How to Write a Good Villain

What makes a good enemy, someone you love to hate?

1. A good enemy is a complex, nuanced character. Like all complicated people, a villain has streaks of good mixed in with all that bad. He is, in some way, vulnerable. Some people may sympathize with the villain. Some may even like him.

2. Ordinary people make great villains. An ordinary life picked apart with the meanest, basest aspects brought forth and emphasized is a terrifying prospect.

3. Sometimes villains exist in environments that allow them to behave as nastily as is their inclination. They might get away with what they do, and maybe even forever.

4. Villains who see the conflict as black or white, winner take all, can be quite motivated to succeed and may go to great lengths to assure a particular outcome.

5. They can also be relentless in their justification of their behavior to themselves. They may believe that they are in the right, for example, or that they have no choice, or that they are the chosen one.  These justifications act as an internal, exculpatory script that gets repeated over and over. The villain doesn’t learn because he never takes information in.  There’s no room in his mind. There’s only his goal and the script.

6. Villains may have backgrounds that have led them to this dark place. Maybe nobody loved them enough, or someone important died, or there’s a score to settle, or an ancient fear. These needs shape the psyche and behavior of the character.

7. Villains may also have twisted minds of some kind that make them extremely dangerous. Obsessed, possessed, angry, grieving—some violent storm may motivate their behaviors. And yet, on the outside, they may appear quite calm, even engaging.

8. Villains do bad things, even horrible things. But some villains may not perceive their acts as harmful. Some villains may feel that they are doing God’s work.

9. The villain drives the conflict in the story.  Sometimes the villain succeeds.

A really good villain is hard to forget, and yet, you so wish you could.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo/drawing by elfwood.com.

Do You Need to Know the Ending?

This is a “yes, but” situation.

Yes: If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you chart a course to get there?

A whole lot can happen in the middle, some of which might take you by surprise and affect the ending, but when you pull out your star charts, and man the ship’s wheel all night, closing the distance between you and your destination is the point. No destination, and you might just sail around in circles.

Think through your story, to know where it begins and how it will proceed to a satisfying and believable conclusion.

If you discover that the story doesn’t hold up, or a character isn’t working, or that the ending is all wrong, you will have to step back, throw out what isn’t working, and plan your story anew.

This sense of change, of flux, of being available to your talents and instincts even when they require that you set a new  course, has sometimes been described as the story writing itself.

So yes, you absolutely need to know your ending and aim for it if you expect to get there . . .

But: a secure writer, trusting in his process, will move with his story, instead of against it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: ship’s wheel by Stephen Glenn; stars by howardedin.com

19 Reasons Why You’ll Never Finish

Spoken from my been-there, done-that, know-it-well life, here is what can complicate a nice, clean run to the finish:

1. Your brain has turned to gelatin. Your muscles are mush. Fatigue sets in. No energy, no writing.

2. Anything is easier than writing. The ironing. The kids. The vacuum. The correspondence.

3. Email and social media: the Bermuda triangle of time. But there’s the actual social world, too, like coffee shops and lunch dates.

4. Errands. The rain. The rake. The dog. Not now. Later . . .

5. It’s not work. More than a hobby, maybe, but work means you earn a buck, doesn’t it?

6. Besides, you don’t know how. You can’t. You’re afraid. You won’t.

7. No place to write. No quiet. The guy next door plays drums. Can’t think.

8. Real life intrudes. Illness. Disaster. Ambush. A barbarian is at the gate.

9. Also, you’re not in the mood. You need inspiration. You’re waiting for the muse to call.

10. You have unrealistic goals. A mere paragraph at the end of the week and you’re disappointed.

11. There’s more to learn. A changing world, changing industry. Never enough time to absorb, strategize, adapt.

12. You haven’t planned your story, and so, when you’re lost, there you are, going around in circles.

13. The story is too big. You don’t understand it yet. Every time you look, it deepens. It’s a shape shifter. It’s an onion peeling. It’s the goddamn mirror.

14. The story bores you to tears. In fact, you’re crying.

15. Or busy pandering to what the market wants. You make a study of it. You are very good at research.

16. You write the easy stuff, or the thing on a deadline, and never get to the other work.

17. You have writer’s block, or more precisely: you aren’t writing, and haven’t yet gone for the cure (read).  Or you’ve hit delete so many times, nothing’s left.

18. Or, you don’t really want to finish. You hate to give it up, close the door to the idea of fixing something however tiny but that will bother you pretty much forever.

19. Besides, if you finished, you would miss it.

Did I forget anything? Readers?

But let’s remember: with the exception of number 8—real life throwing you a doozy—there are choices here, or mostly. When are you done?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of cat by The Scream; blond aka blondalicious by blog-blond.blogspot.com

7 Stories I Won’t Tell

I had a professor in law school, a terrifying guy who nonetheless managed to leave me with one key teaching: the business of the law is to draw lines. That certainly turned out to be the case and I figure it’s the same for writers. Where do you draw your line?

For me, here are 7 stories I won’t tell:

1.  Anything where, if the tables were turned, I’d cringe to be on the receiving end of the writer’s treatment. This includes secrets or other private matters that have no public value in being “outed,” especially if the information was entrusted to me, but even if I just happened to know it.

2.  Anything where permission is required, and I don’t have it. People who are underage or cognitively disabled cannot give consent on their own.

3.  Anything that is motivated by revenge, even if just an ounce, because if you’re still measuring, the work is likely to be tainted with ill feeling.  I don’t mind taking on a charged subject, but I won’t do it until I think I can manage it at an arm’s length distance.

4.  Anything that I will have to defend, unless that’s my objective, as it might be, for example, if I seek to make a point. Otherwise, I don’t want to invite this kind of distraction into my writing life. My writing life comes from observation, and if I’m running my own mouth, I can’t observe.

5.  Boring things. If it doesn’t interest me, it probably won’t interest anyone else.

6.  Things I don’t understand. If I expect to convey anything useful to a reader, I have to understand it first, live with it, think about it, and then bring it to the page.

7. Things that belong to other people—their lives, and for them to tell—no matter how juicy, or wonderful, or sad.

So, did I miss anything? Any stories you won’t tell that we should add to this list?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of sealed lips by artefotografia.com.ar.; poster art widely duplicated; this copy from wstera2.