Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Villains and Not-Quite-Villains

The late, great Sid Fleishman said, “The stronger the villain, the stronger the story.” 

Some of the Project Mayhem bloggers have been touching on villains and heroes (click on the "Heroes & Villains in Middle Grade Literature" link down in the right-hand column for more posts). I thought I'd share some thoughts on villains and not-quite-villains.

Use Your Villain

On the surface, this may sound obvious. The whole point of a villain is to make your hero’s life difficult, right? But I’ve found that it’s sometimes easy to forget about the villain when you’re focused on the hero’s actions. The villain sets something in motion and then disappears.

If you get stuck in your writing and can’t figure out what happens next, try checking in with your villain. Is he sitting around, waiting for your hero to act? No! He should be actively trying to thwart your hero, plotting new complications and distractions. Realizing this can be the push you need to get past a slow spot.

I found this helpful for my middle grade historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh. The heroine, Seshta, had done everything she could to track down her missing friend. I couldn't think of a thing for her to do next. But she had tipped off the bad guy while hunting for him. When I realized that would mean the villain was actively plotting against her, I had the inspiration for several big action scenes leading to the dramatic climax.

Not every book has an actual villain, of course. But if you don’t have one, consider adding one. Even if it’s not necessary for the main plot, a villain could add drama as a subplot.

Example: In the Haunted series, each book’s main plot involves Jon and Tania trying to help the ghosts. In book one, I created a minor secondary character, a fake psychic who calls herself Madam Natasha. In The Riverboat Phantom, Madam Natasha figures out that Tania can see ghosts – something Tania desperately wants to keep secret. Madam Natasha uses the secret as a threat, as she demands that the kids share information about the ghosts and give her credit for helping them. In The Knight in the Shadows, the kids go to war with Madam Natasha, determined to expose her as a fraud. This is still secondary to trying to help the ghost, but it adds challenges and emotional drama.

Whether your villain is involved in the main plot or a subplot, he or she doesn’t have to be a diabolical evil genius. He can be a bully at school, a competitor on a sports team, a nasty boss, or even a manipulative sibling or friend. Whatever the “villain” is, his job is to make your hero’s life miserable.

Exercise: look over your work in progress. Do you have a major villain? If so, is the villain as active as possible, aggressively trying to stop, hurt, or kill your hero?

Do you have secondary characters with villainous tendencies? Can you enhance these, so they cause even more trouble?

If you have no villain at all, brainstorm ways to add one.

Villains should also be well-rounded. A villain with good qualities and understandable motives creates a more subtle and complex story. Why is the villain nasty? Are they actually evil, or ignorant, or do their goals just conflict with your hero’s?

Not Quite Villains

Every novel – and most short stories and picture books – will have secondary characters. In general, the longer the book, the more secondary characters you can fit. These can be family members, friends, teachers, aliens, mythical characters, or even pets. Some will be nice. Some will be annoying. Ideally, one or more should be trouble.

Even well-meaning secondary characters can make your main character’s life more complicated. When writing for children, parents are a natural for this role. They may simply want what they see as best for their child – but if that is opposed to what the child wants, it adds complications. These could be strong enough to form the main plot, or could simply be additional challenges the child has to face.

You could have a dad who wants his son to play football, while the son wants to join the band, or parents who don’t want their daughter to date yet, when she’s fallen in love. A parent may be an even greater challenge, if he or she is an alcoholic, seriously ill, or depressed. Then, of course, there’s the issue of a divorced or widowed parent dating!

Example: Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier (written as M.M. Eboch) is a fictionalized biography about the man who founded Hershey's chocolate company. Milton's father was a charming dreamer who had big – but not good – ideas. He was directly responsible for Milton’s businesses going bankrupt, more than once. Milton was only able to be a successful businessman when he learned to say no to his father.

Don’t forget friends, either! Friends can have their own agenda, use the main character for popularity or access to something or someone, or even secretly be trying to steal the main character’s love interest. Even good friends can give bad advice, be competing for a spot on a sports team or the school play, or have their own problems which act as a distraction.

Example: In The Genie’s Gift, heroine Anise makes a perilous journey to find the Genie Shakayak and get the Gift of Sweet Speech. She starts out with her best friend, Cassim. But when he falls into a trap and nearly gets them both killed, he’s so humiliated he acts like a jerk and demands they turn back. Anise takes off without him and has to make the rest of the trip on her own.

Exercise: go through your work in progress and list every secondary character who has a role beyond a few lines. Make a few notes on each one – what is their basic personality and role in the story? What do they want?

Then, for each secondary character, ask:

•    Could I develop this character more, to make him or her more complicated?
•    How could this secondary character be causing problems for my main character?
•    If the character is already causing problems, could they be even worse?

If you don’t have many secondary characters, consider adding some. What kind of character could add complications and drama? Make sure any new secondary characters fit smoothly into the plot, and don’t feel like they are just shoved in to cause trouble.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs.  Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. 


  1. You said it perfectly! "... it’s sometimes easy to forget about the villain when you’re focused on the hero’s actions." I have totally fallen into that trap. That's one reason I think (at least for me), it's important to jot down a character plot line. That way, I can see where I need to add more of my villain. Of course, this then threads within the overall plot, etc... Great post, Chris.

  2. What a comprehensive post! Off to share.

  3. Fantastic overview. I will be bookmarking this and working through the exercises.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!