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:

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.

The Plot Twist Generator

Welcome to the Dark Lord Journal’s Plot Twist Generator!

Looking for an idea to use?

Just look at the bottom of the page!

Want to offer us a plot twist idea?  We’d love to hear it, and if we use your plot twist, we’ll credit you and link to your website!

Want to submit an idea?  Contact us on Twitter!

Down arrow leading towards The Plot Twist Generator

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Plot twist:
Changeling

....the big reveal isn't that your character was adopted.

It's that she was found. And now, the Faeries want her back.”
by Dark Lord Journal www.darklordjournal.com

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How To Survive A Hypothetical Horrifying Dystopian Future

In a dark Cyberpunk future, you just try to survive.We feel like almost every imaginative world of misrule could benefit from these thoughts, though this piece uses, for its medium, the now-rare genre of Cyberpunk.

In the late 1980s, visionary scifi/fantasy authors looked around them and extrapolated a terrifying future–“cyber” because it dealt with computers and tech, “punk” because it was dark and nihilistic, yet full of a fierce intensity.

Fortunately, of course, such a world could never come to pass.

But as a public service, we’ve put together some ways you–sorry!  We mean your characters–might be living in a gritty Cyberpunk dystopia.

1.  Beware distraction devices issued by private corporations!   In a traditional dystopia, in general, the government controls the masses.  But in most cyberpunk dystopias, governments sometimes seem to just provide a framework, stretched over a series of corporate interests.

If the government issued everyone with mandatory devices which tracked their location, ruined their sleep, and kept them in a constant state of overstimulation, people would very rightly rebel.

If Individual corporations created communication toys, each with more computing power than possessed by anyone in history, and those companies competed to find the most popular ways to convince people to spend more time at those devices, even making the devices central to one’s life, it might basically start controlling how we live.

Let’s be glad our characters don’t live in that world, eh?

2.  Politics and media go mad.  This is always a controversial subject, but just remember the basics:

While many dystopias dealing with government repression are simply heavily censored, Cyberpunk worlds have so much access to information that even the forces which might otherwise aim to repress info will instead join in the general insanity.  The news in dystopian worlds grows ever more insane, more unbelievable, and more shocking every day.

Since these things are works of fiction, the world news goes from disaster to disaster, with brief glimpses of hope in between.  That creates deep dramatic tension.

This should be a red alert for your characters, since news in the real world would, of course, never do this.

3.  Fortunately, a small group of plucky heroes can save us.  Fictional dystopias are brought down by plucky groups of heroes.  This ragtag group of gifted misfits, against all odds, can identify and defeat an evil villain who is making things go awry.

In real life, you can’t beat a dystopia that way.

Want to know how real-life dystopias go down?

So do we.  If you figure it out, please let us know?

-Dark Lord Journal

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IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is not a political statement for or against any party, government, or policy; it isn’t taking any sides.  It’s a perspective for viewing reality, and how you might choose to let that affect your writing.

 

 

 

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.

Evil As A Defense Against Writer’s Block – 3 Writing Prompts

The power of inspiration is limitless.  Unfortunately, it can sometimes be very difficult to access.

In times of trouble, consider calling upon…. your villain.

Here are three ways to adopt this as a writing exercise:

  1. One of the greatest challenges is that the things which give us writer’s block are often extremely mundane (though they can be deeply traumatic, like loss of a loved one, or divorce).  These are “enemies” of the mind which can’t be defeated by witty scientists and sharp swords.  But what if it were actually villainy?  If a villain were causing your problems, what would their powers be?  Why would they be using them to do this to you?  Taking your real-life problems and converting them into the stuff of fictional darkness might just let some lightness into your heart… and get your typewriting clicking again.  (Cautionary note: Don’t take the step of falling into the fantasy that your problems are really the result of villains.  For one thing, that would make you more resistant to our plot to take over the world.)
  2. What Would A Villain Do?   Turn your problem on its head.  Unsure what should happen with your protagonist?  Unsure about how to defeat that blank page?  Use a favorite villain (yours, or someone else’s – and go through the mental exercise of thinking about how that villain would approach your situation.  What would she do?  What would she write?  What would be on her mind?  Try getting it out on paper (or screen) – and see if it gives you the perspective to start again.
  3. There is no number three.  Actually, to be more specific, we’re attacking our own writer’s block using the second idea.  What would our villain do?  Why, she would assuredly create something that looked like a writing exercise, but was actually a subliminal trick to re-awaken the power of the imagination inside of you, thus making the world a more magical and creative place, one which would truly appreciate our villain’s flair and world-straddling ambitions.
  4. …and here’s an actual third tip, since you really deserve the three exercises you were promised.   Every villain has an untold story.  Not just a backstory or an origin, but the story of what makes them tick on a daily basis, what gets them through the day, how they feel about themselves.  That story is often divorced from reality–but very real to them.  What happens if you try putting that on paper?  That’s a tale seldom told–so there can’t be a wrong way to tell it.

 

-Dark Lord Journal

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Kill Your Villains – Permanently

bigstock--136175810 - smallerIf you truly love your villains, then you need to do something very hard:

If they die, let them die.

We don’t mean you should engage in wholesale slaughter.  We still feel that, most of the time, stories where lots of characters die on a regular basis have a number of challenges in terms of letting your audience feel safe caring about them.

But if a villain dies–let the villain die.  Let your stakes be real.  Let death matter.

It’s not impossible to find a really fascinating plot twist or a great reason for someone’s return.  We’re not saying it’s never possible.  We’re just saying: the world is damn tired of seeing villains go down, only to see them get right back up again in a sequel or, even worse, another chapter.

It’s fairly frustrating even in video games, and games have an excuse–they need a reason for the Boss Battle to evolve, because the person taking in the media has some control over their own destiny.  Even inside of games, though, players want–and deserve–an opportunity to fight something evolving, something that becomes new enough that there’s meaningful change.

Sure, we love villains–this is an entire blog about the love of villainy.  But the truth is, a really beloved villain deserves:

  1. A meaningful death.  Why has this powerful force in the story been taken out of it?  What purpose does it serve?
  2. A death which affects us emotionally.  If we don’t care about the villain’s end–even to rejoice–then perhaps we haven’t been sufficiently hooked into her life.
  3. A death which is permanent and true; a real reason to mourn her if we cared about her, a reason to feel relief if we feared her.

It’s true – you can bring your villain back.  You’re the writer and creator; you can do anything.  But some powers need to be used very, very sparingly.  Because if villain death loses meaning, then the villain loses meaning–and if that happens, the whole tale could lose its impact altogether.

-Dark Lord Journal

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PVSD: Post-Villainy Stress Disorder – a character challenge

Success, too, can be bitter

What happens after your character takes over the world or defeat the hero?

In the general Heroe’s Journey of Western writing, of course, the situation is highly temporary, and villains hardly have time to regret anything before they’re simply overthrown.

But it need not be that way.

What’s your villain going to do now that she’s won?

What’s his plan?

Does it make your antagonist happy?

….or is it an oddly hollow victory?

Villains are often overachievers.  They need to make and do things.   What happens when they’ve created a new situation…

….and that ends their dreaming?

WRITING EXERCISE:

Whether or not you plan to let your villain win, consider a scenario where she has.  Then take a piece of time for your villain to reflect.  What does she feel? Triumphant? Empty? Excited? Scared?

What happens after Evil wins?  Is it content?  Is it still hungry?  And either way–how does that feel?

What if victory is…horrible?  How does your villain deal?  There aren’t a lot of therapists for villains out there.

-Dark Lord Journal

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The Villain’s Journey

We often speak about the Hero’s Journey, and that has been a classic Western model of examining a plot.  But what about the Villain’s journey?  Does it parallel the hero?  Did the villain’s action happen before the hero could do anything; is it all wholly reactive?  Or does the villain have her own arc, her own sense of meaning and purpose?  Is she just a part of the terrain, her schemes simply a mountain blocking the hero’s path, or is she a being with her own agency, her own choices, her own rich interior life?

Your hero may not care—but your reader will.

There Heroes’ Journey itself has been documented pretty extensively.  But the Villain’s Journey?  Not so much.

Here are some ways of creating your villain’s journey:

  1.  Does your villain think of herself as the villain?  …or as the hero?  How so?
  2. What is her great challenge in life?  Is it “the heroes”, as in traditional low fantasy?  Or is it something internal – like hubris, or overconfidence?
  3. What makes your villain more successful than others?  Why is she a threat when others are just a nuisance?
  4. Is this a Greek tragedy for your villain, is she doomed to fail?  Or does she have a chance?
  5. What motivates her?  What keeps her going?
  6. Does she need to stay a villain?  Could she become “good”?
  7. If she can’t – why not?
  8. If she purely, simply embraces evil–why?  As Voltaire says, “No-one loves you when you’re evil”.  What made her choose this path?

-Dark Lord Journal

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Can We Take Funny Villains Seriously?

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Can we take your villains seriously if they’re funny?

Absolutely.  It depends how, why, and when they’re funny.  The 1950s Joker inserted seemingly random stand-up material into his heists and into needlessly complicated deathtraps.  It wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t very often…funny.  You got the idea of a failed standup comedian turned to crime who forgot to turn off the “comedian” bit.

In a world of the MCU, the works of the late, lamented Terry Pratchett,  and a general sense that any main character can get off a few biting quips at any time, your Villain’s in a unique position–assuming she takes advantage of it.  If you’ve got something funny to say, allow us to suggest three rubrics.

  1. Villains can go to social and moral spaces which are barred for others.  Using the death of a dozen cute furry things as a joke?  That’s not funny, that’s just gratuitous (and questionable) animal cruelty for the sake of establishing character.  On the other hand, seeing people die and making a biting comment about how you’ve just sped up the normal workings of society?  THAT can hit home.  In short – your villain is operating from a unique place in the world, and thus able to comment on it in ways prohibited to others.  Take advantage of it.
  2. Is it ZANY, or is it FUNNY?  The distinction’s quite important.  Anyone can be silly, and any circumstances can be silly; the entire genre of humorous scifi in the 1980s was based on ridiculous situations – “Oh, no, we’re trapped on the moon, and all we have to eat is cheese!”  The circumstances are odd and could be risorial. But it’s not actually funny.  Got an acerbic comment to drop on the situation, perhaps a commentary on what would lead a world to people a quality with dairy products?  THAT is where the barb strikes home.
  3. Dare.  Your hero can be an outcast, an outsider, someone not ruled by conventional mores.  Why should she tell the same jokes as everyone else?  Let her find humor in something peculiar and weird – it doesn’t have to be cruelty necessarily; you don’t have to use this to establish meanness or psychopathy.  Just one simple trait: different.  Your villain sees things differently; what does that do to the rare moment when they express a sense of humour?

-Dark Lord Journal

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