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I haven’t done a craft post in a pretty long time. Mostly because I was too busy the first half of this year, but also because I just didn’t know what to write about next after The Perfect Story.
But I’ve been thinking about characterization lately. Because while plot and setting is always important it’s really the characters that people fall in love with.
I mean, I think this is true. You can have an amazing plot. It can be filled with many unexpected twists and turns and people will keep reading. And you can catch people’s attention with a great world too. But if you add in characters people fall I love with, that’s really when the magic happens in a story.
So I’m not saying that setting and plot aren’t important by any means. And I’ll probably write more about those two things in the future. But it all starts with the characters.
When I first started writing fiction I had a few characters I loved. And this is how I build my own characters. I look back on characters I fell in love with in a book and ask myself WHY.
Why do I love this character in this book and not that character in that book?
And there’s no right or wrong answer for this. Because each reader is an individual and chances are, if you write a good story your “weird, non-traditional” character will find an audience. It might not be a BIG audience, but people are drawn to things they relate to. And the world is big, and there are billions of people living on this planet, so there is someone out there who will appreciate your character.
I’m not going to talk about “formulas” for creating great characters because there is no formula. I think the definition of great starts with the words original, unexpected, and relatable.
There is no formula for that. It’s just… what you, yourself, think about those three qualities.
People always say “Write what you know.” I think this is great advice. When you write what you know it feels authentic. I mean, anyone can write a report about a place, or a person, or an event. Not everyone can weave those things into an original story. So if you write characters YOU relate to it will naturally come off as “authentic”. You still need to write well, that’s always a given. But authenticity goes a long way. People can tell.
Characters come in all shapes and sizes but they are almost always based off what we call “Stock characters”. These stock characters are sort of like tropes as far as plots go. And you can do a Google search for stock characters and get a “complete” list or go over to TV Tropes and get lost in that labyrinth of procrastination. So I’m not going to go through all of them in this post on characterization, just the ones I personally seem to be drawn to over and over again.
So my first post on characterization is…. THE VILLAIN.
Because you cannot write a spectacular hero/heroine without an exceptional villain. (I will use the word hero from now on to denote both male and female protagonists for simplicity’s sake).
And when I use the term villain I’m talking about a person or, if you’re writing SF/Fantasy/Paranormal, a human-like entity. Your villain could be a sentient AI, or a sentient spaceship in a SF book, or a demon in a horror or paranormal book, or whatever. I’m talking about an “individual” whatever that means for your story.
I’m not talking about internal conflicts or villains such as “Corporate America”, a dystopian society, or things like that. I’m not talking about groups. But, just FYI, if you’re going to make a group, or a society, or a city, or corporation your villain, you’re making them a character in the book and they need the same sort of characterization. If you’re going to do that, do it right and make your non-human-entity villain REAL.
For this post I’m going to pull three villains I love from pop culture. Hopefully you’ve heard of them and if you haven’t, and you find this post helpful, maybe you’ll pick up the book or movie I’m taking about and watch or read it.
My first example of a villain I LOVE is Zorg from The Fifth Element. I’m not saying Zorg is the epitome of a supreme villain, all I’m saying is that I loved Zorg. OK? That’s it. Write what you know. Write what you like. And I like Zorg so that’s why I’m using him as one of my examples.
WHY DO I LOVE ZORG?
1. Gary Oldman. He’s just a pretty great actor so number one is that the actor they chose to portray Zorg nailed it.
2. The character Zorg is ridiculous. In every way. The Fifth Element is a comedy, so the villain in a comedy, while still evil (he’s not Evil Zorg for nothing) is mostly about being funny in a ridiculous way. His hair is stupid, his outfit is stupid, he talks weird, he’s skinny, and looks pretty weak, and he has lots of faults.
3. Zorg is also bad-ass in his own way. He’s willing to blow everyone up to get what he wants. He will double-cross you in a blink. And he will punish any minions who step out of line. In short, he’s the comedic version of Darth Vader, but in my humble opinion, ridiculous Darth Vader is far more interesting than sinister and serious Darth Vader. Sure, real Darth Vader scares us. Especially if you saw the moves as a kid, like I did. Zorg doesn’t scare us. We can’t help but like him, and not in a I-respect-your-evilness kind of way, but a you’re-just-fucking-interesting kinda way.
4. IS THERE ANYTHING I’D CHANGE ABOUT ZORG? Yes. I’d give him more lines. I’d give him his own movie. I could watch Zorg all day long, he’s that entertaining. And while the movie has lots of stars in it (Bruce Willis is the hero) the real star of this movie is Milla Jovovich as Leeloo who will also pop up in another post about heroes because she’s one of my favorite heroes of all time too. Did I mention I love this move?
5. The writing is perfect, the jokes, while stupid, are spectacular, and the editing of Zorg interacting with the story and other characters is amazing.
6. He’s an amazing contradiction, which automatically makes him interesting to me.
So you might be asking yourself – Julie, why the fuck are you telling me about actors and editing when I write books, not screenplays? Because it’s the same thing. You can “edit” your book the way this movie was edited. It’s just jumping points of view in a way that’s unique, entertaining, and genius. And the editing builds Zorg’s character in such as way that it’s just perfect.
It’s just clever. And even though I’ve never in my life written a villain like Zorg, nor am I telling you to write a character like Zorg, understanding WHY I love him is important as a writer if I want to make my villains interesting.
I can point to almost every book I’ve ever written and say— this character is a contradiction, and this one too. And so is this one. I like a character who flips a well-known stereotype on it’s head. And Zorg is a shining example of that. So I took that with me when I started writing and I use it very chance I get.
My next pick for favorite villain is Takeshi Kovacs’s double clone in Richard K Morgan’s book, Woken Furies. Spoiler alert if you’re reading the Altered Carbon series after watching the TV series on Netflix. This is book three.
I’m not really into villains so my picks are a little weird. But they’re my picks. That’s all I can say. Like it or not, these are the characters who have influenced me.
WHY I LOVE DOUBLE CLONE TAKESHI?
1. He’s the villain version of my favorite anti-hero, Takeshi Kocavs #1
2. When we first meet Takeshi Kovacs in book one, Altered Carbon, he has grown weary of his life as an elite super soldier. He’s done. Not done killing people for money, just done doing it for an organization he no longer believes in. And by the time we get to book three he’s nothing but a “sneak assassin”. That’s the insult his double clone throws at him and even though it’s a stupid insult, it hits him. Because this villain is actually himself. His younger self, to be exact. His mind was stored in a database on his home world by the ruling elite a hundred and something years ago, so Takeshi Kocavs actually comes face to face with his younger self, who was sent to kill him, and has to face-up to all his mistakes, all his demons, and all his bad decisions because he can’t actually avoid it any longer. And yeah, he IS a stupid sneak assassin and no longer a super soldier. In fact, he’s killing people for revenge now, not money. But he still feels he’s a better version of himself than his younger self was. Even though they have the same job – kill people, fuck shit up, and feel nothing while he does it—it’s… not the same anymore. Who he is now is a conscious choice, who he was then felt more like a victim of circumstance. He feels… obligated to kill in this book. To set things right for someone who was wronged.
3. He also has to think like his former self to avoid being killed, which requires a lot of self reflection. And honestly, it’s like a bonus to get to see my favorite character before I met him.
4. I ask you—is there anything more clever than making your villain a younger version of of your hero? Or anti-hero, as the case may be. That answer is no, BTW.
5. I want to grow up to be as clever as Richard K Morgan. Because he blows my mind with his storytelling.
6. IS THERE ANYTHING I’D CHANGE ABOUT DOUBLE CLONE TAKESHI? Give him more lines. Make them interact more. More. More. More. So I guess the answer is no. Not a damn thing. Because if your readers biggest complaint is the they need more, you did everything right.
I can point to every book I’ve ever written and find some Takeshi Kovacs in there. Not just the double clone villain version, either. All of him influenced me as a writer. Every character I’ve written, from hero, to anti-hero, to villain has their roots in this character. This guy is as complex as they come and that’s why I write complicated characters. I love the long story, the tragic background, the anti-hero version of things. So this villain makes my top 3.
My third example of favorite villain is the artificial intelligence AIDEN from the book, Illuminae, by Koffman and Kristoff.
As I said, I’m not really into villains but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a great one. And AIDEN is as ruthless, as sick, as twisted a villain I’ve ever read about.
WHY I LOVE AIDEN THE AI
1. He’s not even human, and that’s his major fault, but he has these spectacular moments of humanity. Moments when he knows that killing thousands of people on a spaceship is the wrong thing to do morally, but the right thing to do to fulfill his objective of protecting the fleet. And he does that more than once in the series.
2. He’s the most ruthless villain I’ve ever read. And yet… I love him. I sympathize with him. I ROOT for him. I want him to find his humanity.
3. No matter how evil AIDEN is, there is always a more evil motherfucker out there coming for you. And if AIDEN has to be in your life, you might as well get him on your side.
4. Kaufman and Kristoff wrote him perfectly. Half mad scientist, half sympathetic child. You’re not sure which, you just know you can’t trust him. Not for a second. He will wipe you out and not even blink. BUT… he will save you too. And you need him to straddle this precarious line between evil and good perfectly or everyone and everything you hold dear will disappear. You, as the reader, are FORCED TO TRUST HIM.
5. IS THERE ANYTHING I’D CHANGE ABOUT AIDEN? No. Not one thing. You need all the bad to get all the good out of this character. I think I would read a book only about AIDEN. He is immortal, after all. I can’t help asking myself, “What will happened to AIDEN when all these humans that keep him in check are gone?” And that—holy shit. That’s a story right there. Will he grown into some benevolent king? Or devolve into an evil demon?
I don’t think I’ve tried to make a villain quite like AIDEN yet, but I have a story in mind where he will be a useful tool. And when it coms time to make that villain real I will pull many things out of AIDEN and use them to create a compelling evil nemesis for my story.
Are you seeing a pattern here? There is nothing I’d change about my three top villains. Not one thing. In my mind they are perfect. Hopefully when you look back on your favorite villains you will feel the same way.
And then when you sit down to write and have to make up a new villain, you will look back on the reasons you like them with your examples and pick out the parts that caught your attention, or blew your mind, or whatever it is you feel about them and put all that into the new character.
Make them real.
That is the point of stories, right? Make them so compelling the readers can’t distinguish between real and imaginary.
And I’m certainly not saying I’ve done this successfully with all my books. I mostly write romance and the point of the story isn’t the villain, it’s the hero. So in romance the villain is a little different. Unless you’re writing romantic suspense your villain will tend to walk the internal side of the fence. The characters will be battling themselves or their own preconceived notion of the relationship they’re trying to forge/get out of, and not AIDEN, or Double Clone Takeshi, or Zorg.
But… understanding WHY you love a character is important if you want to “write what you know” and make your stories feel more authentic.
DON’T BE SATISFIED WITH OK. I mean, no story is absolutely perfect, but every story you write should have some elements of perfection in it. Otherwise why write them? Oh, yeah. Money. Well, I’ll tell you something. If you write great stories people will buy them. Yeah, you still have to market and get your name out there, but what better way to get your name out there than to attach it to great stuff? It makes the whole thing a helluva lot easier when you believe in the story you’re telling people to read and not just trying to get their money into your bank account.
Thanks for stopping by. I’m planning on writing more of these post in the future but I don’t have a schedule for it. They will just pop up when I have the extra time to write them. So if you want to be notified every time a post goes up, just click that link below and follow this blog.