingdom.

So, as we see here, villainy does not always include evil as a pre-requisite.  There are many forms of conflict that we can explore, and we have little further than our own world to look for inspiration.  Examining our own political situations can inspire many interesting possibilities, and discussing these through the lens of fiction can also open new dialogues that could change our own world.

-B.K. Bass

Author B.K. BassB.K. Bass writes at his studio in Tennessee. He enjoys crafting science fiction, fantasy, and gothic horror. B.K. has long been an avid reader, film buff, and all-around geek.