Monday, April 14, 2014

Villains and Antagonists in YA

On Saturday I had the pleasure of co-teaching a workshop with YA author Carrie Mesrobian. It was a ton of fun, mainly because we had a good turn out people, all seriously into geeking out about YA. It was also fun because I like hanging out with Carrie. She is a gifted writer and a very cool and funny person, and she is also, as of last week, winner of the Minnesota Book Award for her novel Sex and Violence. (Yay Carrie!) She and I met a few years ago when I took a class about Twilight which she taught at the Loft Literary Center, here in Minneapolis. She kindly invited me to help her lead a one-day workshop on popular YA called Harry, Bella, Percy and Katniss, which uses popular series to illustrate techniques for writing YA, and to talk about what YA is (and isn't) and what makes popular books tick. We've taught the workshop together four times now and always enjoy it, but there's SO much to say, we always wind up having to leave a few things out. This time, we were forced to skip over villains, antagonists, and foils, so I told the folks in the class I would post my notes on the subject here, for anyone who's interested in villainy.

But first, I promised I would  post the link to the Pinterest board I keep of self-publishing resources, for those students who were considering going indie. This board has everything from freelance editors and cover designers to links to interviews with indie authors. For those just beginning their indie journey, I recommend you start with these FAQ's about self publishing from authors Tracey Garvis Graves and this blog post by Elizabeth Hunter, as well as this one by Allison Winn Scotch. They will help you sort out the work involved in self publishing, along with the rewards, so you can get a better sense of whether it's for you.

And now, on to the villainy! Remember, these are just my notes for the workshop, but I hope you can follow them. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment and I'll be happy to answer!

Villains and Antagonists!


Antagonist: can be anything that blocks or works against a protagonist's goals. Doesn't have to be doing it consciously - may not even be aware of the protagonist. Could be an animal, a force of nature, or just someone with an incompatible agenda.

Villain: This time it's personal! Consciously and directly opposes the protag.'s goals.

Important to know how your villain views herself. In very good vs. evil stories, like a high fantasy or super hero story, the villain may be aware that she is the villain and think of herself as evil, but in most cases villains view themselves as the heroes of their own stories.

Your story shouldn't be like a stage set that only looks real from one angle. You should be able to look at your story from the villain's point of view and still have it work. Your villain shouldn't exist only to block the hero's efforts. They should have their own set of conflicting goals that they are trying to achieve.
--What is your villain's heart's desire?
-- How is your hero standing in the way of her achieving that?
-- Was there a pivotal moment that made him what he is?
--Is there a love or weakness that makes her more human?

You should know your villain's backstory, but make careful choices about how much you share with the reader. More back story often makes a villain more sympathetic, which can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how you intend to deal with your villain in the end. Villains who grow and change (or who are revealed to not be the villains we thought they were) are often redeemed, those who don't are defeated somehow. Is your villain a Draco Malfoy, for whom we will ultimately have some empathy, or a Voldemort who is irredeemable?

There are essentially three levels of villains in YA: I think of them as villainous nesting dolls.

Personal villains: (peers, on the same level as the protagonist. Mean girls and bullies, etc. Draco Malfoy, Clarice from the Ares cabin, other tributes in Hunger Games.)

Authority figures: Teachers, parents, Snape, Umbridge, the games makers.

Big Bad: Sometimes a powerful being, (The Titan Kronos, Voldemort) but often an abstract concept, a system of oppression, an evil organization. Often the protag has to confront something in himself in order to defeat the Big Bad. The transition to fighting the Big Bad rather than fighting lower level villains is often a "This is bigger than all of us" moment - for example, that moment in Catching Fire when Haymitch tells Katniss to remember who her enemy is. That's the shift between fighting the personal villains (the other tributes) and understanding that the real villain is the bigger system.)

Many series work through the three levels of villains, having the hero graduate to a new weight class of villains with each book: First book's main conflict may be with peers, book two takes on a higher authority, book three confronts a larger system, a super powerful villain, or something abstract within the hero herself. Obviously, you don't have to follow that pattern, but it helps in terms of upping the stakes. The Big Bad is almost always defeated, or there is a strong implication that it will be. Lower level villains are often redeemed and even become allies (Clarice in the Percy Jackson books). Some of the most interesting heroes are former villains! (And note that we're seeing a trend of villains as main characters - everything from Wicked to Maleficent.)

Something else to keep in mind:

Does your villain serve as a foil for your hero?

A foil is a character who has traits that are opposite those of another character. The contrast between the two points up qualities of each of them.

Foils don't have to be antagonistic to each other. Best friend can often be foils (Jessica's social nature is meant to be contrasted to Bella's shyness.)  In an opposite-attract type romance, a couple may serve as foils for each other. In a classic love triangle, the girl is choosing between two very different guys - Jacob as a foil for Edward - who represent different options or futures - stay human, or become a vampire. Parents make natural foils (Bella's responsible nature contrasted with her mom's flakiness.) Siblings are natural foils - think Katniss and Prim. Ron's family acts as a foil to the Dursley's - we wouldn't fully appreciate the cold, unloving nature of  Privet Drive if we couldn't contrast it with The Burrow.

When creating foils, don't just think in terms of how they are opposite, but also look at how they are the same because it's that commonality that invites readers to compare them. Katniss and Prim are foils, but the fact that they are sisters, and even the subtle fact that they are both named after plants, puts them in the same box in the reader's mind and invites them to compare. Four and Erik in Divergent are both trainers for Dauntless, but with radically different approaches. Harry and Voldemort are foils, but J.K. Rowling gives them a ton in common: both orphans, Harry speaks parcel tongue, the sorting hat almost put Harry in Slytherin, etc. She uses their similarities to point up the important theme of free will. There is the feeling that Harry could have been Voldemort, if he had made different choices.

One last thing re: villains and antagonists: parents are often antagonists in YA. (That's often a difference between YA and middle grade). They might actively be villains, but more likely they are antagonists by virtue of being authority figures who set limits on your hero. This can be a huge advantage in some stories, if it gives your protag something to work against, but it can sometimes hobble your protag too much.

Or, conversely, helpful grown-ups can make things too easy. There's no plot if Dumbledore solves all the problems and Harry goes home to Sirius every summer. Powerful grown-ups take too much out of the characters' hands.

Four Ways to Kill the Grown-Ups!

1) Actually kill them. YA is full of orphans.
2) Set your story away from home. (Camp Half-Blood, Hogwarts, the Hunger Games)
3) Give the grown-ups issues.  Make them workaholics, self involved, immature or estranged. Give them mental health issues. (Katniss and Bella flip the roles and take care of their moms. Percy's powerful parent is a god who doesn't intervene.)
4) Abduct the grown-ups. (This is usually a middle grade move, but Cassandra Clare abducts Clary's mom. Percy's mom in the first book is sort of abducted and killed at the same time.)

There's a moment in the Deathly Hallows movie when the kids first arrive at Sirius' house. Hermione casts a spell to make anyone who is there reveal themselves. When no one does, she says "We're alone" and it's a weighted moment because there's a deeper meaning. The powerful moments in YA are often the moments when we realize "We're all in this together" and when we realize "We're in this alone."

WRITING EXERCISE  Write a letter from the point of view of the villain in your story. Choose someone specific to address it to - the hero, an authority figure, etc. Explain why you do the things you do in the story. If you don't have a wip, choose a book you know or a fairy tale, etc.

 Have fun with it!


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