Redeemable vs Non-redeemable Villains

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I enjoy streaming a syndicated radio talk show called, Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis. The show has interesting, offbeat topics. Listening helps me unwind at the end of a busy workday. The other night Clyde talked about the latest Godzilla movie. He described how the title character has evolved from an evil beast to a defender of the planet. That’s quite a leap indeed, and it was a fascinating discussion.

(To hear a podcast please click on the link above.) 

While I don’t write science fiction or horror myself, those genres do allow more leeway for using symbolism for political undertones. This may be the case with Godzilla. However, there are certain unwritten rules that fiction authors must follow because it’s what readers expect. High on the list is that good always triumphs over evil.

Fiction plotlines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven. The antagonist creates the conflict when he or she interferes with the protagonist. The antagonist is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. This is why most antagonists are villains. And the more devious and evil the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

In real life, however, people can and do make poor choices. Some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. For example, Josh, from my most recent Marina Martindale novel, The Letter, is a con artist. He’s working a Ponzi scheme with two unseen characters. However, as the character took shape I noticed he had some redeeming qualities. So, I did a rewrite and made him into a redeemable villain. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll sum it up and say that things aren’t always as they appear.

Most of my villians, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant, even while they’re carted off to prison. Most however, are their own undoing. They police shoot them, or they’re killed in accidents while trying to escape. They’re the unredeemable villains. The Godzillas, who have to have their comeuppance, otherwise readers won’t accept it. After all, karma’s a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


GM

Outline or Treatment?

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It can be a perplexing question for authors, particularly newbies. Do you write an outline, or a treatment, before you begin your book? Or do you just sit down and start writing?

Outlines are recommended for nonfiction books. They can be more precise. However, this blog is for fiction writers, so I’m going to talk about what is the best approach for us. And that is to write a treatment.

A treatment is a short summary of what your story will be about. The amount of detail you wish to include is entirely up to you. Some fiction authors may choose to write treatments summarizing each chapter. Others simply write a brief one or two paragraph description. It’s all a matter of personal preference. We’re creative writers, not technical writers, and the keyword is creative. For us, writing is an art, not a science.


My treatments tend to be short; no more than one to one and a half pages. My objective is how I will begin my story, and how I will end it. I used to fret over what to include in the middle. However, experience has taught me to keep it brief. The details will come after I begin writing. In other words, my treatment is my launching point.


Some fiction writers write bios for their characters, and that’s certainly okay. However, I don’t do it myself. My characters come to life rather quickly, and once that happens they have minds of their own. (This may sound freaky to non writers, but every fiction writer experiences this.)

Some authors like to refer back to their treatments as they write. And that’s perfectly okay. I prefer to put my treatment aside once I begin my story. As your characters come to life you may want to go in a different direction than you originally planned. Other ideas may come to you as you delve deeper into your story. Again that’s okay. We’re creative writers. This is how creativity works. 

Once my manuscript is complete I like to go back and look at my treatment. My books never end up as described in the original treatment. They always turn out better. That’s because I let my creativity flow as I write, and many new ideas will pop into my head as I go. My favorite example would be my first Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion.

One of my supporting characters, a young man named, Jeremy, was intended to be a rogue character. He would do his dirty deed and quickly disappear from the story. However, Jeremy was also leading man Ian’s son. And as I got into the story, I soon realized that Ian would never have a son like that. So, Jeremy went from rogue villain to a rival, competing with his father to win leading lady Gillian’s affections. This made for a completely unexpected twist in the story that resonated with me, and my readers. 


As I’ve evolved as a writer, my treatments have also evolved. They’ve become less detailed and more generalized. But, as I’ve stated before, how you choose to write your treatment is entirely up to you. As far as I’m concerned, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. 


GM

How to Create an Interesting Villain

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It seems like I spend so much time thinking about the good guys that I forget the bad guy needs love too. Plot lines revolve around conflict. So, there must be a source behind that conflict. And that would be the antagonist. More commonly known as the villain.


There are different approaches to creating a villain. One is to have him or her truly evil and completely irredeemable. Think Count Dracula. Your readers will hate him and root for the good guys to wipe him out. This is the villain you can kill off at the end of the story, and leave your readers feeling relieved and satisfied.


A more interesting approach is to create a conflicted villain. Instead of Count Dracula, you have Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire from Dark Shadows. Barnabas had been a good guy until a witch placed a vampire curse him. This leaves him despising what he’s become. I think of Barnabas as a “hero-villain.” He’s an antagonist we can root for. We want to see him cured of his affliction and end up with the girl. In the interim, however, he’ll wreak plenty of havoc.


Some storytellers like to take chances and have their hero go bad. Interesting approach, but it can be tricky. If you’re going to attempt it, your character will need plenty of redeeming qualities. If not, your readers won’t make a connection, and they won’t root for him or her. By the end of the story he or she will have to renounce all the bad things they did earlier. They must also be willing to make up for the sins of the past. If not, your readers won’t be satisfied with the ending, assuming they stayed with your story until the end.


Another way to conclude your story would be to end a tragedy with a tragedy. This works well when your villain has done things that simply can’t be walked away from. At the end of the original Star Wars saga, Darth Vader renounces the emperor and turns away from the dark side of the force. He has to sacrifice his own life in order to save Luke. This made a dramatic, and satisfying, end of the conflict.


So there you have it. With a little imagination, and a few character quirks, you can create interesting and memorable villains who’ll keep your readers engaged. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.

GM