Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Villains - my notes from Jeff Savage and Gregg Luke

I really can't rank the awesomeness of each LDStorymakers Conference break-out session last month. It was all so amazing and mind-blowing. That said, this class on villains definitely would rank in the top three. It was team taught by...

Jeffrey S. Savage, also writes as J. Scott Savage

Gregg Luke
As always, my notes are a combination of direct Power Point dictation and my own insights during the note-taking process. If only you could see the animated villains decorating each page of the presentation!

I'll see what I can do about that...

Ah, there we go. Much better. Now we can begin. 

What makes a great villain?


A great villain sets in motion the very things they fear most. Darth Vader's fear becomes anger and hatred that destroy everything he feared he would lose. 

Gray villain: someone who does bad things, but isn't really evil. Like Bowler-hat guy on Meet the Robinsons.

Motives: must have a back story
Goals: always at odds with the hero's goal
Traits: need to feel genuine. Be careful about cliches. Have them do something a villain wouldn't normally do.

Why do we like heroes?
  • Distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, and strength
  • Everday man who accomplishes something extraordinary
  • They make mistakes
  • They learn something
  • They're in it for others
  • Often reluctant
  • Coolness factor (a la Batman)
  • Special powers (not necessarily Super)
  • We want to be the hero
The Villain is Often the Hero Gone Wrong
  • Everyday man who desires extraordinary things, who wants control of everything
  • Won't admit mistakes
  • Is sure she knows everything
  • In it for himself
  • No reluctance
  • Coolness factor (a la Magneto)
  • Special powers (doesn't have to be Super)
  • We empathize but disagree with decisions
Shame is an enormous transformative factor. Shame can turn a bad guy into a good guy, or it can change a good guy into a bad guy, depending on how it's processed.

Your villain might think she's the hero.
-villains rarely hate themselves

Inserting a camera into your story:
How do the movies make us believe? 

-Actions tell all. If we see the man on screen kick a kitten into the road, we know for sure he's the bad guy. Or maybe he stands by and let's the kitten get hit (sins of omission). 

-Motives change actions, like a different color lens. Maybe the kitten was infected and heading straight for an orphanage for handouts. If the man hadn't kicked it into the road in front of that Mack truck, it would have killed all the children in the orphanage.

Consider the differences between three villains in one story: Voldemort, Snape, and Wormtail. Different goals and motives, different character traits, different levels of evil.

-Motives separate heroes from villains. Show motives in a subtle way.

What happens in the background?
What is it that makes the psychopath so frightening? Cool calmness, or glee in hurting others.

Looks and Dialogue 


  • How do looks act as a guide to the reader? Ursula is fat, Cruella Deville is skeleton-skinny. Evil witches have warts and big noses while wicked queens are often beautiful but with cold eyes. 
  • Not going with the stereotype. Always stretch the stereotype until it's unique to your story, like Kiersten White playing on the dramatic flair of literary vampires to make her own vampires something to laugh at. Exaggerating stereotypes or going the other way (a pimply jock rather than a handsome quarterback- even more motivated to stay popular) keeps the story fresh.
  • Deceiving looks. Nice guys finish last, so we never expect the bad guy to look like a nice guy. Make your villain ordinary until the crucial plot point that forces him to reveal himself. 
  • What is he saying? Truth or lies? Some villains always tell the truth and that's what's creepy about them. Others lie with finesse. 
  • How is he saying it? What is the tone and mood of his dialogue? Is he funny or frightening?
  • Assumptions he makes. How clever or thick is he? You can reveal much about your villain character through what he assumes.
  • To swear or not to swear. A villain who's in control will be more dignified and eloquent. One who is having a nervous breakdown will say all kinds of things without decorum.
The likable villain
  • a hero who took the wrong path
  • gray villains
  • they make people believe their goal is worthy
  • they have struggled with their decision
  • they care about something that's good

Choose your camera angle:
  • First person villain
  • From the POV of a victim (dark alley or shower horror scene)
  • From the POV of the hero
  • From the POV of a minion
Not the most cohesive notes ever, sorry! At a conference, much of the meat is what's said between the lines on the Power Point, but I hope these points have at least provoked thought. I know after attending this class, I came out with all kinds of ideas for making my villains deeper and closer to someone you might meet on the street. 

Happy writing! Buwahahaha!

p.s. If you haven't yet, enter my 1,000 followers twitter giveaway to win Goodnight Tweetheart by Teresa Medeiros!


  1. What a great breakdown of that class! I was there too, and LOVED it!
    I love writing the villain. I think it's more fun than writing the hero at times! ;)

  2. Hi Chantele! Thanks for stopping by. It was a great conference, huh? I'm starting to see how fun creating a villain can be thanks to this class. There are stories where I've liked the villain better than the hero. That's probably just poor hero development, though. :)

  3. Awesome Katrina! How funny I wrote a post on villains this week too. I'm waiting to fix my computer before I can post it to my blog.

    You did a great job of recapping that class. How is the rewrite on your MS coming along?

    -Angie Cothran (I'm using my sisters computer and it is messing me up)

  4. Ah, Now I understand why I don't like "Grease". Russo is the villain, then they have the sympathy scene to show she's afraid and vulnerable which has the result of seducing the heroine into becoming like her. Hero loses. Villain wins and everybody has a party. ugh. Fun dancing and music though.


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