Give Your Villains a Break — And Rough Up Your Heroes

One of the hardest feats to pull off when writing characters is creating complete, realistic characters. Usually, you’ll find this most difficult when you’re either writing a character whom you despise—or when you’re writing a character based in part on yourself.

When you’re writing a character whom you despise, you run a quite high risk of making the character one-dimensional. For example, I wrote a short story featuring a brutal doctor, Dr. Arnold Hollingsead II. Hollingsead, in my mind, was a judgmental bigot who did not care about his patients. I gave him no quarter and painted him as the suave sadist I imagined him to be — resulting in a thoroughly one-dimensional character about whom readers felt absolutely nothing. Not hate, not pity, not even dislike.

Why was this? After all, hadn’t I shown him to be despicable? Well, yes, but I hadn’t shown him to be a real person. In real life, few, if any people, are wholly good or bad. Most of us are a mix of good and bad traits. Even saints, for example, often led colorful lives before reforming — think of St. Augustine, who fathered an illegitimate child, or St. Mary of Egypt, who was quite the seductress. And even for the person who goes on to become as good as gold, the past can still trouble him or her.

St Augustine -- Not always such a saint.Characters whom you want to show as despicable should also comprise good and bad traits. In order for your readers to hate your villain as much as you do, you must make the bad guy sympathetic. For example, I gave my villain, Dr. Hollingsead, no characteristics with which readers could empathize. And the key is that a reader must see a bit of himself in that vile character. Because no one believes that he or she is evil, if you can show your reader a slice of himself, he or she will have that emotional reaction you seek to evoke.

The other difficulty writers run into in creating characters is a failure to make a main character truly come alive. This almost always occurs because that main character is a part of the writer. We know ourselves too well; it becomes impossible to separate yourself from your character, and the result, again, is a one-dimensional representation. Or, for example, because you love your character so, you give him or her no bad traits at all.

How do you get around this? You can use character worksheets, as I mentioned in my previous post, to truly give that character a separate life from yourself. When you use this method, try to think of traits that you don’t have — maybe you’re obsessively neat, so make your character a bit of a slob. Maybe you didn’t give him any vices — so now his vice is compulsive gambling.

I know, I know, you don’t want to have to do this. You love your main character, and you want others to love him, too, because he is really you. But again, if you don’t give him dimensions, you risk creating a flat character with whom no one can identify, not least because you haven’t drawn him out.

So go ahead, give even your villains a break, and rough up your heroes. You might be surprised by the results.

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