Very Young Writers: What Characters Do

Hello again, VYWs (and all other writers)!

This is totally unrelated, but  do you remember Ship’s Log by Brandis, that little Alen’s War fanfic I wrote (except it’s canon because I wrote it and I’m the author)? Well, school is done, and I finally wrote part two on Figment. Go check it out.

Now, let’s talk for a minute about characters. You probably know by now that I like ranting about what makes a good or bad character, but writers rarely talk about the basics. However, the question is worth asking: what jobs should characters do in a story?

That depends on many things. Characterization has a lot of sub-categories and requirements, and not every character adheres to every one of those requirements (after all, sometimes we break the rules).  There is so much more to writing characters than I can put down here… but it can be simplified. You can find a few components in almost every single character ever written, and those components just depend on what role the character plays in the story. For now, let’s look at the two most basic roles: the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Protagonist (usually, the good guy)

The protagonist is the main character (who is probably also the hero and your viewpoint character). A protagonist should do three things:

  1. Be likeable
  2. Work to reach a goal
  3. Have a “eureka!” moment where they discover the truth

Now for some explanation. Being likeable just means that readers have to like the character; otherwise, they won’t stick around to see what happens to him. A good example is Gru from Despicable Me (who isn’t actually a good guy!). He may be a cruel, mastermind-y sort, but he’s likeable because he wants to prove himself to his mom and, later, to his little girls. That’s something with which we can all identify.

Having a goal means that the protagonist doesn’t sit around and do nothing, but stands up and tries to get the thing that she wants. For example, Heidi (of Heidi fame, obviously) has one goal: to make people’s lives better, and she works toward it no matter where she is. She makes friends of the goatherd Peter, encourages Clara to learn to walk, and brings her grandfather back to God. As a reward for working toward her goal, Heidi ends up with a group of lifelong friends.

The “eureka” moment is a scene that happens somewhere between the middle and the ending of the story, when the protagonist has to realize the truth she has been missing all this time. Rapunzel from Tangled is a good example. She thinks her dream was to discover what the real world is like, but at last she realizes that she was really searching for her true family all along. And she finds it, with the king and queen and with Flynn/Eugene.

Antagonist (usually, the bad guy)

An antagonist, usually a villain, has a few different requirements:

  1. Be understandable
  2. Cause trouble for the protagonist
  3. Be a different version of the protagonist

Being understandable means that while we don’t necessarily have to like the bad guy (although likeable bad guys are fun too), we should understand why he does what he does. For example, nobody actually likes the Elvenking from The Hobbit book. He’s generally nasty and not very helpful to Thorin and Company. But we do understand why the Elvenking wants Thorin’s gold: he thinks that the dwarves of the Mountain had stolen some gems from him, and he wants them back.

Causing trouble means that the antagonist’s goal is totally opposed to the protagonist’s. For example, in the movie Brave, Queen Elinor (who is an antagonist, but not really a bad guy) wants Merida to marry into one of the clans to preserve peace. That’s opposite to what Merida wants, namely, to stay single and let her hair flow in the wind as she rides through the glen firing arrows into the sunset. (Did you see what I did there??) Neither of those goals is absolutely wrong or absolutely right, but they are completely opposite to each other. This is what causes the conflict.

Being a different version of the protagonist means that the antagonist should be like the hero in some way, only gone wrong. This is a little harder to do, but it adds depth to a story. Star Wars is a spectacular example. Luke and Anakin both have the chance to be the Chosen One, the one who would restore balance to the Force. They both save the galaxy multiple times, they both train as Jedi with Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi… they even use the same lightsaber. But Anakin chooses the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader, while Luke chooses to do the right thing. Same character type, different decisions- like two sides of a coin.

So that sums it up.

There are many more ways to characterize the protagonist and antagonist (like backstory ghosts, character moments, and quirks) and many more kinds of characters (like antiheroes, impact characters, and love interests), and obviously I can’t list them all here. But the protagonist and antagonist are a good start. Characterization is complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, your characters should seem real enough for the reader to go on the journey with them, and if these lists of three components help you do that, awesome.

Now get back to writing!

Top 10 Villains

villains-button

Last week, gretald tagged me for the Top 10 Villains post. With cheering and trumpets moderate excitement, I now accept. And, Greta, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, thag you very buch.

So here are the rules. (Because what is fun without rules?)

  1. Post the button.
  2. Thank the blogger who tagged you.
  3. List your top ten favorite villains (they can be from movies or books).
  4. Tag ten other bloggers.

I will probably end up breaking #4, but so did Greta, so I am not too concerned about that one. One more thing you should know is that I am terrible at making “top ten” lists like these, as my favorite kind of anything tends to change weekly. I will probably reread an old favorite book next week and smack myself for not putting that particular bad guy on this list… but here it goes anyway. In no particular order, here are my top ten villains of all time.

Spoilers will necessarily follow…

Morgoth from The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

If you see this guy on the street… run. Just run.

Tolkien knows how to write Dark Lords. As bad as we thought Sauron was, his boss Morgoth is even worse.  He is evil personified. Dragons? Spiders? Balrogs? Torture chambers? You name it, he has it. Darth Vader and the Emperor have nothing on this guy- and he is dead set against the free peoples of Middle-earth. He is the villain, and he wants Silmarils! (history geek reference)

Richard from King Richard III (William Shakespeare)

“Villains, set down the corse; or, by Saint Paul, I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.”

Leave all historical debates aside on this one; Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard is terrifying. Hunchbacked and hated, Richard believes that his only chance of fulfillment lies in the throne of England. A terrifying yet understandable villain drawn from English history? Duh, yes. Besides, I appreciate his dark sense of humor, which is much like my own.

Gru from Despicable Me (2013)

“Pause for effect…”

I’m chuckling evilly to myself as I type this. I. Love. This. Guy. He’s been equipped with gadgets and weapons and cool cars, more dark humor, a bizarre accent, many layers of complexity, and backstory which never fails to elicit an “aww, poor Gru.” Plus, he is one of those few sympathetic INTJs like me. So he doesn’t exactly play the role of Bad Guy in the story, but this a list of “villains,” not “antagonists.” He deserves a place with the best of the best.

Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

And he loves games!

What can I say? Gollum is simply adorable, and half the time he’s nothing worse than a Stinker. All he ever wanted was his Precious. I think we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Gollum sometimes: we all want to do good, but we have to fight with our darker side to do it.

Brian de Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)

Hey- there is a movie?

You cannot possibly understand the depths of my hatred for de Bois-Guilbert. The overweening Templar tries to seduce and then abuses the Jewish girl Rebecca while she is a prisoner in his buddy’s castle, only desisting when the house is burned to the ground. And even then he drags her off into the forest so that Ivanhoe can’t get at her. What sort of horrible person does that?

Loki from Thor (2011)

It seems he has an affinity for glowing blue things.

As overrated as the film itself may be, Loki is a believable, even sympathetic baddie. He starts out as a friendly little brother, and then his world is shattered by the news that he will never be a king, only “the monster that parents tell their children about at night.” You might say he was just a victim of bad parenting- even if the horns and super glowstick are a bit much.

Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman Begins (2005)

I recently discovered Christopher Nolan’s film. Let us just say that I now have another favorite movie.

Ninja swords, tragic backstory, and Liam Neeson. ‘Nuff said.

Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

FYI, finding a picture of this guy isn’t the easiest task in the world.

Ugh, just thinking about wicked Simon Legree makes me shudder. I hate him for all the reasons I hated de Bois-Guilbert, except that no chivalrous knights stopped him from destroying the lives of two young girls and killing his other slaves. No wonder Stowe’s novel had such an impact in the 1800s; Legree is one character that you can never forget.

Baroness de Ghent from Ever After (1998)

She had a snazzy sense of fashion, too.

I hated the stepmother from the original Cinderella because she was so irrationally evil, but I loathe the Baroness even more because she has reasons for being so terrible. Her husband died and left her with a headstrong daughter who threatens the wellbeing of her own children. Who wouldn’t turn a little bit nasty about that? And she is indeed nasty. Sometimes it almost seems as if she wants to love Danielle as a daughter, but she suppresses that tenderness and instead punishes the girl as a wicked servant.

Scar from The Lion King (1994)

Scar is not impressed. He is never impressed.

As terrible as it sounds, I identify a little bit with Scar- that is, his cynical humor, meticulous mind, and unforgettable lines. He is never at a loss for words and always has a plan. And of course he is evil; Scar has no qualms about wreaking havoc on the whole kingdom so that he can take over it. Just like Richard III, and Loki, and Morgoth, and Gru… maybe I do have a favorite kind of villain after all.

Now for the tags. I don’t know many other bloggers who do villain posts, but, like Hans, I will do what I can.

Finally, if you are a blogger and want to take the tag, go right ahead- just let me know so that I can read about your top ten villains. Let’s see what y’all come up with. 🙂