Heroes & Villains

I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag.

plot book

By the late Ansen Dibell (aka Nancy Ann Dibble)

Actually this may not be true, since I managed to write a novel that more than one reviewer called “tightly plotted.” Let’s just say that plotting doesn’t come easy. One of the few how-to books I consult from time to time is called, simply, Plot.

My internal editor is forever nixing the kind of scene that makes for an exciting plot. She thinks they’re melodramatic or unbelievable. This is probably because my life has a meandering plot that would be deadly dull in fiction, though it leads through some interesting scenes and encounters some very interesting characters.

Evidently other writers are plot-challenged too. There are at least a gazillion websites out there to teach us how to plot.

Many of them start with protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). The main characters (i.e., the ones you like and want your readers to identify with and care about) want to get somewhere. The antagonist(s) get in their way and have to be overcome or neutralized somehow.

Call them heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys.

I get it, but there’s nothing that turns me off faster than a character whose sole purpose is to mess with the hero’s head and/or life. Why are these characters messing with the hero’s life? Because they’re villains, that’s why. Because they’re evil. Because the author needs a bad guy or two to give the good guys a hard time because otherwise there would be no plot.

Um, no.

“Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” I can’t remember where I picked up this brilliant insight, but it applies both to real life and to writing. It’s especially important when you’re creating (or giving birth to) characters you don’t like who are going to mess with the characters you do like. Nearly all of them have their own stories. Some of their stories are muddled or inchoate or otherwise incomprehensible to a rational person. Some are crystal clear: If you interrupt them in mid-stride, they can tell you exactly where they’re going and what they plan to do when they get there. Sometimes the story is driving the bus and the character is along for the ride, maybe willingly, maybe not.

devil“We are each other’s angels” goes the song. My teeth start itching at any reference to angels. There’s something about the concept that makes smart people start babbling in clichés. But OK, point taken: we are each other’s guides, teachers, helpers, and so on. But if we’re each other’s angels, we’re also each other’s devils, roadblocks, obstacles. When a character is the hero of her own story but the villain in someone else’s — that’s where things get interesting.

And more than a little scary.

When we call someone “evil,” it’s often because we can’t imagine what story they’re the hero of. We don’t want to. The story is probably icky. Maybe we’re so sure we’re on the side of the angels (oops) that we just don’t care why the other guy does what he does.

Writing well means grappling with the icky, in other people and in ourselves. So far all my less-than-heroic or downright nasty characters have been facets of my own self: I understand their impulses, I’ve often thought their thoughts; I just haven’t acted on them either because I haven’t had the opportunity or I didn’t have the nerve. There but for fortune . . .

In Wolfie, my novel in progress, I seem to be walking toward my first real villain, a man I’m sorely tempted to call evil. He’s a successful lawyer, and he sexually abused his stepdaughter over a period of time when she was seven years old. She’s now eleven, and it looks to me as if he’s going to try it again.

At the moment I can’t imagine what story he’s the hero of. Well, no: I know a good chunk of the story. What I don’t know is how sexually molesting a seven-year-old fits into it. What does he see when he looks in the mirror? When he looks at his wife, who is the girl’s biological mother? When he looks at the girl herself? Statistics suggest that he may have been abused himself growing up. Was he? By whom? A family member, a neighbor, a teacher, a priest?

So far I can’t see out of this man’s eyes, but when I’m doing dishes or walking in the woods glimpses of him appear in my peripheral vision. He’s taking shape.

Part of me wants to stuff him back into my imagination, turn the lock, and pile heavy stones on the lid.

In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973; reprinted in The Language of the Night) Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about fantasy, but much of what she says applies to other writing as well, both fiction and nonfiction. This is how the essay ends:

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

What she said.



4 thoughts on “Heroes & Villains

  1. Plotting isn’t my strong suit, either. One thing I’ve learned is that there has to be a little bit of daylight in everyone, even the worst villain. That daylight, however small, is what keeps them alive. Find the daylight and you find the motivation. Maybe somehow that abuse made your villain feel safe, even if the safety was false affection.


    • Something I learned, or relearned, from dog training is that behavior that’s reinforced tends to continue. There’s a payoff, in other words. A reason to repeat the behavior. When I was binge-eating on a regular basis, the payoff for binge-eating was that I no longer felt compelled to binge. I’d feel sick and woozy, but the compulsion was gone. I wonder if something similar that might be happening with this guy. Another point that intrigues me is that his brand of lawyering is abusive. Powerful organizations and businesses hire him to win cases that could not be won on their merits. He bullies weaker parties on their behalf. There’s a lot of potential there, but to make it work I’ve got to get to know him better.


  2. Interesting post, and I think such thoughtful examinations make for stronger fiction. While I think some of the most effective drama is to have two sympathetic characters on a collision course–so that the villain is more of an antagonist than an evil person–there are times when people do evil things in a way we can’t understand. And sometimes it is right (imo) to recognize the evil for what it is, no matter the motives of the perpetrator.

    Glenda,interesting about reinforcement–I’ll have to look at my own fiction using that perspective.


    • Oh yeah, people do evil things for no apparent reason, or on impulse (because they can). This comes in handy when you’re plotting: whatever you need to happen could happen because it has happened. A wonderful man from my town was shot and killed last month while hiking in northern California — a totally senseless, out-of-the-blue crime. The perp (so far unidentified and unarrested) has a story. Part of me doesn’t give a damn about his story. The writer part of me can’t stop wondering what story brought him to the place where he deprived us of our friend and colleague. But so much of the nasty crap that people do to each other isn’t that mysterious.

      P.S. That was me talking about reinforcement. This WordPress theme isn’t all that clear about who posted what comment. 🙂


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