In the small Wyoming town where I grew up, melodrama was a really big deal. My dad played the Medicine Man, my mom was a can-can dancer, and my sisters and I sang “Oh, Home on the Range” with all the other kids at the end of the show.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, melodrama is a theatrical production characterized by the use of stereotyped characters, exaggerated emotions and language, simplistic morality, and over-the-top conflict. Hence the term that you never want applied to your writing: melodramatic.
At the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference I attended recently, mystery author Margaret Coel discussed character development. She spoke at length about the importance of developing the villain in your story. The minute I heard “villain” I pictured the melodrama version: big guy in a black cape with a swooping handlebar moustache who drags the heroine off the stage. I cringed, because in the story I am working on, nobody looks or acts like that.
Then Margaret used the phrase that solved my dilemma: OPPOSING FORCE. The villain, she said, is simply the opposing force that strives to keep the protagonist from getting what he/she wants.
Aha! I That clicked for me. The villain (also called the antagonist) pushes up against what the protagonist most desires in this world. No moustache tweaking or evil mwaa-ha-ha required. The villain can be somebody entirely benign-looking. He or she may even be well-intentioned and serve carrot cake. As long as the antagonist makes it reeeeally hard for the protagonist to get what he wants, you’ve got your villain.
Then I remembered what my friend, romance author Joanne Kennedy, once explained to me: A villain has to have subtlety and depth. One trick, she said, is to re-imagine the entire plot of your story from the villain’s point of view. Of course they feel they are right. We all do. This exercise helps draw out the villain’s story, so you can develop them into rounded characters.
Whew! Great guidance. Thanks Margaret and Joanne. I’m feeling much calmer now and relieved that I won’t have to revive those boo-hiss moments from my past.
How do you approach this whole villain thing in your writing?