Every now and then I stumble upon great advice articles on writing fiction. In this article in Writer’s Digest, I found some absolute gems. The article is titled Inside the Mind of a Villain: 8 Journeys and Motives Behind Evildoers, Antiheroes & Antagonists and written by Dustin Grinnell, dated May 9, 2018.
Below is an excerpt from the article. It is worth sharing as I’m sure you will agree.
In the article How the Character Wound Links to True Connection in Oscar Films and Beyond, writer Jen Grisanti says that when a reader or viewer understands a character’s wound, they can connect with the character. She writes, “When you give us an early glimpse of the wound, we are on board for the ride. We are rooting for a successful outcome on an emotional level.”
Nancy Kress agrees, suggesting that writers give characters human weaknesses that seem real, which permits reader identification and greater suspense.
In Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, the antagonist is a pirate named Long John Silver. Silver is imposing and proves to be ruthless. He knocks a man over by throwing a stick at this back, then jumps on top of him and stabs him twice in the back. Silver is also cunning. He schemes, quietly commanding the loyalty of the sailors to arrange a mutiny. And he does all this with one leg. Silver is the story’s villain, but his disability makes us feel for him. His handicap evokes empathy. We relate with his wound because we too have wounds—physical, emotional or psychological.
Later in Treasure Island, Silver flies a flag of truce. The captain and others think it’s a trick, and so do readers. When Silver tries to explain the reasons for his mutiny, we know he’s up to something. To board the boat, he asks a sailor for a hand, but no one offers assistance. The reader experiences sympathy for the antagonist, as Silver “crawled along the sand till he got hold of the porch and could hoist himself again upon his crutch.” Silver didn’t deserve help, but we can’t help but feel for the one-legged pirate.
This is perhaps similar to the same sympathy we feel for Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The prison’s warden is a sadist and takes pleasure in making life miserable for his most notorious inmate. By the end of the movie, Lecter escapes from prison. In the final scene, on a phone call, he alludes to the warden’s murder in the famous line, “I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Most viewers were thoroughly entertained by this. Applause broke out in theaters. The takeaway: We can root for a villain if someone is more villainous toward them.
In the movie Point Break, like Silver, the protagonist’s wound also involves the leg. The story opens with Johnny Utah playing college football as a quarterback. The scene ends with a career-ending knee injury. The next scene shows him training to be an FBI agent. Utah reinvents himself, but his old knee injury haunts him throughout the story. He doubles over in pain during crucial moments in the story while pursuing the story’s antagonist: Bodhi, played by Patrick Swayze.
In the movie Interstellar, the protagonist Joseph Cooper’s wound is revealed in the beginning of the film. We see flashbacks of Cooper in the pilot seat of a distressed aircraft. It’s clear the mission ended his flying career. But we see that he’s built a fine life as a farmer. He’s also father to a gifted daughter. But Cooper was born to fly. As witnesses to this story, we hope someone will give Cooper an aircraft to pilot. We rejoice when NASA offers him a mission to save humanity by exploring space for an Earth replacement. Unlike Utah’s and Silver’s physical wounds, Cooper’s wound is emotional. It’s about identity. If he’s not a pilot, who is he?
In the television show House, the brilliant diagnostician Dr. Gregory House is cynical, surly, and rude. House suffered a blood clot in his leg, and the tissue in his quadricep became necrotic, leaving him hobbled and in chronic pain. During the show, he hobbles around with his cane, occasionally gripping his leg in agony, eating pain pills like Skittles. His unyielding pain evokes sympathy. Moreover, underneath all his snarky, offensive comments and lack of bedside manner, House always does right by the patient. His compulsive drive to find a diagnosis, to “solve the riddle,” saves the lives of patients that no one else could have saved. This is redeeming. We are dazzled by his genius, especially since he does it with a disability.
A villain might not consciously recognize their wound(s). In fact, the less aware they are of the source of their pain, the more apt they are to act out in ways they and others find incomprehensible. On a recent episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher and his writing team suggested that the venomous anti-Hollywood rhetoric from conservatives like Stephen Bannon and Dana Loesch might be the result of their rejection by Hollywood as they were pursuing writing careers early in their lives. Bannon and Loesch took their shots and missed. Perhaps they are projecting their unacknowledged pain onto the liberal artists who actually achieved their dreams?
My biggest takeaway from this extract? Look to movies to learn how to write crime fiction with believable ‘bad guys.’ Even as a detective in days of yore, I soon realized there is some good in every person though sometimes you have to look hard to find it.
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