Ask Mr. Writing Person: Dr. Villainous's Monkey Bars
In this Ask Mr. Writing Person, Bob Grunnels, from Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, joins us with a question about a villain who was unfortunately never given a swirly in seventh grade. [Ed: Poor guy.] Here's Bob:
Q. I have this really heinous villain, you know, he kills people for fun and everything, but he just seems flat. How do I round him out?
A. Do you have a reason for his evilness?
Q. Yeah. He's a deranged psychopath.
A. I'm so very disappointed, Robert. Do you think Joseph Stalin and Jeffrey Dahmer were simply psychopathic?
Q. Well, yeah...
A. You haven't done your research, young grasshopper. I have, and I've discovered that poor Joseph embraced Marxism and slew millions because on the Halloween when he was five years old, a teenager dressed as a vampire jumped out at him and made him wet himself.
A. And then stole his candy, thus demonstrating the intrinsic decadence of capitalist systems. Jeffrey Dahmer was forced to eat gruel for breakfast, when what he really wanted was raw steak. Isn't that tragic?
Q. I suppose so.
A. Now, besides realism, you have two goals. The first is to convince your reader that they could have just as easily ended up like your villain. The second is to convince your reader that their friends and family could have just as easily ended up like your villain because of something your reader did.
A. Well, yes. The main effect is, however, that when your villain dies, your reader will be drying his eyes on the pages of your book.
Q. I wasn't looking for a sympathetic villain particularly--
A. That's what it takes. The modern reader gets bored with your Dr. Evils and Mr. Heinouses who kill just because they like it. The modern reader doesn't want to cheer when your villain meets his sticky end, he'd rather weep like a milksop because your villain was only a victim of his mother's ghastly haircuts.
A. This would be rather difficult to demonstrate with your current work-in-progress, but I'll show you how to do it using one of my published works, The Gut-Wrenching and Utterly Tragic Tale of Dr. Villainous, Which is Sad Enough to Make You Cry.
Q. Very subtle.
A. Quite. Here's a poignant excerpt:
Dr. Villainous was brooding again as he crossed the monkey bars one-handed. He hadn't heard anything about Gerbil Boy in days, and it was making him uneasy.
Gerbil Boy! The bane of his tragic existence still walked free and unheadless, and it was almost too much to bear. Dr. Villainous invented cruel and unusual punishments for Gerbil Boy as he thumped from bar to bar, his hot-pink cape swinging behind him like a puppy's tail. His latest plan was to invent a way to decapitate the jerk with nothing but an egg beater and a rubber hose.
He could never forgive Gerbil Boy for pushing him off the monkey bars on that elementary school playground so many years ago. Never! And when his evil Death Ray finally swept over the city--if the fools would ever finish it--there wouldn't be any more swinging on monkey bars, because there wouldn't be any people left to swing.
Except him. He'd be left, and he'd still have his own private collection.
I see that you're shaking with grief.
Q. Oh--hmmmmgph--yeah. It's, hee hee, um, terrible.
A. Makes you think twice about pushing people off monkey bars, doesn't it?
Q. Definitely. Hee hee.
A. Also, it's quite easy to see how any one of us could have ended up just like Dr. Villainous.
Q. Oh, yeah.
A. I cried when I wrote that third paragraph there.
Q. I'm sure you did.
A. Anyway, notice that Dr. Villainous's tragic boyhood drives the story. This is another nice benefit to having a reason for a villain's villainous behavior--you can use it to decorate his evil lair. In Dr. Villainous's case, his whole hideous hideout is set up like a playground.
A. Quite. Now, as it turns out, Dr. Villainous became hateful and mean for yet another reason.
Q. Besides getting pushed off the monkey bars? That'd do it for me. I'd nuke Switzerland for that.
A. Yes, but in literature, we often go above and beyond. Our craft is an exercise in extremes. Watch as the plot takes its final twist. In this passage, Dr. Villainous has trapped Gerbil Boy and tied him face-down from a set of monkey bars with a swing set:
"I can never forgive you!" shouted Dr. Villainous, his face contorted into horrible contortions. "I'll never forget what you did to me!"
Gerbil Boy rolled his eyes dismissively. "Honestly, I don't remember what I'm supposed to have done to you."
"You pushed me off the monkey bars when we were in second grade!"
"I seriously don't remember that. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was Hamster Man who pushed you off the monkey bars. If I recall correctly, I called you a dipweed."
Dr. Villainous howled with rage and shot a bystanding lackey on principle. He rushed off to the kitchens and returned with a handful of wet, grassy-looking sludge, giggling like a madman. Which he was, on account of being treated like dirt in second grade, which is very sad. Sad enough to make you cry.
"What's that?" said Gerbil Boy nervously.
"This, my friend, is dipweed. I invented it so I could ram it down Hamster Man's throat, but now that you've admitted to the second offense, I suppose it's yours."
Q. Shocking. And sad.
A. Quite. Notice that the heroes--and this is very original of me--are actually just bullies.
Q. Yeah, I never expected that.
A. Now, Robert, do you think you have to tools to properly characterize your villain?
Q. Absolutely. I've even decided what tipped him over the edge. See, when he was a teenager, on a trip to the zoo, he was nearly trampled to death by stampeding flamingos. That'd be wicked literate.
A. Okay, Philistine, you've discovered Rule 22: You don't get to use my catch-phrases. Also, that's really weak, totally unrealistic, and not even close to wicked literate. It's more like unkind literate.
Q. Flaming flamingos?
A. Spiteful literate.
Q. Flaming, spectral flamingos?
A. Now that's wicked literate. And for the evil lair, some wicked lawn ornaments.
Q. Flaming, spectral lawn ornaments.