WriterDojo S1 Ep8: Heroes and Villains

EDIT (it would help if the professional author could spell villains right in the title)

For this episode Steve and I keep talking about how to write characters, by getting into how we create heroes and villains. Make them believable people, make them entertaining, and make your story not suck!

If you would like to support the podcast with a small monthly donation you can do it at Anchor: https://anchor.fm/writerdojo . Later in the season we will be doing some Q&A episodes using questions from our backers. (we were supposed to record some of those Monday, except I got stuck in traffic behind a flipped semi truck full of hay bales). EDIT – and I’m supposed to add that backers also get early access to the store whenever it opens.

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Series 3 Challenge Coins & Swag Shop Opening
October Update Post

15 thoughts on “WriterDojo S1 Ep8: Heroes and Villains”

  1. I never saw the movie “Inglorious Basterds”, but based on this podcast, I watched the 20 minute opening scene on YT. Larry and Steve are right, Christopher Waltz absolutely deserved an Oscar for that performance. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, the rest of that film is not so great, but that first 20 minutes, what a great portrayal of a villain….

  2. I’m loving this. I also find it interesting that you are both accountants, so definitely bring the business side and the hard core understanding that you can’t be a snobbish author if you want to be a full author. Honestly, the only other people I’ve really seen this clear focus from is L. Ron Hubbard’s “manuscript factory”.

    I suppose Kevin Anderson kind of gets this with his Superstars seminar (not that I’ve attended).

  3. Started watching these late, but almost died laughing about the “capitalizing God” bit in episode 5. Truly hilarious. Also very much appreciating the effort that’s gone into these-I wouldn’t even go so far as to say I am an “aspiring” writer, but I’m finding the information you’re giving fascinating and useful. Thank you all for doing this.

  4. @31:35
    “If [your characters] feel like real people. If that character feels like they could step off the page, and you could talk to them in real life, and they would exist as a human being, then, by golly, you have scored as a writer. You have done your job.”

    That is it. The whole business in a nutshell. Write people, not characters.

    If you are moving your characters around to serve the plot, then you are a puppeteer, not a writer. If the plot grows out of the character’s motivation in a unique situation, then you are writing people.


    1. “Write people, not characters. “

      This is a notion that I’ve noticed tends to get underrated nowadays. Not just in the sense that it’s not often done by writers, but that even high-brow reviewers wet their panties at the thought of “ooh, this villain perfectly embodies the dark side of the hero”, or “that villain illustrates such and such personal flaws”, etc. Now, it’s one thing to set up conflicts where the villains challenge the heroes in some way, making them grow and evolve – if anything, that’s how the best stories are done. But when writers deliberately model villains around the heroes, looking for that perfect symbolic conflict, it just feels artificial.

      Modern superhero comics and films are a good example of what I mean. In the MCU, for instance, ever since the first Iron Man film, about a third of all the villains fall in the archetype of “evil knockoff of the hero, with a personal grudge”. Or worse, “ambitious wannabe competitor”. Not so in the cape films of yore. Say what you will about Batman & Robin, but at least the villains there had goals. They had individual aspirations that had nothing to do with the heroes whatsoever. Ditto Magneto & co. in the Fox films.

      I find that this trend in the Marvel movies showcases an issue not just with the writers themselves – the fear of displacement by upstart competitors, which has pretty obviously affected the movie industry nowadays – which manifests as the aforementioned archetypes. Kinda like how DC comics in the 90s did its best to crap on the increasingly popular anti-heroes by rival companies, and fans nowadays still pretend that the “Nineties Anti-Hero” was a massively reviled fleeting fad… and not an enduring genre staple that gave us the Punisher, Wolverine, Deadpool, even Venom – which are still popular and profitable, sometimes more so than the clear-cut capes. And they all started out as villains themselves.

      All in all, I believe that characters should be allowed to outgrow their initial function, be it heroic or villainous. Especially in a multi-writer franchise. If someone can give them organic goals and characteristics, and enough fans warm up to it, this should be left to develop. Per the Star Wars example, the Disney films effectively lost most of the core fanbase precisely because they tried too hard to revert the conflict back to good rebels vs. evil imperials, ditching all the fleshing out done by Zahn and his successors. I think that’s actually going on even today – first the Rebels series reintroduces Grand Admiral Thrawn as a mass-murdering mustache twirler, then Zahn himself pens a book explaining said mass-murder as something he wanted to avoid, etc. etc…

      It just goes to show that it’s not only difficult to write people, rather than characters, but it’s nigh impossible to do it in a multi-writer setting, where some of the bigwigs would prefer them to not even be characters, but outright caricatures… and then complain why the fans walk away.

  5. There’s actually plenty of Star Wars Expanded Universe (the pre-Disney mostly good stuff) works with large parts from a sympathetic Imperial’s point of view. Zahn in particular really, really loved doing it (largely post-Endor, but there’s still a few bits before it). I haven’t read Death Star yet, but that’s all about rank and file on the Death Star.

    “DC hasn’t completely screw [Batman] up yet”
    I’m not sure if I should tell you about Tom King and his “Mommy Wife” characters or his “‘Bat.’, ‘Cat.'” dialog, or let you live in blissful ignorance.

  6. @indiana404

    “[I]t’s not only difficult to write people, rather than characters, but it’s nigh impossible to do it in a multi-writer setting . . . .”

    IMO it is impossible for a committee to write well. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’

    Example: Of the first three Star Wars episodes released, The Empire Strikes Back was the strongest. Why? Leigh Brackett. She took George Lucas’s mishmash of imagined scenes and cobbled them into a coherent story. After she died, Lawrence Kasdan finished the script.

    The point is that Lucas saw the movie from the standpoint of a cinematographer — ‘Block us a shot. You’re the camera man’ — not as a writer or storyteller. To his credit, he realized his weakness and got help. And when he got help, he gave the help free rein to do what they did best. What we got was the duel between Luke and Vader, and the impact of a powerful reveal.

    Vader became more than the caricature of evil he had been. He became an individual with ambition to displace the emperor and rule the galaxy himself. From a puppet, he became an individual with aspirations to motivate him.

    After The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars turned to writing-by-committee. The committee gave us Jar Jar Binks and Rey Skywalker. Is this better?

  7. @indiana404

    My favorite example of writing good, bad, and ugly.

    I was and am a big fan of the TV series Stargate SG-1. I think it a great study in how to craft a villain well, how to craft a villain badly, and how to go so far down the toilet that you cannot recover.

    Stargate SG-1 started with a great villain: Apophis (Peter Williams). Peter was everything a villain should be: handsome, scene dominant, and evil without remorse.

    I think the villain needs to be handsome in order to attract followers to him.

    Scene dominant? What does that mean? It means the actor draws attention to himself. Think Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington. Whenever a scene dominant actor is on camera, you see him, not anyone else.

    Evil without remorse means the villain is oblivious to the consequences of his actions to others. The villain’s desire is all that counts. If his actions cause pain or death, that is too bad for the victims, but it does not factor into the villain’s thinking. For a while I had a hard time with Apophis’s motivation, because I did not understand it. Then it dawned on me that the Goa’uld in him was alien. Of course, I did not understand his motivation.

    Stargate SG-1 did well in every episode that featured Apophis.

    Then the writers killed Apophis, and the show went bad.

    At first the writers tried rotating villains: Baal, Hathor, whoever. This worked so well that they brought Apophis back from the dead. Lucky for Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, the producers, the show had a loyal audience and enough momentum to keep it going while the writers were treading water.

    It got worse.

    Next the writers gave us Anubis, the villain without a face. THIS DOES NOT WORK! IT NEVER WORKS! IMO IT CANNOT WORK! It did not work for Colossus: The Forbin Project, and it will not work for you. The villain must have a face! The audience wants to see the villain’s face, demands to see the villain’s face.

    But wait! There’s more!

    The writers went from Anubis, the faceless villain, to the Ori, faceless villain by committee. The producers brought in Ben Browder and Claudia Black to pirate Farscape’s audience, but with the Ori, the writing was so far down the toilet that the show could not recover. (Stargate Atlantis suffered from the same flaw: villain by committee — the Wraith. I watched the show only because I had serious hots for Tori Higginson. Still do. (Please don’t tell my wife.) SGA did give Jason Momoa a chance to hone his acting skills, so there is that.)

    Note: Scene by scene, line by line, the SG1 writing in season 10 was as good as it was in the first season. But imagine Star Wars without Darth Vader. All you have is The Phantom Menace — The Battle of Naboo. Who gives a damn if you knock out an army of droids?

    No, the villain must have a face. And the hero must confront the villain hand-to-hand at the climax. If you do anything else — ANYTHING ELSE — you have cheated the audience, and they will hate you for having cheated them of their satisfaction.

  8. “For a while I had a hard time with Apophis’s motivation, because I did not understand it. Then it dawned on me that the Goa’uld in him was alien. Of course, I did not understand his motivation.”

    I’d say that, even if alien, a character’s motivation should be understandable to some extent. For the Goa’uld, it was explained that they evolved in an environment that made “survival of the fittest” look like a charity slogan. To them, it’s dominate or be dominated, period. Pretty much the only difference among the various system lords was in their definition of dominance.

    Similarly, the Replicators – the other villains that kinda-sorta inherited the place of Apophis as a galaxy-wide threat – were revealed as starting off as robot toys trying to make the whole universe comfortable for their creator, another robot… and things really turned sour when she got killed at SGC. So you have the understandable logical aspect in terms of motivation, but also the circumstances that make the conflict alien enough to grow beyond standard dramatic interactions. At least until the show introduced the so-called Replicarter, who was self-aware enough to communicate with SG-1 person-to-person, but otherwise was just bland, Amanda Tapping’s performance notwithstanding.

    Something similar happened to the Borg in Star Trek. They started out as a hive mind, completely devoid of independent thought and even incapable of considering humans on an individual level. Then writers put a face on them, first with Picard’s clone, Locutus, then with the Queen. However, as with the Replicators, I think that was a misstep, since the end result was still mostly an amalgam of generic evil cliches, bent on galactic domination for its own sake.

    One good example of how to avoid all this, is the Elder God in the Legacy of Kain series. He actually doesn’t have a face, but Tony Jay’s delivery more than makes up for this. He’s a being so alien that most characters in the universe can’t even perceive him, yet driven by the most basic human motive – hunger. Infinite hunger. He literally feeds on the souls of the dying, consuming the excess energy of lives meeting a violent end, in a never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. So the more strife and violence there is in the world, the more powerful he gets. Which also means he can’t exactly take up knitting and stop being a villain, since his very nature is to feed on violent death. Which, again, isn’t entirely unrelatable, as he can be compared to any number of real world parasites, just… bigger. And yes, in the final produced story, he is confronted in a hand-to-hand fight by the heroes, which, while ending in only a partial victory, still makes for a satisfying conclusion of at least that stage of the conflict.

    All in all, I agree that the villain should have a face… or at least some kind of clear gauge as to their mindset and emotional state. I just think that, if the villain is self-aware enough to be able to converse as a human, there should also be an explanation for their motives that’s more-or-less understandable by a human… or at least the part of humanity constituting the paying audience.

  9. @indiana404

    Your points are good and well-taken. You remind me that, in writing, there are no absolute rules, just some rules that are more true and better guides than others.

  10. “You remind me that, in writing, there are no absolute rules, just some rules that are more true and better guides than others.”

    Well, do what I can. Fact is, just about the only real rule I have for villains – and I think this is by far the most important rule of conflict – is that the heroes should work harder than the villains. You can see it in SG-1, with humans starting off as barely space-faring, facing off nigh-immortal galactic overlords. You can see it in MHI, which is a more Lovecraftian version of the same. Or in just about every action anime series, as working hard to develop yourself is a staple of Japanese culture.

    To contrast, I think the main reason most superhero comics lost traction as they got more serious back in the day, is because the villains are frequently the underdogs, working their asses off to present a barely credible challenge to the heroes… who then often get extra superpowers for free, easily regaining their advantage.

    Sure, I get why this happens – inexperienced writers often project a bit too much onto the heroes, using them for personal power trips and, hence, avoiding any development that would imply that the heroes aren’t the coolest, bestest, most awesomest guys in the universe. And publishers let it slide because it makes for easier marketing toward advertisers and sponsors, and the loudest part of the fanbase usually engages in the same kind of projection anyway. But, evidently, it takes a toll on regular prospective readers just looking for a decent story – there’s a reason the actual most popular superheroes are relatively underpowered, such as Spider-Man, Wolverine, Deadpool and on a good day, Batman… ten-digit trust fund notwithstanding.

    A good litmus test to see if a story is about to engage in such masturbatory endeavors, is to check if the hero also has a lame best friend that’s the butt of every joke. Because for the same reason as above, a hero that’s a writer projection in disguise constantly needs someone to shine against, even with no villains in sight. Examples are Jimmy Olsen from the Superman comics, Sokka from The Last Airbender cartoon, Happy Hogan and Ned from the MCU, Ron from the Harry Potter books, etc.

    (To go on a tangent, the Harry Potter series is a veritable workshop on doing everything to enhance your main character, without actually enhancing their character. First Harry is a born wizard… but he’s also a special wizard, one-of-a-kind survivor of evil… and he’s also filthy rich in wizard currency while his best friends are dirt-poor… and he goes to the best, most heroic house of the wizard school, and not the nasty snake-themed house that exists only to spawn villains… and he’s made the star player in a sport designed entirely around his position… and… you get the point. You can see why the books and films directly precipitated the rise of Generation Snowflake, a whole throng of kids each thinking they’re the shiniest tool in the shed.)

    Overall, this again ties in to my original point – that villains, and characters in general, shouldn’t be designed entirely around the heroes. Because on reread and rewatch, once you’re past the age of easy projection and don’t just take the heroes’ viewpoint for granted, you start seeing how warped the thusly created world really is. And this ultimately leads to an underwhelming conflict, and diminishing returns in audience interest.

    1. Oh, I don’t think I’d blame snowflakes on Harry. In general the snowflake sorts actually don’t like Harry. They don’t like chosen ones, or individual heroes. And with everything Super Special about Harry, what it buys him is mostly pain and horror.

      It seems pretty obvious that Rowling did understand fiction, and children’s fiction, as power fantasies. You’ll be rescued from your pitiful home life. You’ll discover you’re really a Prince or Princess. You’ll win the lottery. You’ll discover you have magic powers. You’ll win against the bullies. You’ll be powerful. You’ll be individually important. You’ll save the day. Maybe you’ll even save the world.

      Woke sorts really hate that. We’re supposed to be humble parts of a collective and work together to save the world. You’re not a secret Prince. Not anything special at all.

  11. ” You’re not a secret Prince. Not anything special at all.”

    I dunno, my observations lean toward the opposite – that the woke crowd flock around superheroes and particular types of young adult fiction, precisely because they love the idea of dividing the world vertically into various subgroups, with themselves on top. The wizards of Harry Potter, the benders of Avatar, the mutants of Marvel – all these tie into the fantasy of being special and important without having to break a sweat. Essentially, while individualism is indeed frowned upon, the actual power fantasy that attracts the identity issues idiots is one of elitism – of belonging to a special group, again without having to make an effort at it.

    Which leads me to another observation about villains – in this case, villainous groups. Whether it’s an evil army, a barbaric fantasy horde or a vicious alien race, I’ve noticed that the woke brigade is actually the least likely to see (and write) any redeeming qualities or logical motives. The orcs of Middle Earth and the Imperials from Star Wars are the most frequent examples I’ve noticed and personally discussed, back when I still perused left-leaning forums. For a crowd that styles itself as being against bigotry, they tend to gleefully grab the torches and pitchforks, so long as the beings in question aren’t on the approved social groups list. (And the funniest thing about the orcs is, even Tolkien expressed regret at presenting them as irredeemable, since it clashed strongly with his Catholic faith.)

    As for me, I’m generally wary of any inherently and immutably evil group in fiction, since this often speaks just as poorly of the author. Though again, leeway can be made for beings and conflicts too alien to put on a human moral scale. What I liked about Starship Troopers, for instance, was precisely the idea of a conflict between two altogether incompatible species, where “evil” isn’t a descriptor of either. Well, that and the coed showers in the film, but that’s a conversation for another time.

  12. Starships Troopers — the movie — was utter dreck. 3 minutes into it, I was screaming at the screen.
    Starships Troopers — the book — is a classic of science fiction. It sings an anthem to the disciplined military. It is about the individual versus the hive mind.

  13. “Starships Troopers — the movie — was utter dreck.”

    And quite intentionally so, I imagine. I get that most of Hollywood is anti-military as much as they’re anti-conservatism, but Paul Verhoeven really went beyond on this one. Putting the officers in Nazi uniforms is just the most visible aspect, but the whole film is openly and admittedly intent to subvert every theme in the book, from military service to inter-species conflict.

    The funny thing is, it didn’t work. The film still has plenty of fans, who simply tune out the aforementioned details and enjoy it unironically as a sci-fi war story. And it’s a decent gateway and visual aid to the book, and Heinlein’s work in turn.

    Which brings me to the main point here: You can’t make people like your heroes. You can’t make people hate your villains. You can’t force the audience into taking a particular stance that you intend to be taken regarding your work. Again per the Star Wars example, certain writers, especially now in the Disney era, went to great lengths to remove any positive or even neutral features of Imperial characters, tacking-on further and further pointless atrocities so as to dissuade any fandom popularity, and outright insulting fans who saw any complexity to the conflict beyond “good rebels vs. evil Empire”. Yeah, that’ll teach ’em… Teach ’em to move to other franchises, at least.

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