Enemies, Enemies, Everywhere

Recently, I had an interesting dialogue with a writer friend on Twitter. He’d looked through my sci-fi/western/drama/romance and mentioned how “graphic” it is. I agreed that it’s probably “the most gleefully graphic I’ve let myself get in a long time.”ย  Our conversation became more about writing side stories, but I kept thinking about why I’ve enjoyed working with this particular story so much these past few months. Part of that reason is that personal allowance to be graphic, an allowance I haven’t given for my more recent original fiction. There’s a lot of sex, because that’s a big part of the main character’s personal journey, but I’ve also loaded it with more action and violence than I’ve done in a while. Following that thought, I came to realize that it’s the villains who have made this story so much rollicking fun, for me.

I’ve read analyses that say the villain is the most important part of the story. I don’t exactly agree with that wording, because not every story will have a “villain.” In more precise – and also more amorphous – terms, I think it’s conflict that drives a story. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but I want to go into some more detail, here.

Every story needs some conflict, whether it’s external or internal. It’s nice to see characters get a breather or spend some happy time together, but a whole book about that would be rather boring. My drama stories tend to lack a villain in the traditional sense because the conflict usually arises from the hero himself. One of the common characterizations in my stories is that each main character is the principal architect of his or her own happiness…or their own misery. The decisions they make determine how they move forward or backward. Of course, I like development, so they usually set themselves – or get themselves set – on the right path, but the journey’s the fun part, anyway. That said, I hadn’t written a real villain in a long time.

Then, I decided to write a western.

I spent a lot of days reading old westerns, especially the serial stories of Elmore Leonard. The villains in those short stories were varied, violent, cunning bastards. And, even if they only made themselves known for a few pages, they had presence. I wanted my sci-fi shoot-em-up western to have that. Because, while the main character’s internal conflict was perhaps the most important part of the story, he would never be able to make that journey of self-discovery without someone pushing him on. Or shooting at him, as the case came to be.

I love writing my heroes. But, I’ve loved writing these villains, too, each one of them, for their own reasons. Red Widow because she’s a smart, sexy grifter, and deadly for that:

She’d saved her head with her hands, and pushed back against the wall to shove him off. One leg flew out behind her, connecting with Hal’s gut. He staggered with an oof! and she spun, another kick catching him in the ear.

Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, is insane. But his insanity is full of such self-righteous zealotry, his every line full of such grandeur, he makes a formidable foe:

Lohengrin swung his flame toward the popping drehlafette, and licking fire met stoic metal as the autocannon’s barrel slid into place. The muzzle spit its first round, and its second, when the Swan Knight gave a sudden strangled gasp.

Reilly is driven by a simple desire for revenge, but it’s changed him to the point of being unrecognizable even to his old sergeant:

Ax froze at the sight: a gleaming, golden horror of a man, almost seven feet tall with pylons for limbs and black enhancement goggles pressed deep into the puckered flesh of his face. In front of his left eye glowed a red targeting reticle, blazing in the dark. His chest was pockmarked with sparking holes and indentations from the drehlafette, but none of them slowed him down.

And Strenk, who’s probably my favorite of the lot, simply because he has no overarching goal or reason for his grittiness. He’s just plain ol’ nasty:

Strenk’s gaze filled his focus, cold and damning. “Open those pretty petals, tulip.” He dropped his free hand to his crotch. “I want to see if I’ll fit.”

All of these villains do horrible things, and I occasionally feel a bit scared at how easily some of their actions and dialogue have come to me. At the same time, though, I believe in art as a catharsis and unhindered outlay of our personalities, both the dark and light parts of it. Art is also a relatively safe way to explore the more dangerous demons within each of us. I don’t think I could ever pick up a flamethrower and point it at someone, but it definitely gets my senses tingling to imagine that and create it on the page. I suppose what this exercise has truly shown me is that my villains have as much to say about me as they do about my hero. Their danger, their brutality, the sheer ugliness they represent have made this story a crazy-fun ride, because for every dark, twisted action they throw at him, my hero grows a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, a little more…heroic. But then, isn’t that what a villain is supposed to do?

villains

ย What is it about your villains that you love? (Come on, admit it: there’s a part of you that loves ’em!)

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13 thoughts on “Enemies, Enemies, Everywhere

  1. I think what I like most about “villains” is that they force my “heroes” to do things or say things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Pushing them out of their comfort zones. It’s really the conflicts that drive the story forward, I agree.

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    • I like that insight into your “villains,” Kate. I never truly considered them specifically as catalysts. I think of external conflicts that way, but never the villain. We learn something new every day. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for stopping in!

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  2. Villains or an internal-conflict counterpart are really difficult for me to write. Don’t get me wrong! I agree whole-heartedly that a story must have enough conflict to drive the action and characters forwardโ€”be it toward destruction, redemption, understanding, acceptance, or whatever the story entails.

    I know many nice writers who wouldn’t even hurt a fly are like youโ€”they love writing those baddies. And I’d like to be one of them! But I can’t seem to let myself cut loose like that, even in fiction. And so my stories can be flat. It’s one reason I’m trying to rebuild Crossroads and hard as it is, your comments and those fro my other betas suggest I’m making some progress on that front. I don’t think writing the conflict or villains will ever come easily for me, but I’m trying! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • I thought your baddies were coming together pretty well, especially in the SATC draft I read. Since you’re sticking with your protagonist, you can’t delve into the bad guy’s head, but a lot of the motivations and atrocities came clear. And, Meghan’s conflict of a mystery was really satisfying. Sometimes, it’s a refreshing change to have a conflict that’s not dangerous or deadly in the dramatic sense.

      As I said, it made me a bit giddy to go back and read what horrible things had come out of my head with these villains. I think part of that arose from allowing myself to let loose with everything in the story. Once I’d decided To Hell with what anybody else thinks, it became much easier to let the baddies run wild. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  3. Personally, I’m a sucker for the “fallen hero” kind of villain or the “calculator”. Not just loud and bombastic, but easily willing to sit back in the shadows and let the board move itself until it’s time to strike.
    Though, sometimes the greatest enemies are those you hold as closest friends. I’m thinking Ross Finch knows that best.

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    • Well, Ross is his own worst enemy. The MC in “From Hell…” is much the same, in that regard.

      Your description of a calculator makes me think of Thrawn. He was a great villain. ๐Ÿ™‚ I really enjoyed empathizing with him.

      A villain is often a catalyst, so it’s neat to look at them from different angles, whether it’s as a mad maniac or a sympathetic plotter. Doctor Doom is one of my favorite “villains” of all time, because he genuinely does not believe what he is doing is wrong. There’s a great moment in an old “Cloak and Dagger” comic where Dagger uses her light daggers on Doom…and they have no effect. “What is good for Doom is good for the world.” It’s very cool to see a villain like that. Though, I’ve really enjoyed writing my own sadists, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Finally catching up with reading some blog posts I’ve been wanting to catch up with! Glad I didn’t miss this one, it touches on lots of interesting things. Conflict is definitely essential, when I took acting classes in the states, and we did improv scened, our teacher would always stress that even when improvising, we must find the conflict quickly, or there’s just nothing there. Like writers, I think actors love to play a villain when they can, their chance to explore that dark side which they would (hopefully!) never explore in real life.

    I heard a bit of writing advice a while ago which I haven’t had a chance to put into practice because I haven’t done any fiction writing for ages, but I made a point to remember it because I could see how valuable it would be. I say I made a point to remember it, but I can’t remember the exact wording now! The essence was – In order to write a successful villain character, you must first understand why in his world, he is the hero.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Vanessa. I appreciate the time. ๐Ÿ™‚

      It’s sometimes difficult to watch an actor I really like play a villain, despite when they may do it very well. I think we want to keep our heroes as heroes. But, I can empathize with the desire to do so: a villain gets to play by different rules and often has so much more range of motivation than the hero is allowed. The boundaries of being a good guy, you know. ๐Ÿ™‚ But the best villains are, indeed, the ones who evoke empathy on their own, through their very characterizations.

      I have backstories for most of my characters greater than a walk-on, but your very insightful comment about a villain being the hero of his own story has made me consider all of them more carefully, as of this writing. And, it’s given me an idea for a new post! So, double thank you! ๐Ÿ˜€

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    • Thanks for stopping in, Kourtney!

      Yes, I think villains allow us to get in touch with our own darker sides. A safe way for me to live out all those black fantasies I had as a brooding teenager. LOL!

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