I‘m reading Pillars of the Earth and, while it’s a good book, the writer is playing a cheap trick on me.
His villains are ugly. His heroes are handsome (or at least not blemished).
That’s a basic trick. I mentioned seeing it in Trapped, but that’s not the only place I’ve seen it lately. It’s a lazy way win points for your hero with the audience, and make your villains more villainous.
Really, come on – you have 400 pages, all sorts of room for development. Why rush to establish characters?
There are countless examples where this isn’t true – I can name Hunchback of Notre Dame for one – the hero is a bent freak. And in the Disney version, the villain is so perfect he’s in love with himself.
In Pillars, it’s so obvious I’m actually playing a game, guessing the alignment of new characters as they are described. And guess what? I’m batting a thousand. Way too predictable.
A better way was in Game of Thrones. There, Tyrion is an evil little dwarf with mismatched eyes and a sharp little tongue. He’s so nasty, Randy Newman’s song would be perfect theme music for him. But as the story progresses, the reader actually finds sympathy for the bad little man, recognizing what he’s done and why he’s done it. It is really quite a testament to good storytelling, to change the reader’s opinion over time.
Stephen R. Donaldson did this magnificently in The Real Story. This four-book set is worth your time if you don’t mind your convictions being bent into pretzels.
Look, you might be a writer but don’t be a petty little literary god, heaping blemishes, speech impediments, dandruff, pot bellies, facial scars (ugly ones, not sexy mysterious ones), rotten teeth, bad diction, and rank BO on your villains.
Instead, make them desirable. Make them sexy and urbane and cool. Dress them well, given them cool stuff to use, make them heroic. Then, blemish them with an off word here, a questionable action there. Then, just as your readers are starting to wonder, then you spring it on them. Imagine their shock as that perfectly intelligent ally has desires (dark desires) of his own. And he’s not afraid to use them.
If I wanted predicable characters, I’d watch a Pixar movie. If I’m reading, I want a full-spectrum challenge. Don’t disappoint me.