Fictional villains—just like real ones—have reasons for what they do.
When I was in sixth grade, I went to girl scout camp for two weeks. I ended up in a cabin full of girls who were all older than me, all knew each other, and had already formed their own clique.
I tried everything to get on these girls’ good side. I went along with their decisions about who got which bunk, how we would line up for meals, and which celebrities it was acceptable to have a crush on. I laughed at their jokes and tried not to feel left out when they talked about kids from their school or teachers they hated or places they knew.
Still, I spent most of my free time by myself. One day when I was alone in the cabin, I got the great idea to tidy it up.
I thought I was being nice. I thought my cabinmates would appreciate my efforts.
I thought wrong.
I accidentally put one girl’s Tiger Beat magazine in the wrong place. When she returned and couldn’t find it, she accused me of stealing it. The magazine was soon found, but the damage was done. I was labeled a thief and the other girls stopped talking to me for the rest of camp.
I didn’t try to defend myself, and maybe that was my mistake, but really, what was there to say? I thought it was obvious that I hadn’t taken the magazine and in fact, the other girls should have praised me for picking stuff up off the floor. But from everyone else’s perspective, I was a villain, even though I had done nothing wrong and everything right.
The same thing is true of fictional villains. They have reasons for what they do, and those reasons have to make sense not only to the bad guy, but to the reader. The antagonists do what they do not only for their own selfish reasons but for what they perceive as the greater good. Even Hannibal Lecter killed people who were (in his opinion) worse than he was, thus lowering the world’s total quota of evil.
When I was a brand-new baby writer, I once got back a critique from a writing contest. The judge said of my antagonist, “What’s his motivation? Is he just evil?” I thought, um…yeah. Isn’t that what villains are?
Well, no. A good antagonist has motives as strong and worthy as the protagonist’s. The reader, and even the hero, must (just for a moment) almost believe that the villain is correct.
One writing teacher even suggests outlining the entire novel from the antagonist’s point of view. Although I’ve never quite gone that far, I’ve found that time spent developing my antagonist benefits every other aspect of the book. After all, no one, wants to be evil.
Sometimes, we just want to tidy up the cabin.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping new writers.
Do you love your handwriting? Hate it? Does anyone else ever see it?
Some say handwriting is a lost art, but I don’t think so. Pen and paper are cheap and we all use them. We take notes, we write lists, some of us journal. We’re very used to seeing our own penmanship.
But what’s lost, I think, is the chance to read things written by others. Besides your kid’s homework papers and holiday cards, when is the last time you read something handwritten by someone else?
When I was a kid, I used to love watching my dad write. He held the fountain pen in his left hand and wrote beautiful cursive full of swoops and flourishes. I have recipe cards for dishes I will never make. I keep them because they are in my grandmother’s spindly writing. I’m fascinated by old diaries and letters as much for the handwriting as the words themselves.
So I wrote this blog post, so someone besides me could see something written by my own hand. 🙂
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who only works with manuscripts that are not hand-written.
When you go to a school that worships football, creative writing can be a rebellious act.
When I was in high school, my friends and I started a literary magazine. Our sports-oriented, Catholic school didn’t have a literary magazine, and our principal didn’t want one, so my friends and I made one on our own time. It had our names on it, and was clearly an independent project.
There was nothing anti-school or anti-faculty or anti-religion in the magazine. It was all angsty teenage poems and one really cool science fiction story about a superhero who controls the weather.
We put a ridiculously low price on the cover, something like fifty cents. We weren’t trying to make money. We simply wanted to repay my friend’s dad, who had bought the paper for us and helped us with photocopying. We openly sold the magazine at school, the same way kids sold candy bars for their church trips or raffle tickets for YMCA fundraisers.
We were proud of our little magazine. And that pride is what got us in trouble. We put a copy into the mailbox of each of the English department faculty and gave one to our principal. We thought they’d like to see what their students had achieved.
The principal was livid. How dare we publish a literary magazine? How dare we do it without faculty approval? We were threatened with suspension. Our crime was selling a non school-sponsored magazine on school property. It was a flimsy excuse and he knew it, but he also knew he could make it stick. If he caught us trying to sell our magazine at school, he might have to kick us out.
For writing a literary magazine. On our own time. And selling it to our friends.
This was in the pre-internet era, otherwise our story would be all over social media. We’d probably have Facebook groups and IndieGoGo campaigns to raise money for our next issue and petitions calling for a public apology. But this was the digital dark ages. We had no voice. We had no power. The principal shut us down. We never published a second issue.
I spent the rest of high school—and many years after that—terrified that I’d be punished for writing.
I didn’t realize at the time that it was the principal who was truly terrified. We were writing, we were publishing, and other kids were paying for our words. We had better things to write about than our crappy redneck football school. We hadn’t mentioned it at all. But we could have. Oh, we could have.
We could have written about the drunk assistant principal or the abusive religion teacher or the inequitable funding between sports and the arts. We could have written about corruption and scandal. And we could have written reams about hypocrisy—about the ways Christianity was used against students on a daily basis.
It’s not often that I’d like to go back in time. Overall, I much prefer being a grown-up to being a kid. But if I could live one day of my life over, I might pick the day that my high school principal tried to bully me out of writing.
Because if I could go back to that day, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t apologize. I wouldn’t ask for forgiveness. And I certainly wouldn’t promise to never do it again.
I would tell the principal that he could have what he wanted. I would tell him that we were done selling our literary magazine at school.
I’d tell him that a second issue was coming, and this one would be distributed for free.
Because my words—and those of my friends—are priceless.
About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who knows what should be changed and what can’t be–in fiction and in life.