A Writer's Journey

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

Maya Angelou

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Wednesday: The Handy Book of Villainous Dialogue

Today's Writing Wednesday post was inspired by one of my critique partners, Lori, and some very well-worded critique for a recent chapter I had just gotten back (the title above was also a brainchild of hers and it was too awesome not to use *shifty eyes*). Anyhow, jumping right in.

One of the danger zones when fleshing out characters is the overuse of cliches and cliche-like dialogue. The heroes talking like heroes, the damsel in distress talking like damsels in distress, and the villains talking like, well, the villains. *laughs* This creates a one-layered depth to the character - something that would either:
a) incite some eye-rolling from the reader
b) make them stop reading completely because the characters seem so predictable or
c) wonder what the hell they're still doing reading something that feels like it's been overdone loads of times when they could be watching the new episode of True Blood instead.

All those aforementioned things = BAD

So how do you, as a writer, break those cliches so that your characters are multidimensional? Maybe insert a scene where the main antagonist shows a weakness that might make the reader sympathetic to their cause or to them in general? Or how about a quirk or a past indiscretion in the main character that isn't so heroic or even likable?

For example, instead of the hero jumping in to save the someone from a fire and then coming out unscathed with that heroic glow and ta-da! pose, they can stumble inside, maybe break a limb or two, go into a dialogue or monologue scene where their fears and anxieties would be displayed for all to see, and then stagger out after having saved whoever they were jumping in there to save. And holy cow, that was a long sentence. *laughs* Anyway, I digress. But you get the point, right?

Let me share the little snippet that got this train of thought rolling (and also made me snort out coffee that I was drinking at the time *glares at Lori for making me laugh while liquids were in my presence*):

"It is you who shall burn. Your God cannot save you once the Great Three have been awakened." William’s expression was triumphant, his sneer revealing long canines. "The time has come for a new order."

Don't laugh. Okay, I did, but yeah, don't laugh. *wiggles an accusing finger at all the laughing people* I already knew this was going to get some heat from my awesomesauce CPs just because of the very fact that I pictured a very sinister-looking, mustache-twirling cliche villain when I wrote this. Granted, this snippet was an excerpt from my first draft, but still. That character - SO not the sinister-looking, mustache-twirling cliche villain. At least not conceptually. But the way he came out on paper gave him that air of "one-layered dimension" and I can see how it would make someone blurt out "OMG, did he really just say THAT?". *crickets*

Moral of the story? Try to think out of the box. The villains don't have to all be completely evil and the heroes don't have to all be completely good. There's a battle between good and evil in all people (in my humble opinion) and that should show in all characters in some form or another. Which means, actions AND dialogue. I always try to read back dialogue out loud just to see how it sounds outside of my brain, but I do have my moments when the cliches sneak in there all stealthy and ninja-like. It's especially hard when you're trying to show that part of a character that marks them as either the protag or antag without going full out cliche.

How do you feel about dialogue cliches and have you ever caught yourself writing them?

And now for our regularly-scheduled pretty...


  1. Great post. I don't give away the villain until the last 1/3...and I do try to maintain a natural person about them.
    In reality, nasty people don't act like the crazed villain we see in some movies, no, they are very callous and calculating.

    So, that's my approach.

    Make them shrewd, and keep them crude.

    Great post.

  2. hahaha, I love this post. *is biased* I tell you like it is b/c I know you can handle it, and I know you can do better! I can't wait to see the next draft *_*

  3. Very cool post! And yes, this is extremely important an issue to take care of. And if I can add my own spin here...

    Recently, I've been reading writing tip posts and articles about making your protagonist "likeable." I looked at a WIP of mine that I'd completed (busy editing and such), and noticed the beginning pegged the main protagonist as a bit too angsty and perhaps not that likeable, at least before he starts showing more positive qualities. Then I realized...later, he ends up being a fairly major antagonist. Does he need to be that likeable? Same with other characters around him. They're supposed to be likeable, aren't that much, but have some redeeming qualities. It was then...that I kinda stopped worrying.

    As for dialogue, you're absolutely right. It shouldn't be typical hero-speak, villain-speak. When I was in high school, I'd write a story and the bad guy would actually "laugh hysterically" after making some reaching threat. I'm pretty sure a few of my old stories actually feature "ha ha ha HAHAHAHAAAA!" in their dialogue somewhere. Ashamed? Oh yeah, a little, ;-) Granted, my bad guys usually come through on their threats, which is more than most villains can say (as they're usually thwarted before the big terrible event comes to pass), but that doesn't mean they're made any cooler by cackling during a boiler plate moment.

    I mean, those kinds of dialogue lines are like laugh tracks in a sitcom. Place hysterical cackling here. Place threat here. Retort from hero here.

    Stuff like that needs to have some originality to it. Then again, occasional characters speaking that way make some bit of sense. Just need to put it all through a filter and see what really works and is unique and special, :-D

  4. I think the easiest way to make your villain more rounded is to show WHY they want to, say take over the world.

    The bad guy who just wants to take over the world sucks. But if all of a sudden you show that he wants to take over the world BECAUSE he feels that it's the only way to make sure all kittens find a good home, then you have a round bad guy.

  5. I had a related, interesting problem. My protagonist is an assassin (not very heroic, tough gig to get reader sympathy) and so is the antagonist (OK, easier to hate) BUT the protagonist's original motivation is saving the antagonist's life (because she doesn't know he is a bad guy) so I had to find a way to make them both likeable, but him actually evil. Maybe I should just shut up now and stop complaining since I at least didn't have the problems you've mentioned in your post ;-) Quit while I'm ahead, so to speak...

  6. I love this. It's very true that no 'evil' character or person really believes they're evil. As writers, we have to show that they think they're in the right. Not easy to do!

  7. LOL, I love that bit of dialogue. So deliciously over the top, but I guess that's not what you were going for? Haha. Great points here, and yes, I definitely fall into the same trap.

    Also, how do you have such an endless supply of pretty? There are so many!

  8. Hahaha! Awesome post! And so true. As I am figuring out my villain for my next WIP, I so needed to hear this. I love me a well-fleshed out villain.

  9. In my opinion as a reader this is the most important aspect of anything more than a short story (6k words). I want to see the characters as human (regardless their race). I want ot be able to identify with the bad guys ad well as the good guys.

    Growing up I love Batman more than Superman because Batman wasn't perfect. In fact I hated Superman - he was too good, too heroic.

    You spelled this out perfectly!

  10. Such a great post! Love visiting your blog!

    Lola x

  11. Great post! Excellent breakdown. It's very true. We can't allow any of our characters, good or bad, to be one-dimensional.

    And I'm here from Lori's blog, and am now your newest follower, so:

    Nice to meet you!

  12. Hi, Anime! I'm here from Lori's blog. Writing believable dialogue can be so tricky. Good thing we're allowed as many revisions as we need, LoL! You make great points here. Thanks for the breakdown!

  13. I'm glad you all liked the post! LOL I HAD to blurb about the subject because Lori's comment seriously made me think "twirly-mustache with maniacal laughter" kind of villain, which William is SO completely not. *laughs*

    OH! And welcome new followers! *waves* :D