Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lessons from WICKED: the villains we love to hate!

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?


  1. Insomnia!!

    Oh, I loved Wicked!!!

    You know I have been thinking about this today. I have one thoroughly unlikeable character in a msc. But eventually she is getting her own book. So I really have been exploring why she is the way she is..which is certainly much more difficult than I thought.

    First what shaped her life? Then what redeeming qualities does she have? Third, what are her fears? Finally, what does she have to learn?

    My brain hurts.

  2. What a great post! Hmmmm, a villain I liked... You know, I'll have to think about this a little and maybe come back later.

    I can't wait to see other answers!

  3. Good morning, Myra. I saw Wicked in Chicago. Wonderful. Interesting post on writing villains and a great reminder that ours need to be properly motivated.

    Mary did a great job with Wade in Montana Rose. I also loved the grave scene. All those men were villains in my mind--LOL--but I understood what motivated them. Still I wanted to slap them silly.

    Ed Drummond, my villain in Courting Miss Adelaide, was one bad dude. Beat his wife and kids. Killed his mother-in-law and tried to kill Adelaide. Not a nice man, who evolved into deranged after his son's accidental death. But in Ed's warped mind, everything he did was necessary to keep his family together. I doubt many readers had sympathy for him so perhaps I needed to give more of his backstory. Interesting to ponder.


  4. Myra, what a thought-provoker.

    I think that's what gave Star Wars it's 'oomph' and universal appeal, because even with Darth Vader's evil, you sensed some level of conscience.

    But not in the Emperor. We were allowed to hate him, he was devil-like, total evil.

    When Darth saved Luke by killing the Emperor, we all cheered because we KNEW Darth Vader wasn't totally evil.


    Dunno. And that's where thought comes in.

    Playing devil's advocate, though, I don't like books that feel compelled to save everyone at the end, that wrap everything up in a nice neat bow, redeeming the bad guys. Are you kidding me? I mean, seriously????

    That quirks my unreality meter and sends me into a foot-stomping tailspin. Give me HEA for hero and heroine, but life happens and I'm not big on total, encompassing end of book group conversions. Gag.


    I brought fresh coffee and chocolate caramel creamer. And Italian sweet cream. And sugared nuts I got in NYC this weekend.

    YUM. I love the nut vendors.

    And fresh Danish from Jackson's bakery here in Rochester. Delish. and custard kuchen.

    Oh mylanta, so good.

    Dig in, and let's talk bad guys.


  5. Oh, Myra, I love Wicked ... and I love this post! And I have to admit that I love "wicked" characters too! But only if they have depth ... hidden secrets that make them the way they are. I despise the cardboard type of villains with the long, handlebar moustache because they aren't real to me (although I'm sure some do exist).

    But even though I love villains, I have to admit that I don't write them very much. Of course, most people see Charity as the villain in A Passion Most Pure, and I suppose that is true. But I think that was why Charity's story, A Passion Redeemed, was so much fun to write, because I could reveal the goodness inside of Charity ... uh, what there was of it, and why she was the way she was.

    So many of us are shades of both -- villain and saint, so I think a deeply layered villain is a must for a realistic story.


  6. Morning Myra, I love it when a writer gives the villian a story and develops his character as well.

    I'm reading When Heaven Weeps by Ted Dekker and the villian is so evil. But you really understand why and that ups the suspense.

    Debby Guisti does a great job with villians also in her suspense novels. Because you undertand why the villian is acting that way, it makes the tension more real.

  7. I liked the book "Persuasion" because the heroine (also named Ann) was SO OLD. Like, 27 or 28 by the time the story started.

    One antagonist was Lady somebody, who broke up Anne and her sweetie, Captain Wentworth.

    (I grasped this better while watching the video of it. IMHO, Austen stories are better as movies than books.)

    There's a scene where Anne and Lady somebody, Anne's late mother's friend, are talking this all over and Lady Somebody said she tried to do what Anne's mother would have done. At the time Wentworth had no prospects and no fortune. THey went over all this over tea or while picking flowers. (Been awhile since I saw it)

    What an interesting treatment, though. Even if Anne resented Lady Somebody, she also respected her as her mother's friend and an elder.

    Of course, when he came home from the sea he had made his fortune.

    Anne's silly sisters and father were also antagonists.

    Matter of fact, she had to be like Indiana Jones with a machete to hack her way through a jungle of antagonistas to her true love, but did it in such a proper way ;-)

  8. Good morning, everyone! Wow, Tina, up at 1 in the morning? Get some sleep, girlfriend! Maybe you'll dream up the answers to your unlikeable character's past.

    Oh, yes, I remember Ed Drummond, Janet. Good example of how villains rationalize what they do. As I read somewhere, villains are the heroes of their own stories.

    Darth Vader--definitely a prime example of how a good person goes bad. Thanks for the reminder, Ruthy! I loved that his story was developed in the more recent Star Wars movies. Oh, and thanks for bringing the coffee and danish. I'm still not quite awake yet.

  9. Julie makes a good point about how not all "villains" are pure evil. Which is why the word antagonist is sometimes more appropriate. The antagonist can be anyone who stands in the way of what the hero or heroine wants, possibly even with the best of intentions.

    And you're so right, Julie--we each have shades of villain and saint inside us, a constant battle for which will win out.

  10. i agree with janet..i thought mary's wade in montana rose was one of the most well-developed villains i'd read in a long time. he obviously has a reason behind his evilness.

    haven't seen wicked...but sounds like something i'd enjoy. great post, myra. :)

  11. I agree, Sandra. As we begin to understand (as much as possible) what makes villains tick, sometimes it makes them even scarier.

    Ann, thanks for your thoughts about Jane Austen's Persuasion. That's one I haven't read or seen a movie of yet. Another good example of antagonists with altruistic motives (at least in their own minds).

    Jeannie, I loved Wicked. Now I really want to read the book.

  12. Myra, unfortunately I heard the book "Wicked" is somewhat disappointing. I know several people who read it and did not like it all, so if anybody out there feels differently, I'd love to know.


  13. Great post, Myra. Maass talked about this in his workshop at RWA national. It was excellent.

    But at the moment I can't think of a single villian I've read. I head back over if my brain gets in gear anytime today. :)

  14. I've never had so many people tell me I should have shot the bad guy as with WADE.

    Ruthy chief among them.

    But now, after tempers have cooled I've had even Ruthy say she'd be satisfied if I'd just WINGED him.

    People needed closure I guess.


  15. Everyone quick go get a copy of Cowboy Christmas...oops, it's not out until September 1st. I swear I make those bad guys pay BIG TIME.

    You'll all forgive me for Wade in The Husband Tree because, though he still struggles you'll see he was worth redeeming.

    I hope.

  16. I remember a villain...the book's title escapes me...an espianouge 9sp) novel...where the villain, it is revealed...is motivated by his daughter's terrible medical needs, a failing heart, massive expenses. The villain has set aside everything in his moral fiber to care for his daughter. It's really well done.
    A really good villain you either come to understand and ever empathize with in a twisted way, or you are SCREAMING to throw a bucket of water on her and melt her into a grease spot on the sidewalk.

  17. I want to go see a Broadway musical!!!

    Well, I don't really like creating bad guys. But it must be done. I had one that could have been interpreted as either demon-possessed or, if you prefer, mentally deranged. He grew up an orphan, listening to voices in his head. Another villain is the product of bitter anger, an alcoholic father, and racial prejudice. In another of my novels, ignorance and the entire village serve as the villain. Well, there were a couple of other villains in that one, too, but I didn't really explore why they were the way they were. They were just ... bad men.

    It's fun revisiting my villains! Actually, I like my villains better than other people's!

  18. Myra, Great post, and having seen Wicked only a couple of weeks before you did, it's still vivid in my head.

    I have to say I'm with Ruthy. Not all villains should be redeemed. Knowing their wound may help us empathize with them, but I think we all need a sense of justice. Not that we are to exact justice, but letting the natural order designed by God be their downfall. I don't like for the main characters (the good guys) to gloat over the downfall, but to somehow come away stronger, as better people, perhaps even thankful for the evil that has given them poignant insights and more humanity.

    Giving a villain or even a plain old antagonist a full history with motivation and goals (which may be aberrant) does make for a more satisfying read. D. Maass had some great things to say about antagonists in his book, which I'm glad you pointed out, Myra.

    I'm off to ask my villain some pointed questions. And this time I want answers.

  19. I wrote a book with a demon-possessed serial killer. I believe Ruthy remembers it (is scarred by it, whatever)

    In the end I redeemed the villain. (no, don't search for it, it's never sold SHOCKER)

    My daughter Wendy read that and said, "No way, Mom. That guy's gotta die and he's gotta die ugly and hard."

    She was so sweet and innocent, just a few years ago. I blame television.

    Still, I've revised the book and I blew the villain away. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

  20. I just finished Tia McCollors' The Last Woman Standing about a divorced couple that begin to have feelings for each other again. Except he's in a relationship with someone else. That woman is the villain of sorts, as she's determined to hold on to him, but she truly loves the man. Yet even as her love twists and turns in ways that aren't pretty, I found myself empathizing with her.

  21. Sorry to be temporarily AWOL. Hubby is in a home improvement mood (hiring it out, not doing it himself, thank goodness!), so I had to tag along to make sure I'm happy with the choices.

    Gee, that's too bad, Julie. I was hoping the book would offer even more insight into Wicked. I haven't talked to anyone who's read the book, though.

    Well, Mary, I don't know what everyone else saw in Wade, but I saw a hurting young man who didn't know he didn't have to hurt others to make himself feel better. I look forward to seeing him redeemed, and if he's in The Husband Tree, then I can guess who he ends up with. Interesting pair!

  22. Oh my goodness. I just had a Google alert pop up for my name. Seems I have "expired." Or at least a lady who shares my name and lives in an adjacent town has passed on to her reward. Kinda startling to see my name in that context, anyway.

  23. Myra, that's funny. Kind of. When Dave's great Aunt Ruth died, I got a bunch of phone calls. We lived on the same country road in the same town, so that was too much coincidence for a lot of folks.

    It was pretty funny when they called her with the results of a positive pregnancy test at the age of like 75... Very Biblical.


    Mary, Mary, Mary. Yes, huge, big HUGE resounding yes to offing the bad guy in the serial killer book.

    And I've re-thought Wade. I hadn't read him since an early version and he wasn't as redeemable, or my memory isn't as young, either way, I loved the way you ended Montana Rose. Really and truly.

    If you'd had legions of angels smacking them upside the head I'd have come to Nebraska and done the same to you, literally, but you didn't and so spared yourself a good smacking.

    Most of you don't know that Mary also has a wonderful, witty, innate (two n's??? One 'n'?)Two. I went and checked...

    Okay, innate talent for thrillers. Very Stephen King with great (and I mean GREAT character depth). Maybe we'll see this someday, because I'm serious, she's wonderful.

    But she wants to redeem everyone. Gag.

    Not that I'm a "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" kind of gal, but justice is meted because it's a necessary tool.

    Carry an automatic handgun with a reloadable clip at all times.

    Back to villains.


    Matt Damon. The Bourne series. We have a troubled, tortured, VERY sympathetic (to-die-for-Irish-choirboy-good-looking-doesn't hurt) hero who was altered by circumstances beyond his control. Very Incredible Hulk but much cuter.

    And we love him even though he's killed scores of people.

    And we want him to win in the end. Cheer for him to win in the end.

    But then again, it IS Matt Damon.



  24. Ooh, great post. One of my favorite villians (though maybe not all that three dimensional) is the Sheriff of Nottingham on the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood. I have a tendency to like villians with a healthy sense of humor.

    Sometimes I felt like Rochester in Jane Eyre was the villian, though I know he wasn't, but boy - he could be moody and deceitful, all with the 'right' intentions.

    I didn't realize how important it was to create a backstory for my villian until I started reading Maas - then, when I started dissecting my villianess's (sp?) life, she automatically became more believable and less...hmm...predictable. I know that should be simple psychology and old-hat for some of you, but it was pretty amazing to watch it happen.

    I like her so much better now - she's still nasty, but I know why.

  25. I have to add a big THANK YOU, Myra for going to all the trouble to pose for that photo on this post.
    You're the one on the right, right?


  26. PEPPER!!!!!!!!
    Alan Rickman, very movie villain EVER.

    As the EXTRAORDINARY thief in Die Hard, as the awful villain in Robin Hood. As Snape in Harry Potter, though I thought they didn't make full use of him there.

    As the brutal rancher in Quigley Down Under. He does the best villains.

  27. Mary,
    I love Alan Rickman - yes, yes, and yes. - but he also does a wonderful Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility...much to my surprise and delight. And yes, they could have used him so much more with Snape - although, I enjoy him in that role too.

    Oh man, I forgot about Quigley Down Under - that's right. He did do a wonderful job in that role :-) Oh Mary, I like you better and better all the time ;-)

  28. I don't like plays and I hate the wizard of oz, I had to watch it so much when my 4 children were growing up that I will not look at it anymore, but now give me a book and see me go to town with it. I love to read and to read all these blogs, I really appreciate all the authors that work so hard to get a book out to us, that we can be carried away from our ever day life.

  29. Yes, Mary, and I didn't even have to apply any makeup for this photo shoot. I actually very much identify with dear Elphaba, being the misunderstood outcast and all.

    P.S.: I am not whining, Ruthy, just stating facts.

  30. I have to admit--I can't handle the indepth character exploration that thrillers often emphasize. So I think villian development should be done with alot of wisdom, especially for Christians. If there's hurt in their past, I want to understand but not be sickened by it. There are Christian books I've tossed because I couldn't handle the I think Julie did a great job revealing Brady's past in A Passion Denied. Maybe because his redemption was already complete. It's a careful balance since it can greatly aid our story to reveal the inner workings of a truly bad person. I think Mary Conneally did a great job with Parrish's motivations in her Lassoed in Texas series.

    Books definitely give us the opportunity to reveal how a person's character is developed at pivotal moments and how we're each responsible for our own good or bad thoughts and actions.

  31. I wish I'd seen Wicked! I love villains because you don't have to make them likable, just understandable.

  32. LOL--good point, Cara!

    I'm working on a ms. right now where the antagonist has been shaped by her very troubled childhood. In some ways she's really, really tried to make a difference for good. But she's also making life miserable for the people she tries to manipulate to serve her own purposes. It has been both challenging and fun to dig into her psyche and bring her to life on the page.

  33. Hi Myra:

    I think the most important thing about villains is having the right villain for the particular story. Sometimes a novel needs pure unexplained evil as in a cannibal serial killer and sometimes it needs a fully explained misguided saint as in the preacher who goes tragically wrong for all the right reasons.

    I think a fascinating villain is one who everyone thinks is wonderful but is a villain just the same. Oz is like this. His people love him but they are all being manipulated and their whole world is a lie but they love him just the same. (And yes, Oz is a villain as he orders people killed that might unveil his illusions.)

    BTW, now like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, you can say that the report of your death was an exaggeration. You’re in good company. :)


  34. Hi, Vince! You know, we tend to forget the "evil" side of the Wizard and think of him as just a misguided little man who wants to feel important and magnanimous.

    A week or so ago we watched a TV movie about the Green River Killer. Very, very troubling. I swear that man had no conscience. Like Ted Bundy. Are they born that way, or were they messed up as kids? Or both?

  35. I heard a preacher once say, "But for the grace of God, we could all be Hitlers or Ted Bundys". I guess since we're all born with a sinful nature anyway, if that nature is fed by horrible situations, hurt, pain, rejection...etc., we have the possibility of letting it rule us.

    I think it's a wakeup call for christians in two ways: One, we are humbled by his grace & Two, we are gracious in our behavior to others.

    Okay - that got a little sermonish :-)

  36. Mary,
    Are you referring to Linda Howard's villain in All the Queen's Men? (I think that's the one...)
    Anyways, LH had a guy who was an arms dealer and kind of the villain, but it was all because of his daughter who was horribly ill and needed massive surgeries and illegal transplants (or something). I really, really wanted her to redeem him but she said in an interview that she'd have to hurt him super bad, like kill of his child, to make the redemption believable.
    Anyways, I need to read that book again. SO good.

  37. Well Rickman was in Galaxy Quest too ya know.

  38. I am soooooooo jealous of you that you got to see Wicked! I want to see it really bad! I also am interested in seeing Guys and Dolls because Lauren Graham is in it and I adore her!

  39. I didn't get to see Wicked in NY because the lines were SO long. Like, it was going to take us three hours just to get a ticket.

    We saw Rock of Ages instead, but one day, we'll see Wicked. This post makes me want to see it more. LOL!

    ROA was hilarious because dh is such a rocker dude and we grew up in the 80s so we could relate to everything.

    Great, fun post!

  40. Um...Phantom from "Phantom of the Opera", maybe? Not like he's technically the villian, but he can get pretty nasty. But you just adore him anyway. There's my take.

    I so adore good villians. On an old 60's TV show my dad loved to watch, "The Rat Patrol", the villian was the Nazi Captain Dietrich (played by Eric Braeden at 25--heartbreak). He was suppose to be the villian, at least, but he was so three dimensional and most of the time his problem was trying to decide whether to do what the boss said or his conscience...anyway, he ended up being my favorite character.

    And I just got Montana Rose from the library. Can't wait to read it...

  41. As many of Musicals lovers I LOVE the Wicked! It is my favourite ever... Last year I’ve been in NY & I tried to get my ticket …guess what everything was sold out that show how great the show is. Anyhow I end up getting it from a site through Horizontickets.com. Next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tix from the same place


    So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.