|Snidely Whiplash – Wrongdoer_by_pengabob|
Writing villains, writing ‘good’ villains, can be difficult, because even in reality not all villains see themselves as villains. In one of my books the villain definitely doesn’t see himself as the bad guy, he’s convinced that he’s doing the right thing. In another book, the concept of right or wrong simply doesn’t occur to him, he’s at best a sociopath and probably a psychopath, before there was a term for either.
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I’ve always seen myself as a pretty nice person, but a good villain requires the writer to put themselves inside the head of that kind of person.
When I wrote a particular character, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of him, but an even harder time trying to understand why people would follow someone like him. It was too easy to paint him as some unknowable individual, I wanted readers to understand him and those who went along with him. *laughing* It wasn’t until I watched an episode of Survivor that I really understood. The ‘villain’ there wasn’t truly a villain, and certainly didn’t see himself as this monomaniacal individual – which he was – and the people around him didn’t either. He was their social leader, and he was the means to reach the possibility of a million dollars. For both those reasons, they were willing to follow him.
It’s even harder, though, when the villain isn’t a villain, per se, but a product of his time or culture, as in my current work in progress. He does allow terrible things, but he excuses his actions by dehumanizing the people he harms, and he does it under the cloak of his own personal beliefs. He doesn’t see himself as the ‘bad guy’ – and there’s one of those, too, although he doesn’t see himself that way either – but justifies what he does because he doesn’t see the people he harms as being people, certainly not as people equal to those with him. That’s something we’ve seen time and again throughout history. And still see to this day.
Mean people may suck, but those who don’t think they’re mean suck even more.
Are tropes too trite?
For those of you who don’t know, a literary trope is the use of figurative language – via word, phrase, or even an image – for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works. For a time, old 70-80s TV programs had a list of standard tropes – the identical twin to one of the heroes, one of the heroes (there were only heroes then) goes blind, or develops amnesia.
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In fantasy one of the tropes is the young hero on a quest or becoming the savior of the world. In mystery novels it’s the lead characters problem with alcohol or love of esoteric music (especially jazz), and the uptight woman who melts for him but turns out to be the murderess. There’s also the Sherlock type hero, or the brilliant psychopath as the enemy.
In romance it’s the HEA or HFN (happily ever after or happy for now) ending, and the ‘misunderstanding’ or
downright deceptive hero who doesn’t tell the heroine something important.
That’s where I’m at right now. In my current WIP it just happens that the hero has a good reason for withholding information from the heroine… but it’s a commonly used trope, but it works for the book.
But has that trope been overused?
If you’re looking for character motivation, it doesn’t get any better than Survivor, whether it’s for villains or heroes writ large or small..
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Case in point, this last season.
If you ever want to know how cult leaders, Adolph Hitler or even the kids in the high school clique operate, just watch Coach.
Talk about a cult of personality. For forty days the charismatic sonofagun successfully managed to get his people to do anything he wanted even as he convinced them that Ozzie (another character) was the enemy.
Not one of them seemed to realize that the biggest obstacle to winning a million dollars was… Coach.
It went right down to the wire. Top three. The only thing Coach forgot was the people he was loading onto the jury.
It’s basic human nature on a small, intimate scale. Want to know why the good guys don’t win? Watch Survivor where the ‘good’ guys have only won once or twice – and usually by default. Although Ozzie played a cleaner, more honest game – actually sacrificing himself at one point in a very dramatic, and silly, move – it was Coach’s personal portrayal of himself as a ‘Christian man’ that kept him alive, no matter how many principles and people he sacrificed to accomplish it.
Want a petty character who’ll do anything to win/succeed/triumph, then watch Jon a few seasons back – who told everyone his grandmother had died just to gain votes. (His grandmother was very much alive.)
I remember one season where all the attention was on the two ‘big guys’, the muscle men, one of whom everyone liked and rightfully so. It came down to a contest of strength and endurance, loading bags of sand onto the contestants. Everyone expected it to come down to those two.
But it didn’t.
With quiet dignity and true courage, it was an attorney from Chicago who won, bearing up beneath the ever increasing bags of sand as both the big men fell by the wayside. Although he stood up for his team, no one noticed.
Even afterward the focus was on the two big guys failing, especially the popular one, and not the one who’d won the contest. He was voted off shortly later for being an ineffective leader, which he wasn’t. He just couldn’t overcome the cult of personality, the focus the network and the host had on another character. It’s one of the realities of life, the unsung hero.
BTW, he became the love interest in one of my novels. No, I’m not telling which one, you’ll have to read them and guess. The one that gets the answer right gets the series of their choice, free. (It’s an easy bet that most of you won’t get it right.)
Seriously, though, if you want to understand motivation, character and how people can justify even the most heinous actions, just watch Survivor. After a while, you’ll get it.
Even watching host Jeff Probst in action as he asks the questions at each tribal council is an education in and of itself. In a few moments he skillfully picks apart the fragile bonds between the tribe members, or exposes one person’s machinations against the others.
Although I understood the basic motivation of the characters in my current work in progress, especially the villain, a part of me that struggled with it. I’m not a follower by nature so I had trouble understanding how even basically good people could follow someone like him. Until I watched one of the people in the current Survivor.
Then I got it.
There’s an intrinsic human need to be liked that could be easily perverted, and was.
Survivor is a fascinating study in human nature. I can’t wait until next season.