It takes a villain
by Gale Martin
While readers want someone they can care about in a protagonist, they also need villains. Villains often stir up the circumstances that give readers reasons to care about your protagonists. So give them a heaping helping of villainy in your fiction. It takes a villain to write a book. Or two. Sometimes the more, the more memorable the book.
Protagonists need trouble with a capital T
One of the simplest formulas for storytelling goes like this: Stick your central character up a tree. Throw stones at her. Don’t let her return safely to the ground until the very end of the story.
Though writers tend to fall in love with their protagonists, unlike those we love in real life, we shouldn’t try to protect characters from trouble. Let them skin their knees, encounter a world of trouble, or feel a universe of hurt. Or all three. Every time your character gets picked on, shot at, or dumped, you’ve given your reader chances to bond with her.
In my new novel Grace Unexpected, Grace Savage gets dumped by her longtime boyfriend on her thirty-fifth birthday. She can hear her ovaries ticking. She never really imagined herself as someone living alone or without children for the rest of her adult life. Some things you simply can’t plan—like someone else falling in love with you and wanted to make a life together. So, this boyfriend abandoning her at this time in her life puts her in somewhat desperate straits if she was hoping to have natural children.
Since Grace is no goodie-two-shoes—she has some casual ideas about sex, for instance—the reader needs a reason to care about her right away. I used the break-up to help win the reader over to her side.
The sky’s the limit for villains
There are limitless possibilities to villainy in stories: Villains who look good; villains who look evil; otherwise well-meaning people who make one villainous choice that wreaks havoc with your protagonist. Villains can also be mostly bad people who do one redeeming thing that helps your pro when circumstances are most dire. Villainous weather, highways, or even screen doors.
I personally love the villains that James Lee Burke packs into his Dave Robicheaux detective stories. They are interesting and ever-present. Obvious ones like the circus rodeo clown who’s a serial killer and not so blatant ones. That includes people in law enforcement, who see everything in black and white, and yet many times, the law calls for decision-making with deadly firearms in the gray areas.
One of my villains in Grace Unexpected is a young, attractive alumni affairs director who married into wealth. She’s every new employee who gums up things in the workplace. You know the type—everything was working just fine until she appears on the scene. In the environment of higher education, money can be a villain, too. Fund-raising officers need to obtain money or pledges for it, and will do almost anything to get it. That need to court those with money is good subtext for my novel, and makes Grace’s boss do some villainous things because of the new alumni affairs director. Which leads to endless plot twists.
Writing villains can be carthartic
I’m not a big memoir reader though many people are. Some autobiographical novels are thinly veiled memoirs, and those are tricky to write. They can smack of self -interest or self-pity, which can actually distance the reader instead of pulling them in, unless they are really well crafted. I should know. My first book was autobiographical fiction, and I didn’t have enough distance from it to make the book work. So that’s one book that won’t ever see the light of day.
However, we all encounter people or organizations or bureaucracies in life who victimize us. Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to get back at them that wouldn’t entail a five-year stint in the state pen?
For me, writing has been that catharsis. If you are going to use a real-life character as a villain in fiction, it’s best to conflate her with a couple of other people. That opens up more character possibilities, too, because she becomes a new person and can do other things that that individual in your mind’s eye couldn’t or wouldn’t do. In Grace Unexpected, Lacy McBride is that young villainous new hire. Lacy’s actually many women I’ve known and worked with all rolled into one efficient little troublemaker. Do I still get a lot of satisfaction out of creating her even though I got burned by her real-life counterparts? You bet I do.
Find your inner villain
Stories become really compelling when your protagonist has villainous thoughts or is faced with two bad choices but must make one. Think Sophie’s Choice here for a stellar example. Characters should be tempted to stray from their wives. Or at least think bad things. Characters need come off as human. Did you know, for example, that most women tell at least two lies a day? Characters can lie and still be sympathetic.
While we probably want to steer clear of villains and their villainy in real life (unless you are suffering from some bizarre mental disorder like Munchausen by proxy syndrome), your reader needs villains and obstacles in the stories she reads. Give your readers juicy villains, served up medium rare, topped with crabmeat, with a side of sautéed mushrooms. Don’t skimp on the villainy. It truly takes a villain to write a good novel.
* * *
Gale Martin is an award-winning writer of contemporary fiction who plied her childhood penchant for lying into a legitimate literary pursuit during midlife. She began writing her first novel at age eleven, finally finishing her first book three decades later.
Her debut novel, DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA, published in 2011, is a humorous backstage novel inspired by Don Giovanni, Mozart’s famous tragicomic opera about the last two days of Don Juan’s life. It was named a Finalist in the 2012 National Indie Excellence Awards for New Fiction.
Her second novel GRACE UNEXPECTED is wryly witty women's fiction that features a protagonist who can hear her ovaries ticking, who has a heart of pure gold, wrapped in lead. But a string of crummy boyfriends would do that to any lovable woman while waiting for Mr. Right.
She has a master of arts in creative writing from Wilkes University. She lives in Eastern Pennsylvania because she has to.
Twitter: http://twitter.com/Gale_Martin (@Gale_Martin)
Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/GaleMartinAuthor
Goodreads: My Author Page
Email: galemartin (dot) writer (at) gmail (dot) com
Would you like to win a paperback copy of Grace Unexpected? Here's all you need to do:
) Fill out the form below and include your email address.
2) For an extra entry - Be a follower on this blog (old followers are included,
just mention how you follow).
3) For 2 extra entries - blog about this giveaway on your blog and leave the link to it.
Giveaway runs from 8/21/12 (midnight est time) to 8/28/12 (midnight est. time).
NO US restrictions! Everyone can enter!
a Rafflecopter giveaway