Friday, July 31, 2009

Antagonizing the Prairies

Do you ever root for the bad guy? Have you ever met a character who made you sit up and pay attention, truly fear for the protagonist... and you loved every minute of it? These are the villains worth remembering. These are the antagonists we come back to again and again. Who briefly, secretly, we love a little bit -- at least until they do something horrible to the main character.

"My child, you have come to me my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? I am the well spring from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What would your world be, without me?"

While the protagonist is the beating heart of the novel, the antagonist is the spine, the rod that shapes and molds a main character into that person we come to feel for, cheer for, harrow with. Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, it is an easy life not worth the telling. The two are inextricably locked together and so a great story, a great hero or heroine, deserves a great villain as well.

Your story may offer a villain, whose actions must be thwarted and who knows she is not doing so-called 'good'. Or it may offer an antagonist, who thwarts your protagonist's actions and believes his path is the right one. Either way these characters must support the protagonist's believability as a real person, and generate the tension which drives the plot. As such, don't they deserve to be human (or vampire, elf, or whathaveyou), rounded, and believable as well?

The best villains, the ones we remember, feel like more than caricatures who cackle malevolently or sit in high-backed chairs and stroke cats. I've read decent books where the villain elevated the whole story and made it shine, kept coming back to lacklustre movies because of a captivating enemy. The best villains compel us, challenge us to linger for a moment in their motivations and think 'You know what, I see where he's coming from.' A character like Hannibal Lecter, for example, fascinates us to the point of dominating our attention despite only 16 minutes of screen time in Silence of the Lambs. Why? Because as alien and atrocious his actions are, he is real, compelling, and challenges us to examine his point of view. We may not agree with his actions, but we can understand why he agrees with them.

Personally, I love to relate to a villain, to linger for a moment in that mindset (regardless of narrative point-of-view), spend time with a human character who also happens to be a murdering psychopath. I like to teeter that little bit, believe maybe, just maybe the villain's got the right idea of things...

"I offered you shelter. I taught you how to survive. I cared for you as a father, as a brother, but what did you do? You took from me. Took everything I had and thought you could just leave."

If you can relate to a novel's villains, believe in their view and their struggle, their motives, you can legitimately fear for their possible success, fear for the protagonist's downfall. You understand why they're doing it, so what if the characters realize the same? What if they agree?

Even in romance, where happily-ever-after is baked right in, a good villain can make the reader wonder how -- how on earth will the hero/heroine possibly overcome such obstacles?

Maybe not the best example of a romantic story (the movie does begin with the words "This is not a love story"), but one of my favourite guilty pleasures in film is Original Sin. Perhaps not the most stellar of movies out there, but the villain utterly saves it for me. I adore Thomas Jane's performance, from his wheedling introduction to venom-spitting conclusion, and his utter sway over the main characters' actions holds the plot hostage until the final minutes with the possibility of several messy endings. The dynamic, compelling, and most importantly real antagonist draws an audience into deeper realms of villainy, eager to see how and if the main characters will escape. If he steals each scene and captivates us, the audience, how can we expect the characters to break away from his influence and persevere?

I'll leave you with a few questions from Donald Maass:

"What does your antagonist deeply believe in? What drives him forward? Why might his worldview be correct? Is your antagonist evil for the sake of being evil?"

So, people of the Prairies, share with me your villains. I want to know who whips the conflict in your current work-in-progress? What drives them forward? How might they justify their actions? If you're uncertain, who are your all-time favourite antagonists and what captivates you about them? Who holds you hostage and makes you hope it never ends?

My name is Hayley, and I'm in love with villains.

(Flickr photo by arbyreed)

37 comments:

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Since I don't want to push my blog length any more than I already have, I'll say here.. thank you to all the Chicks for bringing me out on the Prairies for this Friday afternoon, and especially thank you to Janet for offering me the chance to guest blog on one of my absolute favourite subjects.

Angela Sasser said...

I'm not a prairie person, but as one of your stalker/fans, I did enjoy this post!

Some of my favorite villains include, but are not limited too:
Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights - Because he was just da man. Such a great contrast between sympathetic and atrocious. He loved very fiercely and there was passion in everything he did.

V from V for Vendetta - Intelligent, ruthless, and brutal. One might say he's the protagonist and antagonist all wrapped into one. It's the obfuscation that I enjoy most, because I certainly agree with his ideals, but perhaps not his methods.

Aleksander from Carol Berg's Transformation - Because he uses expressions like "Athos' Balls!" and is a complete and utter deplorable bastard till you realize HE'S the one who needs saving...and is actually a rather decent fellow.

I could go on, but I shall resist. Great post!

Rie said...

Is it bad that I don't have a villain in my WIP? At least not yet, I might have one eventually, but they haven't shown themselves. I have real world problems, alcoholism, acceptance from her father, etc, but no villain.

Angela Sasser said...

Rie, sounds like the father IS the villain, as far as antagonizing goes, which could be interesting.

Silver James said...

Hi, Hayley! Hello. My name is Silver and I love villains, too!

I have one so totally evil (a Nephilim) that I've been writing the book for almost 20 years now. When I get in his head, I have to back away for a year or so. Yeah. Scary stuff there.

In the MS I'm getting ready to submit, the killer thinks family honor supersedes all else and protecting that is justification for everything he does. I don't love him, per se, but he works so very well in this story.

To me, a good villain/antagonist makes or breaks the overall plot. Great post, Hayley. Glad to have you here on the Prairie!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Angela, so glad you stopped by. It's nice out here, isn't it? :)

You've listed a couple of my favs, but then you know how much I love Mr Heathcliff. He's fantastic, an anti-hero and villain rolled into one, as the book is ostensibly about him as well. So compelling, and also a prime example of twisted 'villain love', which I really need to blog about sometime! And you're definitely right about V. The High Chancellor and Company are technically the bad guys, but it's V we see, and V we have to question. He could work either way, as an example of a good bad guy or a bad good guy.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Rie, that's certainly not a problem! While I do focus pretty strictly on villains and antagonists here, there's still the 'Literary Trinity' of conflict: man vs. man (aka antagonists), man vs. nature (like Castaway), or man vs. himself (which I'd say a lot of books have an element of, as characters go through their internal struggle)... and yes, I know my profs would slap me right about now for using such horrible gendered nouns.

Overcoming real world problems, such as growing up in a troubled community, overcoming the patterns of previous generations, and such, would fall under man vs. environment, and as Angela has said, acceptance of the father could be an antagonistic force if he's hindering her trial to overcome those problems. The main concern is that you have an overall thrust of conflict pushing the protagonist in one direction, rather than pulling her in several different ones. If her life, location, or circumstances are all throwing these problems at you, it's all part of the same conflict, so it should be fine :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Silver! Family honour, now that's a fantastic motivation. I love seeing a technically noble motive (love seeming to be one of my personal favourites) twisted or pushed beyond the boundaries most people would call normal. Sounds like a compelling conflict there!

Twenty years working on your one story? Sounds intense! Care to share a little about your Nephilim with us?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there Hayley, good post. Um... does your hubby know of your psyochopathic leanings? Now that would make an interesting story.

Hannibal only had 16 mins? It really seemed like more...

The villain in my wip has lived with the family for years. She's considered part of the family. And she's effectively hid her hateful feelings. Then one day, when the mother makes a decidion the villain doesn't agree with, she decides, 'Not in my house'. And the fun begins.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Anita. Yes, my husband knows, and still married me in full knowingness of said pathologies. We met over enthusiasm for the same villain, actually!

A villain close to home, sounds like a great prospect. The characters know her from 'before' so they'll see her as rounded and real, and struggle with how they remember her and how she is now. I'm curious, what are her motivations for suddenly taking action? Has it always lurked beneath the surface, or perhaps did something go too far and threaten her with change?

Karyn Good said...

Hi Hayley, great post! And you're right, HEA is there waiting at the end of a romance book so the journey is the meat of the story. How are they going to get there? Well written villians that are three dimensional cause us to doubt how they're going to suceed. I'm not particulary good at writing villians. Yet. My current wip has Raphael Tessier, one the three top members of a vicious gang. I've thought of writing a short story about him. I feel his circumstances deserve an explanation, at least a short story. I also have Damon Finn who's the villian in the story I talked about yesterday on Anita's blog. When I get back to that project I hope to have learned a few more things and can do him justice. Cuz, I like him.

Great villilans? Jack Randall from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander comes to mind. And I may just have to reread that book this summer, come to think of it! I would never root for him to win (shudder) but oh, he makes the journey so much more interesting and compelling.

Need to think so more, will be back...

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Karyn, a short story for Raphael sounds like it might be just what you need. Once you know where he's come from, his motivations will be easier to figure out (which I find also safeguards against a villain doing arbitrary evil things ;)

I'm in the midst of Outlander right now, actually, and Jack Randall keeps me going, because he lurks even when he's off-scene. You know how you can just tell the romantic hero in a romance the instant he appears? Good villains are like that too, and when I met Jack Randall, I knew I'd like him.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley, she applied for a job with the family because of an event which entailed one of the family members and she wanted to keep her eye on the situation and has been lurking all this time. But now the person she's watching is going to have a major life change which she doesn't agree with. So she reacts.

I don't mean to be so elusive, I just don't want to give too much away, yet.

Silver James said...

Hayley, I think twisting honorable mores make for interesting conflict and villain.

My Nephilim...He is without a doubt the most evil creature I've ever dreamed up, and trust me, I've had some bad-nasties swimming around in my head. He hunts for *The One*, leaving murder in his wake when the child fails to meet his standards. He's not a pedophile. He's looking for a child to groom into adulthood. But he leaves no witnesses - family and child are slaughtered. Tracking him is an immortal Paladin of the Brotherhood of St. James. When he finds *The One*, he spends her lifetime keeping her safe.

It's a dark book, more horror than paranormal romance. Someday, I'll get it finished though I have no idea what I'll do with it after that! LOL. And to think it all started after I heard George Michael's FATHER FIGURE for the first time.

Ban said...

Ahh villains ... sounds stupid but when I think of them, the first 'person' who comes to mind is Darth Vader. Yeah, I know, but he is possibly the first TRUE villain I remember running into and he DOMINATED Star Wars. So yes, I love villains, esp. when they are as real as the hero/heroine.
Most of the 'badies' in my main WiP are a product of their upbringing so I wouldn't call them evil but as the story progresses toward the third and final arc, the villains get worse and their motives a lot more black and white.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, I certainly wouldn't want to make you give things away. I will be intrigued to see this villain of yours in the final product. She sounds like a great character to worked with, locked right into the plot :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Silver, that sounds like quite the premise! Very grand scale and intriguing. Best of luck as you work your way through the story, it sounds like it will be well worth the journey.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Ban, I like to think to some extent all so-called villains are a product of their upbringing, or at least that their motivations make sense. Some, of course, are simply fantastic with hardly any context. I watched Coraline last night, and the Other Mother certainly falls into that unexplained-yet-believable category.

It sounds like your villains start off more as antagonists, and as things get worse, they get driven further into outright evil. Will you be introducing us to any of them on your blog? I certainly hope so :)

And I love Darth Vader, his presence throughout the original trilogy is phenomenal. Also an example of a villain who we didn't reaally need to know everything about. We can sense his depth through his performance and know there's more going on. He was real, rounded, and deeply developed without three movies worth of explanation, in my opinion. :)

Ban said...

I just watched Coraline too :) Yes, there is an ability to make 'non'human villains more evil than human ones. Whenever we see an evil human, we tend to wonder how they got that way/why - we are a lot more accepting of supernatural villains even when there is no explanation ... or we call them evil 'cause they don't adhere to OUR morality standards ie: jaws or any of the million or so aliens who are trying to destroy the earth.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Have you read Coraline as a book? I think it drops a few more hints of context for the Other Mother (or 'the Beldam'), although still without explaining her. Really gives it that sense of depth beyond the time frame of the story.

You've pretty much pegged the 'othering' process of villains in your summary there. If they're outside, they can just be evil, like Grendel in Beowulf (as compared to the modern film where they offered an explanation for Grendel's behaviour, and made him sympathetic). If something's beyond our ken, it can just exist and be evil and we tremble because we'll never fathom why... why did a shark suddenly terrorize a small seaside town for an entire movie? If human villains lack that sense of explanation, they wind up feeling like stereotypes rather than people.

In a small point though, I would argue that some humans wind up pretty flat. It's easy to Other anything that isn't the norm, whether that's the Caucasian middle-class teenagers terrorized by the masked killer, or the 'menacing' threat of someone with a different skin colour, it still pops up. They're not 'us', so their motives can be simplified. That's departing into a bit of a different topic though, so I won't ramble at you further :)

Angela Sasser said...

Poor Grendel...he just wanted the northmen to stop playing loud music at night! XD

Silver, sounds like an interesting concept. You immediately have me wondering what might happen if the *Chosen One* character discovered his or her benefactor's bloody past.

Karyn Good said...

Lord Voldemort comes to mind as a favorite villian, probably because I've recently seen the latest movie. He was entertaining to read.

And if I could mention a favorite movie villian of late it would have to be Heath Ledger's portray of The Joker from The Dark Knight. It was wonderful. You could hate the things he did, but him. I don't know how else to explain it. Just thought I'd mention it.

Does Stephen King's Jack from The Shining count as a great villian?

Karyn Good said...

Lord Voldemort comes to mind as a favorite villian, probably because I've recently seen the latest movie. He was entertaining to read.

And if I could mention a favorite movie villian of late it would have to be Heath Ledger's portray of The Joker from The Dark Knight. It was wonderful. You could hate the things he did, but him. I don't know how else to explain it. Just thought I'd mention it.

Does Stephen King's Jack from The Shining count as a great villian?

Edie Ramer said...

I really like Professor Snape in the Harry Potter books. I'm glad Alan Rickman plays him in the movies. He's perfect. We never know for sure if he is a villain (until we read the last book), but we suspect him.

It's too early to talk about the villain in my book, but it's someone no one would suspect as a villain. I like that turn-around.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, I was wondering if someone would mention the Joker! Heath Ledger's performance has got to be one of the most captivating villains I've seen in recent years. I absolutely loved it. In spite of everything he does, you can't help but love whenever he shows up on screen, wondering what will happen next.

Love that you mentioned Voldemort as well. He's an interesting case, as I think he starts off pretty 'flat' in the early books. We barely know him, he's inexplicably evil, and we learn that he did pretty much every bad guy thing possible. Later though, through the memories in the pensieve and other sources, we learn so much more about him and I think it really rounds him out. He doesn't need to be sympathetic (no one would ever think Tom Riddle 'just needed a hug') but we understand what formed him into this blatant villainous figure.

The Shining's Jack absolutely counts, although I'd call him more an antagonist than a villain. I didn't go into too much detail about the two into my post, but I do believe the two are distinct. Jack isn't technically 'the bad thing,' but he's what ends up antagonizing them until the end.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Edie, you have me very intrigued. Whenever you can share a few more details, I would love to learn about your villain. Or just keep me in agony until I can grab a copy off the shelves :D

So glad you mentioned Snape, as our focus seems to be on villains for the most part here. I love antagonists, and Snape is an excellent example of long-term antagonism. Even with his 'justifications' for it, he's still no ally, and Alan Rickman is fantastic in the role.

Suse said...

Hey, Hayley, fantastic post! The first couple of villains that came to my mind were also Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. Any novels that I've written in the past did not have villains per se as they were just about the romance, and the conflict came from the hero and the heroine (both internal & external). I did begin a mystery romance a couple of years ago where the villain embezzles money from her company and implicates her partner. She has a brother who needed assistance his entire life, while her needs always took a backseat with her parents. In the guise of helping others like her brother, she created a foundation where people could donate money to help those who needed it.

I like your paragraph. This is definitely something we need to keep in mind when writing our stories. "While the protagonist is the beating heart of the novel, the antagonist is the spine, the rod that shapes and molds a main character into that person we come to feel for, cheer for, harrow with. Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, it is an easy life not worth the telling. The two are inextricably locked together and so a great story, a great hero or heroine, deserves a great villain as well."

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Suse, the favourite villains are certainly beginning to emerge!

I had wanted to talk about another villain concept in this post but ran out of room, and it deserves to be larger than a paragraph mention. That's the romance novel's hero-villain. There are rival men and women as well, but I think one of the most interesting prospects of a straight romance novel is the hero-villain, both because it's an interesting balance, and because it can be go horribly, horribly wrong.

It's the type of story where the threat to overcome is that damned man in the heroine's life, whether he's the oppressive husband or rakish jerk of the older Presents I read, or the superior, apparently ruthless head of a company, such as Tom Hanks' character Joe Fox in You've Got Mail. The conflict comes between their characters, mostly because he's the antagonist to her life, and by the time he's no longer an antagonist, we can't see how they'll possibly be together, so the story can lose the villain but keep the conflict. It's a neat phenomenon, and I've read some interesting articles on it. Perhaps if the Chicks will have me back again after August, I can spend a day on it :)

Jana Richards said...

Great post Hayley! We're really glad to have you here.

Like Suse I write mostly romance so most of my "villains" are real life problems, both internal and external. I've written one romantic suspense which I loved doing, and wrote my first real villain. It was great letting him be evil, just because. I'd love to do another one.

Jana

Vince said...

Fire the Villains!

Ladies may love outlaws but I believe the best romance is one without villains!

Let other genres and subgenres have their villains. For me, I like the central focus of a genuine romance to be the ‘step-by-step’ falling in love process between the hero and heroine.

I want the sparks to fly between the hero and heroine as a result of their own iron wills. Let both the hero and heroine be good people with irreconcilable goals until they each experience the personal growth required to open the pathway to a harmonious synthesis.

Let the reader experience that growth and feel the love long after the HEA. That’s a romance. Pure and simple.

Beware the bad boys: they offer conflict but not love.

Vince

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, thank you for the welcome. Are the external problems coming from non-human sources then, or more the subtle sort of conflicts that come up between people, like pressure from parents to meet expectations? I'd still consider that a form of antagonism, but just not as blatant as people often think of when they hear 'villain'.

There's a lot to be said for 'vs. nature' conflict as well, but certainly not something I'm as familiar with. Perhaps something you can blog about for a future date? :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, thanks for stopping by and offering the other side of the coin. Not every story needs the same combination of conflicts to thrive. Either way though, I think we agree things are best when sparks fly.

When I wrote this, I knew it's very much relevant to romance subgenres moreso than straight romance, but in my experience antagonism shows up in many different forms.

I mentioned to Suse the concept of the hero-villain, which is a very likely source of the sparks you mentioned in your comment: a heroine who won't take flack from a hero who has yet to bend and accept love. I read several Harlequin Presents romances spanning from the 1960s to 2009 for a research paper, and found quite a few hero-villains who the heroines clashed with over the course of the story, as well as a handful of rival men or women, who also provide a form of antagonism in a straight romance. The focus remains on personal growth and acceptance of love, but the stories with a sense of antagonism (conflict between the h/h rather than misunderstandings they refuse to just talk about, for example) always interests this reader the most. I'll take those villains off your hands. I like a love story with conflict :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

I'm siding with Vince. Although I'm writing suspense this time around, I don't feel a villain is a necessary part of a book. Having said that, in my plotting course, we were taught that every book has an antagonist even if it's just a character's memory.

And for the record Hayley, I thought of Heath Ledger as Joker while I was reading your post but then forgot to memtion him.

Also, I relly like your pics.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Very nice point, Anita. I actually wanted to get a bit more into the difference between villains and antagonists in this post, but didn't want it to run long. Villains are definitely the more overt of the two, and only needed in certain circumstances, but antagonists are immensely common, moreso I think than some people realize, and as you say, sometimes the main character can be their own antagonist. That's no longer an external conflict, of course, but still a nice form of antagonism.

Molli said...

Hi Hayley -- great to have you posting.

I haven't written any villains, and don't plan to, so this isn't a topic I consider closely. The first one that came to mind though, when you asked if there were any we felt we could root for, as it were, was Prince John, played by Alan Rickman in Kevin Costner's version of Robin Hood. It was probably because I do enjoy Mr. Rickman as an actor, but partly because his character was so stymied and surrounded by incompetence that I couldn't help it.

You've certainly raised some lively discussion, so hopefully we'll see you back again with more to share on your subjects of interest.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Molli, I'm glad you enjoyed today's discussion. It's been years since I've seen Costner's Robin Hood, I'll have to watch it again. I enjoy Alan Rickman in pretty much anything.

While your stories may not need villains, I hope you'll enjoy creating whatever frustrated siblings, imposing parents, rival loves, or other lesser antagonists your books call for :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

The day's officially done, so I wanted to come back and say thank you once again to the Chicks for having me hear to day! It's been a blast, and a really fantastic discussion. This topic has sparked a lot of smaller elements of villains and antagonists that will no doubt find light soon. Myself, I'll be blogging this weekend to hash out the differences between villains and antagonists a little bit better, so if you've enjoyed the discussion, I hope you'll pop by Eventide and throw in your two cents over there.

Thanks again ladies, and I look forward to joining you again in August!