Writing Excuses 7.29: The Villain Problem


We’re a month into summer and I have finally found the time to get my blog started up again. There is a new photo and a few new podcast formats. The podcast entitled, “The Villain Problem,” is more old school podcast, though — a lot of information in a limited time.

The Villain Problem happens when the hero of the story you write or read is less proactive than the villain he faces. In other words, the hero’s actions are just reactions to the villain’s plan to dominate the world or whatever other scheme a villain has in mind, (but it usually is taking over the world, or the greater city area). This makes the villain the focal point and main character in the story, rather than the hero. Some writers do this intentionally, and it does have an interesting effect on progression of plot. This podcast is for those who do not want the villain to be the star of the show.

Brandon says that the podcasters are here to help writers recognize when their villain becomes the problem, and how to fix this problem by making the hero more proactive, without the hero deciding to take over the world himself. Mary believes that this would be a good story plot, and points out that Brandon has already written a version of it.

What are the most common plots that concentrate on villains? The group gives the consensus that comic books often have villain focal points, particularly Batman, who is identified by the villains he faces. The villains have the most unique ways of world domination, though I always thought that most of their domination really just concentrated on Gotham City, I realize that Gotham City is ‘their world’. Batman is the least powerful superhero, which makes his villains less likely to have actual superpowers, and more likely for the villains to just be insane. In Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman, Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show. But to keep Christian Bale’s Batman the lead focal point, they had Batman wanting to quit his Dark Knightly deeds rather than just reacting to all of Joker’s schemes.

Another story where a villain takes the lead role is Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Gollum takes on the lead role because he has a more passionate driving force, while Frodo does everything out of duty. Gollum isn’t even the purely evil entity, but his need and active method of making the characters react to all of his actions make the heroes’ purposes diminish in comparison. Brandon mentions that the best way to make a hero more proactive than the villain would be to give them the passion and humanity that Gollum has, rather than just a sense of duty and unenthusiastic heroism of Frodo.

Nathan Fillion’s Mal, in Firefly, is what the group calls ‘the hero with a little bit of darkness in him.’ Unlike all the villain one-liners that are given — because villains can say anything — Mal has his own darker side, which allows him to breach the conduct of a normal hero. He is the balanced hero, not too much good or too much bad. Mal could be called one of the most honorable characters on TV, and is not considered to be “a bad guy on the good guy team.” The podcasters call this “Cop on the Edge,” which is a state that allows the hero to do bad things for the good of all. This is something that even Batman turns into at times (Spoiler Alert), like at the end of The Dark Knight.

What if your villain has taken the first 25% of your story? Brandon suggests that instead of rewriting the entire story, the author could use that moment to have the hero accept the call to arms. It is around this time in the podcast that the group realizes that the villain isn’t even the problem. Renaming the podcast “The Hero Problem,” the group reviews the attributes needed to make the hero interesting. (1) Give the hero something to be passionate about, (2) Have the hero accept the call to arms, and (3) Give the hero a fatal flaw, or darkness. These are, admittedly, only a few of the things that will make a writer’s hero more interesting than the villain.

The best way to keep the backstory of the hero interesting is to give an overarching plot which has a completely separate function from the actions of the villain. Give the hero a life. Make the hero a better person than he was, have character development rather than a stagnant character with no progression past their current state of existence. Competence of the hero is also attractive to the reader. The hero has to have something that he is already good at, because it shows that the hero can handle whatever is thrown at them. Indiana Jones and Neo from The Matrix are characters who have skill sets that make them competent at the very beginning of the film. Both have the ability to think themselves out of situations. In the case of Indiana, his mistakes are out of his control, while Neo’s mistakes have more to do with his skills at hacking rather than believing he is “The One.”

Brandon says that if they had used Neo’s hacking skills to give him the ability to hack the rules of the Matrix would have made it a better plot. Howard states that, “It wouldn’t have saved the second and third movie, though.” Therefore, Indiana is really the better example of competence in the face of life-threatening and world-ending dangers. I completely agree with that summarization of the podcast. As always I encourage the readers of this write-up to listen to the podcast free on iTunes. Hope you are all having a great summer!

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Imager, the first book of the Imager Portfolio, by L.E. Modesitt Jr, narrated by William Dufris.

Writing Prompt: Take a hero and give him a hobby, and something alive that he loves.

Editor’s Note: Linda K Strahl is a transfer student from University of Wisconsin- La Crosse, where she was studying Archaeology and minoring in Creative Writing. She came to Lewis University in Fall of 2010 to major in Creative Writing. After participating in the production of two plays at Phillip Lynch Theater she has become an enthusiastic dramaturg, and is contemplating a career as a researcher and playwriter.

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