Being a Better Writer: A Villain Protagonist Ending

Welcome back writers! Monday is here, I’ve recovered from my cold, and that means it’s time to drop another installment of writing goodness on its scheduled day, rather than later in the week. This week, we’re going to be addressing a follow-up to a post from earlier this year in which we talked about giving our story a villain protagonist. In that post we talked about a number of things that change for your story if you’re writing from the prospective of a villain (not just an antagonist) but there was one thing that didn’t come up during that discussion: An ending. And yes, it won’t quite be like your typical story ending.

So today, we’re going to talk about that. But first, some quick news reminders from the weekend (which did have their own post, so if you want more detail, go here). The biggest of these is the reminder that the cover for Starforge will be revealed September 1st, 2022, which is this week. So far you’ve had a teaser of what the cover for this juggernaut of a Sci-Fi novel will look like, but starting September 1st, you’ll all get to see it. And hey, there’s a 4K background version too, ready to grace your desktop. So be here September first for your first look at the cover that’ll be in your hands come November!

Second quick reminder: 10,000 in ten years. If you missed last Friday’s news post, in the nine-and-a-half years since I published my first book (One Drink) back in 2013, I have sold almost 9,000 copies across my lexicon. With my ten year anniversary of writing coming up in February 2023, the goal is to clear the last 1,000 sales before that date, meaning “10,000 copies sold in ten years!” There’s more about the specifics in last Friday’s post, so go check that out if you’re curious, but the goal stands as the most important part. 10,000 in ten years, baby! That’s the goal!

Anyway, that’s all the news I want to tackle at this particular moment, so let’s get down to business and talk shop. Or rather, villain protagonists, and how you might handle leading their story to an end. Because as we discussed with our prior post on villains, you can’t handle a story in exactly the same manner as you would with a heroic protagonist. A villain is a villain, and that means convention goes right out the window. A villain doesn’t bring peace to the land (well, not the way a hero would), or “save the day,” at least conventionally. See, a villain protagonist ending is usually the ending most stories we tell do their best to avoid.

So hit that jump, and let’s talk about writing and ending where good doesn’t win … or at least reaches a compromise.

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Being a Better Writer: Underpowered and Overpowered Antagonists

Welcome back readers! It’s a new week, and with it come new accomplishments and news (that’s a lot of new, I know)! Alpha Reading on Starforge continues to surge forward, with feedback coming in quick and clear. Right now, things are looking pretty good for the second pass, with the consensus being pretty positive so far. Alpha readers haven’t hit the heavy rewrite chapters yet, so we’ll see what happens when they arrive there, but so far the cleaning, polishing, and structural changes seem to have stuck!

In personal news, I was able to spend my Saturday at a local Scottish festival, which was pretty awesomely fun. My friends and I go every year if we can, and this year we were lucky enough to have lots of time and some cash budgeted away to spend on things. Which is why I’m writing this while listening to the album Marigold by The Fire. I listened to part of one set, bought the album, and then jammed out to their evening performance. Good fun, and another album to listen to while working!

Let’s see … I already spoke about new reviews for Colony, Jungle, and Axtara, so that’s no longer the new-new, and there isn’t really much going on writing-wise save the Starforge Alpha 2 (Alpha Readers, I am loving your feedback thus far; keep at it!) so I suppose all that’s left to do today is dive into our topic.

Which may feel a bit familiar to some of you. If you’ve been a long-time follower of the site, or browsed through the archives, you may recall this post from 2014 (wow) concerning Underpowered and Overpowered Characters.

Well, today’s post is a bit of reflection of that. See, that post (which is still worth a look, mind) was largely if not entirely concerned with protagonists, and on considering overpowered or underpowered protagonist characters. But this post? This is going to be a little different. Because this post is, in keeping with what’s almost become an unofficial “theme” of this year, about villains.

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Being a Better Writer: Considerations for a Villain Protagonist

Welcome back readers!

By now, unless something has gone desperately wrong, I’m well away from my desk, and this post was actually written back in April! So you’re getting this via the scheduler (which is also why some external links like Patreon or the Facebook page won’t have it until later). Me? I’m presumably experiencing salt air and endless rain. Because, you know, Southeast Alaska.

There’s a reason I live in a sunny location now, but it is nice to visit home every once in a while. I just need to make sure I return from there in a timely manner and have a few months to dry out.

So, what are we talking about today? Well, this post is a sort-of follow-up to our post a few weeks back about how to deliver an effective villain. A reader hit up the Topic Call post active around the same time asking after a villain protagonist.

See, as par for the course when discussing terms that are easily conflated, that prior post (as well as a few others) had discussed the differences between a villain and an antagonist, noting that they are not the same thing (and if you’re wondering how or why, hit that link up there, because this is a very important distinction to get right). Same with a hero and a protagonist: They’re not the same thing. They can overlap, but they’re two different roles that aren’t exclusively linked.

And today, we’re demonstrating that link by talking about one of the rarer combinations out there: a villain protagonist.

That’s right. When the villain is your primary character that the story revolves around.

Now, while I did say these are rarer, that’s not the same as nigh-impossible to find. Sands, I linked a video clip in our discussion on effective villains from Megamind, which is indeed a movie about a villain protagonist. There exists a Star Wars comic series that’s all about Darth Vader and has him as the protagonist killing jedi and wreaking havoc. There are even video games that explicitly put the player in the shoes of a villain protagonist.

So this isn’t rare on the level of say, naturally occurring nuclear reactors, but if you were to do a breakdown of all stories out there, villain protags would definitely be on a small end of that list. Especially if you took into consideration all the stories that claim to be about a villain, but really aren’t, and just paint them as the victim of a misunderstanding or the hero of another story (once again, as noted in our post on villains a few weeks ago, a villain by definition chooses evil actions, so a misunderstanding, accident, or “I’m really the hero” don’t count unless they truly are a villain, something most shy away from).

Then again, it’s not hard to see why most stories are reluctant to embrace a villainous protagonist: It’s hard to get a reader to root for a character doing morally repulsive things. AKA, the bread and butter of a villain.

Which again, isn’t to say that it can’t be done. Megamind for instance, paints its villain protagonist as perpetuating evil … but out of the belief that someone has to fill that narrative, and he might as well engage it if he’ll take blame for it anyway. He still openly admits he’s a villain and does immoral things … but at the same time is a very good example of “evil has standards” since he deliberately goes out of his way to keep bystanders from being harmed and the like. For the most part.

However, Megamind is comedic, and also follows its villain protagonist having a change of heart over the course of the film, switching from villain to hero. And again, he’s a villain with standards. So while he’s still “evil” the film is able to use laughter to mask some of the more despicable acts (like another villain-themed film released around the same time) and of course, he does end up good in the end.

But what about a darker villain? What about someone without those same standards against say, killing innocent bystanders? How can we get a reader to follow along with a character when they’re well, not good? When they’d rather kick the dog rather than pet it, or maybe just flat out incinerate it, listening to it howl in pain?

How can we make a villain protagonist work?

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Being a Better Writer: What is an Antagonist?

Welcome back readers, and a big welcome to the first topic from Topic List #20! Being a Better Writer sure has come a long way since 2013, when it was largely (and effectively) the equivalent of message-board posts responding to fan messages asking writing questions, hasn’t it? Maybe in August of 2023 I should do a ten-year special of some kind. Thankfully, I’ve got a year to think about it. But that does sound like fun.

Ten years of Being a Better Writer in 2023. Sands and Storms, that’s a lot of content. Of course, it didn’t start being weekly. Originally it was just a response to a message asking for writing advice. But the one response inspired more people to send in their writing questions and then before long I was getting a few messages a week, and I started making a list, and the posts started to become regular …

That was nine years ago, and things have definitely changed. The initial “boom” of writing questions died down, though I still get the occasional request through Discord these days or on on the Topic Call posts. Being a Better Writer migrated off of its origin point and onto this site, which also became the main hub for my books and other materials. At the urging of a number of fans, I finally opened a Patreon that, to this day, helps keep the site entirely advertisement free—no pop-ups or intrusive ads over the text here! Being a Better Writer has been sourced, quoted, and cited everywhere from Wikipedia to major education systems, collegiate and public.

It’s come a long way.

Sorry, just sort of got nostalgic there with the whole start of Topic List #20. Side note, readers, but this is another Being a Better Writer post prepped and scheduled in advance, as I’m gearing up for a trip in May. Which … let me check my calendar … I haven’t departed on yet, I think, but hey, I’m getting this ready to go now.

Anyway, let’s talk about today’s topic, and step away from the reminiscing. Today’s topic is one most of you will likely recognize from a few weeks ago, when we talked about villains and how to make them deliver on their premise.

Well, one thing that came up over the course of that discussion was a small segment on the difference between a villain and an antagonist. The reason for that segment being that a lot of people—even critics—tend to use both terms interchangably. It’s not at all uncommon to see a review, for instance, refer to the villain of a piece as the “antagonist” or vice-versa.

But there’s a real problem with using these two terms interchangeably: They’re not the same thing. A villain is not automatically an antagonist, nor is an antagonist automatically a villain. As stated in the villain discussion, it’s like the old logic statement: Some villains are antagonists, and some antagonists are villains, but not all villains are antagonists, and not all antagonists are villains.

Worse, using them interchangeably like this is actually kind of harmful, as it blurs the lines for those who may not realize that there’s a very clear difference between the two identities. For a comparison, imagine a car magazine reviewing a new vehicle, but clearly treating rally cars as identical to rock-crawling cars, simply because both can traverse rough unpaved roads. Yes, both can, but they’re also very different kinds of cars.

Villains and antagonists are the same way: They have similar positions in a story sometimes, and can even overlap into the same character, making a villain antagonist. But they are not the same, and not understanding that can lead to confusion both in the writing and in the explaining of the story.

Look, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: An antagonist is not a villain. There is no requirement that an antagonist be villainous at all. They are separate character roles that can be combined into one, but don’t have to be.

You ready to break this down in depth? Then hit the jump.

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Being a Better Writer: Delivering a Villain and Making Them Truly Scary

Hello readers, and welcome to another installment of Being a Better Writer. Today’s installment is one that I’ve been waiting on for a while, as it’s been near the very bottom of Topic List #19. In fact, it is the second to last post from this list! There’s only one more to go after this, and then Topic List #20.

Which is why if you’ve got a writing topic you want to see a future BaBW discuss, now is your chance to get it on the list! Hit up the Topic Call post and leave your suggestion in the comments there to get your interest covered by a future Being a Better Writer!

As for other news … I don’t believe there’s anything that I didn’t already post about in last week’s news update, so we can dive right into today’s post!

So this one has been on my mind for a while. Months, actually, since it was put on the list. I usually leave a little space for last-minute additions, and this was one of them that I grabbed after seeing a writing thread where a bunch of readers were discussing how the villains of a piece had fallen flat.

Now, as a quick aside, I do want to remind us all that there is a difference between an antagonist and a villain. Just as there is a difference between a hero and a protagonist. Someone that is acting in opposition to a protagonist is not automatically a villain. They are an antagonist. Merely being opposed to a primary character is not an automatic trait of villainy. In fact, even the definitions of these two terms note the difference. An antagonist is one who opposes the protagonist of a story and acts as an obstacle, but that is the limit. A villain on the other hand, is a character who’s evil motivations are integral to the plot.

And yes, the definition does include the term “evil” there. A villain may have ambiguous reasons (for example, Thanos), but there is no doubt that what they are doing is wrong in some awful fashion, and their aims are more than just being an obstacle to the protagonist.

In other words, it’s like the old logic puzzle or play we all encountered in grade-school: Some antagonists are villains, and some villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains, and not all villains are antagonists.

If that was a little confusing, just look at it this way: A villain can exist in a story and not be an antagonist (in fact, there are plenty of stories where a villain exists, but doesn’t play against a protagonist, or may even assist them temporarily), and an antagonist can exist but not be a villain. The two terms are independent of one another.

Now, if we want to talk about antagonists and how to use them, perhaps we can put that on a future list. But now that we’ve noted the difference between the two, lets get back to our core focus today with villains, and how we make them scary. Hit the jump!

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The Captain Marvel Kerfluffle

Or, How Captain Marvel‘s Writing Team Showed They Really Don’t Know Their Craft.

There wasn’t supposed to be a post today. In fact, I am slamming this out in-between a work shift, a very important errand, work on book projects (my email box is FULL of comments, fixes, and changes from the awesome Alpha and Beta Readers I have), and then a big social event tonight. But this warranted a post.

Okay, backstory: This last weekend, with Marvel’s Captain Marvel about to come out on Blu-Ray, the marketing team released an extended version of a scene from the film.

Okay, fine, not worth commenting on so far, right? Well, this came with an additional caveat. It was marketed as “see a hero taking on toxic masculinity.”

Oh. Oh no.

As I pointed out in my thoughts on Captain Marvel, the largest weakness of the film by far was the writing. And … that’s come back to bite folks again. Badly.

As you can imagine, the internet exploded.

Hang on though. We’re still in backstory. The scene in question is an extended version of the scene in the film where—minor spoilers—Vers steals a guy’s bike and some clothes. In this new version, rather than her simply eyeing the bike and stealing it (which is justifiable in character at the moment), we instead get a scene where the biker hits on Vers in a pretty sleazy manner, only to get his conceptions crushed by Vers. She shakes his hand, then crushes it (you can hear bones crack and pop) and tells him to give her his bike and jacket or she’ll remove the hand.

Again … a bit more sinister, sure. Except … then the writers had to step in and explain that this was Captain Marvel being a hero and striking a blow against toxic masculinity. And … well, you can imagine how the internet has taken it. Both sides have, as you can predictably guessed, gone up in arms. Both make some good points, and both make some bad points.

However, the reason I chose to take some time out of my crunched day to post about this was because at its core, the argument Disney’s marketing team and the writers of Captain Marvel have claimed is … well, wrong.

Vers isn’t a hero in that scene. Not by any definition of the term. And to see people so aggressively defending Vers actions as “heroic,” even the writing team? Well … I think that’s in part why the Captain Marvel had the problems it had.

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Being a Better Writer: Sympathetic Villains

URGENT: READ THIS FOLLOW-UP IF YOU READ THIS POST! It clarifies a few important things.

… are a mistaken understanding.

Okay, that’s a strong statement as a lead-in for today’s post, but it has merit! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the weekly writing guide post where we discuss, well, writing topics of all kind.

Today’s topic, Sympthetic Villains, is another request topic. It’s also a topic that I knew would inspire a bit of controversy when I tackled it, particularly among newer writers, because of the amount of misunderstanding I’ve seen concerning it. Misunderstanding that comes from, unfortunately, the name itself and the oft-mistaken misuse of two similar but different words: sympathy … and empathy.

See, a lot of people use the former when they mean the latter. And, to be fair, the two share similar meanings. Sympathy is defined firstly as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Pretty close, right? Well, you’d think so until you saw the second, third, or even fourth definitions (depending on the dictionary) of sympathy, which move from “feelings of” to “sharing understanding” or even “agreeing with.”

Uh-oh. Can you see where the the use of the wrong word can cause a problem for young, newbie writers yet? Or even for more experienced authors? The problem is that while empathy means understanding a character’s perspective, sympathy means agreeing with it.

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Classic Being a Better Writer: Foes

It’s time for another Classic Being a Better Writer post!

New? Just arrived here from Google? Or maybe Bing? Nervously moving your cursor toward the back button and wondering whether or not you found the right place? Well, if you’re looking for good books to read or—in this posts’ case—advice on how to write them, you’re in the right place. You can relax your mouse finger.

So, explanations. Being a Better Writer is a weekly feature here on Unusual Things all about the writing process. Each week, a new question is tackled, everything from “Show VS Tell” to “Pacing.”

Of course, when you’ve been doing this for four years, you end up with just a little bit of a an archive. Hundreds of articles worth. Which can make things intimidating for the newly arrived. And though everything is tagged and compatible with the search box on the right, Classic posts are a good way to introduce new readers to excellent posts from yesteryear. As well as deliver a refresher to long-time readers.

This week? Villains and their minions, one of the more popular topics of all time!


I, Villain—
The first question you need to ask yourself with your story is do I need a villain? Not every story does. There are plenty of stories out there where the main character is their own antagonist, or where the character faces a rival rather than a true villain, a rival who might not be on the same side of the hero, but isn’t explicitly against them either. Don’t feel the need to shoehorn a villain into a story that doesn’t need one. Take a step back, look at your basic plot (because a villain is something you’ll be deciding on quite early) and ask yourself what adding a villain could add to your story, but also take away. Is there a theme in mind that would be weakened by a villain’s actions? Would the story be weaker if the spotlight were splitting its time between your main character and your villain? Stronger? Is your heroes’ portrayal going to be strengthened by their interaction with the villain, or dilluted?


Developing Villains—
We can admit it. In a way, we like villains. Villains are a flavor, a spice, to our worlds and universes, an intricate part of our plotting and scheming for the story at large. And … we know this. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed villains on this blog. Nor will it be the last. A villain isn’t a needed requirement of any story, but in the event that the story requires one, having a good villain is a key factor, and so understanding how to write a good villain is going to be integral to making sure that whatever you write is as good as you can make it.


Crafting an Army of Foes—
Mook is a slang term for the common enemy soldiers/followers/evil redshirts that the antagonist of your story is going to chew their way through over the course of the story (see a more in-depth write-up here). Basically, if your characters are facing off against a group of any size of mostly-faceless (character-wise) foes, than those foes are mooks. They might be tougher than average and pose a real challenge … or they may go down as readily as Starfleet cadets against an alien with a Nerf gun, but if they comprise the faceless horde or hordes of one faction or another that get in the way of the primary character’s objective, then you can legitimately call them mooks.


 

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Being a Better Writer: Developing Villains

This post was originally written and posted December 8th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Villains.

Let’s be honest with one another. We love villains. Even when we despise them. Darth Vader’s labored breathing is iconic. Dolores Umbrage’s fascination with kittens an understood attempt at sinister camouflage. The Joker’s fashion sense catches the eye of any comic reader.

We can admit it. In a way, we like villains. Villains are a flavor, a spice, to our worlds and universes, an intricate part of our plotting and scheming for the story at large. And … we know this. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed villains on this blog. Nor will it be the last. A villain isn’t a needed requirement of any story, but in the event that the story requires one, having a good villain is a key factor, and so understanding how to write a good villain is going to be integral to making sure that whatever you write is as good as you can make it.

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Being a Better Writer: I, Villain

This post was originally written and posted June 9th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Advance Warning: today’s post is going to involve copious amounts of spoilers from everything from games to movies to books. Most of them will be fairly obvious and over a year in age, but I’m giving this whole entry an advance warning anyway. Spoilers be beyond here.

Villains.

I think it says something about us that while some can’t name a favorite hero, almost everyone can remember a favorite villain (or “not favorite,” as the case may be). Darth Vader. Truth. Smaug. Agent Smith.Brother Jon. The Lord Ruler. The Joker.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The point is, you can ask just about anyone who their “favorite” villain is, the one who gave them shivers as a child or as an adult, and most of them will be able to think of someone. Villains are just as much a part of a good story as anything else. They haunt our heroes’ nightmares and waking moments, stalk them from behind the scenes, threaten them and their loved ones. Or maybe they don’t even notice the hero at first, too preoccupied with their quest for power as they dominate nations. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re on the heroes’ “side,” carefully playing within the rules—but only just, all while smiling a sickly sweet grin that promises future darkness.

So today, I’m taking a request topic, and we’re going to talk about villains—good ones. We’re going to talk about how you make an antagonist that sits in your reader’s mind, that’s just as memorable as the hero is, who worries your fans every time they make an appearance. The kind that haunts your reader’s mind long after the book is gone, that sits in the back of their head like a song they can’t stop thinking about. So buckle up, because here we go. Continue reading