My 7-year-old is obsessed with Percy Jackson and the stories of the Greek gods and heroes, which means that I’ve gotten obsessed as well. One thing you quickly learn—or relearn, as the case may be—about these stories is that the villains are often far more memorable than the heroes. I’m willing to bet that almost everyone knows about Medusa and the Minotaur but not the guys who killed them. In both cases, the heroes had their own interesting, compelling backgrounds, but they became memorialized because of the monsters they played. The villains defined the greatness of the heroes. This continues to be true, which is why the best and greatest character in Star Wars was—and continues to be—Darth Vader, not Luke Skywalker.
Lightwood, the new crime novel by Steph Post, continues in the tradition of creating great, memorable villains. You can be introduced to her in the opening pages here.
How the Novel Works
If we use Medusa and the Minotaur as models for villains, we discover a couple of essential qualities that villains possess. First, their very identity is memorable. We all know that Medusa had snakes for hair and that looking at her would turn you to stone. We also all know that the Minotaur was half man, half bull. You cannot overstate the importance of catchy, easily-described characteristics. It’s true of pretty much every great villain, but cool details aren’t enough on their own.
You also need a backstory, even if that backstory isn’t known yet or ever learned. For example, Darth Vader looks cool (check), but we don’t ever learn his complete backstory in the original three films—but we’re given glimpses at it: the fact that he once studied under Obi-Wan Kenobi, that he turned to the Dark Side, and that he’s Luke’s father. The same is true of Medusa and the Minotaur. Medusa started out beautiful but made the mistake of ticking off the wrong god, and her punishment was to be transformed into a monster. The Minotaur was the result of god-induced royal bestiality and then was trained to be a killing machine the way that some people train dogs to fight. These backstories matter because they ground the villain in the world of the story. Without them, you get stories like the ones I used to tell in third grade. Ninjas or aliens were always showing up, no matter the world or story, because they were cool. The problem was that they didn’t make any sense in the stories where they appeared. So, it’s crucial to ground the character in the narrative world.
Post does both of these things with her villain. We’re introduced to Sister Tulah in the first chapter. We find her standing outside her Pentecostal church, staring at the sky and listening to her followers sing as she waits to make her grand entrance:
Sister Tulah took one last look up at the black, gaping vastness overhead and decided that if she was ready, God must be also. She straightened the lace collar on her long, flower print dress and smoothed back her hair, once dishwater blond, but now a sharp steel gray, making sure that it was pinned in all the right places. She rubbed her pudgy, age-spotted hands together and then licked her lips before pursing them tightly together. Without turning to look over her shoulder at the awaiting sliver of light, Sister Tulah replied. “It’s time.”
We don’t yet know that she’s one of the novel’s villains, but I suspect that most readers will sense that she is. Why? Because she’s a tough woman preacher with great descriptive lines (“pudgy, age-spotted hands”) who clearly wields a lot of power. Though we sense that we’ll learn some unsavory things about her, we don’t actually see them yet. Instead, we see her as a part of the world: working class, rough-and-tumble Florida, a place with bars and ex-cons and motorcycles and Pentecostal churches. She becomes an even greater villain because we buy into her existence in the first place.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s ground a villain, using Lightwood by Steph Post as a model:
- Give the villain cool details. Go crazy with it. The Greeks gave a woman snakes for hair and a guy a bull head and torso, and those stories have lasted for a few thousand years, so it’s safe to say that subtlety is not necessarily a virtue when it comes to villains. The same goes for more realistic stories. The best character in the TV show The Wire was Omar, the whistling, shotgun-wielding Robin Hood of drug corners in Baltimore. Release your inner third grader. To do so, you might try two different strategies. First, take a normal character and add something weird: snake hair or an unusual weapon or weird habit. Second, start with the wild detail and attach it to a realistic motivation and behavior. Before we learn why Darth Vader wears the cool suit, we see him wanting something simple (to capture the droids and the plans to his weapon) and behaving in understandable ways (getting frustrated in a meeting and choking a guy to death).
- Give the character a backstory. In short, how did Medusa, the Minotaur, and Darth Vader become the characters they are? For all three, there was a transformation. They weren’t always evil monsters—or, their evil and monstrosity was not always their dominant feature. What happened to your character and transformed him or her?
- Locate that backstory in your fictional world. Think about the character pre-transformation. What was he or she doing before things got wild? Or, find a moment post-transformation when the character is just living life, not being evil—or, at least, not immediately evil. This is the approach used by Post. We don’t yet know Sister Tulah’s backstory, but we see her standing outside her church while her flock sings. It’s a moment portrayed as part of the Florida landscape. How can you make your villain part of your story’s fictional landscape? Which details about the villain are noteworthy or possible only in your particular setting?
The goal is both to create a memorable villain and make readers buy into the villain’s existence.