The Cure For CARDBOARD VILLAIN SYNDROME

44617887Today I’m sharing an excerpt from The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. Flaws play a HUGE role in each character’s arc, so understanding how to build them into the personality of our novel’s cast is key to forming compelling characters. However when writers don’t go deep enough when building their antagonist or go too far when applying flaws, a cardboard villain is created. Here’s some of the biggest stereotypes to avoid, and how to cure them.

The “Mua-ha-ha” Villain

This villain is your typical “wants power for the sake of power” antagonist. He takes what he wants, is never satisfied with what he has, and targets the hero only because he has the nerve to stand against him.

DIAGNOSIS: This villain is a sketch, a crayon drawing of the real thing, devoid of real motivations that will make him compelling to readers. He is boring and forgettable.

 CURE: Put meat on your antagonist’s bones by exploring who he is and why. Delve into his past, understand who he is, and give him compelling reasons for his goals that satisfy a deep psychological need. Build in morals that have been corrupted by wounding events, putting him at odds with the protagonist’s own beliefs. Add positive attributes that help readers see him as complex and formidable, capable of succeeding.

The Abysmal Leader

This antagonist has big goals, a minion horde, and a thirst for power. Whatever he wants, he is determined to get it. There’s only one problem: his leadership skills are terrible. He mistreats his underlings (who somehow remain loyal), makes strategic errors that lead to calamity, and exhibits poor judgment that results in wasted time, manpower, and resources.

DIAGNOSIS: This is an unrealistic villain, designed to allow the hero to win more easily.

CURE: Antagonists who defy logic are easily beaten, and weaken the story. If the hero is to come out on top, the solution is not to provide an inept adversary, but to create a skilled one who forces the protagonist to evolve and rise to the challenge.

Looks Like a Duck, So Must Be A Duck

This villain has scars, burns, boils, sports a limps, smells bad, and probably suffers from deformities or handicaps courtesy of altercations with life’s ugly bus. Because he looks like a walking, talking horror movie, he’s identified as the bad guy before he slaughters a single newborn panda.

DIAGNOSIS: Contrived physical deficits are there to provide neon signs to blast readers with a message: Warning! Villain Ahead!

CURE: Ugliness outside doesn’t mean ugliness inside, so if your villain carries physiological scars, don’t use them as a crutch to avoid having to characterize. Instead show who the antagonist is through action. Utilize the Character Pyramid tool to plan out behaviors, thoughts, observations and deeds that align with a negative personality. Create warped motives and morals to make it clear they are a villainous force, not one of good.

Emotionless and Calculating

This antagonist is cold in good times and bad. He handles disappointments without a flicker of emotion and is able to counter setbacks while carefully pouring expensive brandy from a crystal decanter. He is always in control. Victories might bring a slight smile, and possibly a second glass of amber enjoyed before a roaring fire.

DIAGNOSIS: Fraud alert-the author is flirting with emotional clichés and is ignoring one of the driving force of humanity: passion. No one does things just for the sake of it; if someone is driven to act, emotion is involved and should be expressed, in both good times and bad.

CURE: An in-depth character profile of the villain should be utilized to understand his needs and desires. Pretend that the antagonist is the protagonist, and conduct an interview. What makes him feel joy, sadness, hope? What does he wish for and why? How will his goals make him feel fulfilled and valued? What emotions is he sensitive to or afraid of? If his goals and missions are strong enough to fight for, then passion fuels them. Show him experiencing a range of emotions that drive behavior, affect self-esteem, and impel him to either succeed or make mistakes.

 Miles Beyond Redemption

This villain is a cascading nightmare of flaws. Her personality is so negative that no one can stand to be around her, and her every action and choice is vile and depraved. She lacks empathy, delights in pain, and feels no remorse for what she does or who she hurts. She embodies evil in every sense, and exploits everyone she comes across.

DIAGNOSIS: Such a deeply unbalanced personality creates loathing and a reader disconnect. Because the villain is so terrible, readers cannot understand or relate to her needs, desires, or goals. The unwholesome stain of such a character can spoil the book.

CURE: Every antagonist, no matter how unlikable, needs a positive attribute or two. Add qualities that are at odds with her dark side, and you’ll create a unique and interesting villain. Don’t be afraid to show her sensitivities, passions, or quirky habits. Your point shouldn’t be to have readers cheering for the villain, only for them to understand what made her who she is, and to see there is something redeeming within her personality.

Too Self-Absorbed and Careless To Live

Much like the poor leader, this villain makes mistakes to the point of comedy, simply because hard work and taxing decision-making is beneath him. Overly preoccupied with his own comforts and vanities, his attention on his bigger goals is sporadic. Independent wealth usually allows a buffer for costly mistakes, and he is content to source underlings to make sure his missions are successful. This villain will not get his hands dirty and is only concerned with his own prestige.

DIAGNOSIS: Antagonists so prideful that they expect life to be served up to them on a silver platter are a waste of literary ink. These shallow individuals are puppet figures, unworthy opponents, and undeserving of a reader’s time and attention.

CURE: No one likes to read about a spoiled brat, so give your antagonist some substance. Privilege and wealth can free a person-or trap them. Show us an antagonist who feels hindered by his circumstances and we have a villain with something to prove. Rather than being content to let others make things happen, he’ll become an active participant in his destiny and a worthy force for the hero to defeat.

Villains can be difficult to write well because in many ways they are as complicated and deep as the protagonist. Can you think of other “types” of poorly-wrought or cliché villains?

TIPPITY-TIP:

For more ideas on how The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws can help you create deep, flawed characters readers will care about, take a peek at Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature!

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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31 Responses to The Cure For CARDBOARD VILLAIN SYNDROME

  1. Pingback: Weekend Roundup + Blog Chain 2014: January 5 – 11 | Neither Here nor There....

  2. This is a timely post as I’m about to dig back into edits to make sure my villain isn’t too “cardboard-cutout.” Thanks!!

  3. Love this post. It’s just what I’m needing right now. I know what I’ll be reading at lunch break. 🙂

  4. About your thoroughly evil villain: I disagree. All-too-often nowadays, people say there has to be shades of grey for a bad guy to be interesting. I would point to Jafar (from Disney’s Aladdin), Scar (The Lion King), Skeletor (1982 version of He-man & The Masters of the Universe) and Sōsuke Aizen (Bleach) as pure evil bad guys who are still interesting. Each had their flaws (usually cartoon-ish), but they were all also what tvtropes calls a Magnificent Bastard. They were all bold, charismatic, independent, and audacious. All were unrepentant in their ways. None really had any redeeming qualities about them, either.

    Just my two cents, and of course, my opinion. It’s a well-know fact I don’t know too much, too. 😉

    • I think your comments prove my point though. I can’t speak to Skeletor as I was never a He-man fan, or the one from Bleach, but I would say that there are things about Jafar and Scar that make them interesting and therefore not the “beyond evil” cardboard cut out. Both are intelligent and persuasive, silver tongued. Scar is incredibly good at manipulating emotions, and while manipulation is a flaw, it’s something all people do and tied to persuasiveness. They are also strategic and it’s almost an art form to watch them shift events to achieve their goals. For me, neither is such a total turn off I wouldn’t watch the show, but I certainly enjoy their downfall. 🙂

  5. This just gave me a “face palm” moment. Thanks for pointing out that I missed the obvious BEFORE I went into beta!

    Cheers!

  6. Susan says:

    This post is genius. Some great information here!

  7. Mart Ramirez says:

    Thank you so much again for helping all us writers out! LOOOVE!!!!

  8. I love these! Definitely a bookmark-able post. 😀

  9. Claire says:

    A great exercise I’ve used hundreds of times, is to write yourself a quick outline of the story from the antagonist’s point of view – it’s a great way to think through their motivation (and indeed make sure they always have one!). It even has the bonus of helping to flesh out the protagonist too by considering them from another perspective.

    Great post – thanks!

  10. Rosi says:

    Thanks for another wonderfully useful post. And very timely for me. This is just chock full of good tips.

  11. i want to say thanks for all the character building tools you’ve provided. my son and i are working on a questionnaire for our villain and it’s giving us new plot points. strangest of all, it’s helping me get to know my hero too. there are some eery similarities between the villain and the hero.

    • I love that you are writing with your son, Michelle! And I am not surprised to hear there are similarities. Often what separates hero from villain is a line in the sand. They can want the same thing and have the same motives, but it is their methods, ethics and morals that are different. Villains will cross the line for a goal but the hero will not.

      Good luck with your book! And if you’re looking for DEEP characterization questions, check out the questionnaire on the Writing Tools page. It isn’t your typical character sheet, I promise. 🙂

      • Mildred R Holmes says:

        Crossing the line-one will, one won’t. When I first seriously started writing, I had an almost psychological aversion to making my villain cross that line. I wanted everyone to “be nice.” Got over that though. (Least I hope I have.)

  12. Lori Schafer says:

    Your depiction of the various types of cardboard villain made me laugh out loud – and I finally figured out why. The characters you’re describing fall under the heading of cartoonish supervillains. You can almost imagine their colorful faces cackling while they rub two-dimensional hands together in fiendish glee. Appropriate and often even amusing in cartoons – dull and uninteresting in novels.

    • It’s funny you say that, because I definitely was thinking about all the villains in children’s fiction and movies when I wrote this. Yet, you would be surprised by how often I saw versions of these cardboard villains in adult fiction I have critiqued, too. Putting a lot of thought into WHY the villain does what he does is something we all must do, but some writers skimp on this process, thinking of the villain as just “that guy who is trying to stop my hero” or they lean on well worn cliches because it’s easier.

  13. Allison Collins says:

    Fabulous post! I usually don’t think about what motivates villains when I read, but there’s one villain I’m fascinated by. Ian in the movie “National Treasure”. I watch his face when his friend (fellow bad guy Shaw) falls thru the steps and I wonder what he’s thinking, and if/how it affects him. Makes me want to write a really good villain, and this post (and the Thesaurus!) will definitely help!

    • I love National Treasure as well! The stronger the villain, the more the protagonist has to work to overcome him, which is a recipe for excellent, intense fiction. Villains should be as complex as the main character, because after all, in their eyes, they are the hero of their story, right? Becca wrote a great article on KM Weiland’s blog a few weeks ago on Moral Villains…it’s a great piece for thinking deeper into what motivates a villain and why. I think moral villains are their own brand of scary, because their conviction level is so high. http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/12/moral-villain-giveaway.html

  14. jeffo says:

    Regarding the ‘Looks like a duck’ header–when I started reading Game of Thrones, I was convinced by his introduction that Tyrion Lannister was a bad guy, and my initial reaction on the first ‘Tyrion’ chapter or two was to prepare myself for a villain. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find probably the most interesting character in the series (so far), a character who was really smart and not nearly as ugly inside as his beautiful siblings, or his handsome father. Great job by George R.R. Martin for what he did there.

    • I have not read Game of Thrones (yet!) nor watched the TV episodes, but I know exactly what you mean. This is a cliche SO overdone it is a delightful breath of fresh air when someone turns it on it’s head. 🙂

      • Tamara Meyers says:

        I listened to five of the Game of Thrones books on my iPod and enjoyed the first couple of books. I agree that Tyrion was a very well developed character and over the course of the five books it was easy to root for him, even when he did some definitely villainous things, because you began to know his heart and understand his motivations. By the fourth and fifth books I felt that the author had begun to rely on sex and foul language more than character development and plot. There is a sixth book but I feel that I would be wasting time to listen as Martin struggles to find his ending. I was disappointed, because I have listened to other George R.R. Martin books that were excellent – Fevre Dream and Windhaven, in particular, have wonderfully imaginative story lines and excellent characters you truly care about, even the villains. The story worlds are so well created that you forget they aren’t real. Sorry that this seems to have become a review of Martins books but by comparing his works I’ve found some excellent examples of what works in creating believable fiction and what doesn’t seem to come together.

        • Sounds like it’s been a learning experience overall, and that’s always good. I know with my favorite authors, some I love, and some not as much because some aspect just missed the mark.

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