I was doing a bit of research (OK, I was goofing off) following the bread crumbs wherever they took me. I started looking at events in 1941 and wound up reading a review of Saving Private Ryan written by a former soldier of the Waffen SS, those guys in black with the Death's Head on their caps. The guys who ran the camps. Yeah, those guys. Real nice. This old soldier's movie review is written as an open letter to Steven Spielberg and I'm doing fine with it until I hit this:

"...almost all the German soldiers seen in "Private Ryan" had their heads
shaved ... something totally in conflict with reality. Perhaps you were
confusing, in your mind, German soldiers with Russians of the time.

Or else, your Jewishness came to the fore, and you wanted to draw
a direct line back from today's skinheads to the Waffen-SS and other German
soldiers of the Third Reich."

The rest of the review is more anti-Jewish spew, inadvertently revealing more about the man than the movie and reinforcing all those negative things we thought about Nazis.

And that got me thinking about writing bad characters, the kind of person who would spend all day counting shoes at Auschwitz and then go home feeling like she'd done a good day's work, blind to their role in the evil that surrounds them.

If we're to write these people honestly, we have to climb inside their skin and walk around a bit. We have to know how they were bent as children in order to grow up so twisted as adults. When they say things that we find unacceptable, and there were plenty of things people said in 1941 that we would find grossly inappropriate today, we have to understand the context, right or wrong, because no one except Richard III has ever set out to be a villain. They rationalize. They accept the unacceptable. They twist things around in their heads so that they're right and everyone else is wrong. They're human.

See where following bread crumbs can lead you?

I'm curious how you write villains, if you'd like to comment. But it's Monday, so there's no pressure.

(Originally posted at A Dark Planet)

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You're definitely not alone. I've been through the same experience more than once.

And to that I can only say to myself, "Man up!"

Exactly. The villain thinks he's the hero. The fun of writing villains comes in understanding why. He's out to right the wrong done to him and his family. He wants what's been unfairly denied him. He feels he's the only strong man in a world of weak ones. He wants to seize power to make the world better. Etc. Make the reader sympathize with that, and you've got a great villain.
I don't personally believe in evil. Cruelty, stupidity, anger and fear, yes, but evil has always sounded to me like an oversimplification of a person's motivations. Is the psychopath evil or just crazy?

I'm not sure I even write villains. Villain implies a level of cruelty, while antagonist is just one whose goals are in opposition to the protagonist. Taken from that perspective, my heroes are villains, too.

Regardless, I have to get enough into the antagonist's head to understand why they're doing what they're doing. They all want something. They all have limits to what they are and aren't okay with. Hitler supposedly loved children. How many inquisitors thought that what they were doing to the heathens was really for their own good? How many torturers went home to their wife and family and bounced their three year old on their knee?

It comes down to justification and rationalization. I heard an interview with Matt Damon after he had done "The Talented Mr. Ripley". He had a lot of problems getting into the character because he kept looking at this guy and all he could see was this horrible, murdering monster. So the director takes him aside and explains to him, "Look, Ripley deserves this life. He deserves all the things that he's taking. And these people are trying to take it away from him. Who the fuck do they think they are? This is your life. Who are they to try to take it away from you?"

Once he got into that mindset he was able to do the role. Felt like the hero, actually. And the victim. Then he saw the movie and realized that, no, Ripley really is a psychopathic asshole.

One of the things I struggle with is that the protagonist's goals have to be in opposition to the antagonist's just as much as the other way around. I try to find that equality of conflict between the two. Whether I find it is something else entirely.
What the hell does hair have to do with how well you can write?


I thought the title said Bald Men and Good Writing.

Notice that nobody discusses Bad Women, though. There aren't any. ;)
"Notice that nobody discusses Bad Women, though. There aren't any."


Oh. That was good. Tell me another one.
I think Madam La Farge is a wonderful female villian. I remember reading Tale of Two Cities in high school and having nightmares about that old lady and her knitting.
Geez Stephen, I would but I'm not sure your lungs can take it. ;)

Knitting is evil. You have to wonder about Dickens. He did a great job with the deranged woman in the wedding dress (her name has left my head for the moment) in Great Expectations. I wonder how much he got from personal experience.
Heh. You haven't met my ex, Sandra.
Have you killed her in a story yet?

I would never do that.

But one of my villains might. ;)


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