Why are villains so much fun?

Protagonists are all very well. You pick a central character, you get into their head, you understand his or her point of view. That protagonist is by very definition the Knight of Virtue. There are protagonists with shades of gray, of course, and they are complex and lovely. But mostly, mostly, they ride on the side of light.

And then there are the people who will rise to stand in that protagonist’s way. The Bad Guys. The Black Hats. The forces of evil. And your reader remembers them. Often better than your protagonist.

Who did you remember?

When you walked out of Star Wars, whom did you carry out with you? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Yes, you might have recognized a few quoted lines from the protagonist, years down the line. But as soon as someone started doing that breathing you did more than that. You were back there, in Vader’s shadow, touched by the billowing black cloak. If you hadn’t been… well, he might have found your lack of faith disturbing.

What of other famous villains? What of Saruman? What of Voldemort? What of deliberately half-shadowed characters who took on the mantle of protagonist even while potentially being a creature of the darker realms of morality and ethics – characters like Elric of Melnibone?

Humans may admire virtue, but they do not necessarily like it all that much. Characters whose every facet is bright, shiny and pure tend to annoy after a while. Everyone needs their flaws because without them they cease to be something that any reader will be able to identify with at all.

Writing a villain frees you from certain constraints.

You can have these people do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, and they don’t have to answer to anyone except themselves. And they come in different shapes and sizes and darknesses.

A few of my own examples… In the Changer of Days books, there are two characters who might qualify for this particular badge.

One of them is Sif, the older and illegitimate half-brother of the true queen. He rose to power in the midst of a war, when his army decided that they needed a leader who was a grown man instead of the nine-year-old girl waiting in the royal throne room, far away from the battles. Sif had been disqualified from taking the crown, by virtue of his bastard birth, but also by virtue of the fact that his mother had not been wedded because she lacked a valued attribute – that of Sight (to learn more about that you really WILL have to read the books…) But Sight, or the lack of it, has always been a chip on Sif’s shoulder, and it drives him to do ugly and evil things in its name. And it is those things that have forged his reputation – that of being ruthless, pitiless, and able to kill without hesitation or regret.

It is that reputation which sends my second villain, Ansen, the traitor, straight to him. Ansen, the foster-brother of the young hidden queen, races to Sif’s side with news of the girl so he can destroy her in order to assure his grip on his throne. Ansen is certain of his welcome as the bearer of such news – the betrayal is nothing, in the face of the reward he thinks he can reap – that such tidings will gain him.

But he has the misfortune of arriving at the wrong place and the wrong time, and Sif is closed to him. Sif barely acknowledges his existence before he snuffs him out carelessly. There is a scene where Ansen, about to die on Sif’s orders, is still hoping that his hero will save him will intercede for him. But when Sif, casting a desultory eye on the execution that he had ordered, is asked who the hapless person about to die had been.

“Nobody,” Sif replies, turning away. “He was nobody.”

Already forgotten. Insignificant.

And yet he was a terrific villain, and he was remembered by others. Readers who had forgotten the names of many other characters remembered Ansen’s. Because his actions had stabbed deep into their own sense of justice and fairness and the meaning of glory. Everyone hated him, with the fire of a thousand suns. That was partly because I sketched him with such passion, with such gusto. I was unconstrained by what he SHOULD do, who he OUGHT to have been, and so neither was he – and, freed, he did unconscionable things and became instantly memorable because of them.

In a different book. I painted a different villain. His name was Lihui and he was a courtier at the Imperial court in The Secrets of Jin-shei. The man never raised his voice, was always unfailingly courteous and polite, would reach out to help a crippled girl stand when he came upon her fallen… and yet this is the character of whom one of the book’s readers would write, “…and I just wanted to put both Lihui’s eyes out with my thumbs.”

That’s when I knew that my job there was done. I had effectively gone behind the screen and showed the real soul of a dark and twisted character – and after that no amount of window dressing and surface politeness and general outward good behavior would have been enough. The reader had seen, and could never unsee. It was fascinating to write a character like that, free to follow every shady impulse, and to make the reader go with him, recoiling and swearing and disgusted but nevertheless unable to look away.

In my recent series, The Were Chronicles, there is a man called Barbican Bain. Another of the quiet, almost oily, ones. But because he held so fast to his convictions – his terrifying and terrible and wrong convictions – he was a train wreck you couldn’t forget. His presence was very Vader-like – you could almost hear his breathing in the background when you stopped to listen, wherever you were in that book. He was omnipresent, a shadow in everyone’s life, the cause of great sorrow that was and great troubles to come. He was an incredible character to write.

That’s why you’ll find that so many villains in literature are utterly memorable. Because you cannot believe that you are there with them – the only real way to disavow them completely and declare that no, you are SO NOT on their side is to stop reading the story they are in, and you can’t, because they’ve got you held fast and you can’t help but look at the things they’re showing you.

A good writer will use a good villain to shine a black light into the darkest recesses of the human spirit and human condition. It’s in that darkness when the writer and the reader reach out and find each other’s hand, and hold fast – because the only other person there in the shadows is someone whose breathing you will hear loud in the silence that surrounds you, and whose presence is going to haunt the dreams of anyone whose path that specter has crossed.

And that is why writing those villains is so absolutely rewarding, in the end.

With every word, with every brush stroke, the writer is painting the story that is being told into the reader’s memory. It is the shadows we remember best.

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Back to the magic

So then. Back to the future… back to the past… back to the original science fiction fairy tale which shaped so many lives.

For the record, this being one of those moments when people want to know “Do you remember where you were when…”, I do.

I remember the precise cinema where I first saw Star Wars.

The original Star Wars. The one where Princess Leia was a baby-faced teenager, Luke was “too short for a stormtrooper”, Han and Chewie stole the show and everyone’s hearts, R2D2 and C-3PO perfected electronic bickering, and Darth Vader first *breathed*. The one where Yoda was still in the future, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was the only hope.

Original Star Wars posterI remember walking in through an entrance flanked by two larger-than-life cardboard cutout figures of stormtroopers, I remember sitting back in my cinema chair, I remember… oh… the moment of that opening fanfare, and the screed of writing unfurling into the stars, and then the slow pan downwards, followed by that endless shot of the star destroyer just coming on and on and on and on and breathtakingly on seemingly forever.

I remember that movie very well. I must have gone back to see it five times. I knew it so well that when some time later, at a showing at my University in my freshman year, I was
basically sitting there and speaking the dialogue of the movie with the characters, complete with correct intonation – I was ALMOST able to quote Artoo. It’s how I got a boyfriend, because one of the guys in the group we had gone to see the movie with eventually ended up being far more fascinated by this eldritch girl sitting next to him and quoting the entire movie more or less verbatim from memory than he was by the movie he had gone there to watch.

Oh hell yeah I remember all of that.

I remember growing up a little more and going to see “Empire”, and then the resolution of it all in “Return of the Jedi” The revelations. The mythopoeic arc, the fairy tale. The happy ending (and yes, so shoot me, I LOVED that sitlly soppy Ewok celebration at the end of the original “Return of the Jedi. So there. Yub Nub to you too.)

And then I grew up a little more, and Lucas decided to tell the backstory of Darth Vader.

By THIS stage, understand, I was a writer. I had stories of my own swirling in my head. But nothing I ever twisted and embroidered in terms of the story of Darth Vader – the Anakin Skywalker that was – prepared me for the massive catastrophe that the “prequel” movies were.

I went to see the first one and I was practically speechless with outrage. My husband flatly refused to go and see the others. I went. Because I needed to see that opening screen in theaters. Because I needed the closure. And I walked away shot full of cynicism and disillusionment at what had been done to the story,at the story that had been so wasted. I knew one thing for certain – Lucas couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag and very specifically if he ever feels the urge to write a romantic scene again he should go and lie down in a dark room until the urge goes away.

Everything about those next three movies ended up being messed up, or weird, or ludicrous. There was a point beyond which the willing suspension of disbelief just cannot be taken, and those movies were it for me. I carefully try to forget even what little I can remember from those films. They. Do. Not. Exist.

And then the world turned some more, and the rumors started… and then the rumours became true… and then it was a matter of waiting. And three days before Christmas of 2015, the waiting came to an end.

Han Solo jacket artHan Solo’s Cockpit Jacket, Glyn Dillon – Star Wars concept art from io9

In a packed movie theater, I sat down to watch Episode Vii. It was called “The Force Awakens”… but would it? Would this wake up the beautiful thing that had been rendered so utterly comatose by what had gone on in the interim…?

And the music exploded from the speakers. And the golden words began to spin tinto the stars. And then we were off.

It started, perhaps, a little iffily – yes this was Star WARS and it had always been big bloody mayhem – but OK I could sit through the opening mayhem scenes – they set up some of the characters. I sat there with a grin plastered all over my face because what I was watching was an old friend.

All the things that had made that first Star Wars experience such a seminal one.

Droidtalk (oh, BB-8 is a sweethart. I want one.). Snappy dialogue. Good versus evil. Light sabers. Han and Chewie. Han and Leia (oh GOD, Han and Leia. That reunion.That inimitable quick back-and-forth banter) Jedi mind tricks. The Falcon. As Han put it, “It is true. All of it.” It was all true after all, and it was all I could do not to dance in the aisle.

The new things.

Rey. Finn. The aforementioned BB-8. Maz, the new Yoda. Kylo Ren.

The grand things that reached out and tore at you.

Leia… *knowing*. Han’s caress of his son’s face. The moment when Luke turned back from the sea to face yet another destiny (my but that callow lad from the original Star Wars has grown up into something…bigger, nobler, more tragic. And at least they got rid of that catastrophic haircut.)

All the promise of things to come. Because I want to see this movie again. And I want the next one, now.

Oh, sure, there are plot holes here – some of them you could ram a stardestroyer through if you really wanted to pick at the nits and at the fabric. Some day I might even pick at them. Not tonight, Not now.

I don’t think I will be saying anything that people don’t already know when I say that Han Solo is – always was – the heart of this story. I know half the world has seen the movie already and it isn’t really much of a spoiler any more – and in any event I knew this storyline before I went in and all I can say is thank GOD I did  because if I hadn’t it would have gone hard – but the legacy of being that heart always would have been a hard thing to carry.

Let me just say that I am convinced that Harrison Ford understands this – and for him – for that character – it IS all true. His story goes where it has to go, and he offers it all up, and with him in the middle of it all the story of “The Force Awakens” flies like that indestructible and improbably agile ship that he has made synonymous with his name.

Rey may be the bright new star of the franchise, Finn may be a brilliant addition to the “family”, Kylo Ren might well grow up out of that slender black clad frame into a true inheritor of Vader’s mantle… but …

But Han, Han and Leia, they are the beating heart of it all. They are a huge part of why we loved it all in the first place. And for the gift they bring to this movie – for being allowed to have lived, and loved, and lost, and aged, just like the rest of us, the young ones who were young when they were young and lived our own lives for all these intervening years, for being permitted to be… well… as Han said, “true” … for all of that,

I want to send out into the universe a deep and heartfelt thanks. They at once brought back to me the bright memory of the starry-eyed  child I once was, and at the same moment they looked into my eyes – adult to adult – with understanding and with empathy and their presence, the things they had endured in their own story-lives, validated the lives we had all been living while we waited for them to return.

I need to see this movie again. I need to memorize it, love it, like I once did to another, a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

Thank you, to all who had a hand in this  You gave me back something precious, something whose loss I was barely able to acknowledge, something that I could hardly even mourn – but it’s back. You took me back to the wonder.

Thank you.

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me

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Can you read a novel a day?

46 short novelsIf you could read one a day…well, it would be an interesting challenge anyhow.

Daniel Dalton of BuzzFeed made the picks.
Tuck EverlastingTuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt: The beloved fable about immortality will outlive us all.

Read the article

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8 Forthcoming Films Adapted From Classic Novels

It’s often thought that if a good book makes it into the right hands, Short List says, then it will make a good film — or a good TV show.

Since the dawn of cinema, thousands of books have been adapted to screen to varying degrees of success. While Twilight and more recently Divergent may spring to mind, we take a look at the pre-2005 – and even pre-1805 in some cases – classic novels that are being adapted for the big screen within the next two years.

The Price of SaltThe Price Of Salt: Also known as Carol (which the film will also be named after), the novel – written by Patricia Highsmith – tells the story of a down-and-out department store worker who falls in love with a married older woman. Published in 1952, the book rose to notoriety due to the lesbian relationship of its protagonists, Therese (to be played by Rooney Mara) and the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett). But will we see all the salacious details adapted on screen? Time will tell.

MacbethMacbeth: Another year, another Shakespeare adaptation. The titular role is being taken on by Michael Fassbender. It features a largely British cast including David Thewlis, Sean Harris and David Hayman, in addition to France’s national treasure Marion Cotillard playing the menacing Lady Macbeth.  This is shaping up to be one of the classic Shakespeare adaptations.

Read the article

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The top 10 novels about childbirth

Childbirth and early parenthood are common and utterly life-changing experiences, novelist Bethan Roberts writes in The Guardian.

They are rich in narrative opportunities, offering a journey full of conflict, joy, struggle and pain, both physical and emotional. Yet they are rarely the subject of fiction. When I was in the throes of pregnancy and early motherhood, I felt really angry about … the fact that, for the first time in my life, fiction seemed to have let me down….where were the novels that could tell me how it actually was?

A few notable exceptions to fiction’s natal taboo.

We Need to Talk About KevinWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver’s novel is the most sensational book on my list, perhaps, but it’s also blackly hilarious and ultimately moving. We follow Eva, bright, brittle, lost, as she relates her journey from successful businesswoman to vilified mother-of-a-monster via a series of chillingly realistic (and recognizable) parenting “challenges” with her son. Some women were incensed that Shriver, not a mother herself, could write such a novel. Personally I think this is one of the bravest and most honest books about parenting that I have encountered.

 

Read the article

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10 of the Worst Jobs in Literature

Why not indulge in a little literature, Emily Temple  suggests at Flavorwire, particularly literature that reminds you just how good you have it when you are in the office? After Here you’ll find ten of the absolute worst jobs ever committed to fiction.
Solaris

 

Stanislaw LemSolaris: Scientist on Solaris Station: Scientist is a pretty cool job. But just wait until you’re trapped on a space station being tormented by an alien sea who, every day, sends a clone of someone you’ve loved that won’t leave you alone until you kill it. And then it just comes back the next day.

 

 

Read the article

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The Weirdest Thing You Never Knew About Your Home State

Todd Van Luling selects the strangest thing from every state for The Huffington Post. For example:
House arrest catIn 2006, a tomcat named Lewis was put on house arrest after attacking an Avon representative selling products in the Connecticut town of Fairfield. Lewis’ owner, Ruth Cisero, claimed that her cat only attacked because he was under a lot of stress from being tormented by egg- and water-throwing neighbors. A judge ruled in 2008 that Lewis was safe and free to once again roam the streets of Fairfield.
 Kansas pancakeFlat as a pancake Kansas: It’s not just a popular idiom. The state was proven to be flatter when scientists bought a pancake from an IHOP and tested the topography against the flatness of the state. They measured “perfect flatness” on a scale of 1 with the IHOP pancake testing as 0.957 and Kansas scoring a 0.997.

Darth Vader gargoyleTo raise money for construction on the National Cathedral’s west towers during the 1980s, a contest was held for children to submit “gargoyle” designs to add to the construction plans. Christopher Rader won third place with his Darth Vader design, and the Sith Lord was added to the building.

 

Read the article

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THIS ‘n THAT

The One Word Only Women See In Their Performance Reviews

At Fast Company, Kathleen Davis reports that there’s one adjective that’s never used to criticize men, yet it shows up at an alarming rate in women’s performance reviews.

Can you guess what that word is?

Read the article

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Quote of the Day (thanks to Mike Toot)

Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it. ~ Russel Lynes

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Alma Alexander
My books

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