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A Lily Among the Thorns

October 4, 2011

by Rose Lerner

So I’ve recently become extremely enamored of Tom Hiddleston, who played Loki in the Thor movie.

He’s just so handsome and talented and he has such lovely hair and when he talks about acting, I want to swoon because he has such smart things to say.

I’ve frequently found that actors, talking about acting, express things I’ve always believed about writing. I guess in some ways the jobs are similar. Like an actor, a writer has to see a complete character even if that character only has two lines. We have to create the illusion of complete human beings using only a small slice of their words and actions. We have to make something that’s carefully constructed feel like reality. We have to put ourselves inside the minds and hearts of other people and remix our own life experiences to create something new and different.

What’s a little different about being a writer is that instead of only one character, I’m managing dozens at once. And I have to do that in a way that’s fair to all of them. Like a parent, I can’t play favorites. Not because I’ll hurt the character’s feelings, of course, but because it will affect the book. It will throw the reality I’m creating out of balance, and the reader will know I’m cheating. (Don’t worry, I’m getting back to Tom Hiddleston in a second!)

I notice this most often with villains. Villains are frequently bad people, of course. To a certain extent it’s natural to dislike them. But I think that writing a villain (or really, any character) that I thoroughly disliked would be a big mistake. Or at least, letting my dislike of them creep into the story would be a big mistake. Because I’ll end up stacking the odds against them. I won’t respect their point of view or give the reader a chance to understand and root for them. I won’t bother giving them good qualities to balance out the bad ones. I won’t let them feel deeply. I won’t let other minor characters agree with the villain or enjoy her company.

A bully is someone who doesn’t fight fair, right? It’s someone who goes after a weaker opponent. And nobody wants a hero or heroine who’s a bully. But when an author stacks the narrative deck against her villain, she turns her protagonist into a bully in the reader’s eyes: The entire world is on the heroine’s side. That poor schmuck is all by himself. I really believe a lot of readers feel that way subconsciously. I know I do.

A great example of this, in my opinion, is Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. He’s supposed to be a bad guy (though not the bad guy, obviously), and more than that, he’s supposed to be the powerful, popular kid at school who bullies underdog Harry. But J.K. Rowling dislikes Draco so much that she can never, ever let him win. Every plan he makes blows up in his face. In any fight or wizarding duel, Harry and his friends are sure to humiliate him. He hasn’t won a single Quidditch game against Harry. Almost every teacher besides Snape openly despises him. His own father doesn’t seem to love him, and his friends don’t stick by him. Quite unintentionally, now Draco is the underdog in the story! And suddenly you have this whole contingent of readers thinking, Please please please let Harry lose, just this once! Instead of working with you, your readers are working against you.

Of course no writer can control reader reaction. I wouldn’t want to. But a reaction like this isn’t just accounted for by the natural variety in reader experiences and preferences. It’s a response to sleight-of-hand by the author, and it’s avoidable.

A lopsided villain can destroy the illusion that this world I’ve created is real. No one in real life is all bad, no matter how much bad they have in them. My best friend has a rule of thumb: “I should be able to imagine every character eating toast.” If the only thing the reader can imagine a villain doing is raping women and torturing small children, the dreaded word “cartoonish” comes into play. And isn’t it creepier anyway to know that this guy can rape women and torture small boys and then go home and eat toast like anybody else?

A good example of a well-rounded villain is Dave on the reality show Storage Wars. (Dave-the-character, obviously; I don’t know anything about Dave-the-real-person.) I really recommend this show to writers. It’s especially impressive because it’s a reality show, edited together from real actions by real people, and yet it has a very coherent narrative. It’s about people who bid on abandoned storage lockers and then sell off the contents, hopefully at a profit. Dave rapidly emerges as the “villain” because he sabotages other bidders, bids up the price on storage lockers he doesn’t even want just to make his rivals spend more, openly tries to drive a struggling young couple out of business, and generally is unpleasant and hostile to everyone.

However, as the season progresses, we see other sides of Dave. We learn how important his business is to him and how hard he’s worked to make it a success. We see his estrangement from his brothers and how that’s affected him. And in the end, I think Dave is not a villain “because he’s a nasty guy.” Dave becomes an antagonist because, on a very basic level, he believes that success is a zero-sum game. Any gain by another bidder translates in his mind into a direct loss for him. The flip side is that any time he wins, it’s because other bidders failed to stop him, or were stupid, or incompetent, not simply because he’s good at his job. For Dave, there is no win-win situation. Acting according to those beliefs makes him do spiteful, cruel, bullying things. I still root for him to lose most of the time, but I understand him.

Here’s what Tom Hiddleston has to say:

“Compassion actually comes from two Latin words. I studied Latin at university–don’t ask me why. The first word is the word for suffering, which is ‘patior'[…]and the ‘com’ part is ‘with.’ […]As an actor, to have compassion as an actor is to have compassion for the characters that I play. That’s what it means to me. And whatever they’re going through, whatever their predicament, I have to suffer with them. I have to understand, I have to not judge it. I have to be forgiving of it. To have compassion for a character is no different from having compassion for another human being. If you’re playing a character, to have compassion for him is to play them honestly. And so I suppose, suffering with them is to suffer their arrogance, or their misogyny, or their insanity. I think that’s why, for example, Iago is as compelling as Romeo because within all of us, there is the capacity to be anyone or anything. There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us. There is that lover and there is that sociopath. And that extends to every script I read– to look for the possibility of who that person is in me. And that’s compassion. Yeah, that’s it.”

(If you want to see the whole dreamy video, it’s up on YouTube.)

I could not agree more! Now, this doesn’t preclude nasty, abusive, unpleasant villains, or even some good old-fashioned moustache-twirling. And it doesn’t mean that, looking at my villain’s actions from a larger perspective, I can’t say, “This is wrong,” or “If I met this guy in real life, I would hate him.” But when I’m writing him, I don’t think that way. I think about bad choices, but not bad people. I have to find the part of myself that could act that way under the right circumstances. If I can’t do that, if I look at this character and immediately try to distance myself from her, if all I can think is, “I would never do that, it’s awful!”–that’s a serious problem.

Probably every author has types of characters that she has a hard time being tolerant of. For me, as probably some of my readers have noticed, it’s bad parents. That doesn’t mean I won’t write bad parents, but it does mean I try to be extra careful when I’m writing them. I’m not always successful, but I try.

My primary villain in A Lily Among Thorns is a French spy who used to be the heroine’s best friend. This means he’s really more of an antagonist than a villain, since he’s motivated not by greed or spite but by his loyalty to his own country and family. However, that loyalty makes him do terrible things to the heroine. It was tricky to create a character like that and keep him bad enough to be a deadly threat, while still good enough that readers could understand why the heroine cared about him. I think most readers have been able to forgive him for his actions and like him anyway, but a few definitely haven’t.

Tell me about your favorite three-dimensional villain you’ve read, watched, or written! I’ll be giving away a signed copy of A Lily Among Thorns to a commenter chosen at random.


  1. Pingback: “You’re insane!” “No, no, the other thing.” “Superman will never let you–” “WRONG!!!”

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