Presented by Carol Brennan King

Creative Writing: What makes a great villain?

  1. Motivation: Consider why doing what he or she is doing, what he or she wants to do makes sense to the villain. What motivates or drives the villain to do this thing or these things? Remember the behaviors must make sense to the character, often known as the bad guy or antagonist.
  • You need to get inside his or her head to understand the behaviors. This is where backstory comes in. What happened in this character’s life that made these choices acceptable? Consider what could have happened before the scene opens to precipitate what is going to happen. So get in that character’s head, knowing what you know about him or her, look out through his experience-filled eyes, and make sense of what is coming.
  • Remember: generally villains were really good people, ordinary people who had bad things happen to them. Things, a sequence of bad things, or one really terrible thing, makes this choice, perhaps a balancing of the books idea, has come to them, makes sense. and drives their behavior.
  • Your villain may not look like or be the bad guy initially. He or she might look like the best friend of your protagonist and supports and does things for the hero. But later you show or give hints to the change that is coming.

Assignment: Choose one.

Write a scene where the villain plays a large role – be wary of telling not showing

Write a scene where a character begins the scene in one emotional state and ends it in another

Memoir: What clues lie in plain sight?

In Fourth Genre, Donald Morrill says, “Most of life is secret kept by banality” or ordinariness. So we should be looking for the words or behaviors that give us an additional opportunity for insight into who this character is. Just as we work hard to make our fiction characters rounded or multidimensional, we must do the same thing to bring our nonfiction characters alive.

Morrill goes on to say, “Character in nonfiction is shaped as much by an author’s omissions as by action.” You might change that to say, “Character is shown or shaped as much by implication as by action.”

  Characters and their props – remember these choices were motivated by something and are used to say something.

Some examples in class included the following:


   The guy who is a college prof and of small stature who always wears a cowboy hat and boots.

The tattooed person, extensive tattooes.

Wearing sunglasses all the time.

Oversize handbags or totes or backpacks always.

Hair – anything out of the “norm” – consider options, acknowledging that norms are defined by each culture .

Pipe or cigar smoker and how they use the pipe or cigar to make a point

Dress on a mature woman – maybe too short, too tight, too bright or masculine dress on a woman, possible reasons

Older man with a hot car – obviously pricey – the car is his prop

Excessive or unusual make-up always…

Spend some time thinking through the following exercise:

Choose someone you have shared life with, someone who will or could show up in your memoir: a parent, sibling, relative, friend, work colleague or boss, and so forth. Choose someone you do want to know or understand better. Think about how they first appear in your mind when you look at them mentally. What do you see? What do you commonly associate with that person and why?

Now write a scene or scenes focusing on the importance of that prop. Here are two examples used in class, one more successfully than another.

Her beloved Uncle Dick sat there in his chair, the chair that everyone knew as his chair, an aging but still standing ash tray beside him, one that had stood beside his chair for as long as he had been her Uncle Dick. She could see blue smoke exploding from his lips, in ever shorter and closer together puffs as he picked up, puffed and laid down his cigar, over and over and over.

What could his prop, the cigar, and his use of it in this scene indicate? How does the narrator feel about her uncle in the beginning and how might she be feeling at the end of the scene?

Her hair still blond, her dress still styled to accentuate her voluptuous figure, the man next to her wearing similar oversized turquoise jewelry, an enormous silver belt buckle and silver studded cowboy boots. Rita walked through the crowd of her fellow graduates from 25 years ago to the small table of her old friends, the ones she had known since they were six.

What are the props in this scene and what is their purpose? What do they say about this couple?

So choose a person who shows up in your memoir. Use a prop in the scene, one associated with him or her to learn or show something about that person.

And in our next unit: the first three Wednesdays of November and December:

In Creative Writing we will talk about Writing to Publish. Students may continue working on current projects or may write with particular markets in mind.

In Memoir, we will talk about Organizing our Stories to Publish. Special attention will be paid to using prompts to stir our memories.  

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