Defeating a Villain with Zen

My kid received several books for Christmas and one of them was called Three Samurai Cats. In it, a lord’s home is invaded by an atrocious rat, so he goes to the local monastary to ask for a samurai cat to get rid of it. The first one is quickly bested in combat, the second is dumb enough to be tricked into putting his sword away, and the third one spends all day every day sleeping on a mat ignoring the rat and pissing off the lord until a rice ball festival comes up and the rat takes all the sticky rice to make his own giant rice ball, under which he subsequently becomes trapped. The cat agrees to free the rat if he will gtfo, with a threat of death otherwise, so the rat obliges.


My kid wasn’t sure if the rightmost cat wasn’t a robot.

The lord pays the monastary and asks how the final cat got rid of the rat; the head monk  explains a buddhist principle: there is power in stillness and inaction; wait for your enemy to defeat himself.

Now far be it from me to criticize a beautiful religion’s teachings, but you’ll recall I have some issues with self-defeating villains. There’s some clear differences with defeating a villain by zen style inaction and a villain whose incompetence causes their defeat, but I think the line is narrow, especially because the thing about inaction is that sometimes it just makes you a cohort.


Do you know how many iterations of this sentiment have been spoken by a myriad of different famous people? Lots.

So I question teaching my kid this principle. I know a big part is that I am not Buddhist and probably don’t fully understand the principle of stillness myself*, though knowing a little of karma does help me to see how gazing at a person’s actions down through to the consquences and merely waiting for them to reap what they sow would be an effective tool against an enemy who you otherwise do not think you can conquer.

Yet at the same time, the rat wreaked utter havoc on the lord’s home, and it’s not just the lord who suffered; his servants were harrassed and tormented the whole time. And sometimes you see this zen played out even in the face of the suffering of others but is that the best way? And I guess this is where “zen master” comes into play, knowing the power of stillness but also knowing when to act.

*It also probably makes a big difference that I’m not a still person myself, no matter how hard I try, because ADD is the opposite of stillness.

Ultimately, I think that the execution of stillness in a masterful way is not something that is written well a lot of the time, especially if the writer is someone like myself who does not actually fully understand the principle. I mean, if it seems like both action an inaction are viable options, inaction is going to come off as laziness and/or apathy, even if there’s a reveal of “but look how wise waiting was!” later.

And this does leave open the potential for the self-defeating villain issue. If your villain was always going to destroy himself and all your protags had to do was wait, then…what…was the point? Who cares anyway?

If the stillness is more of a holding action than no action required, it should be easier to execute. Consider a military unit that has captured a small city. They’re the kind of people who slap children for talking to them and burn down the bar when the owner tells them they can’t talk to his wife that way. We’re used to the MC swooping in and kicking butt, but perhaps he’s going to let this behavior continue until the soldiers have expended all their resources (or perhaps contract food poisoning or another weakening illness he set up for them) so that they are all weaker than him when he finally does step in. In which, the MC was always planning to come in and kick their trash, but he just waited until it was feasible and there wasn’t big risk of failure. I could get behind that, but it would still be hard to forgive MC for not doing anything while soldiers harassed the citizens, especially depending on the level of harassment.

And it is constantly a totally criticizable and hugely annoying problem when someone is doing something long-term and refuses to just communicate their flipping plan.


Looking at you, missy.  I know what all the reasons are why you wouldn’t JUST TELL HIM. Either they weren’t executed properly or they were not justifiable imo.

On the plus side, it’s much easier to have the villain be the zen master. Just wait, just wait, the hero will waltz right into my claws, my trap, will trot the McGuffin to my hand (man heroes have a bad habit of doing that). Because the worst that happens when the hero is deated this way is that the hero is considered dumb and a hero can recover from stupidity more easily than a villain so long as it was within the realms of character flaw dumb and not why do I even care about this total inept loser moron levels of dumb.

Just make sure you take care to think through every aspect of a zen character – inaction may be a great tool, but it’s also a pretty big problem when there’s evil afoot. Zen Buddhism is a beautiful religion and I know people have gained much from their teachings of stillness, but there’s a reason like a bajillion different quotable people have said something along the lines of if there is evil and you do nothing, you are a cohort.

Posted in General Writing, Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Diversion Motivations

Hello and happy New Year, everyone! I’ve got motivation on the mind since I’m decreasingly motivated to do anything but rest, which I suppose isn’t unusual for someone who could go into labor any day now. I’ve been thinking about what does motivate me, and that made me think that sometimes it doesn’t seem like I have big, over-arching motivations. I still have big goals, like finishing my WIP, and long-standing motivations that don’t necessarily do anything but are still important, like the safety and happiness of my friends and family; the motivation is inert unless something relevant comes up, like I learn a friend is sad or that someone will be traveling on icy roads. Then I do stuff about it until it’s not relevant anymore. And this also brings to mind smaller motivations, like pie.

Rii the Wordsmith eating pie

I’ve stolen twenty pumpkins for a pie! (where “steal” refers to “trick people out of their pumpkins in a game where the object is to trick people out of their pumpkins”)

Knowing big, over-arching motivations and long-standing, sometimes inert motivations is important for all of your characters, because motivation is nigh everything. Especially for your villains. But how someone might go about things, what they might do in their downtime, and quirks can all depend on smaller motivations. I wouldn’t actually legit steal a pumpkin for pie, since my moral code of “stealing is wrong” is stronger than my motivaiton of “pie is delicious”, but the side plot of my appartment complex’s pumpkin heist to the main storyline of my schooling is certainly an amusing one.

When your villain is casing a place, maybe they stop into a coffee shop to look casual…or maybe they see a candy store that has their favorite childhood sweet. Nonchallantly ducking into a store to buy something is the same mechanic either way, but the different executions tell us something different about the character, his life, his personality.

Even if these little motivations don’t come up at all, knowing them still tells you about a person. So it’s still worthwhile to sit down with your characters and ask them about what motivates them on a small scale, on day-to-day life, on what to do and how to act outside of their big goals. And it’s not a bad exercise to write a little cliplet scene about their pursuing a small-scale goal, like stealing a bunch of pumpkins or finding the right brand of Thing, or getting the holiday decorations up or down in a certain timeframe, or even panic-cleaning before guests arrive.

Posted in General Writing, Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Some Men Just Want to Watch the World…Rain?

As a mother of a three year old, I try hard to curate the TV she watches, but inevitably, I am exposed to some stupid kids’ show from time to time. The kind that it makes me want to take a brick to whoever wrote it.

You can argue that it’s just a kids’ show and of course I, a grown adult, will not enjoy it, but to that I say nay! While the subject matter may be beneath me, the writing should still be good enough to be enjoyed by writing of all ages!


There is a reason this show has an adult following despite it being a kids’ show.

EE’s enjoyed MLP:FiM and also the new Magic Schoolbus…but right now, she’s onto a show called PJ Masks. You may have heard of it. I am sorry.

It’s terrible. I mean they teach morals and that’s great but the whole show is so inane with how not just childish but flat out idiotic all the characters are, all the villains operate in the worst possible ways, and the morals are so ham-fisted that I’m surprised the entire show isn’t made out of pork.


I mean, yes, MLP is also sometimes ham-fisted with morals but it’s not every flipping episode. Also every third episode they forget what powers they do have in favor of something they can’t do.

I’ve mentioned that kids’ entertainment often has issues with villains being crappy, and I’ve also mentioned that it can be done well. And brushing off really stupid villains just because it’s a kids’ show is a problem for two reasons, the second of whichi s more pertinent: one, it assumes that childrens’ stories are synonymous with bad writing, which is dumb, and two, it assumes that the problems that make bad childrens’ writing bad is something that obviously isn’t a problem in writing for older audiences. And I’m not sure that’s true. Besides that, looking at what’s bad is an important tool for learning what’s good. Let’s take a look at a specific episode.

The specific episode was one where the villain Luna Girl is upset that, being a kid who apparently can only come out at night??? she’s not able to play summertime games, so she takes all the water in the storage tank for the sprinklers and…turns them into clouds…so they pop out of the sprinklers and make everything rainy during the day. The fact that it’s an incredibly stupid plan aside (Really? You’re going to stick rain clouds in the tank for the sprinklers as a way to disperse rain?) when the PJ Masks confront her, she tells them her plan and motivation up front, and one of the Masks says that they’d be happy to play games with her at night so she wouldn’t be lonely. Which is pretty cool, except Luna Girl immediately turns them down saying the idea of playing games with them is repulsive – vocal emphasis that playing games is just as repulsive as with them.


I want to know where this kid’s parents are, personally.  They need to teach her to be a better villain.

Let me go over that: her plan is to make it rainy during the day; her motivation is she is jealous that kids get to play games during the day and she doesn’t. The PJ Masks offer to play games with her during the night; she finds the idea of playing games repulsive.


Here’s where I’m not sure media for older ages is immune: you could argue it still makes sense if Luna Girl just wants to watch the world burn. Er, rain. But…that’s not how it was presented. She didn’t say “those kids have something I don’t so I want to ruin it for them, even though I don’t care about it, because I’m just that evil.” She said, “They have something I want, and since I can’t have it, I’m going to ruin it for them, but also I don’t want it.”

And yeah, she’s a kid, and my own kid will walk me around in circles where she’ll say she wants something but doesn’t want something imparative to having what she said she did want and I end up


and that’s just part of parenting but there’s a few important distinctions between my kid and Luna Girl: my kid is three. She’s not always good at communicating and probably she just didn’t communicate her wants well in the first place, or didn’t quite understand what I’m asking. Luna Girl is old enough she should be at least mostly past that. Also my kid is a real person and not a fictional character and when you have to choose between not frustrating the crap out of your audience and doing someting true to life, probably choose not frustrating the crap out of your audience (brands of frustrating vary). I’d rather have Luna Girl’s motive be consistent and make sense than have her take a stab at being a realistic stubborn kid – which she does fine in other aspects, but this one was just…you know what I’m going to do the meme again.



Anyway the other reason why Luna Girl can’t be a person who just wants to watch the world burn is because she’s not the kind of person who just wants to watch the world burn. Humans are sometimes spiteful creatures, yes. Watching the world burn is, I think, the most spiteful you can get, although characters like Heath Ledgers’ Joker have shown us it doesn’t have to be spite, it can be a branch of insanity. What’s important to remember is that if your character is motivated by spite, they aren’t simultaneoulsy motivated by something else that conflicts with the spite unless they are struggling with themselves over it. Either Luna Girl is jealous or she’s spiteful; if you want to do both simultaneously, where her jealousy has made her spiteful and that’s not changing, don’t swap motivations, show that both coexist. “You have something I don’t, so I want to ruin it for you. What? You have a solution that could make me not feel left out? I’m already dedicated to just ruining it for you.” Not, “I legitimately don’t want the thing that you have that I don’t that I literally just said I wanted.”

Certainly with more time and space, you could develop that interation to make sense. But these are like, fifteen minute episodes or somesuch, so they don’t have time. So instead you just get this whiny brat who doesn’t know what she wants who is obnoxious beyond description and I’m over here wishing we were fighting a cool villain.


Either way the point is, she wasn’t consistent, and one way or another, that needed to be fixed, whether expression her dual emotional motivations better, or changing them up to be better compatible and less…Jackie Chan meme.

And hey, even Jackie Chan meme can work, but you’ve got to be careful with that, and your other characters should probably be pulling the face along with your reader, so that it’s clear, no, this character really just doesn’t know what she wants.

Posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Picking Over the Vulture

We finally got around to seeing Spiderman: Homecoming, and absolutely loved it. So unsurprisingly, I’m gonna talk about the Vulture, and will include spoilers.


MAJOR spoilers.

We liked the entire movie pretty well; I’m sure there’s room for criticism, but it’s a good addition to Marvel’s movies. They did a lot of aspects well, and I liked Peter’s character arc. I also liked the Vulture’s character arc.

He is a villain that’s all about family – that’s his motivation, you do what you have to do to support your family, and he’s been spurned and burned one time too many to care about keeping that source of support totally clean. You don’t get to see a whole lot of his interactions with his independent family members, but he does seem to be a good dad to Liz, just a little protective, but not so much that he gets to be Stereotypical Overbearing Dad. He doesn’t threaten Peter over taking his daughter out on a date, the way Overbearing Dad does – he threatens Peter over their villain-hero relationship.  And every time it looked like his empire would fall, the first thing he jumped to was “how will I support my family?” which didn’t seem to be a facade for power, but a legitimate concern.



I also like that the first time we see him kill someone, he hadn’t meant to. He grabbed one of their weird alien guns and shot a minion who was turning on him, only to realize it turned the guy to ashes instead of just turning off gravity for him. I appreciate this because while he does seem like the kind of guy who would kill for his family, taking that first step of murder is a big one for a guy who is originally a decent person. The fact that he already killed someone and knows he can and can move past it as “eh, just business” makes it much more believable to me that when Spiderman keeps screwing up his plans, his reaction is to want to kill him. I would have had a harder time believing he’d really want to kill someone, murder them dead, if he hadn’t already killed someone. I mean, when someone constantly screws me up, I wouldn’t ever really kill them even if I’d mutter it under my breath. For someone whose motivation is family, they’re probably not already a cold-blooded killer, but a decent person. He needed that first blood.

And then he still has solid standards and morals when it comes to this arena.


That’s just about standards.

Going back to threatening Parker on homecoming night, he just learned in that car ride that Peter is Spiderman, and now is his chance to kill him as he wanted. He even pulls out a gun from his glove compartment. But instead, he turns around and makes it clear he’s clear on who Peter really is, brings up events of an earlier scene when Spiderman saved Liz’s life, and says that because Peter saved his daughter’s life, he will now save Peter’s life by choosing not to kill him in a situation where he absolutely would otherwise, adding that if Peter follows him instead of enjoying homecoming with Liz, he will kill Peter and everyone he loves.

Peter chooses to put on his mask and follow him.

After establishing this life for a life moral, the Vulture tries to pull off a huge heist robbing none other than Stark, a desperate gambit to restore his empire after Spiderman has crushed so much of it, and Spiderman comes and disrupts that last-ditch attempt to get up and going again. In the fight, the Vulture nearly still makes off with some of Stark’s energy cores, but doesn’t because his wings are broken and explode. Spiderman tries to stop him flying off, noticing the wings will explode, and then after they do, he jumps into the flames of the explosion, looking for the Vulture, and drags him out from his machinery to safety, saving his life.

So when we get the final Vulture scene in prison, another guy approaches him and says he knows some guys on the outside that would like to kill Spiderman, and the word is the Vulture knows his identity. The Vulture insinuates that if he knew, Spiderman would already be dead. This is for me a yaaaaas moment because he had morals and he stuck to them. It’s possible that the Vulture could have been prodded to breaking those morals, but there wasn’t any good setup for that – and the fact that he stuck to what he knew, who he was, made him a solid and consistent character. His telling the other guy that Spiderman is Peter Parker would have certainly left an ominous cliffhanger, but instead they worried about his character and not drama, just the way it should be.

There are a lot of good elements of the Vulture worth examining when writing your own villain.


Posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Failing Your Fears

A common theme in books is facing one’s fears, whether that’s the entire story arc, or just a side plot, or important character growth. And while there definitely are exceptions, a lot of these arcs progress where the character is afraid of something, and then they are forced to go up against what they fear, and then somewhere along the lines, whether in gearing up to face the thing, or during the battle, or looking back on it, they become no longer afraid of whatever it was that they feared. In other words, facing a fear usually involves completely conquering it.


Re: the entire plot of IT

That’s cool and all but when I think of the fears I have to face, I conquer about 0 of them. Like the anxiety-induced fear of talking to people on the phone. Every time I have to call the doctor or bank or something, it takes a lot of working up to getting where I feel like I can do it, and then I do it, and then after I finish, I’m still…well, not exactly afraid of but super uncomfortable with doing it. Did the phone call go badly? No. It was easy and even pleasant because the receptionists at my doctor’s office are fantastically friendly. It wasn’t even scary, even if it felt scary as my finger hovered over the green phone icon. I face that fear fairly frequently, especially since I have a lot of doctor visiting thanks to being pregnant, but I never conquer it. I use this example because it’s a particularly common one; I’m far from the only adult who hates talking to people on the phone no matter how pleasant the call might be, who feels a spike of anxiety every time my phone rings. I face this fear because I am a big girl who can make a friggun phone call but facing that fear doesn’t ever make it go away.


There’s a reason this gif is beloved.

Likewise, I am afraid of the dark. I mean do you know how much scary crap lives in the dark? In real life, mostly nothing, but I am a writer, so I only live in real life so much, so the dark is friggun terrifying. I face that one like, every night. Especially if my kid wakes up and wants a drink and I have to try and decide between turning on the lights and not “losing sleepiness” by leaving them off, because as an insomniac, getting to sleep sucks. (I’d leave the cup in her room but that inevitably ends in her playing with the water so…) Being an adult, I can go out to where all the scary imaginary stuff that wants to kill me in the most horrible ways lurks just out of the corner of my vision to find her stupid cup and get it to my kid and then get back to bed. Doing so and not getting viciously murdered and reminded that it’s seriously just my imagination does not abate the fear, nor does it make any moment of doing so less terrifying. And if I did turn on the light, there’s still the fear of the shadows beyond the one light I flipped on, and there’s always the famous flipping the light off running leap into bed before anything gets me from out of the inexplicably magical protection of blankets.


There are many silly childhood things that linger into adulthood, even if we pretend they don’t.

You have arachniphobes who have to kill the spider themselves, with a lot of shrieking and/or crying the entire time, who are just as afraid of spiders afterwards. You have acrophobes who never get over that rickety creepy as heck staircase and feel like they’re on a rope bridge in an Indiana Jones movie every time they use it. You have those who find driving in the rain or snow to be unbearably scary and doing it anyway doesn’t change anything.

And you also have people who try to face their fears and fail, or fail to face their fears at all.

When a villain uses fear against a hero, it’s undoubtedly going to be a plot arc that the hero overcomes that fear and thus defeats the villain. And that’s a great moral. Stories of courage, of conquering fears, are important. But it might be nice to see heroes face fears because they have to, and when they come through, they are still afraid of The Thing and the accomplishment is that their life isn’t ruined; they were brave but hope they don’t have to do it again. And these stories exist, too, but I might like to see it more prevelantly. Because it’s okay to be afraid, and it’s okay to be afraid even after a confrontation. That’s life.


While Candace did get the replacement whatever from beyond the spiders, I’m not really certain you could say she truly overcame the fear.

And my husband says he actually would like to see more stories where the hero fails to face the fear, they try and can’t do it, and then the protagonists have to figure something else out. This is rare and if it happens it’s usually only as a fairly minor incident, but the fallout, the consequences, would be rather interesting to explore, don’t you think? After all, to try and fail, especially in the face of fear, is rather human.

When fear is a factor, you might consider more thoroughly your character’s arcs in dealing with it – in conquering, merely facing, and failing altogether. And don’t forget – this also applies to your villains.

Posted in General Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Diablos Ex Machina

I’m sure you’ve all heard the term Deus Ex Machina and are familiar with why it’s generally a problem- and I’ve discussed why it’s a problem concerning the defeat of villains, even if not in those direct terms.

You’ve probably never heard of Diablos Ex Machina because it’s a term my husband made up. However, after watching a few animes and becoming increasingly frustrated with The Most Terrible Things cropping up out of nowhere for the sake of creating conflict and whatnot, he coined the term.

One of the primary examples of this was from an interesting series called Romeo X Juliet. It is, in fact, anime Romeo and Juliet. Kind of. I mean, the show had two noble families, one Capulet, one Montague, at odds with each other, and they had heir children, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who fell in love in a place called Neo Verona. Beyond that, the story and charaters baaaasically had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s play, starting with the fact that the very beginning, Montague and minions burst into Capulet’s home and slaughtered literally everyone except two year old Juliet and a few retainers who helped her escape and raised her. From there, you have the Red Whirlwind, a vigilante  whose secret identity is the young boy Odin, whose secret identity is none other than Juliet, Mysterious Ninja Tybalt, Romeo is a genuinely cool guy not ruled by his penis, and there’s also a really stupid Yggdrasil-style tree that is the cause of the Diablos Ex Machina. Escalus, the stupid tree, is what keeps Neo Verona floating. Did I mention that Neo Verona is a sky island? It’s a sky island. Yeah this version is a very loose interpretation of the play with all sorts of neat stuff!



Anyway after enjoying the far better development of Juliet, Romeo, and their romance, you get to the point where they’re torn apart for pretty literally no good reason and it’s got nothing to do with the Montague thing. See, the whole time, the lady who tends Escalus (her name is Ophelia) keeps telling Montague that Escalus is dying because he doesn’t have love, and Escalus needs love to survive. And so Tyler and I draw the conclusion that obvs Romeo and Juliet’s love will heal Escalus – and there is a ton of other reasons why we drew that conclusion because it made sense. And then, as they’re gearing up for the final battle against Montague…

…it comes up that no, no, what Escalus wants is a female Capulet. See you gotta sacrifice a Capulet maiden to Escalus every now and then for it to be happy or it dies and the city crashes to the ground. So when the battle comes up and Montague is slain, Juliet runs off to go sacrifice herself and Romeo runs after and is like omg noooooo and then blah blah and he changes Juliet’s mind but then Ophelia is like Nope! and forces her to do the tree thing and then Romeo tries to get Juliet back and gets stabbed by a wooden stake of Ophelia who is also turning into a tree and then Juliet escapes Escalus but finds Romeo is kind of super impaled and so she does the tree thing anyway sorta and flies the continent to the ocean below and turns into a tree with Romeo.


It’s a pretty weird tree. Something something the goddess of Verona is tied to it, hence the wings, but…still a pretty weird tree.

This whole thing was highly upsetting to Tyler and I. Especially because I have a sixth sense for when the female lead is going to turn into a tree at the end of the story – no, seriously, we read whichever Shanera book it was where that happens and I called it at the very beginning of their quest – and while it took a little while longer than it normally would for me to sense this was gonna happen to Juliet (Because it had no setup whatsoever), I ignored it hardcore because it would have been really stupid for her to turn into a tree (Because there was no setup whatsoever). This was because there was no setup for it at all.

When it came up and it was pretty clear that the anime was like la la everything is working out so nicely  oh crap this story was supposed to be a tragedy uhhh quick make Escalus eat Juliet! I mean, even if it had been planned from the beginning, that’s not how it was executed. And the bottom line is Tyler and I felt completely cheated.

And that’s the problem with Diablos Ex Machina – well, the same problem with anything in your machine. It’s cheap and it makes your audience feel cheated. Whether it’s BAM! Saved! or BAM! Everything is ruined for no reason! it’s a problem.

Sometimes life is unpredictable and bad things happen for no reason. But as random as life seems, it’s not actually truly random and when bad things happen for no reason, there’s still a reason it happened; that’s two different definitions of reason, one meaning cause, one meaning motivation. Many bad things don’t have motivation but do have cause. Take natural disasters – that’s a bad thing that happens to good people for no reason, which is to say those people did absolutely nothing to deserve the devestation. Except they did by living on this planet, which has a crust that’s a bunch of giant rocks floating on churning magma that sometimes causes earthquakes and weather patterns that include incredible winds and bad storms that carry hurricanes over cities or tornados across the land. A big forest fire has no motivation for burning down someone’s home, but there is a cause for it, such as the fact that they were living in a flammable home next to a flamable forest and something like lightning started a fire.

There’s also man-made disasters, like shootings. While people say “no one could have predicted this,” that’s not even remotely true.


The fellow who wrote this book, his job is literally to predict disasters like shootings, and they are 100% possible to predict. Maybe there’s no particular reason that crazy gun terrorist shot, specifically, the random innocent people he did, but there is a reason he went out and shot random people.

The problem with Diablos Ex Machina is that in writing, we can go for the shock factor of Suddenly! Bad thing! but a well-crafted story will have set it up, even if just in a sneaky way. Getting that Suddenly! Bad thing! just right is great since that’s what makes your readers scream and throw the book across the room. But the thing is, for that to be the good kind of chucking the book and not the bad kind where the reader is just angry with you, the writer, and they don’t pick it back up, you need to make sure you know the reason behind everything and you’re writing accordingly. If Escalus wanted a Capulet, whether or not Montague had any love didn’t really matter, did it? What Ophellia should have been saying was that Montague doomed the tree by spilling the blood it craved, or something like that. Is that a dead giveaway? Doesn’t have to be with careful wording.

There are times when Bad Thing! coming out from left field is appropriate, but that usually involves introducing an entirely new element, not dramatically changing an existing one without preamble. Either way, you’ve got to take care that you’re not doing things just because you’re trying to get the story to be a certain way, without making sure the story actually works the way you’re bending it. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel cheated.

Edit: apparently TV tropes disagrees with the idea that Tyler made up the term. They have a page on Diabolos Ex Machina. Who knew? (Not me, apparently.)

Posted in General Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What Makes a Villain a Villain?

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot, and one that many other people have also thought about a lot and procured many answers, most of which are good – all of the ones I’ve heard have been good answers, at any rate.

And while I’d love to say that I, as an authority on villains, have the answer…my conclusion is that I just have a lot of good answers and good thoughts that are refutable in such a way as to spark a lively debate about it, and thus I’ve drawn a different conclusion.

Whether or not there is one single complete and objectively correct answer to this question, what’s more important is that you have your own answer to this question, and that you know it and are solid on it before you write. This will help keep you from conflating villains and antagonists, recognize when you’re writing a mere antagonist, and not call them a villain or force them to be something they’re not. And it’s okay if you have an answer where others might disagree. I mean, look at Snape! Is he a villain, an antihero, a misunderstsood hero?


…please don’t take that as an invitation to start that debate on my post. No seriously please don’t.

People hold all of those opinions and more of him, and they are often quite strongly held. What causes a person to view Snape where they do on the spectrum of good and evil seems to depend on two factors: one, how well they understand his character and simultaneously remember all the things he did and said, and two, where they place moral values. And a lot of people disagree with Rowling’s assessment of her own character, and that is entirely okay. Especially when everyone remembers that a writer’s own assessment of their own character is not always correct, or at least objective truth.

I think of my own current main character – I find him to be an endearing jerk. Other people might find him to be a selfish brat. I think they are wrong but that’s also my opinion; maybe they can’t stand sarcasm and sass and if that’s where they put their values, then yeah, he’s going to be much more insufferable. Just as in real life, not every person is going to like any other given person, in fictional life, characters who are rounded enough to be like real people will not be liked by every person, nor judged the same way.

So what makes a villain a villain? Think hard about that question, and then when you have your answer, run with it, and perhaps you’ll find that the dichotomies of good and evil upon which you have decided will help shape aspects of your plot, as well. Since part of that dichotomy for me is caring about other people, some of the important plot arcs for my heroes involve becoming more personable, more aware of others around them, and more willing to trust them, whereas the arcs for my villains sometimes tend more towards despondancy, willingness to sacrifice others for their (the villain’s) own goals, increased coldness. Maybe you’re the kind of person so jaded by the unkind and morons of our world that your definition doesn’t involve a dichotomy of love for others or not. We all know how hard it is to label people because they’re dynamic, but it’s also because all our labels are different, too. Don’t worry about whether your definition is right or wrong, but just if it makes sense to you.

Of course, keeping an open mind, a flexible definition, that grows as you learn about the perspective of others is not a bad idea either. Either way, even if your definition changes later, you should at least have one so when you write a villain, you know what you’re writing in the first place.

Posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Megamind Isn’t a (Real) Villain

Hello all! It’s nice to be back! I am still pregnant and actually still not in great shape because of it, but at this point, I’m mostly just exhausted instead of outright sick. And during this hiatus, I got the chance to work through most of the movies I own with my kid because while I’d ordinarily like to limit her screentime…you do what you gotta when you’re sick or too tired to do much.

And that means I got to watch one of my own favorite movies again, Megamind. Watching Megamind is all kinds of nostalgic for me, since many of the times I saw it, including the first, involve wacky hijinks or at least wacky people. It also often reminds me about the interesting disparity between what I expected the film to be and what it was. The trailers presented it as, “This is an action hero story from the villain’s perspective!” but most people I talk to agree that that’s…not…really what it was. Heck, Despicable Me did a better job of telling a villain’s story, as a villain’s story, than Megamind did. (That said, while I like both movies, my own personal preference is still for Megamind). And that’s simply because Megamind isn’t and never was a villain.


Sorry bro.

He only ever played villain, and as well as he might have filled the part, his motivation behind everything makes it pretty clear that he wasn’t ever a real villain. And this is incredibly important to note because amatuerish villains are barely more real villain than Megamind ever was – and in a big way, less so, because the writer generally (if not always) fails to make his villain a real person, whereas Megamind is wonderfully rounded out with real motivations and feelings and it is on purpose that he is only filling a role handed to him – which is kind of the point of the movie.

Now don’t get me wrong, Megamind filled the part beautifully – he knew all the things a villain does and he did them and he did them pretty well.


I mean he had a cape with its own evil theme song and everything.

But he didn’t do any of those things because he’s a villain, he did them because that’s what he was supposed to do as a villain, and pretending to be a villain meant he could fit in and have a place in the world. All it takes is listening to the prologue for this to be crystal clear – he felt left out, confused, lost, and realized he could fit in if he played villain. The fact that he is not a villain, and still has to find his real place because he is not really a villain, is also reiterated throughout the movie. Metroman felt like he was also shoved into a role he didn’t care for, doing what others expected him to and failing to be true to who he really was; he tells Megamind that it’s now time for Megamind to find out who he really is, indicating he believes the same of Megamind. And the movie ends with Megamind declaring that destiny is the path we choose for ourselves, not what appears to be handed to us. The moral of the movie is tied to the fact that Megamind isn’t a villain.

No part of the movie makes it more clear that he’s not a real villain, to me, than when he takes over the city and crashes. His motivation to take over the city was “that’s what villains do,” rather than a real desire to control the city. A real villain? They have a real desire, for one reason or another, to have power over others. Sometimes it’s a noble goal in the eyes of the villain:


…need to rule it.

So back to what this means for our villains – remember my five main points of villainy, most specifically, the one about evil deeds? Where I said that a villain isn’t evil because he does bad stuff; he does bad stuff because he is evil? Yeah, this is a prime example of someone who is trying to be a villain because he does bad stuff. And he does do some bad things. Like I said, he plays the part of villain well. But it doesn’t make him a villain. Contrast in the same movie, Titan/Hal:


Look at that honest malice.

He was supposed to be a hero, but instead he becomes a villain – a real villain – because his motivations are sour and unlike Megamind, he doesn’t view his participation as a game. He actually wants power over other people. At the very least, he wanted power over Roxanne. Who knows how he might have developed if he hadn’t been conquered so quickly? But I’m gonna guess a man motivated by pain and frustration to scare and bully others was not going to go in any good direction.

When you compare Megamind and Titan, and their actions, and whose actions were worse, that’s a comparison between someone who does bad things to be a villain, and someone who does bad things because he is a villain. Compare an evil act both performed: kidnapping Roxanne. Roxanne was part of the act with Megamind, and being a savvy woman, was not afraid of him. She knew how the script went. And when she found herself in private with him after he took over the city, they still spoke to each other as intimate acquaintences, no assailant and victim. But she’s a true hostage when Titan kidnaps her. She is clearly honestly afraid for her life, and much more. And they still are close acquaintences, and that’s still part of their conversation, but you can see how the relationship has evolved to include real fear.

Even if Megamind’s villainry was more refined, it was still clearly an act.


“Presentation” is a great quality for villains…if presentation is actually important for the situation.

If you stick yourself, the writer, as a character into Megamind, you are Destiny. You are the one who casts the die, to callback to the start of the film. And if your villain is Megamind, he’s someone who isn’t evil and doesn’t belong in the villain’s role, but you need a villain and that’s where you decided he fits, so that’s where you’re sticking him, directing his actions to be evil again and again when his heart is somewhere else. And even if he does a good job…he’s not a real villain, and the audience is going to see that one way or another, whether because you have to force him to act against his will so often that he goes limp and becomes cardboard, or as the audience begins to furrow their brow at your labeling him a villain when they can clearly see there’s more to him than that. Megamind was never a real villain because he was just filling a role; if you want your villain to be real, he can’t do the same thing.

Posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Hi everyone. I’m sorry for slipping away again with no warning. See, I’d been working on a couple blog posts, one of which I was struggling with its length, and then I gradually became so sick all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and die. Or nap, whatever, same thing.

I say “gradually” because it’s not like one day I woke up and was super sick, but it was still pretty fast, enough for me not to expect it and do something proper to finish a post or something. As it happens, I’m still incredibly sick, and will probably continue to feel stupid sick for another couple months at least.

As you should have gathered from the title, I’m sick because of a semi-delightful parasite lodged in my lower abdomen. (Semi-delightful is a word which here means, would be completely delightful it if wasn’t making me ravenously hungry while simultaneously causing all food to look and sound disgusting.) The last time this happened, the sickness abated after about four months, but who knows how it’ll work out this time.

So it’s back to the couch with my DS and Harvest Moon for me, and napping, when a friend has time to come watch my little one. But just as a baby and a toddler are not villains, I don’t think it’s fair to say a fetus is either.

It is TOTALLY fair to call it a parasite, though.

Posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | 3 Comments

“I’ll Do Anything!”

Aaand we’re back to torture. Following up on your hero being a person who expresses pain when under duress, you probably ought to consider another aspect of toughing torture out.

I mean usually – or sometimes at least – when one person tortures another person, they want something out of it. Information, a Thing, a Deed, whatever. Yeah, especially in the world of writing, sometimes torture happens because the perpetrater is trying to get something that the victim can’t just give freely, like data for an evil experiment, and sometimes the villain is a sadist who enjoys cruelty.


This is kinda both. (The Machine – for ALL your pain blog post needs!)

But one of the primary points of torture is to force someone’s hand.

And this leads us to an important aspect of any character. What is their breaking point? Your hero can scream and writhe and cry and tremble and refuse, refuse to give up the location of his friends. He’s a tough guy. And loyal, too, really puts his friends before himself.  Your heroine suffers and suffers, and refuses to deny Key Belief. What a stalwart, tough lady she is!

But of course, this requires care. Your character suffering and suffering but managing to tough out the pain enough that they don’t give in and give up The Thing can be just as bad as your character toughing out the torture with no reaction. Again, you have the problem of, “It can’t be that bad,” because if it was that bad, they’d do anything to stop it.

But then I think of my capacity to withstand pain and if I’d do anything to stop it. I personally believe that the great thing about humanity is conscious choice. We have the power to break destiny and make whatever choice we want (given that it’s actually possible) in any situation, although breaking destiny might be so hard that a human (or whatever) is not likely to do it. So I like to think that if someone was torturing me to get information out of me that would kill my husband or child (or anyone else I love), I would die first.

And this, funnily enough, makes me think of the time when my baby was a newborn. I had some killer postpartum, which given my normal depression, is no surprise. I’m not meaning to say that a newborn is torture, but it is particularly hard (and when discussing with another mom about this topic, and quickly saying, “Not to say having a new baby is torture!” they replied, “Okay, but it kinda is” so…) I mean, think about it – depriving someone of sleep can be and has been used as torture. Newborns totally do that. And that was one part. One! I was pushed to my limits – which is also the point of torture. And as a standard part of postpartum, I thought a lot about getting rid of my baby, including frenzied thoughts of throwing her down the appartment stairs. (Yeah that’s totally normal postpartum, you’re not a bad mom, but you should probably get help.) Did I do that? Heck no! There’s no way I’d ever, ever ever ever, hurt my baby! There was something more important to me than ending the duress, no matter how extreme. But the duress broke me in other ways. To make my post about it shorter, I cried a lot, and shouted a lot (not at the baby), and had my frenzied thoughts, and my demoralizing thoughts about how I apparently wasn’t cut for being a mom after all. And that didn’t end until the kid got to be about four months old and her behavior shifted.

There are things that are more precious than life and fates worse than death. When the two collide…well, it says a lot about your character how they manage. There are countless stories of Holocaust victims who either shone as brilliant beacons of gorgeous humanity, or broke into despots. Fathers who stole crusts from their sons. Jews becoming worse than Gestapo. Strangers giving away their last piece of bread. You can also consider the study done on soldiers about what happens when they’re deprived of food. Spoiler alert: all they think or talk about is food. Various types of torture consume.

I recommend becoming familiar with the psychology of duress, so you can tap into your victim character’s thoughts; if we see them breaking down into frenzies like mine did, consumed by the torture, or (or perhaps also) clinging desperately to what’s important, then I could believe they withstand torture to preserve their Thing.

This also becomes an intersting thought exercise for all characters, villains included. Is there anything they love more than themselves? How much does it take to break them? What does it take to make them cry, “I’ll do anything!” ?

Posted in Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , | Leave a comment