Hey, how many of you guys ever watched Spongebob? I’m a 90s kid so I did. Actually there are a lot of 90s shows I missed for reasons so that doesn’t actually necessarily mean anything but I digress. I assume that any reader at least knows the gist of the show, right? And you know who this guy is?
There’s an episode, The Algae’s Always Greener, where Plankton switches places with rival Mr. Krabs.
The experience is not what Plankton expected and he rejects Mr. Krabs’ life despite starting the episode coveting it.
I bring this episode up to be clear that this is not what I mean when I suggest switching the lives of your characters around. It would be disorienting to switch lives with someone after having lived in your own life for so long. Besides that, while a true Freaky Friday switch of your hero and villain’s lives may prove fruitful, for me, it would primarily consist of my villain saying, “Everyone I hate is right here and they don’t realize it’s me. AWESOME.” Then he would promptly kill everyone and waltz back to his lair to lock himself up so when they switched back, he’d have his worst enemy imprisoned. Meanwhile, my hero may well be doing the same thing – or, if not, she’d at least be freeing all the POWs and giving craptastic instructions to the generals and doing anything else she could to mess up the villain’s life. She might be above slipping tacks under his bedcovers or switching out his bath soap with shellfish oil to which he’s fatally allergic, however. This is why I’m not suggesting the Spongebob episode, but if you think it’d be interesting for you, go for it.
My suggestion is different and twofold. The first one is easy. Switch story roles. Make the villain the protagonist. Give him all the attention you’d give your hero, write the story from his perspective the way you’d write for the hero. This will help you develop your villain as fully as you should. Actually any character that’s falling flat can do with this treatment. And for it to work, you need to really make the change. It has to be more than a thought exercise. Write a couple chapters of the thing. Outline the whole book with the new protagonist. Put effort in it. You might learn something new about your character.
The second suggestion is switching situations more fully. Figure out a point of upbringing earlier on to switch them and see how the characters turn out. How much is nature versus nurture? Have fun discerning which traits are stable in your characters, which change with the environment. Play with what other traits they keep; for example, the above mentioned villain is a magical prodigy, but if I consider that just a quirk of genetics and hand that over to my hero, how does she handle that? What about giving her half-elf blood to him, in a world where during their youth elves and half-elves are experiencing a holocaust? What about gender swapping? What other things can I mess with?
It wouldn’t have to be your hero and villain. Maybe it’s the villain and the sidekick or whatever secondary character. If you switched those two, would the sidekick even make it to the side of the hero? What about a mook or minion? Mentor? Damsel in distress? What if you took all your characters, shook them up, dumped them out, and had them all mixed up in each others’ lives?
Find out what’s at the core of your characters. When you warp them back and forth, you find traits that are vital to making them who they are.