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Writing Excuses 7.29: The Villain Problem

Writing Excuses 7.29: The Villain Problem


Key points: the villain problem, a.k.a. the hero problem, happens when heroes are just reacting, and villains steal the show. Make sure your hero has a clear goal! Make your hero passionate about something. Let your hero have internal conflicts, and struggle. A bit of darkness, a fatal flaw? Heroes need their own goals and motivation, their own plan. Make them proactive, too. Look for the call to action, and let your hero step up to it. Don't forget the character arc, traits that the hero can develop. Make the hero competent in something. Let your hero make smart decisions, and fail because of things they could not have planned for or overcome. A sense of humor can help. Make sure your hero has a life outside the conflict. Ask yourself, "What does the hero want?" Make sure the answer is more than just beating the bad guy.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 29, the Villain Problem.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're trying to take over the world.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm not as evil as Dan is.
[Dan] Ohhh...
[Howard] I'm not.
[Mary] Mwahahaha.
[Howard] Or Mary.

[Brandon] So I believe twice now, in recent months on Writing Excuses, I have referenced the villain problem. Which is the issue that we run into where the heroes are less proactive than the villain. The villain tries to achieve something, and the hero then reacts against what the villain is trying to achieve. This is one of the most basic reasons why villains tend to steal the spotlight in fiction. If you aren't watching, you often will run into this problem. So we want to talk about ways to avoid it, dig into what really causes it, and how you can go about making your heroes more proactive without actually having them try to take over the world instead. Although that would be a fun story.
[Mary] I think you wrote that story, didn't you?
[Brandon] The heroes try to take over the world before the villains can do it?
[Mary] Yeah.
[Brandon] Maybe...
[Mary] Just a little bit with Mistborn.
[Brandon] Yeah, I did. A little bit. So, the villain problem. This is really prominent in comic books.
[Howard] Oh, my goodness.
[Dan] Yes. I think no one is more subject to this than Batman. Batman is almost defined by his villains.
[Brandon] That's right. People talk about how great quote unquote his rogues' gallery is. Which has always been interesting to me, that he has the best one, but it is because his villains just are so colorful, and they're trying so many interesting things to try and take over the world. It's also interesting because as superheroes go, he's one of the least powerful.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, because he is the least powerful, most of his villains are basically just crazy people. So the writers really have the chance to run with whatever weird thing they can think of, and it's still a legitimate challenge for their guy with no superpowers.

[Brandon] Yeah. So, let's talk about this. I see this in new writers fairly often. They come to me and they say, "My villain is just awesome, and I'm worried that he's stealing the show." Or she's stealing the show. How do you reply to this person?
[Dan] Well, since we've already brought up Batman, very quickly, I'm going to point you at the Christopher Nolan movies. Which solve this problem in large degree by giving, in each movie, Batman gets a very clear goal. In the Dark Knight, I mean, Keith Ledger took over that movie with an amazing Joker, but Batman is still the driving force behind it because he's trying to quit. He's trying... From beginning to end, he's trying to do something. He's not just reacting the whole time.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that that's really the key. The problem is that it's very easy to get into the path where the villain does something and the hero reacts to it. Because that's the way, for the most part, the book has to start. The villain is the one, usually, not always... But usually your hero is having a more or less normal life, and then something goes horribly, horribly wrong because of whatever the villain is doing.
[Brandon] It's exactly the issue with Lord of the Rings, although I wouldn't say the villain takes over there Because the Way, Tolkien avoids that is by having the villain be basically a non-entity. He's an evil force off somewhere. But Gollum takes over very quickly.
[Mary] Yes. Because he is very active, and everyone is reacting to what he does.
[Brandon] Right. And he's passionate. That's the thing that Gollum has over Frodo, and one of the reasons Gollum takes... Steals the show a bit. Is Frodo is doing this out of duty, and Gollum's doing it because of true passion and love. He just wants that ring so badly that he can taste it. You, as a reader, react to this. We react to proactivity, we react to passion. So that should be your first clue about, if you're having this problem, what to do. Your hero needs to be passionate about something. A lot of the really good writers who know what they're doing... This includes the superhero things. I mean, if we look at Spiderman, a lot of the great writing in Spiderman comes because they will take Peter Parker and focus on his passions. He's in love with Mary Jane, or he really wants to be a great scientist, or he has his quirky geek passions and things. You focus on these, and suddenly his love for these things humanizes him, and gives him a driving motivation, which therefore let him steal back the light.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that that's something... That actually points out something that people will often try to do. When their villain is really evil, they try to compensate by going the opposite direction by making their good guy really, really good. The bad guys get all the best lines in films and books, because they're the ones who can be mean, they're the ones who can say the things that are socially unacceptable, they're the ones who can go in for the punchline. So with your good guy, you want to look for opportunities to give them internal conflict, something where they are struggling with themselves, struggling with something in the situation besides the villain, so that they get to deliver those good lines.

[Brandon] That's why the cop on the edge in the 70s and 80s became the dominant hero form for that type of storytelling, for the action movie.
[Howard] That's why one of the most iconic moments in Firefly is the moment where Mal kicks the guy into the intake of the spaceship, and the next guy says, "Yeah, sure. We'll negotiate. Here, we'll take the money back to the boss."
[Brandon] Right. The cop on the edge. The hero who's got a bit of darkness in him. In fact, you'll notice that that's when a lot of people highlight Batman becoming really interesting, is when Batman stopped being Boy Scout and started being cop on the edge. That doesn't mean that's how you have to take it, but it is worth studying.
[Dan] Well, while we're talking about Mal from Firefly, he is, on the other hand, one of the most honorable characters you'll see on TV. Great lines like, "If I ever tell you, you'll be facing me and you'll have a gun in your hand." He is a good combination, he's not just a bad guy on the good guy team.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Howard] Another approach to this, at risk of covering territory we've covered before... Was it Edward Nolan? I forget who the actor was, Edward Norton? In Italian Job, who turns out to be our betrayer in the very beginning?
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] He got some fantastic lines. "I'll just take all of yours." Then he does. Those heroes... He was an interesting villain. But those heroes were interesting because they got proactive. The villain got smart and they had to improvise. So if you look at heist movies, you look at caper movies that have interesting villains, and say, "Okay, what did our protagonists do that was interesting?" Well, they came up with a plan.
[Mary] Yes.
[Howard] They came up with a plan, and they tried to execute on it. Even if things went wrong, you could see them doing stuff. Which is... Doing stuff in advance of stuff just happening.
[Dan] Yeah. You want to see this done beautifully, go back and read one of the Harry Potter books. Because there's about a perfect sliding scale of reactive to active, as the heroes move through it. The more information they learn, the more plans they start to form. Until by the end, Harry and his friends are going full bore on their own plan to stop the bad guy.
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, you can also... You can make an argument for... If you come to me, and it's the first quarter of your book. You say, "I've just written 25%, and the villain is just totally stealing the show." The solution may not be to go back and rewrite that first 25%. Your solution may be to say, "Okay, you have hit the point where you've got the call to action. Where you've got the change, where the hero needs to step up and take control of their own story. That may be the perfect archetype for you. You may have a fascinating villain for the beginning, to hook people and keep them reading. Then, your protagonist accepts the call, steps up and becomes just as interesting. If you can do that, you'll get a great story.
[Howard] A couple of years back, we did a cast in which we talked about the three act format and the sequence of disasters. Act one, chase them up a tree. Act two, throw rocks at them. Act three, cut down the tree. Well, if your characters spend the whole book being in the tree running away, it's boring and you haven't followed through on that right. At some point, they need to build a catapult out of the tree that they are in. So that even if the tree falls down, well, hey, we've got this catapult, and now it's on its side and what can we do?
[Brandon] Yeah, I actually... That description of the three act format, it gets tossed around a lot, and it is a decent description. But I want to point out that putting your call to action, you're accepting the call to action, does not have to come three quarters of the way through your book or two thirds of the way through your book.
[Howard] Oh, heavens no.
[Brandon] Sometimes we talk about that, you assume it does. You can have your call to action, your heroes step up in chapter 3 or four, and still have the same archetype. No, I'm reluctant. No, I'm reluctant. Okay, yes. I'm going to do this. Boom.
[Mary] Well, Die Hard is an example where the call to action comes... What, 10 minutes into the film?
[Brandon] Yup, yup. And you spend the rest of that film with him taking down the bad guys one at a time. It's a wonderful film.
[Dan] I wonder almost if we've misnamed this problem. Because the villain problem implies there's a problem with your villains, and there's not. If your villains are that interesting, you've done something right.
[Howard] That's the way I feel about it.
[Dan] This is a problem with your heroes, that you need to step them up.

[Brandon] All right. Let's stop for the book of the week. We're actually going to pitch this one at Mary.
[Mary] Yes. This is Imager, the first book of the Imager Portfolio by L. E. Modesitt, Junior. I really like these books. It's a very interesting magic system, where people can... A very limited number of people can visualize something and make it real. His main character, who has been training to be a painter, realizes that he is in fact an imager. One of the reasons that I wanted to point out these books is that there's a very good villain-hero conflict going on in these books.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[Howard] Okay. Well, climb a tree over to
[Brandon] Oh, that was barely trying.
[Howard] Yeah, that was... Yeah, I'm half asleep.
[Dan] Phone it in on over to
[Howard] I was not phoning that in. I went out on a limb for you guys, and this is what I got.
[Dan] And we threw rocks at you.
[Howard] You can start a 14 day free trial membership and download... I need the title of the book again, Mary.
[Mary] Imager.
[Howard] Imager by L. E. Modesitt. A friend of ours, and an awesome author.
[Brandon] Yep. Very good writer.
[Howard] Nobody can do what he does.

[Brandon] All right. So. We've mentioned two ways to make your... We're going to call this the hero problem, then... To fix the hero problem. Number one is to have them be passionate about something. Number two was to have them accept the call to arms at some point... The call to action at some point during the story. What else can you do? There aren't only two ways to do this, I'm sure. What are other ways to make your hero as interesting as your villain? Oh, wait, we had another one, which was put a little darkness in them.
[Mary] Yeah. The fatal flaw.
[Dan] I'm going to say to make sure that in addition to having a good plot arc in mind, that you also have a good character arc in mind. When you sit down to start writing, even if you change it later, think of one or two traits that you want that character to develop over the course of the book. Then give them the chance to become better than they are at the beginning.
[Brandon] Okay. So, motion. [Garbled -- if we can?] sense of motion. I'll throw another one out there. A lot of these things are basic things we've talked about a lot, but hopefully this will help you envision them in a new way. One is... Another one is to make them competent. One of the reasons why we always end up with this issue is because very frequently the villain starts the story very capable, at the height of their power. Our hero starts at the very beginning of their arc, without any skills, without having learned much about the way of the world. I would say a hero's more interesting, even though you want to give them an arc, if they're good at something when they start, and we're able to focus on it.
[Mary] Yeah. One of the aspects of that, I think, where it goes wrong is that people go, "Oh, something has to go wrong. My hero can't just win this battle. Something has to go wrong." So they have the hero make a mistake. Which often will make them appear incompetent. So when you're looking at the competency, and when you're looking at the conflicts, you also need to make sure that the hero's making the smartest decision possible. Then when things go wrong, it is... Something that is... That they could not have planned for.
[Brandon] I've used this example before, but one series of films that never has a problem with this in my opinion is the Indiana Jones films. Because Indiana Jones from scene one is really competent. When he fails, it's outside his hands. You get the sense he's struggling as hard as he can. He's not perfect. But when he has mistakes, it's like he's trying so hard, he's not incompetent, it's just a little bit beyond his reach.
[Mary] Yeah. The classic is the switch of the statue.
[Brandon] Yeah. He did a great job there, and nope, not enough, still a rock's going to fall on your head, Indy, so run as fast as you can. Then he escapes. He's really great at escaping, even rescues his hat, and he still gets the idol stolen from him.
[Dan] Another movie that does this well, and actually cheats and makes it work, is The Matrix. Neo start off as... He's introduced to us as one of the greatest hackers ever. So he has that core competency, and then goes on and we see him learning other skills. The thing is, you never actually see him do any hacking.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's easy to forget that he's a great hacker. In fact, that probably would have made that film stronger. It's a good film. If they would have said, "It's your ability to look at the rules and hack them that you've trained yourself to do, that makes you so good at imagining the matrix as you want it to be."
[Dan] Imagining your powers and things like that.
[Brandon] That would have been... That would have helped me with one of my biggest problems with that film, despite it being a great film.
[Howard] It wouldn't have saved the second two.
[Brandon] Aw, we won't go there.
[Dan] Can of worms. That we don't intend to open.

[Mary] Another very easy thing to make your hero more interesting actually, and to draw out the audience's attention, is actually to give them a sense of humor.
[Brandon] Ah. Yes. Yes, a sense of humor, a wry sense of humor. In fact, this works wonderfully in a first-person narrative. Even when they're inactive, if... In the narrative, the voice can be really engaging, and say, "Yeah, I know I'm laying here, but..." That sort of thing can really distract from how inactive they are.
[Howard] I honestly think that's why Spiderman took off. Not because being a spider is cool, but because wisecracking while...
[Mary] Web slinging...
[Howard] Fighting with the bad guys... Or wisecracking while...
[Dan] While getting beat up by the bad guys.
[Howard] Getting beat up.

[Mary] Yes. The other one that I find helps is having a passion that is outside the conflict. Particularly when that passion is then put into jeopardy unexpectedly by the conflict.
[Brandon] Yup. Speaking on that passion... It kind of goes a bit deeper than that, they should have a life outside of what's going on.
[Mary] Yes. Very much so.
[Brandon] We've talked about this before, but make them live and breathe before the story starts. Try and write a character who would be interesting no matter what they're doing. Then make what they're doing be saving the world or whatever it is. If they would be interesting... Actually, Lee, Lee Modesitt is wonderful at this. He could write a character making a barrel... He's done it before... In such a way that you're fascinated, because this character loves barrels so much, he's so skilled at making barrels, that a chapter of making a barrel is fascinating. Then they have to save the world. That's just awesome. Because if you can watch someone doing something boring...

[Howard] I think if you, fair listener, have written to the point that you've got a fantastically interesting villain, and your character, your hero, is not engaging... You need to ask yourself, "What does the hero want?" If the answer to the question is, "Well, he wants to beat the bad guy..."
[Mary] That is not enough.
[Howard] That is not enough, and we've established that for you. Give him, or her, something to be passionate about, something to... Something that he wanted before the bad guy showed up. Or maybe the bad guy showed up and made visible the fact that "Oh, there's magic in the world, and you can have a piece of it, but you can't because I'm going to take over the world with it!" Anything! But give him something that's better than just "I want to beat the bad guy."

[Brandon] All right. Did we have a writing prompt buried in there somewhere?
[Mary] That sounded like it was a writing prompt. I can refine that into a writing prompt.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] Mary, please.
[Mary] So, for your writing prompt, what I want you to do is, take a hero and give him a hobby, and give him a something that he loves, that is a living thing.
[Brandon] Okay. And then put those in jeopardy unexpectedly. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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