Dear Fellow Writers: No Man Is an Island

Did you enter the eBook giveaway yet? It’s still open, and you can enter as many times as you like, so be sure to jump in! Now, enjoy my latest missive. 

nomanisland

Dear fellow writers,

I need your help.

We’re in a war. This is the age of information, and books are written quickly and in huge quantities. Every week my phone notifies me of hundreds of new books to browse in the Kindle store; and that is just in the electronic library. Humanity has been writing since practically the beginning of time, and people keep producing new stories at a viral rate.

We writers are tempted to view the other authors as the competition. Like generals, we scour the Kindle store to see how we can maneuver our own small army of books and gain more ground. Fairytale retellings are the in-thing now? I must write one so I have a chance of survival! J.K. Rowling wrote another novel? Great, now no one will buy my books!

Those are first-person pronouns because I am guilty. When I saw other authors writing books and publishing them, I felt threatened. After all, that only increases the number of books for readers to choose and lowers the probability that they will pick mine. The war for authorship was raging, and I was losing.

Recently, though, I realized that I was wrong.

I can only write a book a year- possibly two when I graduate from college- but readers collect hundreds annually to grow their minds and imaginations. I usually write in speculative genres, but readers want things like historical fiction and thrillers so that they can make sense of our crazy world. I cannot write a decent love story to save my life, but readers search the romance section to find out what true love is. They need it, and I can’t give it.

The truth is, fellow writers, that the war is against lies, not other writers. Face it- there’s a lot of trash on the market right now, and I just can’t provide enough truth to combat the cultural lies. Couples want to know what to do about an unwanted pregnancy; how can I tell them loudly enough that there’s a third person involved? People want to know if marriage is really no more than two people who love each other; how can I reach them with news of the picture of Christ and the Church?

Thus, we truth-writers are all warriors in the same fight, and we are all in the same army. Especially if we are Christians, every other book by a new or indie author has everything to do with our ministries. A successful book is a victory for us all, and a book that no one reads is a wound to us all. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. No lone writer can fight the war alone. Not even Tolkien, the supreme commander of all fantasy writers could do that, so he had the Inklings. Thanks to that little band of writers, we have masterpieces like The Lord of the Rings and The Space Trilogy.

However, writers have a platform. I say it time and again until people are sick of hearing it: people who won’t listen to a sermon will listen to a story. This is why it makes me sick to hear people say that writing isn’t a real job or that English isn’t a real degree. Legislatures changed the laws on slavery, but it was the writers who first convinced people that those slaves were human beings. Money isn’t the idea here. Writers have more to live for; we are the among the ranks of those who change the world.

Now I’m asking all of us writers to unite. We need more Inklings clubs, more writing circles, more collaborative blogs. We need more indie authors and traditional publishers, teen writers as well as sixty-somethings. We need truth tellers, Christians, and brave warriors, who are authors.

Let’s stop fighting each other about who wrote the best fantasy book of 2016. Let’s start fighting the lies that dragons don’t exist and can’t be beaten.

Sincerely,

Hannah A. Krynicki

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Why That Movie Wasn’t a Failure

I’ve been confused for some time about the complaints of Star Wars fans of The Force Awakens. You have probably heard them…

“That’s not a story; that’s a pitiful fraction of a story.”

“There wasn’t enough character development!”

“How can I understand this story? The movie raised more questions than it answered.”

http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?page=2&t=2139356

But the people who say these things really mean them. These are die-hard Star Wars geeks who were anticipating another good movie, but somehow J.J. Abrams didn’t meet their expectations. They aren’t trolls; they are disappointed fans.

I knew from day one that these arguments had some underlying logical problem, but I could not pinpoint what that problem was, nor why people seemed to think their complaints were legitimate. And the dichotomy wasn’t limited to Star Wars. People might well have blurted the same things about The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit trilogies, but that wouldn’t have made sense, either. Somehow I knew that the “half-story” arguments were true for some trilogies and not for others. But why?

Then it struck me: there are two kinds of trilogies, with completely different functions and rules. I call them the triplet and the triad.

The Triplet: Three Stories in Three Parts

In music, a triplet is three notes in a row, one after another. They are all equal in that each gets a third of a beat, but otherwise they are distinct notes. They might have different tones, they might vary in loudness, or some might be played staccato and the others legato; they all give off a different sound. They are three separate notes. Yes, actually, I am a part-time music teacher. How did you know?

Some trilogies are like triplets. They are all linked together somehow- maybe having the same characters, setting, or theme- but each movie or book in the triplet is a complete story by itself. Often these trilogies begin with one wildly successful story that inspires the author to make more.

The first Star Wars trilogy is a good example of a triplet. A New Hope was originally intended to be a stand-alone film, but its monstrous success led to two sequels (and, unfortunately, three prequels). In keeping with the first film, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi were both written so that they could also be stand-alones. Each film has the same characters, but each one tells a different story about those characters.

The Chronicles of Narnia is another example of a triplet- or septuplet, in this case. The first book written was, in fact, the second in the series: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis wanted to write stories for the children who came to stay with him during the Luftwaffe raids on London, so he drew inspiration from history, mythology, and his own childhood games. Each book centers on the world of Narnia, but aside from that, every book has a different story.

The Triad: One Story in Three Parts

In music, a triad is three notes played at the same time. We sometimes call it a “chord.” Each of these notes has a different tone, but they work together to form a single sound. If you take even one of the notes away, the triad is no longer a complete triad.

Triads are like the other kind of trilogies. Each movie or book in the triad tells only a fraction of the story, and when you take each part together, you get one complete story. Granted, in some triads, each story might possibly be able to stand on its own (like An Unexpected Journey in The Hobbit trilogy), but this is not usually the case. Most of the time, each part gets only one act, which doesn’t make a whole story. Its job is to set up the story and conflict, introduce characters, ask questions, and draw people in for Act II. You can usually tell triads apart from triplets by looking for a climatic moment followed by a resolution that answers every question. If the big showdown has not happened and nobody has won for good, then the story isn’t over yet.

This is the case with The Force Awakens. We are introduced to a new problem- the First Order and Kylo Ren- and a set of new characters. We learn to ask questions: Does Rey get trained as a Jedi? What will become of Finn now? Where did they both come from? Can Kylo Ren ever turn good? The storytellers can drop as many hints as they like, but it isn’t time to answer the questions yet. Thus, folks like me have no choice but to be hopelessly interested in the story.

The Lord of the Rings is also a triad. The Fellowship of the Ring only contains the first act of the story, and though it leaves us crying as Frodo and Sam make the tough decision to simply walk into Mordor, yet we are still left with questions. So we are drawn into the theater each December to find out what happens in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Now hopefully you can see why the “underdeveloped story” arguments about the newest Star Wars film don’t make sense from a storytelling perspective. Expecting a full story from The Force Awakens is like me watching The Fellowship of the Ring and then refusing to watch the next two movies because not all of my questions were answered. Well, of course Frodo didn’t get to Mordor, and of course Aragorn didn’t save Minas Tirith; those things don’t happen until Act III in The Return of the King. And I haven’t even met some prominent characters like Gollum, Eowyn, and Faramir. If I really want to have my questions answered, I should stick around until the final act.

So why don’t people recognize this fundamental difference at once? I think it’s because the The Force Awakens was dangerously close to being a carbon copy of the original Star Wars movie. The original was a whole story; naturally, fans had a subconscious expectation that the new movie would be the same, and they were disappointed to get only one act. For me it was different. Not being around for Star Wars in the seventies and eighties, I was blessed to go see this movie without those expectations.

All in all, I learned two things from the Star Wars trilogy discussion. One, fans ought to keep their trilogy categories straight, because mixing them up is unfair to the writers; and two, writers must not try to copy a different kind of trilogy, because that is unfair to the fans. If J.J. Abrams and all other Star Wars fans had kept triplets and triads separate, more people might have enjoyed The Force Awakens for what it was: one piece of a larger story.

And, after this discussion, I hope that you will learn to enjoy your favorite triplets and triads even more.

Have you ever heard of the differences between the two kinds of trilogies? What are your favorite triplets and triads? 

Also, I’ll be doing a Q&A series on self-publishing soon, but first I need your questions! If you wonder about any aspect of indie publishing, comment and ask me.

The Fall of Fashionable Platonism

Note: I will say a few things in this article with which you may disagree. If at any time your feelings are hurt by anything I say, feel free to click the red “x” box in the top right of your browser. It will make the offending text go away. Thank you.

Frodo and sam

Well. So far, the twenty-first century has been a remarkable one. We have witnessed the rise of stupidity on a level rarely seen since the days of the Roman Empire. We have seen the downfall of common sense as proved by this court case and mindless outrage as in this story, and soon we may even see a megalomaniac elected as the primary leader of our nation. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Much madness is divinest sense.”

But this lack of circumspection isn’t limited to the stage of politics. No, fellow writers, we have officially seen the downfall of platonism in fiction. Allow me to prove it. I just did a quick Bing search for keywords “frodo and sam,” and six out of fourteen links had to do with whether their friendship was more than a friendship.

Six out of fourteen.

Okay, people. Anybody who knows the first thing about Tolkien knows that he would stand staunchly against homosexuality and other such unnatural relationships. Tolkien was a boldly conservative Roman Catholic with strong evangelical ideas that he didn’t hush up. If he really would go so far as to deny everything the Bible and the contemporary English culture said about homosexuality, he would have shouted his opinion from the rooftops of Rohan and Gondor. Believe me, if any of his characters was gay, it would be obvious, as in the case of Baron Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s Dune. (If you don’t believe that, go re-read the chapter where he made a woman defeat the witch-king.) No way around it; Frodo and Sam were friends and nothing more.

Quick definition: friends (frendz)- people who show loyalty to each other on the basis of mutual affection. 

At this point, a lot of readers may claim that it was the fault of Tolkien and other authors for not being clear enough about the difference between agape, philos, and eros in their fiction. They might even cite a prestigious quote like this one:

Don’t write simply to be understood. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood. -Robert Louis Stevenson

But these people are again reading themselves into the text. While Stevenson does make a good point about how writers should be able to write properly, we should never take this guideline out of context. He was referring to word choice- choose a strong, vivid word over a vague, passive one that leaves people bewildered. He was not talking about illiteracy that supports certain lifestyle choices. The person who would twist Stevenson’s words to that extent has no right to call him/herself a reader.

Even if Tolkien had failed to spell out the most important concepts in his books (which is an utterly outlandish claim), it is the fault of the reader, not the writer, for reading a bias into the story. No author can possibly anticipate and dispel every single lie that might be perpetrated about their work. It is the author’s job to write well and expect that readers will read well.

Yet people often don’t allow themselves to understand. If they want to believe something, they will believe it, even if it means ignoring the truth. Think about it: conservationists could always say that “The Mark on the Wall” is a satirical censure of graffiti and other defacing of natural landmarks, or abortionists can insist that “A Modest Proposal” was meant to be taken literally. Frankly, I’m surprised that nobody has tried either of those approaches yet. But none of these claims actually makes it the truth; indeed, anyone with basic comprehension skills can understand that the authors had no such intent in mind.

I may make jokes about how I’m afraid that people will ship my characters, but that is true to some extent. I am honestly nervous about any of my books becoming popular because I don’t want to think about the day when readers insist that the relationship between Elkay and Ramilon was anything but platonic. I never intended it to be more than a friendship, but some people will always try to twist my words. And that is not fair.

At the end of the day, I am calling everyone out- myself included. Don’t read yourself or your opinions into a book that is talking about something completely different. I promised myself a long time ago that I would not juxtapose Christianity, pro-life, or any of my other beliefs into a book written to support other ideas, and I know that everyone would certainly support that commitment. Well, they must get rid of the double standard, and keep their ideas out of my book. If someone really need to find support for one’s choices in a fictional work, they ought to go find someone who writes pro-gay fiction. But never come whining to me or to Tolkien for it.

No matter what our worldviews, I think that we can agree this far: we all should be able to say what we like without readers twisting our words. Read what the author wrote, not what you want to hear. And if no author has yet written what you want to read… then just write it yourself.

Have you seen the downfall of platonic reading? Why do you think it is happening? Can we writers stop it?

Top 10 Villains

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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. 🙂

What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part Two)

What to do about exposition?

In the last post, I effectively took the three most popular devices for handling backstory, locked them in a stocks and pillory, and proceeded to throw tomatoes. Obviously, we can never ever ever use those tools again.

Seriously, though, we can’t simply leave the backstory out and expect the reader to keep up. For one thing, some amount of explanation is absolutely necessary to tell an intelligible story to another person. As Brandon Sanderson explains in this video, every book, especially fantasy, has a particular “learning curve” that the reader has to overcome before they can fully understand the story. The reader has to become somewhat familiar with an entirely new world with histories, laws, and magic systems of its own, as well as meet new characters and understand their individual goals and personalities. Any author will have a hard task to explain all this information and still hold the reader’s attention. And therein lies the problem.

Take your pick.

Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when books were so rare and expensive, people liked to take their time and savor the few books that they had available. Therefore, books written in those centuries tend to be slow and meandering, feeding you all the information gently and then starting the real story several chapters later. Les Miserables and Ben-Hur are good examples.

In our age, though, with countless books and e-readers at our fingertips, our stories need to grab the reader’s attention and hold it fast; otherwise, there is always another Stephen King thriller that will get to the point more quickly, and our books are forgotten. Most modern readers have no time to sit around and read about Bishop Myriel and how he got himself a carriage. We want to read about Jean Valjean and Fantine, and we want to read it now!

Let’s start by addressing the prologue problem. If you go to the blog or website of a good author you like and find any advice on writing a prologue, you’ll probably read a post about deleting it. Deleting the prologue. And as harsh as that sounds, it makes sense. Many prologues, no matter how interesting they are to me as the writer, aren’t going to make a whit of sense to a reader who just picked up the book, even in the story’s context.

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Interested yet? And the real story hasn’t even started.

Then again, my prologue might make sense and add to the story. For example, in the Les Miserables concert by Schonberg and Boublil, the entire backstory with Bishop Myriel is gone. The concert still begins well before Fantine dreams a dream, but we’re hooked with the song “Look Down”. A bunch of men in prison? One is going on parole? He has enemies? “Look Down” sets up the rest of the story, makes logical sense, and grabs our attention. If my prologue fits those three criteria- setup, logic, and attention- keep it. (And maybe call it Chapter 1?)

Next comes the infodump, which might be a little bit harder to handle. If you read The Lord of the Rings (props to you!), think back to the chapter “The Shadow of the Past.” For those of you who only watched the movie or don’t know the story, this is when the wizard Gandalf sits down and explains all about the Ring’s complicated history to Frodo.

Notice that I haven’t said anything bad about what Tolkien did here, and that’s because I have nothing bad to say. Tolkien explained the backstory in a compelling and, at that time, non-cliche fashion. (Again, that “slower” culture comes into play; people had time to sit down and read things.) He did it so artfully that all other fantasy writers after him copied what they thought he did.

Unfortunately, when we copy others, we lose our own style and thus end up with a huge infodump that sounds like every other fantasy ever written. We hush our inborn originality and put off our thinking caps. The solution? Make it your own! My favorite writers are those who work in the backstory bit by bit, revealing only as much as needed, using it to build the plot and make the reader curious for more.

The Horse and His Boy, our latest family readaloud, is a good example. C.S. Lewis had a lot of exposition to work into such a short book, but he does it piecemeal, only as needed. We don’t know anything about Shasta’s history until a nobleman drags the truth out of his foster-father, and we hear nothing about Aravis’ troubles until she turns up at the river.

Finally we come to the villain’s monologue. Since it almost never makes sense for the villain to reveal his grand scheme to his mortal enemy, we have to find some other way of explaining the method to his madness. Our first impulse may be to keep what we have already written and simply put it into a logical framework. For example, some writers might have the villains expound their plan to their evil halfwitted minions. Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that stupid yet hysterically funny movie that we writers are all obsessed with? It worked for that one.

The main problems with both approaches vary between points of view. In limited third-person POV, the protagonist isn’t usually around to overhear a scene like this. And why does he need to hear it at all? Instead, if the good guy is really smart enough to defeat the antagonist, he is smart enough to figure out the evil plot by himself. Again, if I’m telling in third-person omniscient, why explain the plan at all? I should tell the plan from the villain’s perspective as it happens and skip the exposition altogether. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule.

Are you ready, fellow fantasy writers? I challenge us to delete our prologues and write our exposition the way Tolkien, Lewis, and Schonberg and Boublil did- with a dose of creativity from our famous fantastical imaginations.

A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Bad

“Whenever you take on playing a villain, he has to cease to be a villain to you. If you judge this man by his time, he’s doing very little wrong.” -Colin Firth

Everyone agrees that a supervillain should be antagonistic, amoral, willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want, and for the most part, these sorts of villains are easy to write. Darth Vader. The Joker. Sauron. These are terrifying characters that you never forget, but for all their scariness, they are surprisingly easy to write. Put them in a dark suit, give them an army, and strip away every quality that made them relatable, and you have the Dark Lord.

What isn’t so easy is writing a villain who is still a human.

What I love about a sympathetic villain is that he or she is still evil, but on an understandable level. With this kind of villain, we know why the baddie does such horrible things, sometimes even identifying with those motivations, and thus we are invested in a whole new facet of the story- that of the antagonist.

It’s a whole new subplot to follow. A sympathetic villain first frightens the readers, then confuses them, and at last wins their unfailing approval. All in all, a humanized villain keeps the audience’s attention and ultimately makes them think. Plus, feelz.

So here are a few ways I like to “humanize” a villain. Minor spoilers may follow…

kylo-ren

Show him to be human. Honestly, this was the element in The Force Awakens which scored the most points with me. For most of the movie, Kylo Ren is literally faceless, just like Darth Vader; as Rey says, he’s just a monster. But then this monster pulls off his helmet.

When he shows a human face underneath that unfeeling stereotype, Kylo ceases to be a robot in our minds and becomes a real person, a character like Finn and Rey. This makes him frightening in a different way from Vader. Even a normal kid like him can become bad. That’s one reason why I liked this Star Wars movie so much better than many of the others- in just five seconds we see the human side of the villain, something that six hours of Hayden Christiansen were never able to achieve for Vader.

And it doesn’t even have to be a literal mask. Captain Hook is malevolent and heartless, even toward little lost children. Forget all this Neverland Pirates business; he replaced his lost hand with a gleaming sharp hook, for crying out loud. He even kidnaps Wendy. What sort of person do you have to be to do that?

But in a conversation between Hook and Wendy, we realize why. All Hook ever wanted was the same thing that Peter wanted: a mother. It’s a very human, childish thing to do, kidnapping a girl just so she can play mom to an orphaned pirate crew, but even the smallest of children can identify with Hook. Everyone wants a mom! Even though he did just kidnap Wendy, Captain Hook seems to lose his terrible pirate mask to look more like the kind of human you meet every day.

Give him a cause. My favorite Shakespeare play is King Richard III. Even though Shakespeare supported the Tudors who had driven the real Richard from the throne, he realized even the infamous Machiavellian humpback needed a motive. People don’t just up and drown their brothers in wine-barrels every day, not without a reason. Why would Richard do such a thing?

Shakespeare decided that the unimportant Duke of Gloucester wanted to be the very best he could be, but caught as he was in a web of complex politics and superstition, his only route to greatness lay in villainy. As Richard says in the opening monologue, “Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.”

Again, when I watched the movie Thor (which was so bad that it deserves its own post), I found myself hoping beyond hope that Thor would die and Loki would win. Isn’t that sad? Of course Thor was flat and didn’t seem to be really doing anything to get Mjolnir back, so it wasn’t worth the effort of redeeming him. But why give a fig about his evil little brother?

After some thought I realized that Loki, and not Thor, had the one thing which drives a story: a cause. Thor was too lazy even to find out how to pick up his hammer, so he spent the film drinking coffee and bothering Jane. Loki, however, wanted to prove himself to the people of his magical star-kingdom-Asgard-thing, and what is more, he was doing everything in his power to achieve that goal. That’s a villain I can appreciate.

Give him the potential to do good. Even my mother, an unflagging non-reader of all fantasy including The Lord of the Rings, loves the little guy on the left. Gollum wasn’t always a wretched cannibal; he used to be Smeagol. He was a hobbit, good and innocent, with friends of his own. In a thematic sense, he was Frodo before the Ring came and corrupted him. Frodo himself admits that he takes care of Gollum because he has to know that someone can still be okay after carrying the Ring for so long.

And Gollum still has the potential to choose between killing and saving. He is truly capable of doing good things, which makes him seem real to us. When he promises to show Frodo and Sam the way into Mordor without being caught, he shows that he still has some of the bravery of a Halfling; when he begs for food, he seems an awful lot like a hobbit. By the end we realize that we care about him.

Image result for lady tremaine cinderella 2015

Make her afraid. Lady Tremaine (or Stepmother, as she is commonly known) starts the film as a normal and even likeable widow who has fallen in love with a wonderful guy. She can even forgive his daughter Ella for being so beautiful- “like her mother.” Yet, even before her honeymoon season is over, Lady Tremaine receives word that her new husband is dead, gone away forever, leaving her all alone in the world with no income and three girls to care for. No wonder she is afraid.

“Where will we go?” she cries. “What will we do?” Oh, but how convenient that the prince is throwing a ball and will choose himself a wife from among the young ladies there. They have a chance of security once again! Now all she must do is make sure that no other beautiful young lady stands in the way of her own daughters…

And I may as well finish with an example from my own book. *nervous laugh* I like creepy villains, and when I wrote Son of Ren, it was easy to make one of my villains, Sardar, an unethical creep without exerting too much imagination. He enjoys war (no, literally enjoys it), uses a really shady kind of sorcery, and manipulates people. Sounds unlikeable enough to me! But there was a lot more to his character that needed exploring… he just didn’t seem real enough.

I was only able to make him human when I realized that he was afraid. In his introductory scene, Sardar can play like he’s big and tough, pretending that he has the upper hand, and he’s got enough armies and magic to outwit Elkay for a little while, but in truth he’s terrified of running out of time. He might even lose what little power he already has. When people feel threatened, they are capable of just about anything.

So that’s the beginnings of a list. Every villain has a human side; we as the writers just need to learn how to bring it out. How do you “humanize” a villain? Do you have any thoughts on making bad guys seem real? Share in the comments.