Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"What would it take to make you love me?" - villainous motivation

I am shamelessly stealing an idea for this blog from a writer I admire. And even if I didn't (which I do), she stole from me first! (just kidding, Kathryn)

Anyway, over at the Kill Zone, the discussion sparked by Kathryn Lilley deals with truly evil villains and how to write them. And as several people point out in the comments, there's the old saying that the villain is the hero of his or her own journey.

That's great, but it isn't nuts-and-bolts enough for some people.

Which got me thinking about my own antagonists. I always approached the antagonist's motivation by asking myself, "what would it take to make me do this?"

As far as killing, that's easy. Mess with my family and you'll be looking over your shoulder the rest of your life, 'cause somehow some way, I'm coming for ya.

But that doesn't cover the REALLY bad guys. The ones who enjoy watching people suffer. I mean come on, I can't stand to watch an animal in pain without feeling for it...and I'm talking about a buzzard or an alligator, nevermind the cute ones like dogs and the occasional cat. So how do I get inside the head of a person who for example, finds sexual release in the death-throes of a human being, or the person who can only quiet their own inner demons by forcing someone else to scream until they choke on their own blood? Those people are sick, and I'm sorry, but I can't think of anything that could ever "make me do that."

So where do you go now, as a writer?

Well, I found something that makes sense to me, and has worked pretty well so far. Don't think about what it would take to make you do that, because a lot of the time the answer will be, "nothing on this earth."

Instead, think what might allow you to love that person.

Yep. What could possibly have happened to them, or what 'other side' of them could be there that could make you love that person, either in a spousal way or at least a familial, cousin-ish way?

Because that will make them human, and not JUST a monster. The characters who do the kinds of things I mentioned above are monsters, make no mistake. Justify it however they might, as much a hero as they may believe themselves, they are monsters. But what makes them human will make them conceivable and engaging in your fiction. I firmly believe that, pre-pubbed though I may be. And it has worked for me so far.

The example I gave at Kill Zone, and the best one I can think of here, is the backstory Thomas Harris gave for Francis Dollarhyde in RED DRAGON. When he, as an adult, sat down to pee 'like a good boy' because that's what his grandmother had taught him and because of the way she had tortured/treated him, it made sense. He was still a cruel moster, but he was also a human one.

Oh, and can you guess which of these is the one mentioned in the book, vs. which one is shown in the film?

One is the The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, the other is The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun.

I always wondered if Harris had switched them in his mind, if the copyeditor had put in the wrong title (because they are so ridiculously similar), or if the Hollywood people had gotten it mixed up.

So what about you guys? What examples do you have of reasons to love a character who is, in all other respects, a monster?


R.J. Mangahas said...

Jake, this is an excellent post. And what you say has perfect merit. I think a lot of times, evil characters are usually pretty flat (think the villain with the handlebar mustache) But for me (in both reading and writing) the antagonist has to have their own motivation, other than just pure evil.

Something to keep in mind too is that often times the "villains," in their minds, are the heroes of their stories. A perfect example of this is in the movie The Rock. In it, Ed Harris plays General Hummel, a former marine who steals some serious chemical weapons and then takes a tour group on Alcatraz hostage.
His motivation: he wants the government to take notice and give some restitution to the families of soldiers who were killed in action.

So, his motivation is not about gaining things for himself, but to give something to those families who have lost a member to war. And it's that sense of justice and honor that Hummel has which makes the audience love, or at least to empathize with, him.

jnantz said...

Hummel is a great example of an antagonist trying to do the right thing in their eyes. It's hard not to empathize when the "overall" good guys, the US Govt., have so obviously done something we'd all agree is unsavory to prompt him. But then you look at his idea of retribution, and it's not okay either. Great moral puzzle in that film. Good one!

Karen from Mentor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jnantz said...

If we don't know, and it hasn't at least been shown that there is a human side to him/her, then all you have is a carboard cutout bad-guy, complete with black cowboy hat, trenchcoat, handlebar mustache, and overly melodramatic evil chuckle.

If he/she is human, and the reader can be horrified and sympathetic to the character at the same time, that's good writing.

Karen from Mentor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen from Mentor said...

Re: making an evil character sympathetic

I thought Joe did this brilliantly in his excerpt from "Cherry Bomb" when his "monster" Alex wants to kiss the man that she has kidnapped but is "afraid of being bitten, or worse, rebuffed."

That makes her human. Everybody knows what it's like to be rejected and feel bad about it.

THAT'S good writing by Mr. Konrath(often scary,creepy and high on the ick factor, but GOOD writing)
Karen :)

R.J. Mangahas said...

"But then you look at his idea of retribution, and it's not okay either."

Good point here, Jake. But if you recall (and I'm sure you do, because you seem a big movie buff, like me :-]) when Hummel launched that first rocket towards a crowded football stadium, at the very last second (and behind the backs of the other renegade soldiers) he diverted its course and the rocket went out to sea. This raises the question as to how far Hummel was REALLY willing to go.

Once again, great topic here, Jake.

jnantz said...

Gotcha. Sounds like you have a good idea there.

Yeah, I remember that Hummel redirected the missile and admitted it was a bluff. But he still endangered all of those people because he knew what the govt. would try to do to destroy the VX-gas (which is nowhere near that powerful, btw).

Karen Olson said...

My bad guys aren't necessarily monsters. I prefer stories with bad guys who are just regular folk, but who experience jealousy and greed so intensely that it makes them behave criminally. Or someone with secrets that he feels he must do anything he can to keep those secrets from being revealed.

Karen from Mentor said...

Hi Karen,
I like back against the wall "bad guys" too.

I also like back against the wall good guys.

Humans can be motivated to such extremes it's an endless font of inspiration for storytellers.

Karen :)

Karen from Mentor said...

I just had good advice...that I shouldn't discuss an idea I'm working on before it's published in case someone else beats me to it. :)
Thanks for the great tips!

You,RJ and Ms. Olson are sworn to secrecy.lol

jnantz said...

Karen Olson,
I've also heard that the 'What would it take to make a good person do awful things' can be a very effective bad guy. Thanks for pointing that kind of character out. They're often the most real 'bad guys' you can have!!

Karen from Mentor,
Don't worry, your secret's safe with us.

Karen from Mentor said...

Do you ever have trouble with the "Newbie" site?
Internet explorer crashes EVERY time I go there. I even upgraded to a higher version. I haven't been able to get on for days.
Don't have trouble with ANY other site. weird.
Thanks for keeping my idea under your hat.
Karen :)

jnantz said...

It sometimes loads really slow, but that's about it.

Lettera22 said...

This is a bit off of the topic...when I read this post, the first thing that came to mind was women who write letters to convicted murders in prison, or worse, marry them. I would like to think there's some goodness in everyone, but corresponding or marrying a killer is just uber creepy in my book. But it makes me think about what motivates these women "love a monster."

For me, the villain, no matter how awful he/she is, must have some "warm" human qualities in order to be credible. Joe Pesci's character in Casino comes to mind. He's a cold blooded killer, but he dotes on his mother.
Dexter, in the Showtime series, Dexter, is a vigilante serial killer. The writers have created a character we can empathize with, even though he's a serial killer.

The question that always pops up in my head is...how did he get here from there? I want to read about the villain's journey, his past experiences, both good and bad, his childhood, all of which will hopefully unlock the key to his motivation, otherwise, I feel cheated.

I know...easy to say as a reader and much, much harder to write! I should be bald since I've been tearing my hair out over my villian's motivation and wondering if it's at all plausible. :(

Great post. Thanks Jake.