Practice Makes Perfect Villains

Fiction writers have an advantage in life that centers on the need to develop a rare skill for objectivity in creating a villain.

Memorable villains need to believe that the harm they’re causing is necessary and right. To accomplish this, their logic must be accessible and human. Villains can’t all be masochists and cardboard psychopaths. Even serial killers can believe they’re doing good work, or at least think the universe is a random place without right and wrong.

Having read, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, I’m all about focused practice. But how do you practice objectivity?

Here’s an idea: select a highly controversial topic for which you have a strong personal bias, and see if you can make yourself realize that a decent, rational person could exist on the opposite side of the argument.

Personally, I might start with the war over vaccinations and this video…

The pediatrician on the left of the screen claims to be in the middle ground of this complex fight, catching hell from both sides. He has written a book he claims is pro-vaccination. He says he has given many vaccinations to his young patients and continues to. Yet because his book promotes temporal spacing of the inoculations, he says pro-vaccine people want his book banned.

The interviewer is fully in the anti-vaccination camp and says he’s devoted his professional life to the cause. Yet he seems supportive of the “pro-vaccine” pediatrician. Something is going on beneath the surface.

The offstage villain in the video is the CDC / mainstream medical community with their rigid vaccine schedules that seem to expand each decade, supporting a commercial industry that cannot be held liable in court for any mishaps or negative side effects of their product. That’s unique, isn’t it? Fortunately, our politicians didn’t grant Monsanto the same deal for their big product, RoundUp, touted as saving countless lives from starvation through the virtues of genetically modified crops that can tolerate glyphosate, the poison in their weed killer.

Since I’m highly disenchanted with mainstream medicine despite my degrees and indoctrination, my challenge here would be to give the “vaccine villain’s” logic and data a fair hearing, both intellectually and emotionally.

To do this, I would need to see the historic cause-of-death stats for all the relevant communicable diseases in the US prior to vaccinations. Then, to sense the emotional viewpoint of this villain, I would need to read historical accounts written by parents whose children suffered and died from the diseases in question.

Having done that, I would probably have enough objectivity to avoid ascribing two-dimensional evil to a pro-vaccination villain of a fictional tale.

But this superficial preparation wouldn’t be enough. I don’t write primarily to entertain. Wish I could, but it doesn’t hold my interest. I need to also teach. Because of this character flaw, I would strive to determine if I was placing my villain on the genuinely misinformed side of the vaccination war.

I’d have to read the relevant medical literature objectively and develop an informed opinion. My present opinion, though strongly biased, is weakly informed despite years of interest in autism. As a scientist and lifelong teacher, I need to know my biases and either abandon them or justify them with data. As a fiction writer not satisfied with entertainment, I have to do the same.

The side effect of realistic villain creation is a blessing to all who write fiction. The process, if we practice it, will force us to become skeptical of real-world character assassination, authoritative emotional claims we can’t verify, and the outraged black-and-white political reporting on all news outlets.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD


Faked Emotions Yield Cardboard

IMG00013Villains who fake feelings and lie too much stunt their own character development and create a self-conscious reader who can’t forget herself and live in your story because she’s worried about being fooled.

If you’ve ever known someone who’s a pathological liar, you haven’t really known that person, I’d have to say. You’ve never truly communicated with him. It’s all been a dance.

For information to be conveyed in any context, there must be trust. Real trust, not the kind of trust we often think of.

We think trust is blind. If the Taxi driver says, “Trust me, I know a better route,” we may say, “OK,” and blindly “trust” him…

But that’s not really trust. All we can do with a stranger is act as if we trusted him.

At home, your daughter says, “Mom, you don’t trust me!”

It’s an accusation. Mom has a character flaw, supposedly. But most likely she doesn’t… She probably doesn’t have chronic trust issues with everyone.

She can give me the credit card and pretend that she trusts me, despite evidence I’ve given her to the contrary. She can use society’s word “trust,” a word that means “blind trust,” or acting as if there were real trust.

But there can only be genuine trust where there is trustworthiness to create and sustain it.

Trustworthiness cannot be bestowed as easily as a credit card. It develops over time.

The one doing the trusting doesn’t have a choice one way or the other. Even a villain can force trust upon us. In fiction, he must.

For instance, a villain’s threats must be trusted, or they carry no interest.

I grew up in a family with a total stranger who lied constantly about everything. That brand of dishonesty is a disease, I’m pretty sure. As best I could tell, anything that person said had a 50% chance of being misinformation, manipulation, or pointless abuse.

Talking was not communicating. Asking a question was flipping a coin.

It didn’t take long for anyone with a decent memory to spot inconsistencies, but people didn’t point them out because that person had a short fuze and loved beating people during fits of rage.

The tone of voice could be kind and supportive once in a great while, but when it was, you had to second-guess it.

You might think that such a person would be a great model for a fictional antagonist, but the opposite is true.

A character whose words are too often “pretend” destroys the suspension of disbelief in a fictional world where everything truly is pretend. This is an example of fiction needing to be less strange than truth, so readers can “believe” it.

One of my villains is an old woman who kidnapped the protagonist’s brother. On the phone she speaks with warm tones and uses the term, “dear” to address the protagonist, Johanna. (The word “dear,” should not be capitalized in this setting, by the way.) I felt I’d written her dialogue to shown her personality better than most of the other characters in my story.

She was a genuinely caring woman, but all the lies made her warm, caring speech pattern seem like a fake persona. I was loosing her.

She seemed too valuable to allow the plot’s need for lies to destroy her.

I went back and changed things so she could come clean and apologize for lying, and start being a real person (albeit still a villain) with the trustworthiness of genuine speech that makes people real. She will still lie – not as much – but the essential change will be that she won’t ever deliberately alter her personality in order to manipulate. When characters do that in a novel, you lose them.

I can sacrifice plot – many pages of it, as it turns out – but not a major character who seems to be coming to life.

There was also this problem with her lies…

Once Johanna and Maxwell saw her deception, they started speculating on what was more likely to be true. They argued complex scenarios that began feeling self-conscious to me, like novels about novel writers can make me feel. My characters were becoming plot writers, drawing attention to the craft and crashing the suspension of disbelief.

If a villain is too often faking her personality to support manipulative lies, she cannot be “known” by the reader any more than a poor diseased liar can be known by the people around her in real life.

Faked persona – a character who pretends to feel something he doesn’t – creates emotional cardboard.

An antagonist is often the most important character in a story. True, bad people lie. But real people, good or bad, don’t lie so often they negate the value and emotional trustworthiness of their words. And they rarely if ever fake their entire personalities for the sake of lies and manipulation.

A villain’s true personality ought to be known and “trusted” by the reader.

M. Talmage Moorehead

My current in-progress version of Johanna’s novel is written by a girl from a parallel universe. If you’re interested in intelligent design, weird artifacts, genetics and psychology from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old “Hapa Girl,” it may be a fun read. The protagonist is a genius geneticist with a younger brother who struggles with depression, though you wouldn’t know it to meet him. Her evolving story starts here.

It’s an experiment called, Hapa Girl DNA, and is a hybrid itself – a tightrope crossing of fiction and non-fiction. “Hapa” is the Hawaiian term for “half.” Johanna is half Japanese and half Jewish. In writing her novel, she and I ignore some important fiction-writing rules, partly because we like to test dogmas, and partly because it’s fun to try new things.

But the “rules” are essential knowledge to anyone crazy enough to either break them or follow them mindlessly.

So you could download my e-book on fiction writing, the second to last chapter of which gives my current opinions on many of the dogmatic rules of fiction writing. Downloading that 10,000 word file will place you on my short list of people who will be politely notified when my traditional novel is done – possibly before the next ice age. (No spam or sharing of your info. I haven’t sent an email to my list yet. It’s been over a year.)

Next time you’re writing emails, if you think of it, please tell your best and hopefully weirdest friend about my blog ( Thanks. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.