Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writing Great Villains

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

As I've been working on the edits for King's Folly, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my bad guys (this is epic fantasy, so I have several, plus my story loosely parallels the chronicles of the kings in the Bible. Many of those kings did evil in the eyes of the Lord).

Any character can become an antagonist in the right situation, and that makes them a bad guy to the point of view character. Get in a fight with your sister? She is your antagonist! At least until you work things out. In my story, I'm writing the points of view from some of my bad guys, and they don't see themselves as bad. In their story, they're the hero and someone else is the villain.


So let's talk baddies. Troublemakers come in all shapes and sizes and personalities. Unless you are writing some form of satire, your goal should be to create characters who feel real, who do things that are believable, and who aren't cardboard archetypes. I'm not saying you can't write villains that fall into archetypal categories, nor am I saying that I don't love some classic villains that do. But as writers of new stories, we want to do our best to make our villains unique.

6 Villains Archetypes
The pure evil villain. This person is pure evil from page one. The supervillain Maybe he was born that way or maybe something happened that changed him. The point is, evil oozes from every pore. His character represents evil. Think Sauron, Lord Voldemort, or Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy. There is no appealing to the good side of these folks anymore. They are too far gone!

The forced to be evil villain. This person is a puppet. They do horrible things because someone or something is forcing them. This could be a case of blackmail, like in the horror movie Saw or an affliction like in the TV show Haven. In Haven, these "Troubled" people kill in every episode, and our "Troubled-helping" cops ship them off to a safe house. But involuntary manslaughter is still a crime. And there was one episode where a woman used her trouble to murder someone in cold blood, and still they shipped her off to a safe house in the end. Whaaaaat? All that to say, these types of villains can sometimes get away with... murder.

The villain who is right. This is often a teacher, principal, or parent who the kids are hiding something from. Think of Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off or poor Dr. Leo Marvin in What About Bob? The Wicked Witch of the West also falls into this category. I mean, Dorothy did kill her sister and steal her sister's shoes. How is that fair?

The hero gone bad villainWe might see this type of villain’s transformation in the story. But sometimes not. This could be a jaded person who has set out to force things to go his way. Maybe he thinks his cause is the only way. Or that he (and his followers) are better than other people, like Magneto thinking mutants are better than humans. Or maybe he gave in to the dark side like Annakin Skywalker. This also might be a bitter soldier like rogue military general Frank Hummel in the movie The Rock or a disgruntled employee like Eliot Loudermilk in the movie Scrooged.

The villain turned good guy. Here we have the opposite. The bad guy is bad, but our heroes and/or the circumstances of the story help him change. Gru from Despicable Me got soft on some little kids. The Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day. The Beast fell in love with Belle. And friendship turned Emperor Kuzko into a kind-hearted ruler.

The dumb villain. These are often villains from the comedy genre. Think Mugatu from Zoolander, Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Harry and Marv from Home Alone, and Lord Business from The Lego Movie




Clichés to Avoid
It's so easy to let our villains become cliché. Here is a list of character traits that have been overused. If you have some of these in your story, make sure you balance them out with some unique traits as well. 

Name- Is “dark,” “death,” “devil,” “Lord,” or “evil” part of your villain’s name?
Eyes- Does your villain have black eyes, red eyes, or glowing eyes? I did the black eyes thing in The New Recruit. Only now do I realize how cliché it was.  
Relation to hero- Is your villain related in some way to the hero? Whether it's obvious or a secret, it's been done lots. Try and find a unique twist for this situation.
Maniacal laughter- Maybe just avoid the maniacal laugh altogether.
Clothing- Does your villain wear all black or red? A cape? Does he wear a mask to hide his face? Does the mask have horns of any kind?
The sexy she-villain- If your villain is female, does she wear skin-tight clothing and flirt with her victims? Yeeah... I may have done this in The New Recruit as well. Rats!
Minions- Are your villain's minions beastly, short, ugly, or similar in any way to flying monkeys or orcs? Are they imbeciles? Afraid of their own shadow?
Murdering the minions- Is your villain always killing his help? Trained minions don't grow on trees, you know.
Day job- Is your villain a priest or advisor to the king? Is he king or emperor? An evil scientist? A bad cop? Or maybe an apprentice gone rogue? See if you can find him a more unique career.
Pets- Does your villain have a fearsome beast that probably would have eaten him by now? How about a snake, a spider, or a raven that sits on his shoulder? 
Motivations- Is your villain motivated by revenge, insanity, thwarted love, or power? Is he pure evil?
Monologing- Does your villain explain his actions out loud?


What Matters Most?
Motivation. The best villains are the ones readers actually like. Think of ways to make that happen in your story. In King's Folly, I have a budding villain who's a petite, nineteen-year-old girl. She's been weak all her life, abused, taken advantage of. She just discovered magic. It gives her power, and she wants more. But she's afraid of just about everything---especially being touched---so she uses magic to trick herself into doing things she can't. I think this makes her interesting because, in a sad way, she's victimizing herself. But the readers can understand her logic, and that makes her sympathetic.

Make them Memorable
Look over that list of clichés. What can you twist on its head? What traits and tags can you give your villains to make them unique? Think physical traits, clothing, jobs, voice, catch phrases, hobbies. In King's Folly, I have a cliché prince. He's a jerk because he can be. He likes to use his power to tease and control others. We've seen this handsome, rich bully many times before. He's totally cliché. So I've given him the hobby of gardening. Not only that, but he has one favorite plant he takes with him everywhere. It seems totally against his character to care for little sprouts in the ground and coddle a plant, and I'm hoping this quirk will balance out his cliché qualities and make him more likable.

What traits and characteristics can you give your villain to make them memorable? Here is a list of famous villains. What do you instantly think of when you read the following names? Then invent a unique twist to make that villain your own and post your idea in the comments. My example? The Terminator in an R2D2-like body. Though that's sort of like a dalek, huh? I'll keep thinking. In the meantime, you give it a try.

Lord Voldemort
Darth Vader
Magneto
Sauron
Wicked Witch of the West
President Snow
The Joker
The Queen (from Disney's Snow White)
Mr. Potter (from It's a Wonderful Life)
Loki
The Terminator
Smaug
Cruella DeVil (Nice play on words there, huh?)

76 comments:

  1. SMAUG!! LOKI!! SARUMAN!!

    *cough cough*

    Now about my villains. (lol)

    I *think* I've twisted some of those cliches around.

    Well, for starters, let me explain something. This is a fantasy, and the rulers in this fantasy world can switch which race they are, from the four races in my world.

    Okay. Well, his *real* name is Haidor. (long (and funny) story on how that name got there...) His "other race" names are: Akin, Gryphus, and Elindril.

    I searched the meanings of these names a while ago. (Of course, I didn't find Elindril.) Both Akin, (and the closest could find to Haidor) Haidar meant something along the lines of Hero/hansome/that idea. I thought that was cool :)

    His eyes *are* red, but in my story, each race has a certain eye color. And (hu)man's eyes are red. Haidor is a human.

    He is related to the hero, but not really....in case I ever get published, I'll leave an element of suspense here. ;)

    His clothing when he's *really* himself is black, but you really only see him in it once before he dies.

    He has 2- well, 3- types of minions. He has two things that are like orcs and trolls. He can also bring humans from our world to use for his (I quote him) "evil.....purposes."

    He does kinda reveal what he *was* going to do with the heroine....but then he dies, so.....

    Yeah.

    Well, that was long. But it really made me think about my villian!

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    1. I'm glad I got you thinking, Emily!

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    2. I'm completely with you on, "SMAUG!! LOKI!! SARUMAN!!"

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    3. SMAUG!! LOKI!! SARUMAN!! - BEST VILLAINS EVER

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  2. Awesome. I'm actually working on my villain at the moment so this is helpful. :D The only cliche that applies to him out of these really is that he is the father of one of the heroes. Which is a little overdone, *but* I think it works. Part of his motivation actually revolves around wanting to protect his children. (I'm still working out a lot about this guy)
    In other books: I remember the villain from the first two Ruby Redfort books is extremely cliche, but it's been done on purpose. He actually tries to be as theatrical and exaggerated as possible. (there is also a quite logical reason for why he's so cliche, but I won't go into that since it'll take too long.)

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    1. In some genres, cliche is best. So it always depends on the story you're telling.

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    2. 'Relation to hero- Is your villain related in some way to the hero? Whether it's obvious or a secret, it's been done lots. Try and find a unique twist for this situation.'

      And to think that's what I've been doing... Oh well, I'm still on my rough draft. ;3

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    3. Don't panic, Balloons. Try and come up with a twist that makes it a little different. And for some stories, that's the story you need to tell. And that's okay.

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  3. The joker..... One of his secret hobbies is reading charles Dickens....or is that what you meant?

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    1. Ha ha. Yeah, I thought that might be fun.

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  4. This is helpful stuff, Mrs. Williamson. Thank you. :) I'm working on my two villains right now, so this post is great!

    Loki is actually one of my favorite villains. Even though he's obviously evil, he's got a real personality. I've always liked that--how the script writers made him more "real".

    By the way, do you know when the Lot of Luck winners will be announced? The suspense is killing me! ;)

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    1. I think she said sometime in December....the 10th, maybe? I honestly don't remember.

      I loved Loki! And Bucky, for that matter....poor guys.

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    2. Yes! Bucky too! :)

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    3. Oh, yes! Both Bucky and Loki are such awesome villains because you end up loving them so much! I wanted to give Bucky a big hug by the end of that movie!

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    4. This is so true! I had some friends who actually cried when Loki 'died'.

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    5. I wouldn't consider Bucky a villain. Antagonist, yes, but villain implies evil - Hydra are the real villains.

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    6. Kate, Bucky is more an antagonist than a villain. But then again, Loki was the antagonist for two movies, but in Thor II he was an antagonist/ally for most of it while someone else was the villain (Which totally messes with your mind for a while).
      Robin, I was one of those that yelled "Loki can't die!" when I watched that movie the first time. Good thing I was watching it on DVD at my house...

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    7. The TV series Once Upon of Time has excellent villains. They are always changing from villain to antagonist to ally and back again. If a villain reforms, you're never quite sure if they'll stay good... They all have such rich back stories also, even the ones that start out as clichés!

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    8. Sometime before Christmas, Linea, on the Lot of Luck.

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  5. This post is excellent! I always struggle to make realistic villains. Mine tend to be totally evil, Joker-esque type villains who revel in torture rather than sane human beings who are villains. But I've been really working on my villains in the series I'm working on currently. I only answered yes to two or three of those clichés up above....

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    1. Good job! Creating characters takes time and hard work. I love seeing them evolve in rewrites and knowing they're becoming more realistic.

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  6. Thanks for the helpful post, Mrs. Williamson! I need to work on my villains, I'm sure . . .
    I went through the checklist for the two main villains in my current WIP. Results:
    -One of the villains does have "lord" as his title. I'll work on that.
    -Both sometimes wear black, particularly the male villain, and particularly on ceremonial occasions. Neither wears capes on a regular basis, though, and my female villain generally wears blue or green.
    -My MV is doing this for power in part, but he's also influenced by his wife, who thinks that she can fix the world by taking it over. Or so she keeps telling me . . .
    -Monologing: Both my villains do tend to talk a good bit about what they're doing, but it's more in a persuasive, propaganda-ish way (kind of like a politician giving a campaign speech), so I'm not sure if it counts or not.

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    1. You bring up a good point, does propaganda count? I have an inkling that it doesn't.

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    2. If someone hands your villain a microphone, sure he'll talk. What's cliche is when the villain stands around telling the good guy (who is often tied up), or anyone else, why he does what he does and all his dastardly plans. That's what you want to avoid.

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    3. I hope I'm not incriminating myself, but I made a list of villain dos and don’ts. Here is one point:
      - I would not tell the hero my back-story, what I am doing, or why I was doing it. Tell my underlings maybe, tell my journal, but the hero- No!

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  7. This is such an ironic post as I have been working on my villains backstories. I think I have nearly perfected the process, but I admit I have used some of the clichés above ... I have defeated some of the clichés though. One of my antagonists wears all white, and I have my protagonist always wearing black because she hates the color white. I can think of several times I used black or red eyes, but I did flip it so one of my antagonists had large brown eyes. My newest antagonist is hero gone bad, and I twisted things around to have him play mentor to my protagonist even though he plans to kill them all later.

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    1. Ooh... I like the idea of the villain being a mentor. Interesting.

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    2. Sounds like you're working hard to twist things and make them yours. Good job!

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  8. Well...my main villain is the Emperor, so cliche over there, but he is also the Demigod, (whig is a secret that is revealed later on in the book) which should hopefully balance it out. My second villain is called Servus Strife, and he's an evil assassin, which is an irony since my MC is an assassin too, who by the way is a sort of anti-hero trained by the Emperor to kill and fed lies as to the good guys killed his family.....but I'm getting carried away.

    So. My second villain in pretty original, but I'm thinking about making him a good-guy-turned-bad-type. What do you think? Too cliche?

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    1. I wouldn't say a good guy turning bad is too cliche. Just be careful you don't have him turn for a too cliche reason. (Eg: I must save my wife by turning to the dark side! Oops, I just killed her instead.)

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    2. I agree. All of those villain types are legit. You just want to 1) find the perfect motivation for that character and 2) give them some traits that make them a unique, likeable character.

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  10. This post is great! Thank you so much; villains are interesting to make. But I think what completed this post was the mention of Emperor Kuzko. The Emperor's New Groove is one of my favourite movies!

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  11. Hm... My villain was turned evil by his past. He is a teacher, and he does have the last clichè. I'll get rid of that during the edits. And on second thought, it might be good not to have an evil magic teacher, due to the existence of Quirrel in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone.

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    1. Good point. It's always good to think about what's popular and make sure your story doesn't have the exact same elements. Maybe the English teacher could be evil. ;-)

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  12. My villain has black eyes, but they aren't glowing or anything, lol. He was just born with it and it has NOTHING to do with the story whatsoever. ^_^ I also like to imagine him with a cape as I'm writing, but I don't say he has one in the book so.
    Anyway, my villain just turned evil because of something someone did to his father in the past. He should have gotten a kingdom for his own but something happened so he didn't and now he's out to get the royals of the kingdom who rule it now to kill them...it makes much more sense when you've read the book. Which no one has. XP

    ~Lydia~ <3

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    1. Sounds like you know your character well, Lydia!

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  13. Yes...although I have many different sorts of villains who I hope will be quite unique and interesting, my first villain the pure evil sort. I used to think he was pretty smart and terrifying. But than a reader pointed out how foolish and weak he acted in certain areas, and I revised him till he became (I hope) a mastermind. One thing that I hope is unique is that he's influencing all the heroes' moves to his will and game. (Or he thinks he is).

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    1. Nice, Hannah. Sounds like you're giving this a lot of careful thought.

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  14. I think J.K. Rowling's Umbridge is my favorite villain. So creatively evil.

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    1. You just made me realize that I totally agree! I also thought of a great storyworld building thing by reading Harry Potter books.

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    2. Oh, yes! Professor Umbridge is a very creepy villain! I think what makes her so creepy is that she believes that she is actually a good guy. While Voldemort wants power, he knows he is considered a "bad guy" and he is totally okay with that. That kind of villain is easier to fight than a villain that thinks they are actually the good guy.

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    3. Yes! She is wonderful. I love her pastel suits and the cat plates on her walls.

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    4. Voldemort to me always seemed somehow campy. Umbridge was this fantastic real villian who honestly believed she was in the right. I didn't think about her in this post while I was reading it. Thank you! J.K. Rowling had some really fantastic characters on the darker side of the story...

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  15. Oh dear... my villain is the head of the council that runs the storyworld and my villainess (married to the villain) is gorgeous, and for awhile they're the parents of my MC. But since they were her foster parents, that's hopefully less cliche, especially coupled with the fact that the villain has kind of a witty 'nice guy' vibe, but everything he says supposedly in jest he means. Besides, I'm writing middle grade fantasy, where it seems one might get a little more leeway with cliched bad guys.

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    1. I agree, Miri. The genre is important. And so is the plot. If you're seeking to tell a certain type of story, you can use cliches to your advantage.

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  16. Honestly, I think the best villains in anything I've seen or read are Maleficent and Scar. Disney did something right--their core selfishness is so believable and simple. I love it.

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    1. Scar is so devious. And he's a great example of making "being related to the hero" work.

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  17. Hi! Bekah here.
    I flatter myself that the villain in my story is very original... but I could be wrong.
    1) He is NOT all evil. Years ago, he actually saved the life of my protagonist (though he regrets it now!)
    2) The only way that he is *forced* to be evil is that he is fearful of discovery. He has a dark secret in his past, that my FMC can reveal, if she so chooses.
    3) Name: No "Lord" for me! His slaves do call him Master, though...
    4) Eyes: Bright white, actually. Kinda freaky, even to his creator :-) He does grow several shades darker when he is angry...
    5) Relation to the hero? Owner to slave. No more, no less.
    6) No maniacal laugh. One of my friends does that maniac-laugh-thingy so no maniac laughs for me!
    7) Clothing- white jackets and pants.
    8) Minions- his other slaves. And he doesn't kill those that obey him....
    9) Day job: farmer, estate owner
    10) Motivation: Covering up his past (oops, cliche), advancement in the eyes of the king.

    Hm...

    Any suggestions on getting the motivation for major rewrites? They can be SO boring!

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    1. I'm actually rewriting one of my novels for the third time, and I agree. :) My "secret" for dealing with them is taking a break. Between my first and second drafts, I actually wrote two more novels (back when I had time!) and then between my second and third, I finished two more. (Both of which I barely made it through,because it's so hard to write a first draft after a second!) Now I'm working on that third draft. I think after you take a break and then come back to your story, the characters come alive again in a way they hadn't before. Now, I'm not having any trouble writing any of them, believe it or not. It's like they were desperate to be written again!

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    2. Bekah, that all sounds great! Good job. And covering up one's past is a realistic motivation for a criminal. They don't want to get caught! What is your villain's story goal?

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    3. Good advice, Meg. Taking a break always helps me too.

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  18. Villains are so much fun to work with. In my current WIP I have two that are tied together.
    The first, Hemlock, is barely in the book. He started out as the main big bad but I realized that when I reintroduced my MC's brother as her foil/antagonist Hemlock was more a force in the background that started events. He started events with ill intentions that the brother twisted into believing they were in the absolute right. He's kind of like a force or puppet master that could be overlooked if my MC hadn't met him early on and nearly been killed. :)
    What does anyone else think of villains that incite the story problems and are hovering over the protagonist, but don't have the main villain role? I find them tricky to write but really fun once the pieces click together.

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    1. Sounds like you have a good plan, Kelsey. Often what's tricky to write, once you nail it, turns out the best.

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  19. My villain has really blurred lines between good and evil. His goal is actually somewhat honorable and worth striving for even if it is unachievable but the reason his is bad is because of the way he goes about it and the things he does to try and achieve his goal. Throughout the book he becomes more desperate and cold to the rest of the world. In the end he goes kinda crazy.

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    1. IMO, the best villains actually believe they're doing good, Lauren. That believe really helps nail the motivation.

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  20. I have dissected the world of Harry Potter to find out great traits of a fantasy world.

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    1. Harry Potter has a great storyworld, Jessica. I love it!

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    2. That is a good idea, to read books with your writing in mind. I used a pencil as a bookmark while reading one classic, and marked down whatever I thought might be useful: ways to show character, how to make an intense scene, etc.

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  21. Though I've only just started writing, right now I'm kind of proud of my villain. He's my first developed, non-obviously-cliched villain. He does prefer to be called 'Lord Damion', but he doesn't like red and black, instead he prefers blue and gold, and though he's not related to the protagonist, he is related to another character. He is about power, but a lot of it is because he wants to prove himself to his father and to himself, and he's actually kind of sympathetic towards other people and works to get them to follow him willingly sometimes. Although he will resort to mind control if necessary.

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    1. Nice! Sounds like you're worked hard on his character.

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  22. I hit a lot of those marks, unfortunately, for a lot of my villains. But I justify the fact that almost every single one has jet-black skin or wears black because I think of it as the color of evil.

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    1. You bring up a good point, about symbolism. But on the other hand- evil is deceptive, and will not always look plainly evil. I made one villain a beautiful princess (that was so fun!).

      Although...I suppose a beautiful princess is not as scary as a villain in black...

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  23. I just want to say: What a wonderful antagonist Javert was! He was honourable, in a way, with his determination to see justice. But what was brilliant, was that he was lacking in mercy, lacking in love. I could go on, but I really should stop now...

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  24. Does a trained wolf count as a pet that could eat him? Because if not, then none of those cliches apply to mine! So excited! (so is he) ;)

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  25. I'm among the many people that love Loki as a villain (although he is sort of an ally in 'Thor: the Dark World')

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  26. I'm writing a trilogy, and the villain in my first book is different than in the second and third. As the story progresses, you discover that he is more of an aid to my "main" villain, and I think they might be related, which would be a big part of the plot. Does that sound too cliche?

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  27. One of my books actually has Loki in it. The first one doesn't really say anything about his motivations, but you can figure them out by the second. My main character is Loki's son, but has never really seen him when the first book begins. Fenris has always been seen as evil because of his father and a prophecy that says he kills the leader of the good side. It is not a Luke Skywalker play where he tries to redeem Loki. Fenris more or less tries to see if Loki can give him a good reason for joining him. Fenris has to make a choice between joining Loki or joining a side where ninety five percent of his allies would love to see him dead.

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  28. My antagonist has a few cliches to him, but I hope that they're somewhat excusable under his circumstances. He has black eyes, but his entire race does, including the protagonist. He is the protagonist's father, but he sent the baby protagonist away when he was born because the protagonist reminded him too much of his wife (who died giving birth to protagonist). He is in denial that the protagonist is his son. However, I hope that his few balancing traits are: motivated by patriotism, hardened by lost love, army general, heartbroken. He is also betrayed by his first born son at the end, (even thiugh through the whole thing he did nothing more than serve his country). I hope that that makes him more relatable, since that first born son was the only person left that he still loved.

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  29. The villain in my story is Mrs. Kelly, July's child care/ social services worker. She's mean, rude, and blunt about it. She has no evil magic because this book is realistic fiction, but in a way the words she says to hurt July is kind of like magic, how it hurts her. Make sense? I hope it's not to cliché....

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  30. I followed the advice in this post and came up with this awesome villain: https://matthewsampson.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/the-emperor-of-aderland/

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  31. This really helps. I've been trying to come up with ideas to make my villains really pop. I'm so happy I found this!

    I have one character, Xanice, who I've been trying to perfect. She is a powerful sorceress known as an Oracle (there are four). She is the Oracle of Chaos, and I have been trying to think of a motivation for her that doesn't sound too overused. I've finally found it and I've discovered new ways of twisting it on its head. Thanks! XD

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  32. Is ok to have a few cliches? My villan wears red, monologues and is related to my protagonist. Wait no. I think I will change that. Maybe the villan was just pretending. She does that a lot. But is a few cliches ok?

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