Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber


What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

Hypocrisy R Us

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Facebook is killing me.

I am as invested as anybody else in the coming election, but even the people who lean the way I do are annoying me beyond belief. Even though I know I will become increasingly obsessed as the election draws near, right now, it’s too much.

So what can I learn from this with regards to fiction? What aspects of the human condition can I glean from this madness, so to enrich my work?

First: we are all the heroes of our own stories. I’ve always known that, and this statement is a solid center point in all my classes about writing fiction. The characters all think they’re doing the right thing. Or they’re doing the wrong thing, wishing they had a choice.

Everybody in real life thinks that if the world would only vote the way they voted, or parent the way they parent, or eat the way they eat, or drive the way they drive, the world would be a better place.

Second: we have little patience for those who do not vote, parent, eat, drive, etc. the way we do.

Third: We love to spout the memes, but they are for instructing other people, not for introspection as to how we might be the change we want to see. We’re doing just fine, you see, wasting gas and throwing plastic water bottles into the trash while telling other people to save the planet.

So what is the bottom line here? Are we all hypocrites?HYPOCRISY

Apparently. We say one thing and we do another. Why are we so surprised when the harsh spotlight on political candidates illuminates their hypocrisy?

This is what makes literature so important. We toss characters into unbearable conflict and watch them work their way out of it in ways we would never imagine. We never see ourselves in this type of conflict (we all work hard to avoid conflict), so we’re fascinated by our reactions to the characters. And we learn about ourselves from the safety of a favorite reading spot.

But are our characters always consistent in what they say and what they do? Are we cheating our readers by not pointing out the hypocrisy of the human condition? Or are the best villains the ones who blatantly tout their duplicity?

Think through your list of favorite villains. Are the best ones unapologetic about their treachery? I think so.

Humans are wonderfully complex creatures. How lucky we are to be in a career that gets to mine all the treasures so deeply planted in our psyches.

And tomorrow I will continue to decry the political noise on Facebook even as I add to it.