When I wrote my first real piece of prose, way back in 5th grade, I never completed it. The plot, a cross somewhere between Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, centered around missing pencils, a kid detective, and an unknown classroom thief. I remember many of the details of this first writing success, which includes having the unfinished short story read aloud to the class.
So why did I never finish it?
Some of it was perfectionism. In the age before computers, I showed a penchant for #2 Ticonderogas sharpened to an exacting point. Erasing only took you so far. Back then “cut and paste” could literally mean cutting and pasting sections of work. Whenever I changed the order of the paragraphs, I felt compelled to recopy that page of the story. Of course this took time. But that wasn’t the real issue.
My story kept getting longer and longer. I got bogged down in descriptive details, overusing adjectives and adverbs for every piece of furniture in the room. Did I sound like someone from the 1940s? You bet I did!
Writing was one hour in the school day, and during that hour I wrote furiously between the lines of my college-ruled notebook paper. I still wrote more than the required five paragraphs and hadn’t gotten to the reveal. I could have worked on that story at home, but when my day was divided into math and other subjects and tasks, I lost momentum, I lost interest, I lost the plot. It wasn’t the time so much as the distraction.
The real problem was I could not find a villain.
Let me put it another way. My characters are my creation, my babies. I don’t want bad things to happen to anybody, and this holds true for my protagonists. My protagonists are part of me.
Just like when I read a good book and I become so immersed I become the narrator. When I’m writing characters, I take on their perspective. I do a sort of method acting: I become them for a little while.
By the same token, I have always had a very naïve attitude towards villains. I want to believe that characters, these people I create, are human in the sense that they have some depth of humanity. A true antagonist does things that are inhumane or inhuman. How can I explore that nasty side of me? How can I embrace the negative emotions and motivations of a truly evil character?
For a long time, I didn’t want to see people I created do bad things. So, I was stuck. I could set things up, but I was loath to knock them down. Trouble is, good writing requires plot, plot requires conflict, and conflict requires a protagonist and an antagonist to work against each other.
So, again, my most productive writing method has been to act out my characters. As a kid, this was quite fun when I got to be Ice Woman, a combination of Saturday morning’s Isis and Wonder Woman. But I didn’t want to know villains, never mind pretend to be one. Instead of thickening, my plots melted.
My protagonists could have all the heroic attributes and abilities I want, but if they aren’t using them to promote good in the face of a true antagonist, I won’t be writing a novel, at least not in the true sense. At least not one worth reading.
I have to practice allowing myself the imagination to embody the antagonist. Like Jerry Jenkins from Write Your Book who uses a similar writing method, I’ve decided to become the bad guy for a little while.
I could have found a new writing method and painted the bad guys with a different sized brush from the rest of my work. That would have been unfair to my antagonist and left the work uneven. Thankfully, my perfectionist tendencies won’t allow it. I can’t let those characters go undeveloped, leave them out of focus. They’re mine too!
Rather than make my villains two-dimensional, like something out of a cheesy comic book (as opposed to a good graphic novel), I have chosen to grow up and go to that dark side. Like writing for the Writer’s Dig, I’ve decided to “eschew the totally evil antagonist.” Which means, in the long run, I’m (I hope) writing sympathetic villains.
Melissa Donovan from Writing Forward describes how we need to come to terms with the fact that “villains are everywhere.” This might be the most difficult of all. I still don’t want to believe the worst in people, but a reality in which villains abound is a scary one indeed. Even if it does make the writing easier.