• Peter Gulgowski

Writing the Villain

Updated: Feb 26


For my first "On Writing" blog post, I want to talk about my favorite part of storytelling -- VILLAINS! As a side-note, I want to keep these very conversational. They may not be perfectly polished because I want you to feel like we are having an honest conversation -- just you and me -- over coffee. If you've seen my YouTube videos, you'll know I'm the same way there! So, go get yourself that coffee, take a seat, and let's talk...


My earliest memories of villains came from Disney movies. I remember vividly being more interested in the bad people than the good people. I don't know why, but they just stuck out as being more interesting to me. The questions that would arise from my viewings of these movies would be like, "Why are they doing this?" "Why are they mean?" "What was done to them to make them treat others like this." Years later, I'm still asking these questions when I'm writing, and you should too!


In stories, there are levels of importance when it comes to the aspects of the story. On a rank of one to ten, I expect that if I gave you categories such as "Main Character", "Setting", "Dialogue", "Villain", "Plot", etc. there would be many variations, but most would put the main character above the villain in terms of importance. For me, and this may be a bit of a shock, the villain is more important than the main character. Yes, you read that correctly. Keep in mind, this is all up for debate, but let me defend my reasoning.


Without a villain, your main character has no one to fight against. Without an antagonist, there is no tension. The world of the story is at ease. With no tension, there is no story. A book about a witty girl living in a small town, where there is absolutely no tension will not hold a readers interest for long. Theoretically, I'm sure a story could be written, but it would be weak, with nothing at stake.


Without a villain, there is nothing at stake. There's everything to gain, with nothing to lose. A story is about balance. Authors strive to find that balance. Finding the balance is learning the craft of writing.


I've always said a story is like a dance. There's a rhythm to the story. There are fast parts, and there are slower parts to catch your breath. Learning how to strengthen that rhythm and finding that balance are key to being a good writer. That's why editing is so crucial in writing a good story. We switch up sentence lengths to ensure that they don't sound the same. We change sentence openers. It's all about the rhythm.


When you take a villain out of the story; thus, taking out the opposition, the balance and rhythm are thrown off entirely. It becomes a slow story and as a result, a boring dance. Imagine watching a video of people moving at one step every few seconds vs. a video of intervals of quick steps and slower steps. Which is more interesting? Which perks your interest? Which video would keep you thinking, "I wonder what'll come next?"


Exactly!


So, now that I've made my case for why villains should be near the top of your importance scale, let me talk to you a bit about my villains and how I go about writing them! My dystopian books are known for their villains, for which I am grateful my readers enjoy them. I put a lot of thought into them, and I hope my analytical approach, of dissecting my villains, will help you in creating your own!


**Note: The below sections may have some spoilers for each of my books, so if you haven't read the book, don't read the associated section.**


The Government (2016) Let's go back to my debut novel. Believe it or not, the premise for this book came to me in a dream way back in 2012. It was in this dream that I met my villain Gloria Chambers. For me, Chambers was the female equivalent of German dictator, Adolf Hitler. It is said in the book that the world was becoming overpopulated, resulting in the Earth's impending demise. To quickly solve the problem, she ordered the eradication of a vast majority of the U.S. population. Readers would accept this as a fairly typical villain of the dystopian genre. I'd agree. However, it is in the unique backstory that makes them a unique character. You have to remember that villains deserve a unique backstory as much as your main character. In writing Chambers, I knew that her real name was Ava Chambers and that her mother, the original Gloria Chambers, was actually worse than Ava; however, following a psychotic breakdown after the death of her mother and following orders from the government, she took over for her mother, undergoing an extensive facial reconstruction and identity change to ensure a continuity of her mother's rule over the United States. It is in this that she becomes interesting.


The Bionics (2017) Writing an artificially intelligent program as a villain was a HUGE challenge. Simply called, "The Network", this villain is an ever-present entity lingering about in my future Los Angeles and the rest of the country. I had the Network have the ability to manifest itself in a humanoid form with anyone who had one of the Aneta Industries neural implant. The Network primarily lives within a humanoid-being named Titus throughout the novel. But, rather than just have the Network be this invisible being, I put it into a human form to ensure that readers could see this character. Also, knowing that if one humanoid is killed, the Network can simply jump into a different body is equally terrifying.


And finally, for my latest release, The Voting Game (2018) President Sylvan Wright is my absolute favorite villain I've ever written. I see him so clearly when I close my eyes that sometimes I swear when I open them, he'll be standing directly before me. In writing the 84-year-old fictitious president, I wanted to create someone who readers would absolutely loathe, and at the same time, find fascinating and perhaps feel empathy for. When I began writing Wright, I knew that he had many skeletons in his closet. I'll focus on one part for this. I'll leave the rest for you to discover yourself. The backstory for him just fell into place, and I saw him as a young man being in a relationship with another male his age, back in his twenties. He'd struggle with his sexuality and ultimately withhold his true self for the rest of his life. He struggles so much, that he has this male killed off before his first presidential run, fearing any information about him being gay would crush his hopes. It's also a last-ditch effort to force away his "other" life. If the one, true love of his life is gone and out of view, perhaps he'll be able to forget about his sexuality and his struggle will be over, and he'll be able to go on pretending to be straight with his wife and family. Of course, it wouldn't work. This is only told in a few lines in The Voting Game, and in fact, some readers, if skimming, may miss it entirely; however, it is in the small details and backstories of our characters that make them unique, memorable, and interesting.


I hope I've given you some things to look for when crafting villains. I nearly forgot to mention this: Always remember that villains are not 100% bad and no main character should be 100% perfect. We all have flaws, and while villains should have more flaws than not, there should also be some positive aspects to them as well. If you're struggling with this, try to see your story from the villain's perspective. What is their desire? What do they want? Why? Thinking through these questions and having an honest conversation with yourself may help you write the best villain you've thought of yet!


And when in doubt, ask yourself this last question.


"With what I know, could I write a book told from [Villain's Name]'s perspective that is equally interesting and keeps me turning the pages; unraveling this character?"


If you answer yes, you've done your job.


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