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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Big villains killing smaller villains?

Why should you be careful about killing your villains?

Death Tarot Card

As a followup to our earlier article, in which we advocate the idea that if you’re going to kill a villain, you should kill them permanently, we thought we’d talk about the importance of meaningful villain deaths.

We have a general rule of thumb: henchmen, armies, legions of sentries, etc.–you can kill plenty of them, if your villain is the sort to have teeming masses of followers.  In fact, that’s a piece of the puzzle: sometimes, the enemy has so many troops that one pretty much needs to destroy all of them before one seems to be making a dent.  (“The Evil Empire has hundreds of thousands of soldiers!  They outnumber our forces 8,763 to one!”)  It makes those villain deaths seem a bit pointless, except in the sense of the narrative’s need for a challenge.

(“We must cross the border into the enemy’s land!” “Well, it’s not hard.  The border is just spraypainted on the ground, and nobody’s checking it or anything” – that does, indeed, afford much less dramatic possibility than “We’ll need to get past that checkpoint!  It’s staffed by an entire legion of crack troops!  What should we do?”)

But even there, you really need something to lend it meaning.  Going to destroy a whole garrison?  Then you’d best have cracked some complex program in an interesting way, or improvised some unusual explosive, or learned some new magical power, or created a really meaningful trick.  Unless you’re filming a martial arts film, it’s seldom satisfying to say, “Okay, there’s a problem in front of us, what do we do?” “Ah, we’ll just beat everyone up because our Kung Fu is invincible”.  (Because in that story, it’s not necessarily about the ideas; it’s about displaying the martial skills.  And even those tales are vastly better when they have an engaging plot and when it is genuinely difficult to tackle one’s opponents.)

The easier an antagonist goes down, the less powerful that antagonist’s life arc is going to be.  Sure, if you want to establish how powerful a given character is, on either side of the fence, casually taking out a more “minor” villain is a good way to do it.  But there are so many better ways of doing this, so many possible displays of power, ability, cunning and guile.  There’s problem-solving, there’s creating some fascinating sorcery or technology, there’s the charisma of inspiring followers, and there’s simply being able to pull off interesting, complicated plans of dominion, conquest, or even simple wealth.

Don’t just kill off a villain just as a party trick.  Or if you do, use it sparingly.  A villain is a complex, valuable asset for a writer.  Don’t just throw your villains away.

-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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Who’s The Villain In This Story, Anyway? (Philosophy, writing exercise)

“People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.”
― Gregory Maguire, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”

How many villains believe that they’re villains?

“Evil” is a complex and abstract concept. It varies with social mores, historical circumstances, perception of the world, and interpretations of the ramifications of your actions. Are you sure it’s your Villain who’s the “evil” one?

We usually see this clash in a time and place which is deeply advantageous for the “hero”.  It usually happens near the end of a tale, when the antagonist’s plans are almost realized, and the antagonist takes time to lecture the protagonist on the question of who is really serving society’s needs.

Bond villains are famous for this (there’s even a board game based on the villain’s need to gloat and justify his position), and Bond himself tended to respond simply by saying that they were mad, megalomaniacal, perhaps paranoid or suffering from a persecution complex.  We knew the truth of the matter, though:  Bond stood for England, a generally “good” place, and those he fought wanted to destroy or ransom the world, commit crimes with many victims, take part in mass murder, or fuel organizations based on murder or terror.  It was a simple world, but it was logically consistent.  (Particularly as Bond himself was not wholly without conflict about his own actions; he never stopped believing that fighting for England was a good thing, but he did have his doubts about the righteousness of some of his kills and other actions.)

Consider this thought:  What if you chose not< to make these questions the end?  What if they didn’t simply come up as part of a final confrontation?

What does your hero do if consistently offered a logical, reasonable way of seeing the villain’s point of view?

Candidly, too often, what we see are frankly heroes who are just too pig-headed and, perhaps, ignorant to grasp the philosophical argument.  We see a bit of “You’re crazy, I’m good and you’re bad, why are we having this conversation?”

CHALLENGE:

Let your heroes really be confronted by the moral questions of your villain.  Let your protagonist(s) consider what it would mean if the villain is right and they’re wrong.  What would that look like?  What would that self-doubt tell us about the protagonist?  How would they eventually conquer it?

Would they conquer it?  It takes courage to be a villain; how much more courage does it take to shift sides because you decide you’ve been wrong all along?

-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?

bigstock--211753084 - smaller

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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Why It’s A Good Idea to Kill Your Own Minions

Just a bit of ruthlessness. All in a day's work for certain criminals.

We’re often told that villains shouldn’t kill their henchmen – that it’s a cliche.  The ever-reliable TV Tropes talks about a few different flavors (of which we’ve picked the “You Have Failed Me” version as our sample) – and we’re sure there’s some CinemaSins commentary on the subject.

We find it ironic that, in this post-Game-of-Thrones world, where the knowledge of an upcoming wholesale hero slaughter isn’t even a spoiler anymore unless you specifically namecheck everyone who dies–that people are still beating the dead horse of “It’s a bad idea for villains to kill their own people.

We’d like to offer a rebuttal to several popular views we’ve heard.  Here are just a few:

  • Killing your minions is a waste.  Is it, really?  Whether or not we agree with the villain’s point of view, many villains work from an assumption that they’re better than their opponents.  If you cull your minions, removing the ones you deem inefficient, you might simply end up with more efficient minions; that really depends more on the size of your labor pool than whether or not an individual death is a good idea.  And sure, we often see minions killed for what look like bad or arbitrary reasons, or even for humor value.  But even then, if you’re trying to optimize your workflow, getting rid of those who might be perfectly competent but don’t match well with your needs isn’t a bad thing.  It’s potentially an evil thing – but hey: villain.
  • Nobody would work for a villain who slays their own team.  Really?  REALLY?  Consider the role of the heroic sidekick:  YOUR OPPONENTS ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO KIDNAP OR KILL YOU.  Consider the role of the villain’s minion:  Your opponents are usually not only using nonlethal force, but will probably rescue you if you’re in mortal danger.  If you work for a villain, your boss might kill you.  If you work for a superhero, EVERYONE will try to kill you.
  • There’s no incentive good enough to keep someone working for a murderer who might murder them.  That’s not even vaguely true.  Plenty of people will take hazard pay, in both fictional and real universes, for really dangerous jobs.  Some people even enjoy the thrill.  Why do we assume the villain is alone in their philosophies?  What if the henchpeople feel the same way, and plan to apply the same logic when they have their own evil organizations someday?  Supervillains ransom the world; that’s much better pay than most professions.
  • If you shoot your whole army, you won’t have an army.  That’s true, but that’s true of any resource.  We don’t necessarily know how large the villain’s army is.  It’s like saying “If you spend all your money, you won’t have any money”.  It’s true, but meaningless.  Also, if you’re good at what you do, you can make more money; and frankly, if you’re a desirable villain, you can often raise more troops.  People want to work for excellent supervillains. (And some might not have a choice – like, say, aliens, or the undead.)
  • Minion-murder is a cliche.  That’s totally true.  But it all depends on how you use it.   Let’s be honest: fantasy, science fiction, horror, superheroism, and other unique realities have been mined pretty extensively; not every concept’s going to be entirely new.  Sometimes, our goal is to have a totally unique idea; sometimes, it’s simply to do something that already exists, but do it better or with a new twist.  And that is part of the challenge, and the joy, of writing.

-Dark Lord Journal

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The Subtle Villain: Three character thoughts

What would ultimate power look like?

“Evil turned out not to be a grand thing. Not sneering Emperors with their world-conquering designs. Not cackling demons plotting in the darkness beyond the world. It was small men with their small acts and their small reasons. It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence, and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals, even, and low methods.”

― Joe Abercrombie, Red Country

Supervillainy is fascinating, but it doesn’t fit every story–not even every story in a fantastic universe.  Not every antagonist is, or should be, some kind of massively powered ultrabeing.  And they don’t have to be.  Here are three ideas for subtle villains.

  1.  The petty king.  A petty kingdom is a small kingdom – perhaps something the size of a modern town or village – which was considered too tiny to be in the same league as a united principality.  The ruler of such a place wasn’t the boss of much – but he could be one hell of a roadblock.  If an important trading route passed through his kingdom, if he guarded a particularly nasty mountain pass, if he imported something everyone needed – then he could hold up everyone else around him, if he chose.  And history shows that petty kings often DID choose to do so, through vanity, or greed, or a simple desire to feel important.  Think of all the petty kings in your character’s life.  Who might be a roadblock?  The boss who won’t let the hero out of her day job in time to thwart a particular villainy?  The officious official who insists on paperwork when every moment counts?  The underling with delusions of power who messes up a plan because she just has to grandstand?
  2. The whisperer.  Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to destroy even the best plan.  A small secret, something a small character might know, can bring down your hero.  And what’s fascinating is not the whisper itself – enough plans are “one in a million chances” that it’s easy to disrupt them – but the why.  Why did the whisperer betray the hero?  Was it for a reward?  Was it spite?  Was it jealousy?  …was it, perhaps, a certainty that it was the right thing to do?  And again, if so – why?  What dwells in the whisperer’s heart?  That’s a great question to ask yourself, when developing both that plot point and that character.
  3. The hero’s self-sabotaging side.  So many of us self-sabotage.  So many of us live with impostor syndrome.  Heroes are no exception.  Self-doubt, fear, and uncertainty can shatter the calm and mental state which can be essential to survival – much less accomplishment.  Does your hero doubt himself?  If so, why?  And what does it do?  And–is it justified?  what if he’s right?

As always – we hope this gives you something to chew on when you’re thinking about the creation and development of your antagonists!

-Dark Lord Journal

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How To Power A Fictional Dystopia

Danger: Radiation, and also doom. How does one write a moving dystopia?

As lovers of all manner of dark fiction, we’re big fans of dystopias.  We’d like to offer a thought:

We sometimes see dystopias as being the products of individual evil beings, or sometimes evil corporations (we’d argue that much of 1980s Cyberpunk was based on the latter).

But in our minds, there’s one thing that really powers a dystopia: The people themselves.  That is, not one single individual, or a bunch of oligarchs, or some other organized group.  The people themselves – the general mass of humanity.

It’s quite possible to create a brilliant, broken future which stars good people controlled by a bad ruler.  It also runs the danger that you’ll simply make even the best villains seem corny.  (We’re looking at you, 1970s cartoon Legion of Doom.)  It’s very attractive to see humans as basically good, but capable of being helpless before the overwhelming might of some kind of archfiend.

But it misses one of the strengths of a dystopia: the fear that it could happen here and now.

Because yes, it moves us when we see a malignant entity taking things over.  But it’s damn scary to think that we’re only a few steps (or fumbles) away from our actual reality become a horror.

Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here”, for example, was written in a time of rising fascism in the world.  Its depiction of a fascist America isn’t disturbing because of the politician whose rule changes America; it’s disturbing because we see how the human beings in the story become convinced that fascism is the right thing because it suits their self-interests and prejudices.  Sure, some people are imprisoned, and some people are intimidated.  But many people just go along with it, or even help it.

And that’s what really powers a fictional dystopia.  It isn’t because the people are victims; it’s because they are accomplices.

In general, this is a blog about writing fictional villains.  But in this case, we’d like to advocate for a more insidious and (in some ways) more horrifying villainy: the potential for the despicable inside of everyone.

Walt Kelley put it best: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

-Dark Lord Journal

 
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