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Learning to Write Villains

In late 2017 the Garth Brooks Anthology Part 1 was released. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a massive Garth Brooks fan. If there is anything with Garth’s name on it around me, it’s mine. I learned to love the poetic form of storytelling through songs like “Lonesome Dove” and fell in love with the passionate beauty of “The Red Strokes.” I also learned key turn phrasing in songs like “What She’s Doing Now.” “I can hear her call each time a cold wind blows” has always been one of the most simple, yet most powerful song lyrics to me. The rise and fall of his voice matches the lyrics perfectly.

Essentially, a lot of what I learned from writing and storytelling form came from these songs. They fueled my imagination for those first ten or so years of writing and this anthology was no different. To be able to see the way “If Tomorrow Never Comes” is written on paper, and listen to how it was recorded was just mind boggling. To hear the stories and inspiration behind each lyric and song formation was breathtaking, and just like his music, I learned a lot of lessons from these stories about writing.

The most shocking revelation to me was “Burning Bridges,” another one of my favorite storytelling masterpieces. In the anthology, the writers discuss how and why they wrote the song. Garth originally wrote the song with his landlady, who also introduced him to his producer, Bob Doyle. The song starts out “Yesterday she thanked me for oiling that front door, this morning when she wakes up, she won’t be thankful anymore.”

Unlike most popular songs written for the heartbroken, “Burning Bridges” is declared THE song for leavers, those who do the heartbreaking or leave because they don’t know any other way. Garth says in the book, “I’d like to think the music of “Burning Bridges” comforted those people that were not stick-arounders, the people that burned bridges even though they didn’t mean to.”

In break ups, the person who leaves is often vilified, is often berated and belittled, but as Garth puts it “The people being left are better off than the person that can’t stay. Because at some point, the people being left are going to find that person they’re supposed to be with but the person that’s leaving all the time never will. And that, to me, makes the villain the victim.” In a  later paragraph, Garth goes on to tell the story of explaining the first line of the song to their drummer, a lyric that even I didn’t get until I read this book. “Mike saw it like oiling the door was a chore. For a while there he didn’t get it that until that front door didn’t squeak, he couldn’t leave without waking her up…”

I never thought about that song like this until reading the book. I always imagined the story unfolding with two lonely, single neighbors hooking up for one night. I never thought about the characters being an actual couple until reading this story and then the song took on a whole new meaning and in that new meaning I found a new character in story telling and new method of writing villains that will be explored in the next couple of blog posts. In the meantime, dear readers, what non-book writer has inspired your writing?

I don’t know about other writers, but one of my biggest struggles when writing is often crafting the narrative of the villain in a way that makes sense to the reader, but isn’t overtly evil. I know this is one of my issues because of the fact that it often comes up in writing editorials, beta reader comments and elsewhere. I’m not ashamed to admit this fact, nor am I ashamed to admit that I still struggle with this after almost fifteen years of writing. You’d think it’d get easier, but the villains are still my toughest subject.

A huge part of the problem for me is finding that origin dynamic, the single moment where the character becomes the villain and why and how this affects the story. I think a huge part of the problem is that I never truly related to the villain in any story and most villains in modern fiction seem to be incredibly vague to me. Especially writing high fantasy characters and bad guys/girls, it always seemed that the villain needed something otherworldly to make them the villain and that was something I usually missed.

However, in the lyrics from a song, I found a new interest in learning to work with writing villains. In less than 20 words, with the first line of the song the act of an everyday chore suddenly becomes the moment when an otherwise normal person becomes the villain of the worst kind.  It’s such a small act that takes less than five minutes out of a person’s day, but there it is. So simple. So easy.

From a paragraph in an anthology on country music I learned that being a villain, even in high fantasy, doesn’t have to be hard. Or extreme. Not every villain has to be a serial killer or war strung god. Sometimes the easiest answer is the best. For me, in a world where villains must have an excuse for being villains and readers look for the most drama around every corner, this took on a whole new life for me and I immediately began exploring the idea of using this in everyday fiction writing. Of course, it’ll be some time after this blog post  before I will be able to see if it is something the readers pick up on or enjoy, or if it even makes my writing of villains better, but it is a theory and test I’m willing to work with and try whenever possible.

And remember:
Say it with words.

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Maggie Chapman View All →

Writer. Reader. College student.

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