Saturday, August 25, 2012

Building a better Villain, Tiffany Trent spills the Dirt

The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful in society, had that society been well organized.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

When Synde asked me to write about villains for this guest post, I have to admit my wicked little heart grew a few sizes larger. Is it odd to admit that when I went to Disney’s MGM park as a kid, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the villains store? Or that I wanted to be Maleficent rather than Sleeping Beauty? Or that I was always making stories up for the villains because no one ever told their tale? 

I think it’s safe to say I have a bit of an obsession with villainy. 

And I find it very interesting what actually constitutes a villain. Someone who disagrees with others? Someone who manipulates others into doing what he wants? Someone who enjoys having power over others?  Turned just slightly differently, all those qualities are things we admire in leaders.  (And we wonder why leaders can often go suddenly, horribly wrong!)

Perhaps the distinction is that leaders hold these things in balance while villains don’t. A villain is often simply a person out of balance who tends to spread that unbalance throughout the world of the book. The protagonist must bring back the balance by whatever means necessary. This often means the villain has to die, but I feel strongly that it doesn’t always have to. 

In my latest novel, THE UNNATURALISTS, the villain is fairly obvious right away. For the entire book, he has an agenda that is never fully revealed to the reader. And for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what he wanted and why he plagued the main characters so.  It took actually writing a segment of the novel from his point of view to finally get it. As with other villains I’ve written, the kernel of his villainy is in something that should ultimately make him sympathetic. At some level, as Don Maass mentions in his The Fire in Fiction, the villain must be right. 

It’s so much easier to write a cartoon villain, a la Scooby Doo: “And I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!”  It’s fun, too. (I refer you back to Scooby Doo). But the problem is that real-life villains are seldom that simple. I think the same should be true of villains in books. Even if it makes my life harder as a writer, I will always choose the villain who is complex, who does what he does for reasons that are very clear in his own mind, and who often overturns his own humanity (sometimes quite literally) to accomplish his goal.  The villain never sees himself as the villain; he’s always the hero in a story that we never see (to paraphrase that infamous quote). I try to work from this principle, to make my villains both attractive and revolting, both pitiable and enviable.

It’s definitely a fine line to walk, but the rewards for the story are priceless. 

about Tiffany Trent~
Tiffany Trent is the author of the  young adult steampunk novel THE UNNATURALISTS and the HALLOWMERE series. Her first book, In the Serpent’s Coils, was named a BookSense (IndieBound) Children’s Pick in Autumn 2007 and a New York Public Library Book of the Teen Age in 2008.  She was also the recipient of the 2008 SCBWI Work-in-Progress grant, and has won awards and fellowships for her nonfiction. Her short story “Blackwater Baby” in Magic in the Mirrorstone was given Honorable Mention for the Year’s Best Horror 2008.  She is represented by Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
Tiffany currently lives in the New River Valley of Virginia. When not writing, she plays with bees, presides over her avian army, and frequently gets lost in the jungle of her garden. 
where to find Tiffany~
on twitter
her website-


  1. Agree. I like sympathetic villains. I like to write them such that you kind of feel bad when they die (assuming they do).