Saturday, May 26, 2012

Villains We Love to Hate

Like a great many other people, I've been watching Downton Abbey recently. Well, not so much watching it as inhaling it. Sure, it has some soap opera elements to it, but I've been absolutely fascinated by the interactions between the characters, and how the choices of one person ripple out and affect everyone around them, so much like they do in real life.

There's one character I absolutely cannot stand - Thomas the footman. From the minute he stepped onto the screen in the first episode, he just ... ugh. He's insolent, prideful, disrespectful, rude, and at times downright evil. I'm sure the actor is a very nice young man, but the character just inspires total hatred in me, and I'm not used to feeling that way. I'm a very loving person as a general rule, but this guy brings out sides of me I didn't even know I had.

That is the very successful marriage of an excellent actor and an excellent script.

Throughout season one of the show, we basically just hate Thomas all the way through. But in season two, we are introduced to some of his insecurities and some of his fears. We see the things he's willing to do to survive. These added dimensions make him more real, but rather than lessening our hatred toward him, they make him someone to be pitied, someone who has chosen a life of manipulation to cope rather than trying to do things the right way.

First of all, I have to say this is absolutely brilliant. If I had the chance to speak with the writer of Downton Abbey, (Julian Fellowes) I would soak up everything he had to say about the craft of writing characters. There must be a balance between what we see them do and the reasons why they do it in order to create a well-rounded character that evokes these types of emotions in us. I hate Thomas the footman, but I love Bates the valet. I don't just dislike one and like the other - my emotional attachment goes much deeper, and it's the combination of their actions plus their motivations.

Far too often, I see books where the motivation is left out. The character will perform an action of some kind, but we don't know the reason behind it, and the action either comes across as flat, or it will seem so random that it doesn't make sense. When we know the motivation behind the action and what the character was thinking or feeling when they did it, the whole thing becomes so much richer.

This is especially true of villains. It's not enough to know that Bob is setting a bomb to go off in the building. We need to know that his girlfriend is in the building and she's been cheating on him, and he wants to see her dead. But we also need to know that he was abandoned as a baby by a mother too drunk to care for him and he was rescued from the side of the road by a truck driver, who took him to the authorities. Then Bob was passed from foster care home to foster care home until adulthood, essentially being abandoned by women in his life since the very beginning, and he just can't take it anymore. Which story is more interesting? Man setting a bomb, or a deeply troubled, tortured soul setting a bomb? And would it help to know that he plans on being inside the building when the bomb goes off so he dies too?

The point is this - when we write a villain, it's all very well and good to show the evil actions they take. But every evil action has a thought process behind it, a deep emotional need pushing it forward. If you tap into that deep emotional need when you write your villain, you create someone the reader will fear even more because they are so very real.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I need to go take a nap. I was up far too late last night watching Downton Abbey ...


Donna K. Weaver said...

You're absolutely right, Tristi. How to add that depth and dimension to the characters, even the baddies--maybe especially the baddies.

And then if you're George R. R. Martin you make the baddies sympathetic and kill them off.

Marcy said...

We've watched seasons one and two from the library . . . one of the very few TV shows from the past two decades that I've enjoyed following at all. Once we have the DVD's I can't help but watch one episode after another until I've watched them all. Great thoughts on villans!

Susan Roebuck said...

I've been too. It's an interesting exercise to analyse the characters and see why we like or don't like them. And, yes, Thomas's character has been brilliantly portrayed. It's always a good idea, though, to give the antagonist a few redeeming characteristics so he/she doesn't become a stereotype.

The Damsel in Dis Dress said...

I absolutely cannot wait until this show comes back on! Love it.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I still haven't seen this show yet. I need to find the first season - I have a feeling I would really enjoy it.

Glad I found your blog. Seems strange that I didn't before now as I follow you on both facebook and twitter. A little slow I guess :)

Leslie Pugh said...

I keep hearing about this show and how great it is but somehow I never remembered to look for it while it was still on during the season. Will have to hunt it down online I suppose.

Great post on villains. I'm struggling right now to define what my villains motivations are in my WIP so this gives me some ideas that might help.

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