Tag Archives: motivation

Theory of Villains

I have a theory about villains. It’s not exactly my theory in the sense of something I invented; I either read it or heard it somewhere (and my rapidly-aging brain has genuinely forgotten where) and instantly felt that it was true. So I did what (I am told) all good writers do and stole it. To whoever I stole it from, both thank you and my apologies.

In any case, the Theory of Villains is basically this. A compelling villain, the kind you remember and the kind that really works as a character, is one that believes they are completely justified in everything they do. They don’t think of themselves as doing anything bad at all. If you sat them down and talked to them, they would explain with complete sincerity that everyone else has it wrong, and that they are in fact the good guy. Now, this isn’t true of all or even necessarily most fictional villains, but when I think of the ones that I have really liked as characters, that I have enjoyed reading about (even while rooting against them) and really believed as creations, it is almost always true.

Lex Luthor thinks Superman is an alien menace.  Tom Zarek from the BSG reboot was a wonderful example of the Theory – he’s always, always got apparently selfless, altruistic motives for everything he does.  Heck, some of the time the show’s protagonists even believe him.  One of Jim Butcher’s better villain creations was the faerie lady Aurora, who is willing to dump the world into endless winter – to bring an end to millennia of Summer vs Winter war and all the suffering this has caused.

Another writer friend of mine pointed out that this is basically the inverse of her Theory of Heroes, which is essentially that everyone thinks that they’re the hero of the story. Nobody thinks of themselves as a side character in someone else’s story; the story is about them and (among other things) therefore their needs are likely to be paramount, their goals the most significant ones. I think this is a) broadly true and also b) important for thinking about how to write believable characters, because even if, as writers, we do decide who the Main Character is and who the Minor Characters are, those Minor Characters probably wouldn’t or shouldn’t agree, if we could ask them. They’re the star of their own story, and that’s how they would see their (pretend) world and interpret what goes on in it. It makes things more complicated for writing them, but I think it does also lead to characters that readers will believe.

Back to the villains, though. It’s easy (easy-ish) to write a character that just Does Bad Stuff and cackles maniacally and have your hero try to Do Something About it, but I’m not really going to buy it as a reader unless there’s a reason why. Why does this person (or whatever) want to kill a bunch of people, or blow something up, or whatever dastardly plot they have in mind? The characters that I tend to remember long after the story is over are the ones who would not only have a reason, but would also explain that what they were doing wasn’t dastardly at all. It had, needed to be done.

I recently came across a good example of this being (in my view) violated on a TV show that I ordinarily think is pretty good – basically we have our bad guy and he has a huge spaceship and it’s name the Malevolence. Which is a nicely menacing name, except that no-one actually names their ships that. No-one really (I argue) sits there and thinks ‘I am an intensely Evil Person and thus this Evil Name for my stuff is appropriate’. They think, instead, that they’re doing the right thing, perhaps via ‘tough love’ or ‘harsh medicine’, or perhaps they’re the only person with the courage to realize what the problems are and do what is necessary. They give their ship a name like Justifier or Conviction or something.

I’m writing about this this week because recent events gave me some pause about the Theory of Villains. I was confronted with people who genuinely made the argument that it was ok to stop funding food for the elderly, the sick, and underprivileged children, on the grounds that there was nothing in it for them and that they weren’t seeing enough of a return. As though a ‘return’ beyond ‘feeding hungry people’ should be necessary. If I read that in a book I’d think ‘no dude, that’s a bit over the top and you need to dial this back a bit if I’m going to believe it’.

And yet here we are. And then another friend of mine pointed out that the people who make these kind of decisions genuinely think the poor are in poverty because of their own wastefulness and failures and deserve punishment, and so the Theory of Villains got another unwelcome bit of supporting evidence.

There really is a way to make nearly any vile character into one who believes that they’re the hero. While it’s unfortunate (to put it lightly) that we’ve got these real life examples to contend with, as a writer I keep the Theory of Villains in mind whenever I’m creating one of my imaginary bad people. I’ve always tried to make my antagonists the kind of people who would vehemently argue that they’re not villains at all, and I think it’s turned out ok.

This is all perilously close to Advice.

Thanks for reading.

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Why We Write

All right. I imagine everyone who does anything on the internet gets exposed to plenty of those motivational graphics that probably make up about 55% of traffic on the world wide web, right up there with cat pictures. Mostly I ignore them – I know that most are posted out of either apathy or good intentions – some of them make me grit my teeth a bit. Of late, I keep seeing one that argues that everything that happens in life will either make you better or make you bitter (barf) and that the difference is Up to You.

If you really believe that, I envy you the peaceful and problem-free life you have enjoyed to this point.

Moving on, rant narrowly averted.

Also of late, I have seen a particular writer-directed one that asks ‘If no-one knows your book exists, what was the point of writing it?’ The first time I saw it, it raised the ol’ hackles a little bit and I wasn’t entirely sure why.

I do understand the point the person who made the graphic was (probably) trying to make – that writing a book is, in a lot of ways, just the first step of making it a commercial success and that learning to advertise and promote it is an important skill set for writers in the Current Environment. It’s a skill set that I’m gradually learning, and I get the idea behind the advice.

Still bugs me.

It took a while, but I eventually figured out why. I don’t like the part where if the book isn’t a commercial success, there was no point in writing it. Obviously (I think) I would love it if everyone on the planet read my stories and it would be great if I was able to get a significant income from my writing. I imagine most writers feel the same.

On the other hand, that’s not why I write, and I suspect that’s true for many other writers as well. I write because I have stories I want to tell, and I have fun making them up, putting them together, and writing them down. I love inventing people who have never existed and seeing what they do. I really dig the challenge of having a scene in my imagination and trying to convey that experience to other people.

I love working with words. I like trying to find just the right way to put something or to find a new way to get an image or an idea across. Words have been my toys for about as long as I can remember, so writing time is time to play.

As I guess I’ve alluded to a few times on this blog, writing is also a form of self-care – it relaxes me and the process gives me pleasure. Taking a deep dive into my imagination is a great way to give myself a timeout from whatever Real World problems are plaguing me, and having banged together a few hundred words can provide a feeling of having Done A Thing, on top of it all.

So, yes – of course I would love it if my writing became a huge commercial success, both because that would mean lots of people had read it, but also because, yes, money is a nice thing to have. However, even if you told me that would never, ever happen, I would still keep writing. I do want people to read my writing, of course I do, but that isn’t the reason why I did it. The point of writing, for me, is to write, not to have x number of people read it. Readers are amazing, and I am grateful to everyone who has ever thought it was worth their time to read something I wrote. But, if you pump me full of truth serum (or, apparently, get me to write a blog) I write for me. Because I love it, and because on some level I kind of need to.

I promise I won’t write any motivational posters though.

I admit I sometimes post cat pictures.

They’re mostly my cats though.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.


Registration has opened for Can*Con 2016, the SFF convention here in Ottawa. This year it runs from Sept. 9th to the 11th, and although the programming is still being put together, what we already know is awesome: The Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction, Sheila Williams, will be a Guest of Honour. There are other very cool plans in the works that I can’t wait to tell you about (but have to) although I guess I can say that I’ll be part of some of the panel discussions again, if hearing me yammer on is the sort of thing you think you might like to do.

You can get the full details and get registered here.

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