One of the things I always tell aspiring writers is to remember not to make their villains unsympathetic. As tough as it is to swallow, everyone has a reason for being the way they are. Even the most reprehensible character (and people in real life) have traveled a path to become who they are. Note that I say reason – not excuse.
Recently while teaching a writing workshop I stumbled onto a truth you won’t hear very often.
Everyone knows we are the heroes of our own stories. This is true. Whether you’re having a good cry in your car – yes, you were at fault in that fender bender but you just have so much going on right now – or calling to check in on that friend who is down on their luck, we are usually doing the right thing… or at least if we do the wrong thing, we have justification.
Perspective is key in these situations. The person you just rear-ended most definitely isn’t feeling that narrative about how stressed you are right now. They’ve got bills to pay, and by the way that wasn’t even their car – that was their mother-in-law’s car – and you just made their life a shit show.
Much like in books and movies, the audience’s sympathy is going to be with the person they were following right before the crash. Are they in the car with you? Or the person you hit? Their sympathy will lie with whoever’s POV they are in, because they’ve already identified with them and understand the circumstances that led up to the crash – or the impact of the fallout.
In real life, we are always the heroes of our own stories. It’s our narrative. We know the ins and outs of every moment that has made us into who we are today. It shapes our perspective and determines where our chief sympathies lie.
How is this a writing tool?
While standing in front of my class and talking about the hero perspective we use in our daily lives, I suddenly realized the flip of that – every single one of us is also someone’s villain.
That’s right. You’re the villain in someone else’s narrative.
Think about that.
If you want to use it as soul-cleanser, go ahead. That’s up to you. I’m looking at it from a writing perspective. I know more than a few narratives where I figure in as the villain, and I’m sure there are plenty I’m blissfully unaware of.
If you know yours, cool. If not, give it a second.
I’m confident that in your version of the narrative you are not the villain. Much like our fictional counterparts, you have a reason for whatever action (or inaction) that cast you in that role. I doubt you have to stretch yourself to come up with a sympathetic angle.
Apply this same thinking to your fictional villains, and you will have believable, three-dimensional, sympathetic, dynamic, interesting characters populating your pages.
Just like a real person.