Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cover Story

Sharon Wildwind

I recently started making homemade yoghurt, a process that involves simple tools, including a small cooler. This quickly led to the need for a custom-made, quilted cooler cover.

Don’t try to follow the logic. If you’ve ever lived with someone who expressed themselves in fiber arts, you already understand. If you haven’t, no amount of explanation can connect yoghurt and custom-made, quilted cooler cover.

The cover will be a grand thing, a cloth symphony in five layers: two new-age fabrics—new-age refers to the recent arrival of the fabrics on the sewing scene, not on any religious or metaphysical beliefs the cloths might hold—a layer of pieced polar fleece, quilting batting, and fashion fabric.

These are the first three layers, topped by polar fleece. As you can tell, I put together scraps left over from other projects. Ugly as sin, but it works. I could stop here. This cover will do the job: keep the inside of the cooler at a steady temperature for the number of hours it takes to make yogurt.

But I’m not going to stop. Like most people, I have an innate desire to cover up ugliness, improve things, hide the bumps, odd seams, and ragged edges. So, just as soon as I can find a spare minute—goodness knows when that will be—I’m going to make a nifty quilted cover out of this fabric.

Which brings me to the subject of villains.

If we are to create believable villains, we first must create all manner of bumps, odd seams, and ragged edges in their lives. Then we’ll cover up those flaws, so they present a smooth and beautiful face to the reader. It’s not easy to create a good villain because as writers, and perhaps as humans, we’d rather focus on the good guys.

One of the very tough tasks is to create a villain with new motivation. It’s all been done before. The medieval church already had a good handle on motivation. They called it the seven deadly sins:
• Extravagance, which interestingly enough mutated into lust. Originally intended to reflect a over-desire for everything material, we now think of it as applying primarily to sexual appetite.
• Gluttony
• Greed
• Sloth
• Wrath
• Envy
• Pride

I want to talk about the middle-of-the-road villain. Not the extreme evil of a serial killer. If you’re writing that kind of book, there are plenty of references that will give you the basic profile. And not accidental killers of the, “He fell and hit his head on the radiator and I panicked” scenario.

I think villainy boils down to hunger and hopelessness. At some point, my villains realized they will never have enough—fill in the blank—money, power, prestige, love, control. They see the world as a zero-sum game: If you get, I lose, and vice versa.

Losing something provides more motivation than never having had it. If your protagonist only fantasizes about booking the most expensive cabin on a cruise ship, but is actually traveling in a tiny inside cabin without even a porthole, she might daydream about miles of glass windows, her own private balcony, and a jacuzzi. But if the man in the next cabin has actually cruised in such luxury, being forced by circumstances into the tiny cabin, offers the writer more opportunities for conflict.

Unless, of course, time is running out. If your lady in Cabin 24H has only a short time to live, and this is her absolutely last chance to experience the luxury suite, all bets are off. She might be desperate enough to kill.

So here is a quick list of questions that I start with when I develop a villain:

What was the first utterly defining moment in which my villain realized he would never get enough [fill in the blank]?

Can I find at least three other utterly defining moments which resulted in the villain learning to see the world as a zero-sum game? The last of these three moments needs to happen close to when the book opens or in the early part of the book. This last defining moment becomes the proverbial straw, the one, final detail that moves the villain to murder.

How has the villain built and maintained their lovely cover? What do they use to hide the bumps, odd seams, and ragged edges. Is the cover story holding, or is the underside beginning to peak out?

How am I going to avoid the trivialities of stereotypes? Villains abound who were abused as children, embarrassed at school, grew up in poverty or conversely grew up in extreme wealth, etc. What will set my villain apart?

How do I set the stakes high enough that the villain will be driven down an narrowing funnel until murder is the only option?

What does this story look like from my villain’s point of view?

Writing quote for the week:
I have to think about whether I want to spend a year thinking about this crime or this kind of person. ~Michael Connelly, mystery writer


Joyce Tremel said...

Wow, interesting post! I'm going to have to print this one out and keep it handy while I conjure up my next villain.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Joyce. I'm delighted that this touched a cord.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, I love your beautiful quilt cover. :) And about those middle of the road villains: I think the pattern you described is cut from the cloth of what has happened to your villain. There's also a different track to not-serial-killer murder: garden-variety and all too common narcissism: the almighty "I" that wants its needs to be met and its desires not to be frustrated, no matter what the cost to other people. We reward narcissists in our society--and also fume about why can't they be considerate (the answer, of course, is that they lack the empathy to consider the other person's point of view).

Unknown said...

Sharon, you really do need to write a mystery writing how-to. I printed out your post for permanent reference.

cbahm said...

Wow! I let my novel get derailed at the end of 2007, around the time I got hung up on two things -- making my villain more believable and making some tough POV decisions. You've given me some great new ideas on the villain's motivations. Thanks!