Writing Villains. How to create the Best Baddies.

How can you write more effective bad guys? Give them a bigger sword? A more evil cackle? Or could the key to unlocking great villains be in your hero? Shock twist!

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, I’ve got to the point in the draft of this book when my traitor is about to be revealed and to be honest, the identity of this villain has ping-ponged back and forth in my head up to now. And it’s only really today I’ve got to know who they are that I’ve decided, yup, this is who it’s going to be. I’m glad to say I was surprised by the choice and that hopefully will translate into a nice surprise for the reader, too.

Of course, this means that for the next draft, I’ll have to go back and make sure it all makes sense and ensure that I leave just enough clues for the reader to allow them to add two plus to slap themselves on the forehead and realise that the answer was in front of them all along. Because that’s what you want from your readers. You want them involuntarily slapping themselves. It’s what all great writers aspire to. And what it did get me thinking about is what makes a good villain.

In earlier videos you will have heard me banging on about how theme is story fuel, how once you figured out what your central dramatic argument and theme is, you can use that to drive the protagonist’s story forward. If you’ve not seen that video, I’ll pop a link in the description below. Knowing what theme is really helps me whenever I get stuck. So for this novel, my theme is — and I always like to post theme as a question — are we better off working with others or alone?

It’s a simple question, but one that can’t be answered with a yes or no. Nothing too mind boggling, but good story fuel. And that question is what I challenge my protagonist Faye with in every chapter of this story. The funny thing is, listeners, this principle can also apply to writing your antagonist. Writing a good villain can be really tricky. You can spend so long focussing on the motives of your protagonist that when it comes to the villain, the temptation is to go, 

“Ah, whatever they just abadie dress them in black, make them do terrible things. The reader will get the idea. But there is a way to make your villains much more effective in a way that the reader will find a lot more satisfying. And it comes back to theme. So if your hero represents the thesis of a dramatic argument, your antagonist can represent the antithesis. In other words, your villain can be motivated by the opposite of your hero’s position on a theme.

So if I think of an example, in the case of my book, for example, if Faye thinks she can achieve her goals by working with others, the antagonist might do better by working alone. They might have had a terrible experience working in a team, and have struck out solo to get revenge. Also, having a thematic motivation will add a dollop of dimension to your villain that might just appeal to the reader and your hero. So the hero can’t just walk away from the villain because the baddy’s argument might at some point tempt our hero to jump ship to the other side.

The theme is a connection between the two of them that will make for compelling reading. So they might they might be a mirror of our hero and share many of their values. You see this in a lot of romances, so Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for example. The villain could be a dark shadow. Darth Vader is exactly what Luke Skywalker might become if it gives in to his anger. Or they might even be their own worst enemy. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

There’s countless ways of playing with this, but whatever direction you choose to go in, if you try and make you heroes and villain connect thematically, it will be a much more satisfying experience for you and the reader. Of course, this is all much easier said than done, and I now need to figure out how to make this work in my book. Wish me luck. Any questions on this? Is there anything you’d like me to cover in future videos? Drop me a line or leave a comment below. Until next time, happy writing.

Writing Tipping Points and How to make your Scenes Work Harder

Each scene or chapter in your story should have some kind of tipping point where a decision is made. How can you use these to make give your characters more agency and drive the story?

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’m now about halfway through the first draft of the third Witches of Woodville book, and I’m still in that muddy middle, that middle act where it’s so important that we writers try not to get too bogged down by wondering what happens next. In previous videos I’ve talked about using theme as story fuel and writing with urgency so as not to bore the reader. And today I want to talk about the tipping points of scenes. And I was recently reading about this in John Badham’s book “On Directing”.

Badham is the director of such classic films as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout, The Hard Way. A really great director. And this book is a cracking read. I’ve no ambitions to direct film. I’ve directed short films many years ago, and have some idea of just how all consuming directing a feature film is. But as a writer, I like to get different perspectives on the creative process and this one’s been a really refreshing read. And in here, Badham talks about how he and the actors will often look for the tipping point of a scene.

He defines it as the most important dramatic moment in a scene. It’s the moment where, like  a seesaw, the situation can tip in favour of one character or another. However, unlike a seesaw where the tipping point is usually in the middle, the tipping point of a scene comes very close to the end as the dramatic argument comes to a peak. And these dramatic arguments don’t have to be major turning points every time in the story. It can be something as simple as deciding where to go for coffee.

What is important is that the characters — and most often your protagonist — is the one making those decisions and driving the story. From the perspective of a director like Badham and the actors that he works with, they’ll spend time looking for the tipping point in the scene in order to underpin that moment. Now, for a film director, that means close ups, or making it clear to the viewer that an important decision is being made. It’s also important for them to identify the tipping point because after that decision has been made by the character… the scene is done. Decision made. Onto the next scene.

That’s not to say the tipping point should be rushed. Badham quotes the writer-director Elia Kazan, who says, “One thing I always do, and I think that’s important in film, is to stretch climaxes.” So don’t feel you have to rush these things. I mean, one extreme is… How many comedies you’ve seen where a character will argue over something, say, “I’m not going on a date with him. I’m definitely not going on a date with him. You can’t make me go on a date with him.”

There’s a beat. You can feel the tipping point as a decision is about… to… be… maaaaaaade. And then you cut to that same person on a date with “him”. And that’s how close to the end a tipping point can be. Coming back to Kazan’s remark about stretching climaxes. Think of all those spaghetti westerns where the gunslingers face off… Staring at one another, slowly reaching for their guns, waiting for someone to make a move. That’s really great tension, really gripping.

And you can have great fun drawing that out for as long as you can. So how does this help you as a writer? Well, first of all, it can really help you with your editing. If you’ve got a scene that’s running too long, then look for a potential tipping point to get out early. Or your scene might be missing a tipping point. Which case does it need one? Can you add one? Or does the fact that it doesn’t have a tipping point make the scene redundant?

Also, try and think of your entire story as a dramatic argument with a tipping point. The central dramatic argument — that’s the theme of your story —  shouldn’t be resolved until the very end. Once it is, the story’s over. Roll credits. Turn the page. The end. I hope you found that useful. And until next time, happy writing.

Writing with Urgency, or How not to bore the reader…

The middle act of a story is where it can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page?

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. As discussed last week, I’m still in the middle act of this novel, still in the muddy middle, and this is where a story can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page? I mean, part of the problem is our characters might not want to change. They might want everything just to stay the same, keep the status quo. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for them to want.

But you, the author, have to be an Old Testament God and make it so that they don’t have any choice but to take action and change. Sometimes we can love a protagonist so much we don’t want any harm to come to them. Stuff that. Make their lives hell and do it with a big grin on your face. It’s often only by testing these characters that we really come to love them. We tell stories about people and those stories are about change.

A story where a character overcomes challenges to become a different person is often the most satisfying. Even in a series where the protagonist doesn’t change fundamentally — say a detective series where they’re solving different crimes with each story — that will have some important element of their personality challenged by the kind of crime they’re solving. Change is an essential element of both story and character. So ask yourself whose story is this and how do they change? And also that thing of keeping the status quo isn’t wanting nothing.

It’s a desire to keep things as they are. A stable, safe life, which is totally understandable, but it must be challenged, otherwise why are we reading this story? So, for example, once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, didn’t do anything, stayed the same. The end. Contrast that with Once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, but something threatened that happiness. And so they had to take steps to preserve that happiness.

But in the course of doing so, made discoveries that created a new balance and a new happiness in their life. The end. There’s also a crucial difference between an active and reactive protagonist. One seeks a change in their life and goes looking for a solution, and the latter has change thrust upon them and has no choice but to change. And one of the most important elements for a protagonist is agency, that is they are the ones who, when things go awry, do the difficult thing and make decisions that will mean there’s no turning back.

They can have mentors who advise them. But in the end, it’s the protagonist who takes action. Of course, this all comes with a big, chunky caveat. What I’m talking about here is very much a Western, European, Hero’s Journey, Monomyth way of storytelling. For contrast, if you look at stories from, say, Asian cultures, it can be very different and makes for really compelling storytelling. There’s a couple of wonderful Twitter threads by the brilliant writers, Malinda Lo and Aliette De Bodard on this.

Malinda’s thoughts on this: https://twitter.com/malindalo/status/1182265991243403265

Aliette’s thoughts: https://twitter.com/aliettedb/status/1085310575113134081

I hope that was useful and until next time. Happy writing.

First Drafts… What needs to be right, and what can I fix later?

Is it okay if the first draft of your novel or screenplay is a little rough? I like to think so. Here are few tips that will help you get to the end of a messy first draft, not least the one thing you should try and get right first time…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, when writing a first draft, is it OK if it’s, well… a little rough? I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how to do it any other way. My first drafts are rough as sandpaper. And long ago I came to terms with the fact that I’ll probably rewrite a novel or script at least three, four or five times before it’s anything like as good as it needs to be. If this sounds like you, then rest assured you are not alone.

In over three hundred episodes of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I’ve interviewed two, maybe three authors who are happy with their first drafts. The rest of us have to put up with the poor, wretched Frankenstein’s monsters that we will create out of pain and suffering. Here’s a question: with the first draft, what needs to be right and what can be fixed later? Well, what needs to be right? Well, none of it, really. I mean, it can be a complete disaster.

There’s a reason that first drafts are called — and apologies if you’re eating — first drafts are sometimes called vomit drafts. So please don’t overburden your first draft with your expectations. Nobody’s first draft will read like a published novel. The sooner you accept this, the more liberating it will be for your writing. I mean, I still stop myself and fix typos as I go, which is one of the reasons I’m writing more and more by hand, actually, because I scrub it out.

But if you can just burn through, and not look back, the chances of you finishing that first draft increase exponentially. You might be big outliner, but don’t feel that you need to slavishly stick to an outline, as that can create all sorts of problems, not least shoehorning your protagonist into situations simply because the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat says so. Permit yourself the flexibility to change your story when writing. Be open to the story opportunities that will emerge as you get to know your characters.

So I’m currently working through my first draft of my next book now, and there are things that change and evolve in the characters in the story. And the temptation to go back and fix them now is really overwhelming. But… experience tells me that’s a rabbit hole that creates more problems than it solves. If you start tinkering with stuff back there, then you start second guessing stuff that you haven’t written yet, and you end up being dragged into a swirling vortex of despair.

And no one needs that. Not these days, especially. I simply leave myself a little note in the comments and I’ll focus on fixing it in the next draft, because my priority is to finish this first draft, because nothing is more important at this stage than finishing a draft. I can make fixes on the next pass to the one after that or the one after that.

Or… You get the idea. However, if you want to concentrate on one thing and get that right first time round, make it your protagonist. Your entire story hinges on their journey. So if you haven’t figured out what they want and how the journey would change them, then maybe take a second to suss that out. Start with the simple stuff. How do they start the story and how they change by the end? Some of you out there will have heard me say this a million times before, and I’m quoting screenwriter Craig Mazin here.

But if you can figure out how your protagonist goes from “this” to “the opposite of this”, then you have the through line and central dramatic argument of your story.

Now, of course, there are authors out there who write painstaking first drafts that are as good as ready for publication, but they are rare as hen’s teeth. So if you think your first draft is ace. Fantastic. Good for you. But please don’t be discouraged if you feel your first draft is lacking. I think 90 percent of writers out there will be with you in solidarity. You are not alone. I hope that was helpful. Happy writing. See you again soon.