James Patterson MasterClass on Writing Tidbits [Part 3]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss by the Bloodhound Gang)

This will be a short one, because I don’t have too much to say about it; it’s completely new to me.

Today in the MasterClass lesson, James Patterson was talking about writing good characters, and he said something really insightful about villains. He was talking about how, in the final scene of Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal intimates that he’s going to kill and eat the prison warden, the audience kind of cheers for him – roots for him, almost. And then he said something along the lines of, “The ethics and morals of the readers fall away if they’re really digging the villain.”

I’ve definitely had issues with writing villains before. I remember a conversation or two with Ram about new ideas I had for villains where they were absolute pieces of human filth – literally the worst people I could think of. And he would look at me and say, “Dude, no. No one can get behind that.”

The thing is, there are definitely villains you can hate fully and completely – that’s what, to me, Big Nurse/Nurse Ratchet is in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But not every villain can be that way – and in many writers’ opinions, the best villains are the ones that, at a certain point, you might empathize with and root for.

Hence Hannibal. Here’s a dude who’s a vicious, clever, utterly insane cannibal – and yet we’re on his side because he’s just that good of a character. In a way, he reflects the more horrific sides of ourselves.

So I’m trying to think of villains that are people first and foremost – people who take a character flaw and drive it a little too far into the bounds of ‘evil’, if I can put such a black-and-white word on it. Those timeless villains like Hannibal, or the Joker from Batman, are so exciting because they’re so deliciously complex, just a broken-mirror image of what we could be if we were pushed a bit too far.

This is also arguably what made the Inheritance series not super great – all the time, Galbatorix was just this intangible, all-powerful, definitely evil foe which Eragon had to work towards, and in the end he beat him and we were all like “Well, yeah. Good for you, Eragon.”

So right now (SPOILER ALERT!) I’m working on a book in which one of the main characters, whom you meet as just another person, slowly develops over the course of the book into a villain, and their friends – the ones they grew up with throughout the book – are the ones facing the villain in the end. Kind of a reverse Zuko thing. I’ll see how it goes and let you all know what I find!

Until then, toodles.

Yours, villainously,

-R.R. Buck

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4 thoughts on “James Patterson MasterClass on Writing Tidbits [Part 3]

  1. Villains are interesting. They’re just characters who haven’t had their stories told yet. I too am writing a novel (though I’m not currently working on it, but I have half an outline written) where the protagonist is the antagonist. It’ll be fun.

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