Most stories feature a character or characters in opposition to the protagonist. We call these characters villains. Some villains are more effective at evoking sympathy and indignation from readers than others, which is ultimately the goal for many writers. Some of the more effective villains have good ideals that give shape to their actions. The main problem with their morality is usually that they push their ideals too far. “The ends justify the means,” is often an applicable statement in this regard. These types of villains are very compelling, because we can see where they’re coming from. In the sections that follow, I’ll discuss some concrete methods you can use to write an altruistic villain. Note that not all villains need to be this way. Some are extremely effective at being raw forces of evil and mayhem. The Joker is the most-often cited example. Now let’s get started!
1: Start out with an ideal that most consider to be a morally good one.
Examples include the ideals of freedom, honesty, equality, love, generosity, tradition, security, change, faith, aspiration, justice, independence, honor, redemption, and knowledge. These all sound like good things. But it’s easy to imagine how these could become problems if taken too far. Design your villain with one or more of these ideals in mind. It will eventually become the basis of their villainy. It’s often said that everyone is the hero of their own story. The same goes for villains. Usually, they’ll solidly believe that they are doing the right thing. This is easier to accomplish if their actions are based on a verifiably moral goal.
2: Develop your villain’s background so that it fits with their ideal.
Many villains had to endure some terrible event in their childhood or years before villainy. This will frequently shape their worldviews and instigate them to action. Interestingly, heroes and villains often go through the same sorts of instigating events in their early years. It’s how they react to these stimuli and what they’ve done in the time since that makes them a hero or a villain. So develop your villain’s history such that it reconciles with their malevolent state in the present.
People talk a lot about writing strong female characters. Writers and readers everywhere always seem excited when a story features a female as the main protagonist. This is likely because of the seeming rarity of such stories. We could cite examples to the contrary all day, but that doesn’t change the fact that the stereotypical storybook “hero” throughout literary history has been a man. In this light, it could be a relatively new thing, this female hero. It’s becoming more prevalent, but is still rare enough that the gaming distribution platform Steam has a specific tag for “female protagonist.”
But what does it take for a female character to be “strong”? Well, here’s some tips to help examine your literary laudable lady.
1. Badass characters are not necessarily strong characters.
The difference here might be a bit self-explanatory, but it’s also an important one to understand. One might watch a movie and see a female character who makes a habit of making incredible acrobatic stunts whilst simultaneously beating up dozens of bad guys. They’ll see this character and say that she’s a “strong” female character. But what they really mean is that she’s a badass.
Contrary to common belief, this doesn’t make a character “strong.” A strong character is a well-written character; a character with depth, personality, flaws, strengths, and attachments. A strong character is one that makes mistakes and learns from them. A character’s worth is not defined by the number of enemy grunts they can dispatch in a single scene.
You may have heard the term “narrative trope” before. You also may have associated this phrase with the more well-known “cliché.” If this is the case, then you’re absolutely right in assuming an association. Tropes and clichés are closely related narrative terms. But there’s an important difference that could save your life some day. Well, probably not. But it’s significant nonetheless, particularly for writers.
Tropes are recurring narrative themes that we see and recognize across many different works of fiction. Clichés are the same thing. It’s just that clichés are painfully overt and distract from the plot. Basically, a cliché is a bad execution of a good trope.
Predictably, tvtropes has the best definition of what a trope is. You should all go take a look at that. Essentially, tropes aren’t bad. They are useful tools that help tell good stories. Narrative patterns exist for a reason; they’re effective. Over the decades, writers have discovered methods of storytelling that are emotionally intriguing, thematically entertaining, and plot-advancing. That’s what tropes are.
In screenwriting courses, most students are taught to use what is called the three-act structure. It is a method of organizing scenes and sequences into a tried-and-tested format that effectively captured the attention of the viewer and keeps them interested until the end. Essentially it assigns certain responsibilities to the beginning, middle, and end of a screenplay.
Although this format saw its origins in Hollywood, it is also being used as a tool for storytelling in general. I’ve attended seminars where published authors have recommended the use of this technique for writing novels. And most successful stories follow the basic tenets of the structure regardless of whether or not it’s a film, whether or not the author realized it. This is because the three-act structure is largely instinctual. It works, and people know it.
Genres are a tricky topic. On a fundamental level, they are a system for categorizing media. We use this system both for ease of access and for setting up expectations. There are music genres, film genres, literary genres, and many others. Genres help us find more of what we like. If I hear a song and decide that I like it, I can investigate that music genre and discover new treasures.
Sadly, there are also a number of difficulties associated with genres.
What’s going on with genres?
One issue with genres is the concern that people tend to become attached to one or more genres, to the exclusion of others. People sometimes use genre as their primary consideration. “Oh, it’s a sci-fi flick? No thanks, I’ll pass.” “A romance novel? Gross.” “Anime? You mean like kids’ cartoons?”
Another issue is the inconsistency of the genres themselves. Many genres seem to refer to a story’s prevailing story element, such as romance and horror. Others seem to be nothing more than a setting descriptor, such as historical fiction and science fiction. As a system for categorizing stories based on a single trait, this is not very helpful. There is nothing to say that there cannot be a romantic story set on a Mars colony, or that there cannot be a horror story set in 1920’s New York.