We have all been told to write about what we know when starting out as writers. This is a helpful suggestion as we learn best by describing what we can see and have experience with before venturing into new worlds. It is also useful to apply this concept to the creation of memorable villains and obstacles who must feel like they are “real” in order to effectively generate enough conflict to create a compelling story. When I teach writing at New York University, or to private students, I always emphasize that we must write not only about what we know, but also about whom we know (including ourselves) because the practice of successful imagining of character also requires a basis of truth.
Most of us have had people in our lives that have interfered with our desires. Making a list of the ones that upset or angered you can become the biggest goldmine you possess. Once you have created this list, creating a story becomes easier because the hero or heroine is often trying to keep their lives on track, and is not initially active. The villain or obstacle often must provoke your protagonist to action. For example, in the film, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is quietly going about her life until Miss Gulch “arrests” Toto and threatens to have him destroyed. Without Miss Gulch, there would be no story!
While creating a villain or obstacle is fairly simple conceptually, as a practical matter, it is often difficult, as we must confront those darker aspects of ourselves. We are programmed from birth to avoid conflict and avoid dealing with it. For a writer, to do this is creative death, so we must find the courage to deal with the “dark side” of things if we are going to be effective storytellers.
I counsel writers to borrow from the Actor’s Craft, and to ask ourselves how we would honestly react if we were faced with the conflicts we present to our imaginary characters. We all have many facets to our personalities, and even the kindest and gentlest of us can react with anger and even violence if sufficiently provoked. The long and short of it is: If you can be honest with yourself, you can write a much better story.
You can do this easily in the following two ways: The first is to ask yourself when, if ever, you have behaved in a less than perfect manner, then take that moment and exaggerate it until it becomes large enough for a movie.
For example, a friend of mine, a mild-mannered college professor was bullied when he was in grammar school because he wore thick glasses. One day he was cornered in gym class by a bully, and when threatened, punched his tormentor in the jaw. He knocked his oppressor down, and almost broke his jaw! His assessment of his experience was “We will all defend ourselves when cornered.” I agree! Most of us have had an experience or two that forced us to act in less than a desirable way. By owning and accepting these memories, you will have a simple technique for creating not only a great villain or obstacle, but also a way to enhance the climax of the story. Again, using our example, it would be easy to imagine an exciting climax where a nerdy boy punches out a bully, and how that incident could be expanded into a commercially viable script or book.
To recap this first technique, identify a moment in your own life where you were in danger, and gauge how you reacted. Then extrapolate the situation until it becomes large enough for your current story.
The other technique is to use a real person from your past as the basis of the character of your villain or obstacle. Identify key aspects of the person who threatened you and build the character based on what you remember. For example, I often create villains and obstacles with Eastern European accents because I once had a math teacher who tormented his students in Geometry class.
In another example, one of my students wrote an entire draft of a screenplay with no discernable villain or obstacle. She could not get hold of a character who would force her heroine to act. Finally, when I asked her who was had created a problem in her life, she immediately remembered a recent colleague who consistently missed deadlines and had gotten her into trouble at work (I think it would be safe to imagine the creator of Office Space had a similar colleague or boss). My student was then able to create a good obstacle for her story using this annoying co-worker’s physical characteristics. As a side benefit, the third act climax, which had been weak, was improved by the creation of a new deadline that was missed.
To recap the second technique, remember someone who created problems in your own life and use them as the basis for a villain or obstacle. As a bonus, identify the nature of the conflict you had with them, and see if adding a version of it helps improve the climax of your story.
In conclusion, it is easy to create effective villains and obstacles by calling upon your own life experiences, and further this is a key step in the creation process because our protagonists are often trying to maintain the status quo, not change it. Without change there is no conflict.
Copyright © 2013 Marilyn Horowitz
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