Finding My Villains’ Words

Posted on December 1st 2014 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Writing

As I begin adding the changes marked with the Purple Pen of Doom I find myself giving quite a lot of scrutiny to my villains. Let’s be frank here; Villains are bad people. Antagonists can be – and often are – not-so-bad, even good, people who have goals that just don’t jive with the protagonists. Thus, conflict is born. But villains… Villains are the nasty, conniving scum of the Earth (or whatever world your story is set on) who are practically begging for a hero who can defeat them.

Sometimes we love villains. Let’s face it, they’re often much more interesting people than our dear heroes. Then again, there are other villains who are just so vile that any hint of a redeeming quality is lost in the mire.

Bad people, as a general rule, tend to say bad things. This is something I find myself struggling with. Unless you’re writing a dark comedy where the bad guy is a sweet-seeming grandma or a ten-year-old kid (then again, maybe not in that case) chances are good that once the villain’s cover is blown she’s going to say some naughty things. How do you handle that?

The current draft of Saving the Dragon drops exactly one f-bomb and a couple of female dog references. These don’t come out until about two-thirds of the way into the story when the bad guys are out in earnest. Without giving away any spoilers I can say with one-hundred percent certainty that the f-bomb is exactly the right word for the sentence. Why? Because any other word substituted wouldn’t lend the same weight and credibility to the character’s dialogue.

After I wrote the sentence in question I stopped for a moment. Up until this point the story had been pretty PG. Okay, completely PG. I had to ask myself, does this word really belong in this book? I had a serious moment of doubt. I’d thought up until that point that I was writing YA. And honestly, what was my mother going to say?

The conclusion I have reached is this: humans, especially villains, are flawed creatures. While we have the capacity for great acts of kindness we also have, as a species, a great capacity for unspeakable evil. Fiction is often a mirror in which real-life is reflected. Real people say bad things and to censor out of our literature our villains’ true words and character is the equivalent of tinting the mirror a rosy pink. In order for our fiction to be powerful that mirror needs to be clear, giving us a brutally honest image of ourselves and the world around us.

I open it up to you now, dear readers. If you’re a writer, how do you find your villains’ words? If you’re a reader, what do you find most shocking? Most offensive? Most real? Share some of your favorite and most hated fictional villains.

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One response to “Finding My Villains’ Words”

  1. Kiera says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make a villain or antagonist sympathetic. It’s very difficult. Some antagonists I love: Wilhelmina Slater in the TV show “Ugly Betty” (I know it’s not a novel, but I’m watching it at the mo.) I just love how I find myself both rooting for the protagonist and the antagonist, because the antagonist is sympathetic and portrayed as a human. A human who is power hungry and enjoys scheming, of course.

    I think George R.R. Martin does a really good job in “Game of Thrones” of portraying someone (Jaime) who does something really awful at the beginning (no spoilers) then by the end you’re rooting for him. Or at least I am. But at the same time, his villains are super villainous. E.g. Joffrey, Cersei are super villainous and I didn’t feel bad when bad stuff happened to them.

    In terms of making villains talk, I’ve managed to avoid the issue so far in my novel. My villain kind of just comes out of nowhere and attacks, then, well, no more spoilers. I should probably give her some words, but I think the challenge is putting yourself in the mind of someone who is a psychopath when you’re a non-psychopath, i.e., someone who can feel empathy.

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