Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bad boys, bad boys


Once upon a time we all knew bad guys wore black hats. The baddie rode into town and was rude and offensive and bullied everyone. He had slitty eyes and an eat-my-dirt demeanor.

Fast forward to present times, and it isn't easy to identify a bad guy. Bad guys in the news span the range of a teacher's child, hoodlums, politicians, tax authorities, insurance companies, special interest groups, corporate raiders, televangelists, and more.

With such a diverse face to baddies, how are we to stay safe? How will we recognize danger and take steps to have it corrected or avoid it?

I struggle with these questions as I write books set in contemporary times. Human nature is universal, as is human behavior. Debra Dixon's book on Goal, Motivation, and Conflict comes in handy to help writers steer through characterization.

GOAL - a villain's goal can spring from past issues/desires, present issues/desires, or a desire to control the future. The scope of the goal may vary from the villain's immediate vicinity to a global person, place or thing.

MOTIVATION - bad guys want what they want for reasons clear to them, and they will cross lines of respectable behavior to get what they want.

CONFLICT - baddies try to attain something that isn't theirs by any means possible. They will use words, weapons, intimidation, legal maneuvering, bioterrorism, and more.

Using this framework, authors can create a plausible scenario for readers to believe in the antagonist. Next, the villain's physical attributes come into question.

On television, bad guys are often bikers, scowling lawyers, gangsters, Vikings, rival gangs, Olympic athletes, vampires, aliens, or hulking muscle men, to name a few sterotypes. But writers must reflect the times in which we write.

The truth: bad guys come in every race and gender. While it's easy to write a villain who looks and acts different from your main characters, oftentimes the villain comes from their world. He or she is an associate with a sharp axe to grind.

My question for you: what do you look for in a bad guy? Do you enjoy reading about someone who appears "normal" but does heinous things? Or does your taste run more to and outsider vs an insider conflict?

Maggie Toussaint
www.maggietoussaint.com

23 comments:

  1. Yes, it's difficult sometimes to figure out whether to love or hate a bad guy if we're presented with how that person turned out so bad. Could be background, disappointments, you name it. In the end, though, bad is bad and good is good. Crooks need to go to jail!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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    1. Hi Morgan,

      In some cases it's easy for me to be against the villain of a story, but I've seen some writers create a sympathetic villain who gets him comeuppance, and then he gets a starring role as a good guy next time out. I haven't mastered that yet!

      What I don't understand is how people who do wrong are able to rationalize and justify their actions. It seems like the filters and rules the rest of us have don't apply to them.

      Those are the scariest villains to me. The ones that believe in what they are doing so much they believe their own hype.

      I like your simplification of bad is bad and good is good.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  2. I believe "bad" guys need to be complex characters just like real life people. I remember reading somewhere, for example, that Al Capone was a great family man--even though he didn't hesitate to kill a dinner guest by smashing his head with a baseball bat.

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    1. Hi Jacquie,

      Complexity adds interesting depth and helps us to understand why a bad guy might have non-mainstream thinking.

      Thanks for the visit!

      Delete
  3. I like a complex bad guy but not too sympathetic because it lessens my sense of satisfaction when good triumphs.

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    1. Hi LD,

      That reader satisfaction at the end of a book is all-important, isn't it. I know I look for a satisfying ending in the books I read. If it doesn't work for me, I feel cheated.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Delete
  4. I don't like reading thrillers. There are enough thrilling stories and nasty killers in the news. So I can't stand a thriller where the bad guy is a psychopath. I prefer the family drama with "crimes passionels" as they say in French, crimes due to jealousy, or well-plotted murder to inherit big sum because the bad guy grew poor and deprived by the strong victim.

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    1. Jealousy and greed are great motivations for bad guys, Mona. I've used them a few times in my books.

      Thanks for the visit!

      Delete
  5. Like Mona, I don't like thrillers or who-done-its or murder mysteries--unless they're MT Cozies. I just can't do it. But anyone can be a villian without horror and mayhem. The MIL in All My Hopes and Dreams was so good at being the villian--excuse me while I polish my nails--that she just about stole the show. Too many readers said that--Felicitas was just too good at being bad, and they loved to hate her. (however, I redeemed her in the end.)
    Every western I've written--historical or contemporary--has a villian. This proved a problem with my main publisher at the time--no villians could have their own POV--I bargained until I got my way in Hopes and Dreams, but thereafter, nope.
    So, my villians are generally beyound hope, beyond saving, and their intentions are purely personal against the hero or heroine.
    None are sympathetic.
    Very good topic that made me stop and think.

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    1. We all have a different approach to bad guys. I have to watch villains and secondary characters - I tend to give them more "out-there" behaviors, which can lead to all kinds of scene stealing.

      I think in Westerns, even Western romance, the genre expectation for a bad guy is already established, so you don't have to work as hard to please the reader.

      Your answer made me stop and think, so we're even!

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  6. Maggie, what an interesting post! I like my bad boys to be a whole lot of human--meaning they aren't 100 percent evil, and there aren't 100 percent good. I also like my antagonist to have some of the traits of my protagonist so when they fight their demons, it's a little bit scary because my protagonist can see how close he is to being "just like that guy." In that respect, they truly are adequate foes for one another. You always have the most interesting topics!

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    1. Hiya Donnell,

      I like your approach of matching some traits with the hero and the anti-hero. That resonates with readers, and we all have that "there but for the grace of God, go I" kind of moment as we read these type of heroes.

      And you bring up a key point. The hero protagonist and antagonist should be evenly matched so that the outcome is in question for a long time. I'm so glad you made that comment!

      Thanks for your kind words and your visit.

      Delete
  7. When I revise a story and round out my characters, I have three goals with the villain: 1.) he/she is the hero of her own story, which means she is fully committed to the course of action, whether they believe they are doing good or that the means justifies the ends. If they aren't committed, the reader won't be. 2.) the reader needs to understand his/her motivation even if the motivation isn't one they can empathize with. Heath Ledger's Joker worked not only because of great acting, but also because of Alfred's line, "some people just like it watch it burn." Maybe we don't set fires for joy but we understand that some people do. 3.) the bad guy/girl mirrors the hero/heroine so that in overcoming the villain the "good guys" are challenged physically, emotionally and sometimes spiritually.

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    1. Hi Keena,

      You write incredible villains. And I totally get your 3 points: commit to the villain's story, be plain about the villain's motives, and make the good guys work for their happy ending.

      Thanks for the visit!

      Delete
  8. I look for real people and their rationale for committing the acts that they do. Thus the housewife next door might be guilty if she suspected her husband of cheating on her. The businessman might want revenge against a partner who stole his ideas. And so on. What would drive these people to murder?

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    1. I love your approach, Nancy. Everyone has the potential to be a bad guy, given the right conditions.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Delete
  9. The best summary I ever heard was "The villain has to think he's the hero of his own story." And I almost threw something at a speaker once who said, "Make your villain recognizable--make him ugly, give him scars, warts---" Then again, he writes fantasy, so maybe the rules are different there.
    Terry
    Terry's Place


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    1. The nice thing about writing is that there's no one right way to do it. I think a great many villains are narcissistic. They think the world is their personal playground.

      Thanks for dropping by.

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  10. This is like taking Writing 401. Thoughtful comments on villains. You never know..that sweet old lady who bakes cookies and shares them with the neighbors could be hacking up her boyfriends the next day! That's what makes writing fun...all the possibilities and personalities to play with.

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    1. You nailed it on the head, JQ. Possibilities and personalities combine to yield endless villains. What fun!

      Thanks for swing by for a visit.

      Delete
  11. I've written villains many ways. One is trapped by his own greed, another is evil but I hope the reader understands how he was formed that way. But I write my heroes and heroines with many flaws. There's a fine line sometimes that separates the good guys from the bad. Those are the most interesting. In my WIP, one good character contemplates murder. I think the reader will be on his side because of his motivation. Blurring the lines are the best for me as a writer and a reader.

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    1. Your books embrace people who have been beaten down by life, and those people have every reason to have a different perspective and a different rationale for doing things. I love it when someone's inherent goodness shines through despite all the crap that's landed on him/her. Your books make me think, which is great for a reader.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      Delete
  12. One cannot judge a bad boy by his "cover." In fact, the most dangerous characters are the ones that you would never suspect. The daily newspaper makes one aware of the fact you can never be too careful.

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