Some time ago I read a draft of a story written in the point of view of the villain. Let me say upfront that I was entirely judging this character to be in the wrong, and I wanted to explore the character’s actions. I wanted to consider the story from her perspective.
The author began with an objective voice. It was great…for the first few paragraphs. Then something happened and my interest waned. I closed the book. Later, I asked myself, “Where did that story go wrong? It started out promising!”
It doesn’t matter which character’s eyes I’m seeing the story through; for a bad guy to be, well, good, I need some questions answered.
1. When I meet Cruel Bob, I will ask him,
“What’s Your Last Name?”
There’s a scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where the guy, named Guy, knows he’s going to die because he has no last name. He panics because he has no hobbies, no love interest, no back story, nothing. He knows he’ll be the first to go. As Captain James Hook would say, this is “bad form” for any villain who is going to be around for a while.
Leroux’s Phantom was given great context, both in the revelation of his past and in his residence under the Opera House. [Scan of still of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) () [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Cruel Bob’s a cardboard character (aka, the two-dimensional chump) who needs context, or he won’t matter to me. I want to know his temperament, his tendencies, his surroundings–anything that will help me understand who he is right when I meet him. I want to relate to him, if only to roundly hate him.
Even a drunken, violent character has his times when I can see the struggling person inside. The manipulative liar has his weak moments, when I see his doubts creep in. He’s still the bad guy, but a bad guy with a human element.
2. I will ask that devious Madame Vitriol,
“What’s Your Problem?”
In real life, it would be much easier if people would go around with “bad guy” and “good guy” signs, but in reality everyone chooses what he/she will be. They have a past and a reason for doing what they do. It’s often the motivation from their past that helped create their present path. We all have a motive. What is the catalyst for your baddie’s behavior?
The scene where Willoughby cuts off a lock of Marianne’s hair. John Willoughby was by nature a man moved by the moment, and by nurture he could afford to live recklessly. [By Hugh Thomson. (A scan from the book Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
For a writer, motives become characters in themselves. A trickster can make a bad motive look like it’s good, and, sometimes, even a character with a good motive can behave in a bad way. So, tell me about those interesting events early on in Madame’s life that changed her. This helps me to better understand her and want to keep reading.
3. Then I will ask Mr. Eville von Furioso,
“Do You Come With Commentary?”
There are characters who are clearly wrong in what they do and think, but an author who uses the narrative to harp on this is really doing the reader a disservice. The story I mentioned at the beginning of the post is a good example. The author didn’t keep the objectivism. The emotion welled up before my eyes as the lines progressed. At first, the character waited patiently, set things in order, considered the merits of her work, etc. Then the phrases and words changed. Her ‘lip curled in disgust,’ she ‘ordered,’ and she ‘demanded.’ The author’s perspective took over the story.
I don’t want to be told your baddie is cruel, manipulative, delusional, misguided, or fiendish. This isn’t persuading me, it’s hitting me over the head with a thick Board of Obvious. What if each book drew a bright highlighter through the bad guy’s every action by using adjectives with negative connotations? What if each encounter with that character was weighted down with biased phrases? A good story should give me the pieces to help me draw that conclusion for myself.
In life I have to exercise my critical thinking skills to protect myself because the world has some people who are not nice living in it. Those who have the greatest influence on the way I think are the ones I’ve come to know personally. When I meet a real, living mean person, who is sometimes warmly sympathetic and sometimes cold and heartless, I have to learn to see past emotions and realize when that person is doing something wrong.
The book characters who mimic real-life people are the ones with whom I become emotionally attached. Mr. von F can’t resonate if he comes with the author’s complimentary “view my character this way” specs. I won’t remember him. So, please, leave the Board of Obvious at home and help me work my way through Eville’s schemes organically.
Being a fan of the character-based novel, I’m looking for a good bad guy. He/She must have (1) Context, (2) Motive, and (3) No Complimentary Commentary. I’m not saying the world would be a better place if authors did this, but I can think of a few books that would be better books.