Okay, so we’re writing what we’re sure will be a New York Times bestseller, and we’ve got our characters mapped out. We have lists of their quirks, likes, dislikes, and likely reaction to any number of events. We could pretty well pick these characters out of a crowd or accidentally bump into one of them while we’re writing their story ( a la Stranger Than Fiction. Quite possibly the best Will Ferrell movie out there).
We forgot something.
Don’t go back to your lists for that question you forgot. Don’t study the bio of the actor you found for the character. It’s not in there.
Take a look at your protagonist and antagonist. Pretty clear-cut good and evil lined up there, isn’t it? What we’re forgetting is to muddy those waters. Gone are the days where we could have a main character with the word hero splashed across his chest in bright red and blue and sometimes yellow and black. Modern era doesn’t allow for villains to be 100% pure Florida-squeezed evil and darkness.
We need to muddy the water. Then we’ve got another hook for the reader.
On a tangent: Why do so many people use fishing analogies to describe building a reader base and targeting our key demographics for success? It sounds kind of simplistic for the reader and a little painful if taken literally.
So, back on track. We need to sully our hero and glamorize our villain. Why? Because it’s the generally consensus of humanity that no one is truly good or truly evil. Everyone has a skeleton, in their closet or otherwise, and everyone is still worth redeeming.
Take a look at one of the more common tropes we consider to be in the “good” category: any religious persona. They used to be an unfailing symbol of anything good in the world. The sight of a preacher, monk, or missionary used to be a sign of comfort, regardless of if we followed their specific faith or not. They were a sign of help, safety, protection, an ear to hear, and a shoulder to cry on. yet in literature, I’ve found only two holy men who seemed to fit that criteria in any way. One is Dan Wells’ I Don’t Want to Kill You and the other is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. One has hardly any part in the story, and again, the general consensus is that such a character can’t exist. We can believe a hard-nosed, purely by the law character like Javert can exist, but not the priest who helped Jean Valjean in the beginning. We almost have to see the hidden bottle of scotch, the gambling addiction, or the part of the garden where he secretly goes to toque up or “know” an attractive person from his flock. Once that’s discovered, we shrug and say he or she’s just like anybody else and what a loser the other characters are for believing people could actually live up to ideals.
In the real world, people like that do exist. There are plenty of ministers, preachers, missionaries, elders, monks, friars, and gurus who do live up to the belief system they hold themselves to. But they don’t excite us or thrill us enough to spend ten bucks to read about it. That is, unless there’s a point where they have to choose between what they know, and what the current situation calls for, but I could rant about that more at another time.
The fact is, no one wakes up one day and says “Hmmm, I think I’m going to forge an evil ring to make the wearer invisible”. There’s a long and painful process before every dark lord rests their helm of evil on their head or builds an army of golden golems. Some of the best villains in stories are in fact the ones that we can associate the most with. Sure, it’s one thing to have the Hitlers, the Saurons, or the Wicked Witches of the West, but we expect that. It’s another thing to have the Bundys, the White Witches, the Red Eyes, or the Sousukes of literature.
For example, take a look at convicts and inmates. We’ve got a thing about them. No matter what they’re in for, they are automatically not trustworthy and definitely trying to kill us and swear vengeance on us for looking at them funny. Yet once we see the road that made them who they are, well, then we see something we can relate to. Some way we are like them.
Then there are the wonderful stories where there is no exact villain, like Les Miserables, The Night Circus, or Monstrous Regiment. Those stories I think resonate with readers in a way that ones with villains will never be able to connect. Again, another rant for another time.
The best rule of thumb I’ve found is this: treat every character like they are the protagonist of their own story.