Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Wicked, the musical stage production based on the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire. This enchanting story of how the Wicked Witch came to be . . . well . . . wicked . . . begins with her birth and takes us through some surprising twists and clever takeoffs from the story’s inspiration, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Not to give away any spoilers if you haven’t seen the play or read the book, but Elphaba (as she’s named in the story) didn’t start out bad, just green. And anyone who’s ever felt their differentness to any degree can relate. Elphaba is shunned by her own father, teased by her classmates, despised by just about everyone except . . .
Galinda (yes, that’s how she originally spelled her name). Though the bubble-headed Galinda starts out as one of Elphaba’s worst detractors, she soon finds herself Elphaba’s reluctant best friend and finally her champion.
But enough about Wicked. The moral of this story is that (most) villains have hearts too. Who’s the baddie in your novel? Have you thoroughly investigated his or her backstory? Do you know why the antagonist acts the way he does, why she so badly wants whatever it is she wants? If not, then you haven’t dug deeply enough. Your villain will be one-dimensional and not nearly as interesting.
In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass writes, “[M]ost of the time bad actions have a comprehensible basis no matter how hard they may be to discern. In any event, villains whose motives we can understand are much scarier than those whose motive is merely Mwoo-ha-ha-ha!”
So let’s talk about villains and antagonists, the ones who stand out as truly memorable because we can see their humanity despite their evil intentions, and possibly even identify with them in some small way.
Here’s one example. Mary Connealy has done a great job of humanizing the antagonist in Montana Rose. Wade Sawyer is dangerously obsessed with having Cassie Dawson for himself. But when we see how his father treats him, how he struggles for any semblance of confidence or self-esteem, he becomes much more understandable. We want him to get what he deserves, but even more, we hope he can be redeemed.
Your turn. Describe a villain you’ve read or written about recently. Can you trace his or her descent into badness? Can you understand this person, maybe even relate? Why or why not?