Psychology of the Villain

Villains. We love to hate them, and at times hate to find we love them. Last Tuesday’s Aussie Writers post looked at the possible motivations behind a villain’s actions, but what in their psyche allows them to make the choices that lead to these villainous deeds? To help me answer this question, I thought I better enlist an expert, so I teamed up with PsychWriter author, Tamar Sloan, to explore a villain’s psychology.

man-1930522_1920

A complex villain in most books isn’t your run of the mill sociopath with fifteen bodies in their basement. Yes, these individuals exist. We’ve seen the documentaries and read the books about them, but the broken characters we love to hate have greater depth than that. The villain of our masterpiece is usually a wounded human with the capacity for empathy, guilt and remorse. A human who makes choices that violate ethical, legal and moral boundaries.

What ultimately makes them a villain is that they reach a point where they’re okay with their choice, maybe even delight in it, and it’s the progression to this point that is valuable to tease out as a writer. Either in the planning or in the aftermath, your villain moves through a series of psychological steps that allows them to live with their choices and sleep the sleep of the guilt-free (or mostly guilt-free). Capture this process in your book and you’ve got a realistic, authentic villain your readers are going to be fascinated by, and possibly even understand on some primal, psychological level.

So what is this psychological, possibly subconscious, process your villain goes through before or after their villainous deeds?

The starting point is often a discrepancy between your villain’s beliefs and their behaviour. We each hold many beliefs and thoughts about the world and ourselves. Most of the time these beliefs, and the choices we make, coexist happily in the folds of our grey matter. Sometimes though, discrepancies arise. Like when we eat chocolate cake even though we know we should be dieting. Like saying family comes first, but then having an affair. Or like saying we value humanity, and then sacrificing thousands in the name of a cause.

293H

Image credit: Ryan McGuire http://www.gratisography.com

When our beliefs and behaviour clash we become uncomfortable. Nervous. Distressed. And if there’s one thing our brain doesn’t like, and has evolved to avoid, it’s discomfort. So it will do what it needs to do to achieve harmony and balance. Since the behaviour has usually already happened, or is committed to happening, the brain needs to do some cognitive gymnastics, and your villain will probably do one or more of the following:

  1. Change their belief: The ‘I don’t really need to be on a diet’ reasoning.

Saruman in the classic Lord of the Rings uses such reasoning. Originally a powerful Istari entrusted with guarding Middle Earth like Gandalf, Saruman’s belief—and allegiance—changes when he comes to believe that Sauron’s victory can’t be avoided. His love of power drives him to abandon his order and convinces him that he’s better off on the side of evil.

  1. Minimise their behaviour and how they perceive it: The ‘I hardly ate any chocolate cake at all’ reasoning.

From Middle Earth to Creekwood High and Martin Addison in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It’s not often the class clown is written as the villain, but when Martin stumbles on a personal email of Simon’s, he threatens to out him unless he helps Martin get close to Simon’s friend, Abby. When Simon asks if Martin is actually going to make him do this, Martin deftly minimises his behaviour:

‘Make you? Come on. It’s not like that … It’s not like anything … I was just thinking you would want to help me here.’

  1. Rationalise their behaviour: the ‘Chocolate cake is a good source of calcium’ reasoning.

The Hunger Games series offers us a slow-boil villain in President Alma Coin. She is all about freeing Panem and making it a better place, but her desire to take President Snow’s place as ruler at any cost, including killing Katniss’ sister, Prim, reveals her for the power hungry sociopath that she really is. Whether an act or her true belief, Alma Coin’s ‘for the greater good’ reasoning continues to the very end:

‘Today, the greatest friend to revolution will fire the shot to end all wars. May her arrow signify the end of tyranny and the beginning of a new era.’

  1. Reduce perceived choice: the ‘I didn’t have a choice. It would have been rude not to eat it …’ reasoning.

Twilight’s Aro is a villain with very clear cut, black and white principles. His primary objective as head of the Volturi coven is to keep the existence of their kind hidden. When it’s rumoured that Bella and Edward have created an immortal child, Aro argues he ‘has no choice’ but to destroy the infant who poses a threat of exposure for the vampires. Only when Aro sees a vision of his own death as a result of him trying to kill the child does he back down and let her live. Even a vampire sleeps easier at night when he’s convinced himself he had no choice.

Disclaimer: no chocolate cake was harmed in the writing of this article! Well, not a lot of it anyway, and our hands were tied. We had to eat it … for research purposes.

About the author:

Tamar Profile Photo

Tamar really struggled writing this bio because she hasn’t decided whether she’s primarily a psychologist who loves writing, or a writer with a lifelong fascination for psychology. Somehow she got lucky enough to do both. Tamar is the author of the PsychWriter blog – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.

ProphecyAwakened453x680

 

Tamar is also a passionate writer of young adult stories of finding love and life beyond your comfort zone. You can find out more about Tamar’s books at www.tamarsloan.com

 

 

 


Kat Colmer Author

Kat Colmer is a Young and New Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is due out with ENTANGLED TEEN in August 2017. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

Tell Me Why? Villainous Motivations

As readers we are eternally curious about the characters who populate stories. But it’s not the surface stuff that intrigues us, is it? It’s the stuff underneath that has moulded them, formed their perspectives – the stuff that drives them. These deeply buried things are what makes a character intriguing.

Villains by definition often top that ‘intriguing character’ list.

villain-2103500__340

Villains do bad things and sure, we want to know ‘who?’ and ‘how?’ but that fades to insignificance beside the question ‘why?’. Why did he poison the cat? Why did she try to destroy Anya’s reputation? Why is he determined to terrify her to the point that she believes she’s insane? The answers to those questions are what will allow us readers to sleep well after closing the last page. We will be sated, satisfied, content.

So, is it ever enough for an author to brush that question away with a cavalier: ‘He/she is just a bad person’?

Short answer? No. Long answer? Never, nil, nada. Hardly ever. 🙂 

Why? (See? You wanted to know ‘why?’ 😉 ). Short answer: Readers want more. They’ll feel cheated. And, just quietly, be really, really ticked off with the author.

villain 3Long answer: True psychopaths are the scariest people ever. And yes, successful books have been written featuring them. But, at the risk of lighting a fuse under any psychopaths reading this, in the literary sense they’re kind of boring. Kill or torture for the sake of killing or torturing? Not going to hold my attention for long. If I’m not wondering ‘why’ then I’m out. You see, very few people are born bad, so the whole psychopath thing can often be a bit unrealistic and harder for the reader to relate. In fact studies back from the 1980s to the present all agree that a fair equation is that around 1% of western world people are true psychopaths – people who act without empathy or conscience.

Okay, so a more favourable equation would be nil%, but I’ll still take 1% over anything higher. Relatively speaking, it’s a low number. (Actually it’s terrifying if I say it in numbers – but it IS low really. Like 13 million psychopaths in 1.3 billion people. Whaaat!!! No, wait. Honestly, rest assured, despite that scary figure you’re unlikely to meet one walking down the street today. Or maybe not. Feeling lucky? Um, excuse me while I just nip out & lock my doors.)

So, what about all the other people – let’s call them villains –  who continue to star in our villain 2news reports or populate our gaols?  The non psychopaths. These people weren’t born bad. For the vast majority, things happened in their lives that affected their perspective and culminated in poorly made decisions to cause havoc and break laws (sociopaths). Or regular people who’ve got some kind of issue that burns them or has turned them.  These ‘things’ are called motivations. I.e,  a motive or reason for their decisions or behaviour.

Like everything else in life, villains come in all shapes and sizes. Moreover, they come in all manner of villainy from the sneaky troublemaker to the morally bankrupt multi murderer/serial killer. Some are charming (in their own evil way). Some slip into the shadowy background and exist in that disregarded no man’s land ‘under the radar’. And some will make our skin crawl. As authors and readers, we’ve met them all because fiction has an unfathomably higher percentage of villains of all kinds than real life. Thank goodness, yeah?

To recap that: In real life, ordinary people will do bad things. Just as in fiction, ordinary people will do bad things. The one thing these non psychopathic villains have in common is motivation; the reason that drives their actions.

Let’s look at some. Caveat: The list below is not comprehensive and there are heaps of lists on the net. However these are all motivations – and all open to your own twists and interpretation –  that I have either used or read, where used successfully, in YA novels.

  • Romance/jealousy.
  • Revenge for a perceived injustice
  • Repayment of past treatment.
  • Desperation
  • Peer acceptance
  • Peer domination
  • Need for Power (based on villains own suppressed power by others in his life)
  • Rivalry
  • Grief/Loss
  • Fear of Discovery
  • Fear
  • Pride
  • Greed

Don’t forget your villain can also have noble motivations – or motivations that began as noble. Most superhero villains were once good guys with noble motivations who somehow got off track. A villain with a noble/likeable side is most intriguing.

villain superheroes

Mix up your villains motivations to add more interest. Maybe your villain can’t help being a villain because he’s trapped?

Motivations are one of the major keystones to your story. They:

  • Reveal & distinguish character
  • Drive plot
  • Build drama
  • Give your story authenticity
  • Provide the impetus for character growth arc.

Motivations apply to every character, not just the villain. They drive the story. Dare I say they are the story. Every action and every reaction of your characters will be the result of their reasoning. And all reasoning is tempered by motivation.

Good Luck and Happy villaining!

kaz-profiles-022Multi award winning author Kaz Delaney has published 72 novels for kids, teens & adults over a 20 year period, many of them  published in several languages. Thirteen are YA novels and every one features a romance. Her latest is The Reluctant Jillaroo, Allen & Unwin, 2016 .  She is repped by JDM Management.

The Best Winter Themed Characters

Fuzzy socks, hand knitted blankets, finger-less gloves, and warm beanies. That’s just how you’ll find me most days at the moment, often with my computer sitting in my lap or a book in hand. I don’t have a crackling fire to settle in front of, but I do have two warm purr-buckets who like to curl around me and share their warmth.

Isn’t winter the best season for reading and writing?

You betcha! Anyways, while reading Wicked Lovely earlier this month I got to thinking about season themed characters and just how awesome a strong setting, with a character to match can be. Here are some of

my top wintry wonders

  • Donia from Wicked Lovely – This winter faerie isn’t just cool, she actually looks like winter. With corpse-blue skin and lips, plus the fairest hair you could image, Donia even weeps frosty tears. Her transformation throughout the book doesn’t see her lose her wintry appearance, if anything she becomes more, better, just … SPOILERS. This one is for fans of beautifully written fantasy.
  • Lucas from Winter Omens (The Last Years) – This alien-hybrid boy is winter personified. He’s cold to the touch, but not cold-hearted and he balances out Althea’s summery traits perfectly. He’s one of those protective, loving heroes that you just can’t help but love. Anyway, I’m not going too delve to far into this world because spoilers, but if you love dystopian sci-fi, read this one!
  • Ull from Elsker – You can’t get more winter-themed than the Norse God of Winter himself. Ull has the looks and charm of a god as well as the powers. If you love huge romantic gestures, love too great to be true, and guys who can manipulate snowflakes then Elsker’s for you.
  • Jadis the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia – Winter = cold. Cold = heartless. Heartless = broken. That about sums our self decalred Queen of Charn. You can’t get much more heartless than cursing a whole land with an endless winter. But poor Jadis isn’t just mean for meanness’s sake. If you haven’t read The Chronicles of Narnia then where have you been?
  • Elsa from Frozen – yeah, yeah I know she doesn’t live in a YA book, but how could I list off winter characters without mentioning the girl who can control the snow and ice?!

//giphy.com/embed/FXBYQ5CATTPkA

via GIPHY

Is there anyone I’ve missed? Who are the greatest winter-themed characters in your opinion?


Stacey Nash

For reasons unknown to her Stacey Nash’s books are almost all set in autumn. Perhaps because of the fun you can have with falling leaves. If you feel like connecting with the young adult author on social media, where she tries to be engaging check out these places: www.stacey-nash.com, instagram, twitter, facebook.

Save

Guest Post: ‘Character agency: grab your readers, don’t let go’ by Sofie Bird

Welcome and thanks to our second guest poster of the month, the fabulous speculative fiction writer Sofie Bird. I got to know Sofie via Twitter, and knew right away that she is one of my people. Case in point: she owns a necklace of a t-rex skeleton! — Cass

Character is key to a story. It doesn’t matter how spectacular your plot is if we don’t care about who it’s happening to. And when it comes to creating characters we care about, giving them agency is perhaps the most crucial element.

Characters with agency leap off the page and demand our attention; they grab our hearts and don’t let go. They’re the kind of characters we can chat to in our head after the story is done; the kind we imagine having as a friend (or enemy), with a life of their own. Giving your characters agency means they’re driving the story. It pulls your plot into a cohesive whole that revolves around what the character wants, and what happens when they try to get it.

So what is agency, and how do I create it?

Agency isn’t some nebulous quality that just appears; it can be created! Characters have agency when their purposeful actions affect the plot.

There’s a lot of information in that definition, so we’re going to break it down into goals, actions and consequences: a purposeful action is an action with a reason behind it — a goal it’s trying to attain. That action affects the plot by creating consequences for the character. We’re going to look at these elements and how you can make sure your stories are supported by each.

Goals

As Kurt Vonnegut famously said: “A character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Goals are what give us a way into the character, a way to understand and identify with them, which is the first step to caring about them. The more important the goal is to the character, the better: the more they care, the more we’ll care.

Goals can be attaining something, or preventing something, but they need to be actionable. The character needs to be able to do things that they believe will help achieve their goal. If a character desperately wants their cancer test to be negative, that’s a powerful want, but it’s not a goal. There’s nothing they can do to make it happen or influence the outcome. However, if what they really want is for their insurance company to think their test is negative, that’s a goal: it’s no longer out of their hands. Even if the result is positive, they could sneak in and forge it, or bribe the doctor: they can take action.

The best kinds of goals are ones the character can’t have right away. If Billy gets himself a glass of water from the kitchen as soon as he wants one, it’s not much of a story. If Billy’s water is off because his neighbour’s renovations burst the water main, now we might have something.

But it’s both repetitive and absurd if Billy just searches his environment endlessly for glasses of water. When thwarted, people look for other ways to solve their problem. So Billy’s going to need sub-goals for each scene, things like find out why the water is off, try to tell the water company, relieve his frustration by yelling at his neighbour, get to a café and buy a drink.

These sub-goals need to progress the main goal, or be closely related to it. If Billy suddenly wants catch up with an old friend instead of going to the café, we’re going to feel like his glass-of-water problem isn’t that important after all, and we’ll stop caring.

Agency checklist part one: read through your story and note both what the character wants overall — their primary goal — and how they’ve broken that goal down into sub-goals as problems arise. If you can’t find any goals, invent either something they really want — a promotion, a lover, a glass of water — or something they’re desperate to avoid.

Actions

Goals are all very well, but there’re few things more irritating than characters sitting around wanting something and doing nothing about it. In fiction, if the character doesn’t do anything about their goal, we’ll assume they don’t really care, and we’ll stop caring. So: characters have to take actions that they think will move them toward their goals.

Your character’s actions provide the stepping stones of the plot. Every scene or story beat should have a definite action the character is taking. (Okay, not quite every scene, but I’ll cover that later). To make the obvious link: this is precisely why character goals have to be actionable, because we need the character to do things about them. If your goal isn’t actionable, your character will have nothing to do.

Characters also change during a story — in fact, the story is usually the journey that takes them from being unable to do what is needed to attain their goal, to being capable of that action. So the actions they choose should change as the story progresses. Maybe they’ll take the high road now, where once they took the easy path. But this growth needs to be based on experience that we see; characters need a reason to change, just like regular people do. And that’s where consequences come in.

Agency checklist part two: write down each action that your character takes to try to attain their goal. If your characters spend a significant time not doing anything, then make some notes on things they could try, or perhaps some smaller sub-goals they could strive for if the main goal is out of reach. If you can’t think of anything, revisit whether your goal is in fact actionable by this character.

Consequences

So, you have characters who want things, and they’re taking actions to work towards attaining them… but the plot just happens anyway. Explosions. Pirates on the high seas. We start to feel like this isn’t the character’s story, that they have no power over their own lives, and their actions are pointless: nothing they do has changed how the story turned out.

For characters to have agency, the plot must respond to the character’s actions.

Usually, things get worse and worse until the character has a breakthrough and can finally take the action they need to resolve things. But just making the situation more dire doesn’t work: it must be a direct result of the character’s earlier actions. Essentially, the story is teaching the character that the initial way they wanted to solve the problem isn’t the “correct” one. They’ll keep making things worse for themselves until they learn to do things the “correct” way. I’m putting “correct” in quotes here because we’re not talking about what’s morally correct. It’s all relative to the character’s journey.

If, after complaining to his neighbour, Billy goes down to the café to get water, but the café is closed because it’s Monday, that’s boring. It’s not related to anything that happened before, and Billy learns nothing. If the café refuses to serve him because the neighbour’s wife owns it and she heard what Billy said down the phone — now we have consequences. Billy’s own actions have made things worse, and have driven the story forward by creating a new problem for him to solve. These consequences eventually combine into the climax that helps Billy realise he should perhaps try asking nicely for a change.

Other than your inciting incident — the initial event that pushes the character off on their journey, like Billy’s water being shut off — everything that happens should be a result of the character’s actions, preferably within the story itself. (A word of caution on using backstory to justify consequences: it’s an easy shortcut, but if we don’t see the action that caused the event, it doesn’t feel as ‘real’ to us. Use backstory sparingly, and never for a major consequence.)

Agency checklist part three: go through your story looking for all the events that happen. Can you tie everything back to an action the character took earlier? If not, maybe your character isn’t taking big enough actions, or your story needs to react more to them. Consider the worst possible outcome from your character’s actions, then inflict it upon them!

A final word on breaking the rules

Combining goals, actions and consequences give your character the ability to change your story, which is the sense of agency readers want to connect with—they want power over their own lives. But not every scene needs to have agency.

Sometimes, after a big revelation or a huge loss, a character needs to take stock, think over what just happened and decide on a new direction. But those scenes need to be few and far between. Think of it like a rollercoaster; scenes with agency are either building up or racing down; scenes without agency flatten out. They give you a breather to process what just happened, but too much kills your momentum.

And that’s it, we’re done! Three simple steps to create engaging and memorable stories with characters that readers love. Happy writing!

Author details

Sofie Bird writes speculative fiction in between editing, programming, and technical writing. She is powered by tea, chocolate, and sarcasm, and can be found on Twitter @sofie_bird or occasionally blogging at http://sofiebird.net.
Sofie Bird

To Trope or Not To Trope

We’ve all heard the saying before; when it comes to stories, there is a finite number of concepts, of ideas and characters, out there. Sure, every story has (or certainly should have!) an individual twist, but realistically, a lot of characters and story problems are the same.

Think about it; when you’re looking at books, things like a love triangle, a damsel in distress, a smart girl who becomes popular, or an underdog who saves the day are not only common, they’re downright expected — but the cool thing is, they do differ in the way they’re represented. After all, the love triangle in The Hunger Games is very different to the one in Frozen!

Photo: Big Stock Photo

Photo: Big Stock Photo

Still, there are certain concepts and characters we see a lot of in fiction, and some can really get on people’s nerves. So, we’ve decided to do a poll: Which cliche or trope do you like the MOST when it comes to Young Adult and New Adult fiction?
Let us know your thoughts, or, if you have another we haven’t listed, don’t hesitate to share it in the comments. We’ll do a follow-up on this in the near future–we can’t WAIT to hear what you think.

10153983_10154138536485512_6541138840832039677_n

Lauren K. McKellar is an editor, and author of Young and New Adult fiction. You can save her from distress by visiting her website or hanging out with her on Facebook.

Keeping Your Characters In Line

imagesCAJCMQ5Q

(Source) 

Impossible? I used to think so.

I know that my characters tend to just do whatever they please, whether I like them to or not. I’ve even tried punishing some of them to try and pull them back into line, but I’ve discovered that, in so doing, I have just managed to make them even more rebellious. Whether I drown them, or break their hearts, give them heart attacks or other near death experiences I still have not been able to get them to understand that I am in charge. I am the boss, the authority. I brought them into this world, and I can take them out of it dangnabbit!

And this is only for the characters in one manuscript!

If you are anything like me (and I know there are a few of you out there) you’ll likely have more than one MS on the go at once (in my case, I have about seven on the go at the moment). So the problem of misbehaving characters becomes even more pronounced. They try to jump between manuscripts, try to confuse me with their doppleganger abilities. Sometimes they even disguise themselves as someone else within their own manuscripts, some even try to change their own names! Honestly, the cheek of it all.

So the question is, how do you keep your characters in line. How do you make them behave? Especially with several MS’s on the go (like crazy ol’ me)?

I’ve developed a couple of strategies.

1. COPIOUS NOTES – I have handwritten notebooks coming out the wazoo.

2. CHARACTER FACT SHEETS – If you google character fact sheets or something to that effect, you will be able to download sheets with questions about your character. All you have to do is fill in the blanks. Some are fairly simple (which you would use for minor characters) and some ask the most personal of questions…and LOTS of them. By the time you have filled one of these out you will know your character better than they know themselves.

3. INDEX CARDS – This is the one that I find the most useful. Buy yourself a pack of index cards (whatever size you want) and at the top of each one write your character’s names, then highlight their name in a funky colour (I use a different colour for each MS I’m working on). Underneath their name you then right down their age, how they fit into the story and their relationship with the other characters, physical characteristics and their personalities. I like to also then search the interwebs for pictures of people I think look like my characters. I then print them out and paste the pictures onto the index cards as well.  If you do this for each character for each MS and then keep them filed NEATLY, you will always have a reference for your characters, thus keeping them in line.

If you have any other ideas for keeping your characters in line and in their own stories, please share with a comment. We would love to know how you go about it.

* * *

393716_10152119860655008_2095069672_n

Suse Hocking is a wife and mother, a mad-keen reader and wannabe writer. She also dabbles in the freelance editing industry. You can follow her on her own blog – The Scribbling Post – on Facebook  – and on Twitter.