10 Questions to Ask Your Villain

There are so many potential motivations and complexities when creating a villain, it can be easy to get caught up in evil and not have enough true character development. To make the process simpler, here are some questions to establish parameters. Each question can be explored more deeply for the “why” behind the answer. Try going for an instinctive “yes” or “no” or a one-word answer, then take the time to explore the questions you struggled with and the ones you were surprised about.

  1. Does s/he want money?
  2. Does s/he want fame? 
  3. Does s/he want power or control? 
  4. Does s/he want revenge? 
  5. Does s/he act out of love or passion? 
  6. Did s/he have a traumatic or difficult childhood? 
  7. Does s/he enjoy the suffering of others, or does s/he view it as a sacrifice that must be made to achieve the end goal?
  8. What relationships has s/he had—past and present (family, friends, lovers, children etc.)? Bonus: How have these relationships pushed them towards evil?
  9. Has s/he ever lost a loved one?
  10. Why does your villain believe that s/he’s right?

Few villains believe that what they’re doing is wrong (if they’re fully aware of the immorality of their actions, there must be a reason they decide it’s worth the outcome). They’re strongly motivated to achieve an end goal, so deciding that goal will be the most important launching pad to answer these questions. That goal may be straightforward–kill the hero, establish a new world order, rid the world of imperfection, etc.–or it may be more convoluted and personal. The villain doesn’t need to understand their own motivation, but the reader should be able to glimpse that sliver of underlying truth.

Write hard.

Be evil.


9 Young Adult Novels to Fall in Love With

These are books that I’ve re-read (in some cases way too many times) and serve as a constant inspiration for what I want my writing to be like. My list of favorites extends beyond this, but these are the basics that I would recommend for anyone who’s hungry for a fun read. These are suitable for the middle school to high school reading range.

Princess Bride by William GoldmanPrincess Bride

If you’re looking for… well-crafted characters, adventure, humor, and suspense.

As great as the movie is, the book is even better. Goldman sets up a frame narrative in which he is “shortening” the work of his fictionalized author, S. Morgenstern. This allows for some really entertaining interludes, as well as some beautiful side-stories and scenes that are omitted in the film. The best parts are the backstories of Fezzik and Inigo that he writes in depth, as well as the journey into the Zoo of Death (which was replaced with the comparatively dull Pit of Despair in the movie). The plot of this book is great, but more importantly, the characters are endearing, and the writing itself is humorous and imaginative.

Super WhatSuper WHAT? By Jax Abbot

If you’re looking for…a quirky narrator, a good laugh, a fun take on superheroes, and a cute romance.

This is my greatest literary discovery of all time, and I found this little paperback in a used bookstore in Colorado. I’ve never met anyone else who has heard of it, which is why I’m so eager to share it with everyone I can. It centers around spunky 15-year-old Jessie, the daughter of two superheroes, whose powers don’t kick in until she’s in the middle of class (if you like Sky High, this is in that same genre). She has to learn to deal with her powers, make friends at a new school, and decide which boy is the one she wants to go to the dance with. Corny? Yes. Loveable? Definitely.

cinderCinder (and sequels) by Marisa Meyer

If you’re looking for…an engaging series with adventure, a strong protagonist, and a refreshing take on old stories.

This is the perfect blend of science-fiction and fantasy. It’s set in a science-fiction world of technology, but is a retelling of the fairy tale Cinderella. Cinder is a very enjoyable central character; she’s strong but reserved (she’s neither shy and insecure, like many heroines, nor overly-willful and defiant). Her love-interest, Prince Kai, is very likable. She has a fantastic friend, her android Iko, that is also really fun to read. I loved seeing how Meyer incorporated some of the aspects of the story (like the pumpkin carriage) into the sci-fi setting. This series, The Lunar Chronicles, now has four books, each centering on a different fairy tale. They are interwoven beautifully and make for really engaging reads.

Princess of the midnight ballPrincess of the Midnight Ball (and sequels) by Jessica Day George

If you’re looking for…a magical fairy tale, an endearing romance, and an engaging plot.

This is a very beautifully-written retelling of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” that’s told from the perspectives of the Galen (the boy who discovers the princesses’ secret) and the eldest princess, Rose. I absolutely loved this interpretation of a beloved fairy tale that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should have. The King Under Stone and his court added so much to this story. This is the perfect example of fairytale retelling that maintains that fantastical, magical feel in the medieval setting.

Her website is a lot of fun if you enjoy her books and want to see what she says about writing them. http://www.jessicadaygeorge.com/

GracelingGraceling by Kristen Cashore

If you’re looking for…plot twists, adventure, suspense, and excitement.

I thoroughly enjoyed this fantasy novel that, in a way, re-interpreted superpowers in a medieval setting. Katsa is a strong heroine to follow. Po, the love interest, provides humor and adds tension to Katsa’s plotline. The plot is what really gets me, though; some of the scenes create vivid memories that I can remember even now, years after reading it. It’s exciting and suspenseful; even though the setting and characters are interesting, this really is primarily an adventure built on a fascinating premise.

princess diariesThe Princess Diaries (series) by Meg Cabot

If you’re looking for…a lighthearted read with lots of laughs, a relatable narrator, great characters, an engaging romance.

I absolutely adore Mia’s voice in this series. The Disney movies totally underrate how funny this main character is. Also, her relationship with Michael is developed so much better and is so much more romantic. Lily is a lot of spunky fun, Grandmere is so not Julie Andrews…This one nails comedy and internal conflict. Mia is so awkward and relatable and hilarious–she makes the whole book a fantastic reading experience.

isle of swordsIsle of Swords by Wayne Thomas Batson

If you’re looking for…adventure, pirates, suspense, and a subtle Christian message.

Frankly, there are not enough pirate novels out there (not for young adults, anyway). This book (and its sequel) are really exciting adventures that manage to be funny and dark at once, with an unexpected Christian theme in the mix. The characters are spunky and hilarious.

Batson’s Door Within trilogy and Dreamtreaders books are also fantastic, although they’re closer to the elementary-middle school reading range. Check him out at http://enterthedoorwithin.blogspot.com/

BeastlyBeastly by Alex Flinn

If you’re looking for…an original fairytale retelling, an intriguing male narrator,  and a mix of humor and serious character development.

Really great novel with a dislikeably likable guy main character (dislikeable because he really is a jerk to start out with, but you’re rooting for him to change and he does). It has some interludes with an online chat group which makes for an entertaining structure.

Whatever you do, do NOT judge this book by its movie… I very much appreciated that Kyle actually looked like a beast (fur, fangs, claws, the whole deal) instead of lamely just being tatted up.

tattooTattoo by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

If you’re looking for…a quick, lighthearted read with the right amount of magic.

This book is fast and fun. There are four best friends (who are all quirkily distinct from one another) who get superpowers from temporary tattoos and find themselves caught up in a Sidhe mystery. I thought it was intriguing how Barnes explored this little-known category of mythology to bring a fresh take on both fantasy and superpower genres. The characters are a hoot, and even though it’s corny and overdone at times, it’s a relaxing read. There is a sequel, Fate, which isn’t quite as good, but expands the whole Sidhe plotline.

Honorable mentions:

don't expect magic Wicked Jealousmaze runnerfairy bad day

Mary Sues

My first fanfiction was set in the world of the movie Sky High, and my main character was a girl named Lorena who had every superpower that I could think to give her. She was gorgeous, shy, modest, sweet, and was in total control of…everything. And she managed to turn a total jerk (Lash, if you’ve seen the movie) into a nice guy just by making him fall in love with her.

Oh, but don’t worry—she had a severe facial scar. Because that clearly redeemed her.

When I first heard the term “Mary Sue,” I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as a character who was too perfect. In case you haven’t heard the term, the first definition that pops up in google is this: “A Mary Sue is an original character in fanfiction, usually but not always female, who for one reason or another is deemed undesirable by fan critics. A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters.” In other words, someone who a) couldn’t exist in real life and b) you would hate if they did.

Of course, one of the most important things to mention is that Mary Sues—since they’re original characters—can exist in fanfiction or original fiction. They’re easy to spot in fanfiction since there’s a pre-established world, but they’re just as annoying in original stories too.

So when my friend, in all niceness, called Lorena a Mary Sue, my defenses certainly came up. After all, why wouldn’t I have a character who was exactly who I wanted to be? And why wouldn’t other people enjoy reading about her?

The truth that you’ve probably discovered in reading but may not be aware of in your writing is that readers like a character with flaws. You want a relatable protagonist, not an idealized one. So if you’re like me and instinctively want to smooth out your characters’ rough edges, here are some tips:

  • APPEARANCE: Make your character’s appearance average—perhaps admirable or attractive, but not the kind that draws attention from everyone they pass
  • PERSONALITY: If your character has a really good character trait—say, they’re just really kindhearted and good—you have to balance that out. You can do that two ways: 1. They have a flaw that contrasts that trait, like the tendency to lie to make people feel better, or 2. That good trait goes overboard and causes more problems (eg: they’re really nice to someone who turns out to be a murderer and inadvertently encourages them to kill people).
  • ABILITIES: If they’re good at something, make them really good at one, maybe two things, OR moderately good at a handful of things. They have to have a specialty and then be weaker in everything else.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: In relationship to other characters: give them some enemies and/or people who are just indifferent towards them. They can have good friends and love interest(s), but not everyone should fawn over them.

One of the greatest resources I’ve come across to help process the concept of Mary Sues is this online “litmus test”: http://www.springhole.net/writing/marysue.htm. Just to give you an overview of what to expect, the test asks questions about your character’s physical appearance, powers (physical or supernatural abilities), effect on other characters, and personality. Even if you haven’t created an Original Character yet, this detailed list will give you an excellent idea of what to avoid. It was a real shock for me when I put Lorena through the litmus test and she scored way above the minimum in order to be considered a Mary Sue.

If you’re just learning about Mary Sues and discovering you have a tendency to write them, don’t worry. You might feel a little defensive at first; I certainly did. But character development requires a different and new skill-set than writing in general. You can be an excellent writer who happens to be creating Mary Sues right now. However, now that you’re able to evaluate how your character ranks on this Mary Sue scale, you can see qualities that you can change and enhance to create a more likeable, believable character.

How Writing Fanfiction Can Help You Create Better Original Fiction

I am a huge supporter of writing fanfiction. Fanfiction can be an end in itself if you use it to explore characters in new ways and extend your stay in the fictional world. However, it’s also an invaluable tool in developing your writing abilities with the intention of using them for original fiction. It gives you a chance to practice your writing without the pressure of creating a world from scratch.

My tips for getting the most out of your fanfiction:

  1. Create an original character (OC) as your protagonist. It’s one thing to get into the mind of a character that someone else created (which you can definitely do with your secondary characters), but it’s an invaluable skill to create your own character and get to know him/her. See my post on Mary Sues as well.
  2. Speaking of secondary characters…use them! Secondary characters are underdeveloped to make way for the main characters, so they provide you with a perfect chance to write backstory and explain how they came to be who they are. They can be a lot of fun for your OC to interact with.
  3. Do what you can to change the plot of the canon world.
    1. If you’re setting your story in the time line of the movie/book/show/etc., what impact will your OC have to change events? You can explore secondary characters in the story to get their side of things, giving readers “bonus” scenes and background material.
    2. If possible, try creating an original plot within the world you’ve chosen. For example, I have written fictionalized episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. I use the pre-existing characters and setting, and I use the established template for an episode to create an original plot. This gives me the opportunity to practice creating the kind of stories I love watching.
  4. If you’re just writing this for yourself or other fans, you don’t have to start from scratch by describing setting or objects (eg: in Star Trek, describing the different technologies like tricorders and com badges). However, if you want practice describing settings and odd objects, go for it! This might give you some ideas for crafting your own world.
  5. This is the most important one: Use the same level of craftsmanship as you would with original fiction. Don’t get lazy because the world has already been created. You will gain nothing if you put a sloppy story together.

Because it’s fanfiction, there’s little to no possibility you could get paid for your writing—but that doesn’t mean you can’t get it out there for people to read. I highly recommend posting your work on fanfiction.net. It’s a great, safe site for reading and publishing fanfiction. This gives you a chance to get feedback on your writing from people who already love the world. It also gives you a great esteem-boost if your story gets a lot of views and comments. There’s lots of fanfiction out there, and lots of it isn’t great—so you’ll contribute a lot to the fandom community by creating a brilliant fanfiction story.