Thursday, March 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Archetypes and the Villain: Towards more complex characterization

Crossposted on Blogetary.

This article was originally published in the July 2008 issue of Illuminata, a newsletter of Tyrannosaurus Press. It has been slightly edited and updated.

Archetypes and the Villain: Towards more complex characterization

Rachel V. Olivier

A few weeks ago I took a writing workshop on archetypes and mythology at the Craft and Folk Art Museum here in Los Angeles. It was more of a private writing type of workshop – looking at yourself and your family for personal archetypes, etc., but several of us were there to work on our fiction as well. According to the woman who led the workshop, most people have knee jerk reactions to at least one or more archetypes and this is probably where they need to focus their psychological and emotional healing. Fully integrated people (i.e. those rare and lucky people who have no psychological and emotional baggage) rarely have those same knee jerk reactions.

Now just to pause a moment – archetypes are not stereotypes, though they can lapse into stereotypes. Archetypes are basic personalities that are so ingrained in the collective psyche that they occur in most stories written or acted out. The Hero, The Villain, the Damsel in Distress are three very general archetypes that are familiar to everyone. The Father, the Mother, and the Child are three that exist in every single culture around the world.

The first thing that popped into my morbid brain during the workshop was the following thought: Serial Killers must really be fractured (not integrated) personalities because they actively seek out and hunt the archetypes they have knee jerk reactions to. Of course I didn’t bring this up in the workshop, but I wrote it in my journal and got to thinking about all the different ways Villains (seeing as most Serial Killers are Villains, unless of course your name is Dexter…) behave and why.  There are many books, films, RPGs, etc., where the Villain is simply the Villain. There is no explanation or analysis for why they are the way they are. They just are evil.  That is the part – the archetype – they play.  It works, but at best, it creates a two-dimensional character and at worst, it saps energy and tension from the story. If a writer is going to tell a tale with rich characterization the story will feel lopsided if they spend all their time showing why the Hero and his or her friends are the way they are and no time on why the Villain is the way s/he is.  The writer needs to find out which archetypes the Villain is reacting to in his or her life, and why, thus creating a more complete and engaging character.

According to Tami Cowden (, the author of The Complete Guide to Heroes and Heroines, there are at least 16 separate villain archetypes: Tyrant, Bastard, Devil, Traitor, Outcast, Evil Genius, Sadist, Terrorist, Bitch, Black Widow, Backstabber, Lunatic, Parasite, Schemer, Fanatic, and Matriarch. There are probably lots of others and a host of variables, but her list seemed a good place to start when looking at and understanding the Villain.  Her descriptions are just 3-4 sentence explanations of what these Villains are and how they work.  The Tyrant, for example, is a bully, craves power and hoards it, and will crush anyone who gets in his way.  But why is he the way he is? Was he bullied? Was he powerless as a child, watching helplessly as his world was destroyed by the archetypes in his life (The Mother, the Father, the Bitch, the Traitor, etc)? This is an important part of not only making the story more rich and appealing, but also in showing how the Hero can overcome the Tyrant and in creating a more interesting plot. Typically, the seeds of the Villain’s downfall are found in how s/he became what they are.

A better example may be illustrated by Lex Luthor, Superman’s Nemesis.  It may not be so obvious in the older Lex Luthor, but the younger one, as played by Michael Rosenbaum in the CW television show Smallville, paints a very complex character. This Lex is a Villain, no doubt about it. He’s a Devil: charming, charismatic, able to exploit the weaknesses he sees in others for his own ends. He not only is able to rationalize other people into compromising their views and seeing his side, but he’s also able to rationalize to himself why he does some of the things he does.  He is also easily one of the more likable characters on the show. He is so good at justifying himself that it is easy find yourself conflicted when rooting for the “Hero” – Clark Kent – to win the day, because you almost, almost, want Lex Luthor to win the day.  He just sounds so reasonable, which is a characteristic of the Devil Villain archetype.

Lex Luthor is a strong example of showing what can happen when writers choose to show what the Villain reacts to, why the Villain is the way s/he is.  The writers have actively demonstrated the ambivalent relationship that Lex has with his father, both seeking his approval and competing against him.  In fact, in every relationship Lex Luthor has had that a normal child would learn love and trust from, he has been betrayed in. Being the “good” son that he is, he has done his best to not only survive, but thrive, in the competitive environment his father keeps him in.  Thus, the engaging Devil character who is able to charm and manipulate allies and foes alike becomes the engaging Villain that the audience now has sympathy for. The emotional conflict hooks the audience, pulling them through the story to the final outcome.

Some writers turn this idea on its head by creating an Anti-hero – the Villain as Hero, in effect.  Some examples are the protagonists of Dexter, House, or the short-lived series Profit. Stephen Donaldson did it with his protagonist in the Thomas Covenant Chronicles. George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has many characters that walk the line between Anti-hero and Villain. These people are not nice people. They are NOT “Hero” material.  In fact, they are distinctively, disturbingly, unlikable people. The trick is, again, to explain why they are the way they are so that the audience has some sympathy for them.  They are no better than the Villain, but having been put in the role of protagonist the audience wants some reason to think they might be redeemable.  So, what archetypes were in the lives of such Anti-heroes? What archetypes from their past are they reacting to in such a way that they have become the inimical characters they are now? As the writer explores the whys and wherefores behind these questions, they are better able to plot a story that is engaging, strong, and very readable. One that will grab the reader by the throat and pull them through to the end.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Five tips on proofreading your own work

I and others have addressed this before, but I thought I would address it again as spring is coming, students are writing papers or theses or dissertations and writers are trying once again to pull out their manuscripts and do some writing whilst sitting incognito at the park or at least outside at their favorite cafe. So, below are five tips on how to proofread your own work.

1) Find someone else to read your work. I know, I said proofreading your own work, but having a fresh set of eyes to look over your work is truly the best thing you can do. It doesn't have to be a paid proofreader. It can be a fellow writer or classmate. Trade papers or manuscripts with them. Determine what you want them to look for (just typos? awkward sentences? Inconsistencies?) and what you will be looking for in their writing. Stick to those objectives. It's much easier to see something in someone else's work than to see it in your own. Once you get your work back from your friend or classmate, thank them and go to your safe place and be prepared to see what you missed. (If your friend wandered off the instructions and wrote in editorial remarks then feel free to ignore those, or take them into consideration. This exercise is all about the proofreading.)

2) Put your work away for an extended period of time. This is called letting your manuscript "bake". Students don't always have this option as they have due dates and times - unless of course they've actually written their paper in a timely enough manner that this is possible. If you don't have a due date, let the manuscript "bake" for a good month or so. If you are a student and the paper is due soon, then put the paper away and don't look at it until after you've had a good night's sleep, a good meal and have had time for your brain to hit "reset" - a good solid 12 hours if possible. Your brain is a very efficient machine and fills in where things may be missing or wrong in your copy. What you're trying to do is give your brain a chance to "forget" the copy you've been working on and see it fresh. This way you have a better possibility of seeing clearly missed or misspelled words or rewritten sentences that haven't quite been cleaned up, yet.

3) Go Old School and proofread the hard copy. Yes, you love your laptop. You curl up with it at night to watch movies and use it during the day to do homework or write your Greatest American Novel in between side trips to Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. And yes, you'd rather save money and the environment by not using paper and ink on printing out what will be just another marked up copy. But your eyes see a computer screen differently than they do an actual piece of paper. The type on your computer screen is constantly moving, where the type on a piece of paper is still on the page. You may actually catch more mistakes on the hard copy because of this. So, print out your work, grab a favorite pencil or red pen (whatever you like working with best that you will see clearly), curl up in your safe place and read your piece, line by line.

4) Read it out of order. There's an old adage that proofreaders read copy backwards to catch all the mistakes. That is only true some of the time, but it does help if you're reading lists, figures or haven't been able to get enough distance between you and your manuscript or paper. Grab a ruler, that usually helps. What you're going to try to do is look at the copy as you would a math problem. You aren't "reading" the copy - you are just looking at the copy as discrete symbols strung together in coherent single words and then sentences. This is a trick that's only good for catching typos, though you might find the occasional awkward sentence (especially if your brain still remembers diagramming sentences from junior high).

5) Read it through one more time. You will never get all the mistakes. I work for a newspaper where writers, three editors, a proofreader and graphic designer all read through most of the monthly paper before it goes out, and we don't always catch all the mistakes. But read it through one last time before hitting send. If there are important names or terms that you are using in your paper or manuscript, then make sure you have a list of them next to you and make sure all those are spelled correctly, if nothing else. Spot check for periods, especially at the end of paragraphs. If there are mistakes you make all the time (then vs. than vs. that, your vs. you're, its vs. it's, their, they're and there, etc.) then use the Control F (Find) function to go through and look for those places where you may have used one or the other.

In the end, you may just end up finding that one glaring mistake AFTER you hit send, but at least you know went through and found all the others. Or, at least MOST of all the others. Well, at least you gave it the old college try. But hopefully these tips will help you produce a cleaner and more professional document than you would have otherwise produced on your own.

But if you'd like help proofreading and copyediting your dissertation, thesis, paper or book, please make sure to keep Putt Putt Productions in mind.