I went into town today to pick up a few things because it is my sister’s 21st birthday on Monday. When we were in a particular shop (yes, I am not recounting my exact whereabouts on the chance that my sister will read this) I was talking to someone working there about a new writing activity book that has come out as part of the merchandise related to the new Beauty and the Beast movie. The book was aimed at children but it was super cute and part of the idea is that the activity gets you to create a ‘bad guy’ and a ‘good guy’.
As a child we’re taught that there are two kinds of people in the world: Heroes and Villains.
Yes, you can say that it’s more complicated than that but being introduced to shades of morality via the idea of good guys winning the day and bad guys who go without dessert is how it’s explained to a child who is learning about the world from scratch.
As you grow older motivations become more complicated and morality becomes much less clear cut.
Saturation. We are exposed slowly and we are gradually introduced to subjects that become ‘grey areas’. At some point we don’t see heroes and villains anymore, instead we simply see people.
Heroes and villains are the bread and butter of a writer’s craft. I remember many exercises in English class as a child where we used this to write little stories.
Of course, I can’t remember the last time I read a story when a villain was just a villain and a hero was just a hero because life doesn’t stay simple and neither do stories.
Sometimes that means that everything slides too far in the wrong direction. When does it become predictable rather than an interesting plot twist to follow a character who is not what they appear to be at first? (If you really want to know then I could give you examples.)
I remember a few years ago, during my first year of university, when I went to an event at Seven Stories at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan were doing a reading and Q&A. They were both hilarious and so much fun. After the reading, we had the opportunity to chat with the two authors as we had our books signed and the topic of heroes and villains did come up. (You should probably know that Tom Hiddleston as Loki was a recent event at the time) To my happiness as a result of our conversation, Sarah signed my book with this message:
Thanks Sarah, I still love this.
By this point I was well acquainted with the idea that villains tend to have very interesting backstories and a plain-old hero didn’t seem to really exist. Like I said, we don’t live in a simple world.
How do we define a villain? By acts or reasoning?
How do we define a hero, by the same measure?
Yet, back to the bread and butter, using a little bit of the hero and villain mentality makes a story interesting. Where would The Lord of The Rings be without it’s heroes and villains? (I started thinking of more examples but I don’t believe that you’d be too impressed with the amount of stories on the list.)
So, if you’re having a bit of trouble with characters then start with the basics and create a hero and a villain.
The motivations for why they do what they do can come later if need be. I’ll do the exercise as well. I’m going to try and write these without stopping to edit so I imagine that there will be plenty of rough edges to smooth out later, or even leave in as the case may be.
Aggie swung down from the beam and took a moment to appreciate her artistic talents before she was running away like the hounds of hell were snapping at her heels.
It would likely be up to a week before somebody called it in to point it out to the authorities but she wouldn’t be in a great position if she was caught at the scene. Luckily she was in time to catch the ‘rail to the West End and with her dreadlocks bound back and paint staining her fingers she looked like just another art student amongst the rest of them. She did well to time her visits to the Centre.
Her day had gone so smoothly that she was bouncing as she let herself into her girlfriend’s apartment. Grace looked less than happy to see her but it didn’t slow Aggie down at all.
“Have you even left the house today?”
“We need milk.”
“So, that’s a no. I have had a great day.”
Grace slumped down further onto the table top, “You’re going to get us arrested.”
“We all have the right to freedom of speech. I just happen to express my opinion…”
“By vandalising the T.O.W.E.R. in the Centre.” Grace interrupted.
“I didn’t go anywhere near the T.O.W.E.R. today. It was the Dome.”
“We have a right…”
“I know our damn rights. That doesn’t mean that they care! You would think that you of all people…”
“Me? Of all people? That’s cold Grace.”
Grace slammed her hands down on the table, “Bethany was taken just last week and sometimes I think that you actually want them to take you away!”
“I need to stand up for myself and for all of you. Do you think that I want to be painting the walls of the city because nobody will take notice of me otherwise? If we let them, we will disappear one by one until there is no one left to stand up for what is right.”
Grace stood up, “Did you mean what you said last night?”
Aggie had to put her hands behind her back to hide their shaking, “Did you?”
Grace headed for the door, “We need milk.”
She was gone before Aggie looked at the colourful flyers strewn on the table, obviously drawn with a great deal of care, and admitted weakly, “I didn’t mean it.”
“My kind of work.”
Nathaniel smirked, amused as always by Bella’s reactions to his job, and regarded the stranger in the doorway with a wary eye. He’d make a suggestion but, Bella had already stood up to leave.
The stranger entered as soon as Bella had slipped off to her bedroom but Nathaniel could see him well enough so he didn’t bother to get up from where he was lying down on the couch.
“Well, this is new. Don’t usually have you fella’s dropping by to say hello before I’m paid. Or after, for that matter. Must be quite the job.”
The stranger sat down, looking out of place amongst the bold, pink, flower-y pattern of the armchair (Bella’s choice, Nathaniel would like to point out), “Your girlfriend is quite beautiful.”
Nathaniel snorted, “Not mine. I should point out that I already know who you are, by the way, and if you think that you can get to me via her then you’re barking up the wrong tree and you’re just plain barking. Now, if you have a job for me, get on with it or I’ll bill you for this consultation as well.”
Nathaniel had been left alone for a few hours before Bella appeared and asked, “Are you leaving for a few days?”
He shrugged, “Places to go. People to kill.”
Bella’s nose scrunched up in displeasure, though it made her look adorable rather than weird, “Who is it?”
Nathaniel chuckled and pulled her down to lie against him, “None of your business. Might be gone for a while though so don’t let your boyfriend move in while I’m gone.”
“Okay. I’ll help you pack a lunch for tomorrow.”