I am sitting here with my Jane Austen candle lit and a cappuccino in hand, thinking about the post I meant to write. It's an in depth post and in the works, but after writing on it for a while earlier this week I just couldn't focus on it. I really am looking forward to posting it, but I knew it wasn't going to be done today. So what's a girl to do? I didn't want to leave the blog hanging for too long, so-- aha! It was time for a little switcheroo in the schedule, and behold: next week's post published this week, and this week's post next week. I know-- wow right? :D Anyways I'm super ready to get talking about what today's post is all about-- Villains!! Dun dun dun. (Says this while smelling like floral and listening to the Black Beauty soundtrack. Yep, pretty epic!)
Really, though, I'm not here to talk about "normal" villains. I'm here to talk about borderline villains. Those iffy characters that you're not sure whether they're good or bad. The ones who are "gray" in their morals or thinking. The ones who are against the protagonists but are pretty much against the antagonist too. Those are our borderline villains...and boy can they spice things up.
I've been dealing with a lot of these guys recently. (Looking at you, Needlemaker!) So let's just break it down a little with some examples. Don't worry, there'll be no spoilers. ;)
First off, let's talk about antagonists. What are antagonists, really? Basically the antagonist is someone (or something) that is working against your protagonist. Ok, so not every book has antagonists that are super in-your-face-villains. Sometimes the antagonist isn't even really that evil....or even a real person. (But that is a topic for another time, lol!) Let's take a quick look at the antagonists in The Needlemaker real quick so we can compare our "borderline" villains to them.
Mr. Rutherford, Senior-- He's an older man...wealthy, business-like and powerful. His main goal is money, and he doesn't let anything stop him. He kind of heads up the "evil" Rutherford family... They've had scandal before and never been brought to justice, constantly finding ways to let other people take the blame. He is ruthless, focused only on himself, and pretty much has no heart.
Charles Rutherford-- Mr. Rutherford's son, he is also a main villain--but more on a personal level to a few certain characters. He's not some "mastermind" organizing from the top but just a bad guy who has no problem hurting other people. He's a rich, spoiled man who has a leaning towards a bad temper.
I don't want to give any more away (gotta keep some things under wraps still, lol) but you can see how these fellows are clearly bad guys!
So let's look into what borderline villains/gray characters really are. While we can get more into detail on various archetypes for characters another time, these are basically the ones that aren't for the protagonist but they might not really be totally against them either. They straddle this weird middle ground that leaves you wondering whether they're good or bad. You don't know what they're going to end up doing because you can't rely on the fact that they will be guided by morals/goals etc that are either bad or good. Now of course, they can lean heavier on the side of good (or the side of bad) but on the whole, they're walking the middle of the line between the two...or using it like a jump rope, lol. ;) Let's take a look at some "gray" characters in The Needlemaker.
Mr. Miles Creep... he's a detective that has been hired by the Rutherfords to try and help uncover the disappearance of Charles Rutherford's stepson. Mr. Creep really is very intelligent and catches on to the Rutherfords' game pretty quickly....recognizing that they're up to no good and understanding how they play. The problem is, he's not totally committed to the side of the law if there's ways he can personally benefit. He's a master at twisting things to profit himself, and though he tries to do his job well, he always works it to where he gets as much as possible out of it too...never crossing the law, really, but bending rules sometimes. He shoos beggar kids away while nursing stray cats back to health. He tries to catch criminals to keep justice when allowing others to remain free while he can profit from it. He works for people while also doing stuff behind their back to eventually bring them to trouble. He's unpredictable precisely because you never know what he considers right and what he considers wrong, and it doesn't normally fit the clear-cut, black-and-white categories of right and wrong anyways.
Mr. Yates. Now on the other hand, we have this quiet, shy sort of bookstore owner. He's a little odd, see-sawing back and forth from being super gentle and kind to placing others into dangerous situations...whether it is intentional or not. It's hard to understand him because he changes his tune all the time with no apparent reason (unlike Mr. Creep). He latches onto ideas that sounds good, but while he's trying to help someone out (because it pleases him) he can also endanger the lives of others...or at least end up making them very miserable. Does he notice how much pain he creates in his "good cause"? Well, the fact is, even if he noticed it, he really wouldn't care. He's not manipulative like Mr. Creep. He can appear a bit naive and good-hearted. But because he doesn't stand on stable ground when it comes to right/wrong or good/bad he often ends up as "a villain".
Robin Winkworth, Isabella Winkworth Rutherford, and Anthony Squires. Now that we've talked about Mr. Creep and Mr. Yates, we've covered the borderline villains in the book. But there's more-- "Gray Characters"-- characters that are almost at the borderline villain stage but lean a little towards the side of being good. Another way to describe them is that they're characters that may not be exactly helping the protagonist towards the main goal, they may actually be against them occaisonally, and they may end up rather gray on the good/bad scale...but you still feel a little sympathetic for them...sometimes. They might do things that harm the protagonist, they might serve up obstacles throughout the story, they might outright disapprove or dislike the protagonist, and they might even do some bad things. But the difference between them and a borderline villain is that they're not written like a bad guy, even if they are one. Sometimes gray characters end up reforming, but perhaps not. It really depends. I can't tell you more about the three "gray characters" in The Needlemaker because...spoilers! lol.
But how do you write borderline villains or gray characters?
So now that we know the difference between the two and what each are like, how do we write these kinds of characters in our books?
Let's preface a few tips by saying that in the process of developing characters you will usually be able to find out whether they are a borderline villain or a gray character. I'm a fan of telling your character's story and getting to know them really well, and I've found that while doing this you'll usually run across a few that fit in the above descriptions that just happen naturally in your story. But say you haven't come upon any characters like this yet but you really want to add one (or more). What then? You make up a character and then... well...
1. First of all, get to know your character. Oh wait, did I just practically repeat myself? Haha, yeah I did, But it's true-- even if you decide to add in a character and didn't just stumble onto him/her, get to know your character. What are his/her personal goals? How do they view life? What makes them tick? If you can figure out how they think and why, then you'll be able to know how they act.
2. Develop them as multi-dimensional people. The fact is that if you can develop your character as a multi-dimensional person instead of a flat, cardboard-y character, then you're going to have a much easier time portraying them accurately. Don't fall back on villain cliches! There's reasons behind the why's and wherefores for your characters if you only look. Their personalities can be like a cut diamond, with dozens of different facets. You'll find that polishing up each side of your character and developing them well on all points will bring you a more complex, interesting and unique person. Not only that, but it's super important when doing borderline villains or gray characters because they're not as clear-cut as some other characters might be.
3. Decide whether you're going for a realistic or caricature approach. Now this isn't saying that a caricature type of character is any less dimensional or realistic than a fully-realistic one. But it's just that some parts of the character are going to be a little bit exaggerated to bring a point across. Think about Charles Dickens. Many of his characters were caricatures, but they still seem like real, believable people. The thing is, when it comes to borderline villains or gray characters, this realistic vs caricature topic is super important. If you're going for an extremely realistic approach, usually the "gray"ness is going to be a lot more subtle, a lot harder to decipher. But with the caricature approach, certain things are going to be more easily recognizable and perhaps played up a little more. (This doesn't mean that a caricature style is going to give away everything--you can do it and still pull off a super interesting, confusing and surprising character). Both ways are great, and neither is less effective than the other. It's just what you're trying to get across. Knowing how you want it portrayed, though, is going to help you a lot in writing the character.
Well there you have it!
Question of the Day: Do you have any borderline villains or gray characters in your novel? Are they super realistic or more of a caricature? Let me know in the comments below! :)
Y'all have a lovely day!
P.S. Like this post? Check these out, too!
Epic Bookbug Character Workbook and Guide
How to use the MBTI Method to Create Richer Characters
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