The villain problem or in my case, the secondary character problem.

This blog post was inspired by a podcast that Writing Excuses recently ran.  I am a huge fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, they cover a wide range of writing related topics and I have been able to take away a lot of good advice from their discussions.  The regular cast on Writing Excuses is top notch.  They are all “professional” authors, with numerous published books and writing awards between them.  I cannot recommend that you check out their podcast enough.

The particular podcast that inspired me to write this blog post was an episode about writing engaging characters.  (http://www.writingexcuses.com/2014/03/09/writing-excuses-9-10-engaging-characters/)  They talk in the podcast about the villain problem, which is when the villain in a particular story overshadows, or is more interesting than, the main character.  This can also occur with secondary, friend and sidekick characters.  In the story I am currently working on the villain problem, or in my case the secondary character problem, came up.  I certainly didn’t set out to write one of my two main characters  as a boring, passive guy, but when my writing group workshopped my first few chapters, from the feedback they gave me it was clear that that is exactly what I had done.  When I went back and reread those chapters for myself, I quickly realized that my writing group was right; that main character was by far the least interesting and least engaging of all the characters in those chapters.  The problem seemed to spring from the fact that in those early chapters he was mainly observing the things around him.  Secondary characters were doing things, saying things, and being interesting, but he was just watching.  I had justified his inactivity during the initial writing based on the fact that he was new in town and I was trying to have him, and the reader through him, take in the new surroundings.  I realize now that that was not nearly enough though.  He needed to be fully engaged in every scene, even if that just meant he was only actively thinking or actively commenting on the things happening around him.  A good main character cannot just be the lens the reader is viewing the story through; they must interact with and affect the world around them.

Another thing they talked about in the podcast was, in Brandon Sanderson’s words, “the blank slate of blandness.”  This is when a main character has few, if any, distinguishing characteristics and always does what the reader expects him to do.  When I think of a character like that, I think of Superman.  I have never found Superman particularly interesting; to me he has always been predictable and bland.  Batman on the other hand, at least in his most recent incarnations, is a wonderfully dark and unpredictable character.  He has flaws and quirks that I think make him a far more relatable and interesting character.  In the podcast they talk a little about character quirks and how they can be tricky to get right.  Character quirks need to be sprinkled in with forethought and with consequence.  A character’s quirks should inform and affect the character’s decision-making and attitude throughout the writing.  Batman breaks the law repeatedly but he has a rigid personal code and fights for his own brand of justice.  That quirk or character trait makes him interesting.  It also informs most of his actions throughout his stories.

I do not think the importance of interesting and engaging main characters can be overstated.  Wonderful secondary characters and villains cannot carry a piece on their own; to me they are like icing and it doesn’t really matter how good the icing is if the cake underneath tastes like crap.

5 comments for “The villain problem or in my case, the secondary character problem.

  1. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    April 12, 2014 at 7:37 am

    I think we need “like” buttons on this website. Great comment, DesertElf!

    Also, I’m glad I got you thinking about characters with mental illness, Jon. Something to note though is that many mental illnesses are pretty subtle, like chronic depression or anxiety. The actual walls-melting kind hallucinations and delusions are uncommon. I would argue that most people write their villains with one of the personality disorders (particularly antisocial personality disorder), even if they aren’t aware they are doing so. I’ll write my next blog post about it, but here’s some information about it: http://psychcentral.com/disorders/antisocial-personality-disorder-symptoms/

  2. DesertElf
    April 7, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    An interesting and dynamic main character is often the hardest part of any story. I agree with you Jonathan, that Batman is more interesting then Superman. And by nature, Batman’s villains are more interesting. While those secondary characters, are important and should have life, if you feel that one is outshining your main character, take a step back and think about why. Is it just a moment in time when that character gets to shine, or is it consistent throughout the work? If it’s consistent, maybe those characters need to switch? Is your main character really the protagonist?

    Maybe the focus is on the main character, but that might not be the real protagonist. A great example is “Big Trouble in Little China.” The character that we follow is Jack, but really the hero is Wang. Jack is the sidekick, he is constantly outgunned, out witted, and out of his depth, but we follow him and the story unfolds around him. It’s as if we are watching Superman from Jimmy Olsen’s point of view. Imagine if all of the Superman stories were told from Jimmy’s experiences, would that make Superman more interesting? And in the end we have to ask ourselves, is this character interesting for the reader? Does the story revolve around them, or like you said, are they simply the lens through which the story happens?

    Keep up the writing and help motivate the rest of us.

    • Jonathan
      Jonathan
      April 10, 2014 at 7:32 am

      Thank you for the comment and your insights. I hadn’t considered before I read your comment, that the character I currently consider the main character, or the protagonist, might not really be the true “protagonist”. It’s certainly worth considering and I’m going to have to reread his sections and see if those parts of the story couldn’t be told more effectively from one of the other character’s point of view. I have to admit that I have become pretty attached to him and it is hard to even consider large changes like that, but as you say, it is really about what is best and most interesting for the reader. Thanks again for the comment.

  3. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    April 7, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Its a tricky balance to get right, and one that I have struggled with. Part of it is that when I write characters with mental illness, I have to understand how their heads work extremely well, and they become so deep, rich and complex that they can outshine other characters. On the other hand, I hesitate to write things directly from their perspective, depending on the kind of mental illness. When I am writing about the supernatural already, sorting out supernatural events from schizophrenic hallucinations is a level of complexity I am sometimes hesitant to throw into the story for fear I will end up bringing up so many confusing things that the readers will want answers to.

    • Jonathan
      Jonathan
      April 10, 2014 at 7:59 am

      I have to say that reading your writing has stirred up a desire in me to incorporate characters with some mental illness into my own stories. I was ignorant of just how prominent and common mental illness is, until our group began discussing your work and your writing. In fact, it now seems to me unlikely, even unrealistic, that the characters we’ve created could carry out their daily lives without coming into contact with someone who suffers from at least some degree of mental illness. The trick for me is making sure that I write them with dignity and without turning them into clichés, not an easy task for someone with my limited knowledge on the subject.

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