The Writer’s Blog

Researching Your Book

Medieval Woman with the Finger on the Lips Holding a Lamp

We, the writers, come up with imaginary worlds of the future. We also weave intricate plots which take place in ancient Rome or in the silk-clad Victorian England. We describe the bloody battlefields of the US Civil War and the chaos of the French Revolution. Heads roll and limbs must be amputated.

Each period in history offers a fascinating set of dresses, customs, and geographical variation. Google Maps is an excellent tool if you write about a faraway land, but you need a time machine to visit the battle of Gaines’ Mill.

To set your novel in The US Civil War, you must master the way of speech during the era and you must know how to reload the weaponry and… The list is long.  When you dip into the deep well of history, a new danger arises. You’ll be tempted to infodump because you’ve become quite the expert! You know each footstep the famous general took in the battle of Gaines’ Mill, but:

“The historical novels I admire inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I’m breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone, and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story’s setting is truly foreign. Lots of period detail does not necessarily make a compelling story; many of my favorites in this list are short distillations that transport us poetically to another world.”

Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/

The secret is the delicate balance between solid facts and skillful fiction. The right amount of authenticity depends on the genre and the reader. You might have to rewrite multiple times to get into fabulous world-building.

Choose your battle

The readers who are inclined to buy your book are interested in the:

  • Theme
  • Era
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Or plot of your book.

Or they just like the cover image, or find out about you from Amazon or blogs or…

Chances are that your reader knows something about the world of your book.  If the reader notices that you got the weapons or the family background of the hero wrong, you lose their trust.

Bang!

That’s the sound your book makes when it hits the floor and shall never be picked up again.

The secret is choosing your battles. Master the rules and you can bend them. There’s no harm in removing historical details as you go along and decide that each bit isn’t necessary for the drama. But don’t make a mistake with the essential stuff! Your hero/heroine should be an exceptional character, but relatable.

For example, a Victorian woman’s place was in the home: being a well-behaved mistress of the house and giving birth to babies- preferably burly sons. Dracula is a British-American television series, a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The character of Mina is cast as a doctor. The education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era and the source of joking. It wasn’t impossible though. See, research pays. A female doctor isn’t against the rules of Victorian worldbuilding, but a pioneer whose profession gives you a chance to write conflict.

The Ideal Reader

Surely you have imagined him or her: the person who enjoys your book so much that she tells all her friends about you? I’m going to use simple stereotypes now. Don’t be offended.

If your ideal reader is a single woman in her twenties; she lives in the big city and wolfs down romantic & historical literature, chances are that she expects romance and adventure when she picks up your book. This buyer is willing to accept that you bend the borders of social class. The charming baron blazing down the hillside riding his white stallion to grab the peasant girl is plausible if you’re within the genre expectations. If the ideal reader is a fifty-something naval veteran, you’d better get the military details of the battle of Potomac right.

It’s entirely possible that your audience ranges from ages 20 to 65 and represents both female and male readers, but something binds together the people who would enjoy your book: the features of the ideal reader connect them.

The Dust of History

Chances are that you hated the dry dust of history in school. Let go of that thought. Finding out about history will cause your writing to soar with new ideas. You don’t have to come up with everything: the information is already there for you to grab.

“If you’re writing non-fiction, research will most likely be the basis of your book. For fiction, it can provide ideas on which to build your characters and plot.”

Source: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/01/18/research-a-novel/

I like to base my characters, especially the villain, on somebody who existed. Historical figures are great baselines for fictional characters. Reading a memoir will give you insight into the thought models, religions and aspirations which people had during that era.

“Books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

Read other people’s books. Find out how they’ve come up with the right balance between fact and fiction.

But I Write About The Future

You might think that you’re safe from researching history because your setting is imaginary and the plot takes place in the future.

The fictional future of mankind is:

  • The gleaming steel world manned by people dressed in sterile white. Here, the most deadly weapon is science.
  • Or the grim post-apocalyptic desert with wandering tribes and murderous warlords. Here, the most deadly weapon in the hand of the new caveman is an old rifle or an ax.

Both of them have their foundation in historical eras. When the race to the moon was on during the Cold War, writers grabbed the theme of alien invasions and space wars. When the threat of the nuclear holocaust became evident to the masses, the writers offered visions of radiation-ridden wastelands roamed by a handful of smart and resilient survivors. If I were to write the latter version, I’d study the dark Middle Ages.

Science Fiction experienced a boom during the decades of rebuilding and technological optimism after WWII. We’d fill Mars with colonies and abandon the earth before the doomsday clock ticked into 2000 AD. Of course, we didn’t. We stayed pretty much the same but we enjoy 3D movies depicting that very theme!

History is inevitably linked to the future.

The reader will find the future more plausible when it derives from the politics of today

We relate to something we witness with our own eyes. Fears of today form the future monsters. Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote the book in 1985, but the misogynistic Gilead state is plausible to us because of the features in US politics.

To envision the worst case scenario is human nature.

We littered the earth with trash and we invented digital devices, but humanity remained the same. We feel empathy for the future character who could be us.

Alternate History Fiction

A whole subdivision of dystopian literature is Alternate History. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle is a brilliant example. C. J . Sansom represents the new wave of alternate history fiction with his Dominion (one of my favorite books).

The plots of C. J. Sansom’s other novels take place during Tudor times. Sansom is a researcher of history and his books are excellent entertainment.

Even if you don’t want to be the dusty hermit, Google a few search terms. Read, read and read. The strange world of your next book starts to grow and breathe around you. Once, there was a time when writers had to drag themselves to the library to study. Today, we just open a laptop or a mobile phone. Who said that humanity couldn’t evolve?

Hashtags: #history #books #writing #writingadvice #howtowrite #research #future #novel #fiction #dystopian #utopian #historical #adventure

Give Your Characters Hell- A Crash-course in World Building

Screaming beauty Model with American Indian Makeup

The world of my first book is dystopian, as some of you might know. In Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic literature, world-building must start from page one. The same goes with historical fiction, but I continue with the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”

An excellent example of world-building from page one without going into excess detail and losing the journey of the Main Character. You want the occasional browser of Amazon or the lunch-time walker who strands into the local bookstore to get on with the reading, don’t you? When you read the first chapter of this classic book, you know what you get into.

You must let the reader know what he is buying.

I’m sure you have read your share of writing advice on the beginning aka the Inciting Incident. I know I have.

“The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story. This particular moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.”

Source: www.nownovel.com

You’ll start your book in the middle of the action, and you’ll yank the Main Character out of his daily life. Someone or something drags the hero into dangerous territory, and you’ll give the MC hell to raise the stakes. You make his goal crystal clear to the anonymous reader who comes from a variety of backgrounds.

By doing this, you are world-building.

You describe the thunder outside the MC’s window when fate comes knocking on his door dressed as Gandalf The Grey or explosions or… You tell us what kind of bedsheets the heroine casts aside to answer the call of duty. When she gets dressed and fetches her weapons, you give us laser guns or the bow and arrow of Katniss Everdeen.

If you’re writing about basically anything which is alien to the person who buys your book- hunting or lace weaving – you need to immerse him/her into your world. You use the five senses which give us the most cited rule in the history of fiction, from the campfire stories of the hunter-gatherers to the time of widespread Indie-publishing:

Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell

What the MC:

  • Tastes
  • Sees
  • Touches
  • Smells
  • Hears

The five senses immerse the reader into your book’s setting. Scientific studies of human senses go far out. If you’re interested in the over fifty ways of sensing, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense

My personal favorites are the sense of your own body position and pressure.

If you write historical fiction, you do a ton of research to give the accurate details of the world around the one doing the sensing.

World-building and exposition

Google overflows with checklists on world-building. I suggest you use one because it functions as a framework while you expose the imaginary setting.

Remember, an exhibition of the setting mustn’t become an info dump of backstory!

World-building is a tough art. Be stealth and embed the environment into everything the Main Character does. You can use supporting characters to bring forth a piece of history. In my opinion, the only thing that can seriously deal with the problems of effective world-building is REWRITING.

grandma rewriting

I use an Excel sheet for Scene Tracking. World- building has a column of its own which lists the exposition assigned to that particular scene. I keep track of what I’ve already exposed.  And I’ve told all the significant sensory bits when I get to the ending.

Example: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/2013/10/track-your-scenes-on-scene-tracker.html

Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy in world building

Here we dive into character psychology again. When you read the list of needs below, remember to make the fury of hell rain down on your MC. Think of hardship, battle, desperation- you need to build conflict which is the core of each great story.

Without conflict, you have only exposition and no story.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.”

Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

A list of needs according to Maslow:

  • Physical demands: where does your MC acquire food or water? Who manufactures/sells it and what does he want? The hard-core motivation of satisfying one’s bodily needs is a great way to expose your world. Think of the role of gasoline in Mad Max. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max
  • Safety needs: How to find safety from the elements? Who can offer security among numbers and what’s the price?
  • Belongingness needs: family, friends, clan and culture. This need offers you a rich possibility of describing the rules of birth, marriage, and death. How to raise kids during a specific era? Belongingness can tell the reader so much about the society the MC lives in.
  • Esteem needs: What the MC sees when she catches her own reflection while passing a shop window? How far up the ladder of the hierarchy is the pauper or the princess? This need offers the writer a beautiful opportunity for character development.
  • Cognitive needs: Education, knowledge, being right or wrong. This need addresses the goal of the MC.
  • Aesthetic needs: What people consider beautiful or relaxing? No matter how scorched the post-apocalyptic landscape is, people find aesthetically pleasing things. Music, fashion, booze… Does the MC manufacture some objects herself? The things which please her tell a story. A gunsmith or a soldier reveres his weapon, and a princess loves her silk.
  • Self-actualization: character ARC, change in the person between the beginning and end.
  • Transcendence: Religion, beliefs, mysticism. Does your MC find peace in the end? Remember to develop your character ARC.

“Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.” Find out more here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

maslow_pyramid.jpg

This is the framework I use to create dystopian world twenty-five years after the nuclear war. You must weave world-building into everything you put in your book. The setting isn’t a separate entity.

Good luck!

My Website: www.rebeckajager.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rebeckajagerwriter/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rebeckajager/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/@JagerWriter

The Sidekick – The Shadow or The Flame?

Young attractive Witch walking on the bridge in heavy black smoke.

When I hear the word sidekick, the image of Batman’s Robin conjures. Who could forget the guy wearing the green pantyhose? The word is forever linked with the lesser one of the power duo.

The Urban Dictionary defines a sidekick:

“A friend/associate of a more popular, charismatic person. The sidekick gains most of his/her acclaim from merely being connected so closely to the more powerful acquaintance.”

It’s easy to write a sidekick who follows the heroine like a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is long, and sometimes it travels ahead of her, but shadows rarely mean anything except symbolism.

And then an interesting secondary character flows out of your pen like lightning. This person keeps you awake at night and leads the story into unknown depths as a bright flame.

The safest route to prevent the sidekick from stealing the spotlight, is to make her/him inferior to the heroine/hero but where’s the drama in that?

Someone to save the day

If you’re like me, you write a villain who radiates raw power. He keeps kicking the hero’s ass, and you need someone to help defeat him. My recommendation is to make the villain stronger than the MC because this way you build pressure and suspense! You drive the plot forward with bloody desperation.

The sidekick can come to the MC’s aid at the darkest hour: when the villain is about to strike a spear into the hero’s heart.

The sidekick is abler than the hero under unusual circumstances:

  • The hero is wounded and unable to defend himself
  • The hero is under a spell or doesn’t sense the approaching death
  • The secondary character is the only one around and must rise to save the day
  • The villain’s BFF changes sides and become one of the good guys to keep the hero safe. He has the element of surprise on his side.
  • The sidekick betrays the hero and reveals that he has been working for the evil one the whole time. You can feel the salt stinging on that wound for a long time. This twist forces you to prolong the final battle- which is a good thing. Keep postponing the reader’s satisfaction.

And so on. I’m sure you have seen movies which utilize a lesser character to bring the plot into a grand finale via roundabouts.

Just Different

The sidekick can be a person who contrasts the hero, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson. Watson is a man of medicine with practical wits, and a war hero, who reflects the intellectual superiority of Sherlock Holmes. Where Holmes is in danger, Watson comes to the rescue. Where Holmes is at loss, Watson is confident because he is different.

Sometimes the secondary character, which you intended as a vessel for plot advancement, steals the readers’ attention. That’s what happened to Liva Löwe in my book The unholy Warrior. She’s the one my beta readers found most attractive because they can relate to her.

The key to the reader’s heart is arousing empathy. Keep your sidekicks relatable!

Sometimes the heroine can appear too strong and hardheaded, which is fine for the MC. But the presence of a gentler person who finds her courage when all else crumbles can have an earth-shaking effect on the reader.

In my book The Unholy Warrior, the heroine Rebane Nordstrom thinks she’s invincible, and the young German girl she saved is a mere nuisance to be dragged around:

“Each twig crackled under Liva’s foot and the fir trees slapped her with prickling branches. The willows grabbed the young woman’s shirt and her hair got tangled in the thorny bushes. The forest forbade Liva’s presence. Rebane advanced too fast for her to keep up.

“Rebane, wait!” she shouted when her friend’s leaf green camouflage merged with the shade of the grove.

Rebane turned around and her expression didn’t hide her frustration:  “You’re noisy like the running elk. The elk doesn’t care because she’s big. Everything cedes in front of her but you’re not the fucking elk, and nothing here fears you,” Rebane hissed and spat on the moss.

“I’m sorry. Can’t you see that I’m trying?”

“And be sure to step where I step as we cut through the swamp. The sacrificial grove is dangerous. It will swallow you if you stray one inch. I’d be unhappy to lose you, my friend.”

Liva’s eyes filled with tears. The words she tried to form stuck on her lips. Rebane took a firm hold on her smooth white hand and Liva squeezed her arm like she was about to drown.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Liva said but the wind which whispered among the trees scattered her voice.

****

At this stage, Liva is weaker than Rebane who is a trained soldier and a master survivalist. The women have just crossed paths, and I take my time to reveal Liva’s unique qualities. She has survived kidnapping and slave traders, but with a different approach than Rebane who shoots first and asks questions later. Liva is more than meets the eye. She is in touch with the divine healing power. Omens and visions give her understanding of what plagues Rebane. Mother Nature is a dominant bitch and she has a significant role in my book. Liva Löwe is an adapter: she molds her being to fit the surroundings.

Blurring lines

Is Julia a sidekick of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984? Yes and no. A love interest can be a sidekick. Winston and Julia rebel together.

Boy-boy and girl-girl pairs are abundant in literature and movies. If the heroine and the sidekick represent different sexes, you can write a sub-plot of budding love. One-sided affection raises the stakes a notch by introducing another level of conflicting interests. A disgruntled lover is a fertile ground for the enemy to grow resentment towards the hero.

Julia_1984.jpeg
Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the Film 1984, MGM 1985.

But I see Julia as the last nail on Winston’s coffin. From the introduction of Julia, Orwell predicts the main character’s doom. To make the aide betray the hero is a great idea: the knife twists deep inside the gaping wound. In fact, Winston and Julia betray each other at the face of an invincible enemy: the system.

Any_Amasova
Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova in Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 Eon Productions).   

The representatives of the enemy can become sidekicks for the hero. Just one kiss from the deadly 007 and poof! A battle-hardened communist assassin becomes the Playboy bunny because sex makes her see the system of Motherland as evil.

Okay, I over-simplify.

I’m not complaining because Ian Fleming’s James Bond is excellent entertainment. The secondary character can exist as a borderline case through the entire Bond movie.

We know where Major Amasova’s loyalties lie when we see the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me.

A Writer from The Periphery- Fiction as Your Second Language

Winter, snow covered tree landskape at dusk

When you’re a writer and a member of a small nation, you cannot expect the reading world to understand your train of thoughts. I go to great lengths while trying to master English grammar because I hope to gain a wider audience. I use Grammarly to save my writer’s ass, but my literary thoughts have appeared in English since childhood. Don’t ask me why. Maybe I owe it to Hollywood?

The Finns are a northern nation of circa five million people inhabiting a narrow and long stretch of forest between Sweden and The Russian Federation. Our language is tough on grammar, and all of us learn English in school because nobody understands what we are saying- or bothers to learn Finnish. I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t learn it from my mother as an infant. It’s that hard- trust me.

Learning English as a second language poses several challenges on writing fiction.

Even if we Scandinavian writers learn to master perfect English on our keyboards, our patterns of thought and perception remain native Scandinavian.

I tend to write about familiar things which I’ve experienced firsthand. Although my novel The Unholy Warrior takes place in the not-so-distant future, I write about the arctic nature which has enticed me all my life. I take care in explaining things, but sometimes I use sayings which aren’t understood by the English-speaking audience.

If I abided by the writing rules of my favorite author George Orwell, I wouldn’t use a metaphor in the first place. His rule number one is:  “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

So I managed to break the most important rule of my favorite author. He broke his own rules frequently, but he was a master of style and emotional impact. Rules are meant to be bent, right?

More on George Orwell’s writing rules: https://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

The Blue Hour vs. The Golden Hour

In my first draft of The Unholy Warrior, I used the term “the blue hour” which is a way the Finns describe the magic blue shade of the arctic scenery right after sunset- during the winter. Everything wears the most magical shades of deep blue. The sparkling snow enhances the luminous color, and the Aurora Borealis appear. Some readers didn’t understand what I meant because they have never seen this phenomenon with their own eyes. The correct term is The Golden Hour. To paint the mental picture for my readers, I must use the wrong color or explain myself.

As a newbie writer, you cannot afford to lose a single reader!

The same goes with Aurora Borealis- the fox fires. Most people have seen images of the sun’s particles hitting the northern atmosphere and creating the ghostly waves of color and form on the polar skies. Sometimes the Aurora Borealis appears in Southern Finland- if you are looking at the evening sky in the countryside where the city lights don’t block the beauty of the untamed nature.

Knowing what Aurora Borealis is, differs from the experience of witnessing them yourself for the first time. The magic will make you cry. It’s that beautiful. The FoxFire rocks the fundament of your soul!

I needed to broaden my description:

“My breath puffs up in clouds. I remove my Canada Goose Expedition parka hood and gaze up.

Each inch of the black velvet fills with dotted stars until the Aurora Borealis lights up the sky with elusive neon green. I take off my down-stuffed mitten, and my hand becomes numb in seconds. It’s freezing: minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The sky is alive with light, movement, and color. Blue breaks through the darkness. Lilac appears on the edges, where blue dissolves into the ruby red.

And he comes forth from nothingness with stars in his fur. The playful FireFox gallops across the sky. His black paws kick the air in the West where the remnants of the sunset still lick the horizon. The fox arches his back and springs into an agile leap. He lands on his extended front paws in the dark East. He throws his head back while his flames never stop moving. His tail is fluffy and brushes the cold sky with vivid color. Sparkles pop as he touches the hillside and the mute treetops. The tip of his tail whips the dome of heaven until he pauses. When he looks down at me, a sly smile spreads on his canine face. I feel so small compared to the scale of Mother Nature.”

The passage above is an excerpt from my short story Touch of Heaven. You can get it on Amazon Kindle

Or download the story from my web page

The Upside-down Spider

I set up my social media accounts as part of establishing my writing presence on the net. Sometimes I tried to be funny and used the Finnish saying of the upside-down spider. I just realized that no one understood what I meant but I’m not going to elaborate on what the saying means to the Finns (because it’s extremely dirty).

“Upside-down spider” defined by the Urban Dictionary: 

  • An undefinable phase which can pertain to anything in your vast imagination. Correct, I have a boundless imagination.
  • “You’re about as cool as an upside-down spider.” If you said this to a Finnish girl she would seriously maim you.
  • “I’d rather suck my own poop than eat an upside-down spider.” I don’t understand what this means!
  • Charles J. banged a girl resembling an upside-down spider. This example came close enough.

My point being: we the Scandinavians (or Russians, Chinese, Nepalese and so on…) must check out the meaning of the common saying before we write it to an English-speaking audience. I am still pro-slogans despite Mr. Orwell because sometimes the common phrase consolidates the purpose.

“Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous,” is his rule number six and I believe him. After all, his dystopian novel “1984” hangs on the best-seller lists seventy years after he wrote it! https://money.cnn.com/2017/01/25/media/george-orwell-1984-best-seller

The Upside of Being a Writer from the Periphery

Being a member of the distant minority has its sunnier side. You have an excellent opportunity of letting your readers experience your spiritual homeland by writing about the people, the mood, the weather and the animals of your latitude. The northern nature- especially Lapland- is experiencing a boom of tourism after decades of investment in advertising the untouched winter wonderland.

Why not write about it?

Know Thy Enemy- The Making of a Great Villain

Detective interviewing suspect in dark private room

So, you have a theme in mind: justice, revenge, friendship- a theme can be anything. But a great idea has to be universal- it must play the heartstrings of your readers. It knots into the expectations of your audience. The central psychology of stories varies somewhat by the era. If you want your book to surface among the classics, you must have the longevity of a timeless theme. You have to touch upon the common sub-consciousness: story and character archetypes which have been passed on in literature, movies, and music.

What does your villain symbolize? What does he/she stand for? This is important.

Evil dressed up

Christianity has embedded the notions of good and evil into western writing. Great monotheistic religions have similar theories of hell and the devil. The antagonist, if he is a real villain in the classical sense, embodies the ancient idea of the dark one.

22_top25greatestvillains
Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

We love evil characters. I know I do. Some of the actors I admire have played iconic embodiments of darkness: like Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s list. What could be eviler than a man who shoots a small boy in the back, or tortures a defenseless woman daily?

The antagonist is a vessel for your book’s theme. He dresses up the devil. He is the opposite of your hero’s goal. But remember that evil must be proved through constant actions of vileness. If you litter the pages of your villain with murder and mutilation, one good deed gets more attention.

You want your readers to understand your antagonist, don’t you?

If he/she doesn’t have a tiny speck of goodness, how could people relate to his story? The nightmare embodied has to be understandable. Some of the best monsters show mercy or love to the heroine/hero: like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter protecting the main character, Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

Ways to show a speck of “good” inside your antagonist:

  • He/she doesn’t understand what he/she is doing
  • The villain thinks that he is right, that he has the proper moral grounds
  • Ends sanctify the means: world-domination is required to set history straight
  • He suffered from violence and abuse as a child
  • He is a psychopath- and this is really hard to relate to but makes him interesting if you do your research
  • He understands the meaning of his actions in the end
  • Love redeems him. I don’t believe in this one because we each love in our way. Evil loves with murder and violence loves with a punch in the eye. If you have serious writing skills, you can make this one float though.
  • He loves animals or his children. He can’t be totally evil, can he?

Of course, if your villain is simply seething with malevolence, you can kill him in the end. Justice is redeemed and you stand your moral ground.

In real life, the most ruthless violent bastard usually wins. I’m sorry.

Remember that some of the cruelest monsters in world history have believed in their own ideology. Whatever you can conjure from the depths of hell, can never compare to the good intentions which have paved the road to the real-life inferno of genocide.

Description

A good villain can be a pain in the ass for your protagonist. But does he talk to you? If you’re like me, he/she bothers you when you should fall asleep or drive a car, or take the kids to daycare.

How is his/her voice? Raspy? Seducing? Deep? Beware of cliches. How about whiny, wiry, oppressing?

Describing hands or voice or movement is more fertile than the usual color of eyes and hair. What are his mannerisms and bad habits? How does he move? What does he do for a living? And the job is essential. It’s the first question which we ask when we make acquaintance.

If you want to twist the usual clichés, give him a job which conflicts with his evil.

Stalin
Josif Stalin

Thinking about actors who could play your villain helps to visualize your monster. You can find animated gifs about almost every actor from the roles they’ve played. I use the gifs to describe different facial expressions and movements.

If your style is film noir, look up 40’s faces. If your princess of horror roams the distant future, try sci-fi movie actresses.

Searching the web with words like “greatest movie villains” will most likely offer you a library of wickedness which you can build from.

Each depiction is famous for a reason.

If you’re a history buff like me, you will find a catalog of despicable people on the pages of history books. I like to have a real-life equivalent for my villains.

Character Questionnaire

Letting the antagonist answer your questions during a character interview is a great way to get to know your villain.

The net is full of questionnaire forms, like https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire

Character mannerism lists: https://www.wattpad.com/84533439-a-list-of-500-character-quirks-and-traits-list-1

To avoid information indigestion, make your own list, which suits the novel you are writing at the moment.

And finally, check out your favorite books. Read the epic pages which:

  • introduce the villain and describe him
  • what happens to him in the end?
  • How does the writer show some admirable traits among the constant darkness of evil?
  • What’s his relationship with the hero/heroine?
  • What are his mannerisms, his bad habits, his job, his hobbies, etc.? President Snow tended to roses in his garden in The Hunger Games. And his role was played by one of the greatest character actors: Donald Sutherland.
  • What does he stand for?
  • How do you identify with the antagonist? Can you understand his motives? Why?

I keep a writer’s journal on my favorite villains. I have page after page of classic villainy from the authors I respect. There’s no way- ever- my villain can topple O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984.