the good, the bad, and the ugly about the writing life

Villain 101: Making the Bad Girl Likeable–Part 1

knife_bloodOnce upon a time, I sent a query letter to an agent. The agent represented an author I loved who featured a full-figured, police officer based in New Orleans. This woman seemed the perfect agent for my plus-sized sleuth, Paulette Goddard.

Sadly, she wrote back that she found Paulette unlikable, so she didn’t want to represent that book. She did, however, offer to look at any other books I had that didn’t feature Paulette.

I’ve been living with Paulette for more than 20 years. I love her, but it can be tricky to help readers see beyond her smart mouth and bad attitude. She’s like the gumballs of my youth: hard on the outside with a soft center.

Enter Jessica Page Morrell and her fabulous book, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction (Writers Digest Book, 2008). She talks about bad guys as you expect, but she also gives a whole chapter to bitches—woman who flout convention.

According to Morrell, “For our purposes, a bitch might be an unlikable protagonist, an antagonist, an anti-hero, or a villain. … She is often empowered by anger, a need to survive, or self-fulfillment. She is typically dangerous to at least one vulnerable character in the story, and she can also be self-destructive or dangerous to herself. … You see, when a female bad ass is on the page, the contradictions of an angel or mother figure masking a demon or a woman with unusual powers makes for potent storytelling (p. 216).”

Morrell’s book came to my rescue on two levels: she helped me to see Paulette a little more clearly as an unlikable protagonist, and she helped me out with my villain who is also a woman.

It’s a writing truism that your bad guys need to have at least one good trait. My bad guy, Simone, had none. She was beautiful and brittle. Paulette doesn’t like her, but she’s attractive to men. I had to find something sympathetic about her without making her warm or fuzzy.

Check back later this week to see the BEFORE and AFTER of my Simone makeover.

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