Writing Excuses 7.29: The Villain Problem

The villain problem, as we define it here at the beginning of the ‘cast, is when the heroes are less proactive than the villain, when they spend most of the book doing little more than reacting to the cool things the villains do. It’s one reason that villains are often more interesting, more memorable, than the protagonists against whom they face off. The villain steals the show.

So we talk about how to offset this. There are lots of tools available — focusing on the hero’s passions, giving the protagonist an internal conflict independent of anything coming from the villain’s plotting, and building a solid acceptance of the “call to action” fairly early in the story.

Halfway through we arrive at the conclusion that the villain problem isn’t actually a problem with the villain. It’s a hero problem, and that’s probably the key piece you need to come up with a solution for your book.


Take a hero and give him a hobby, and something alive that he loves.

Imager, the first book of the Imager Portfolio, by L.E. Modesitt Jr, narrated by William Dufris

18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.29: The Villain Problem”

  1. Great podcast guys, and definitely applicable to my current novel WIP, which I’m hopefully over 1/3 through writing. My solution to the “villain problem” has been to keep the villain and the hero mostly separate. They don’t know about each other, and each of them has different things they struggle with, and only occasionally have the actions of the villain impacted upon the hero, but when they do it’s a major impact. The main difference up to this point has been that the villain has been more successful in taking control of his life while the hero hasn’t, but in the scene I just wrote the hero finally stops running from his destiny and starts taking control because he’s realized he can’t fight it so he’s going to be prepared for it.

    I will keep the other strategies mentioned in mind though, either for use later in my current WIP or for later projects.

    Oh, and that scene with Mal in the Train Job is one of events that showed to me that Firefly was going to be very different from what I’d seen before. I was enjoying the show up to that point, but the engine kick is what solidified my Firefly fandom.

  2. One thing that came to mind while listening is the Black Jewels books by Anne Bishop. They’re quite dark and gruesome at times, so be warned if you haven’t read them before.

    I’ve always found them fascinating because, to me, the villains are a wonderful example of how to give characters their own definitive viewpoint. The villains are constantly plotting things, and then we see the results of those plots right away. And the heroes suffer, they get hurt, there are losses. One of the recurring motifs is ‘Everything has a price’, meaning that if you want something, you must sacrifice for it. And the good guys go through a lot of emotional trauma. But the thing is, the villains usually lose because they underestimate the good guys… because they just cannot fundamentally understand how the good guys think. They have no honour, for instance, so they think that the heroes are only pretending to be honourable.

    And how this all relates to the podcast is that even though there are plots and potholes and reacting to those things, it’s all interspersed with the good guys basically just trying to live their lives. There’s no grand quest or anything like that, just people with a lot of issues and quirks and surprises just trying to get by.

  3. It seems you do not get enough feedback – not here anyway.
    So, nice work team – I’m once again inspired.

    Thank you.

  4. In military terms it is called “taking the initiative” where the goal is for your side to be the primary actor and have the enemy react to your moves. My second book definitely had this problem (the villain was very charismatic). I solved it by having the Hero/Villain go tit-for-tat. The Villain did something, the Hero would react, the Hero would do something, the Villain would react.

    In my current WiP, the villains quick off the action, but as the book progresses, the initiative (in a narrative as well as military sense) shifts to the protagonists.

  5. I will highlight this issue with a “highly poetic” limerick.

    I have this darn villain who took
    the spotlight and was the stories real hook
    I screamed at the laptop “oh damn!!”
    You see my story’s main man
    wasn’t as cool as the crook

    Take care people

  6. I can’t help thinking that a hero really could be all about “I want to beat the bad-guy”. It would just be a slightly more anti-hero sort of motivation. And, of course, the hero would have to really want it:
    Scene 5: Hero plans contingencies.
    Scene 6: Hero goes out and buys needed upgrades.
    Scene 12: Hero surfs the web, looking for info to use in planning. By his earlier planning, the Hero uses six proxy servers (just in case the villain tries to predict his moves from his internet queries) and changing them between every half-dozen queries (to avoid setting off a query trap, like poor Ennesby).
    Scene 17: Hero gets together with a group of allies to discuss defeating the villain. Halfway through, the Hero realizes that someone there is a Mole. So, he uses protocol M36 (which he made up in scene 5) to not only prevent the Mole from discovering useful information, but to figure out exactly who the Mole is!
    Scene 23: Hero finally has the epic showdown with the Villain. Xanatos Speed Chess. Hopefully, the Hero at least doesn’t lose too badly. But even if/when he seems to be going to, he pulls an obscure contingency plan out of his back pocket and at least averts catastrophe. The end.

    Also, I’d like to note that “stay hidden, watching for threats” could possibly count as an opening Protagonist move… a rather passive one, but one that could put them in a great place to deal with incoming Villains…

    @Aaron: LOL!

  7. Great ‘cast, all.

    When you were talking about Indiana Jones, something occured to me. While he is exceptionally competent in what he does – whether recovering idols or teaching classes – he isn’t necssarily fighting against the villains. Usually Nazis. Well… the best villains are the Nazis.

    But this led me to a question: in an adventure story like Indiana Jones, is it as important to have a strong villain? In this case, the Nazis don’t play a role that is as active. We know they’re out there somewhere trying to get the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail before Indy, and they pop up once in a while to burn down a building. Or sign Sean Connery’s diary… To boil it down: is it better to have a good villain keep popping up in an adventure story like this, or is it better to have them more in the background so that we can focus on the protagonists?

  8. Interesting comments about “the cop on the edge” – it isn’t just from the 70’s, Noir detective stories followed this concept back in the 30’s!

  9. I’m not sure if I’m the only one with this problem, but Mary’s voice sound a little to soft at times, not only in this episode, but I usually have to turn the volume up to hear her properly.

    I love this podcast. Keep the great work =)

  10. All of these episodes were recorded months ago. There is, unfortunately, nothing we can do about the levels now.

    My voice will continue being soft until we’ve gotten through all the things we recorded in that session. Sorry, gang.

  11. Twirling his waxed black handlebar mustache, Snidely pushed back his black hat and laughed as he tied the frail young thing to the train tracks. “Your hero will never save you, because he’s listening to horse opera down at the riverside on his iPhone!”

    In the meantime, while we’re waiting for the midnight express to squash the frail young thing, a transcript for your enjoyment. Did you ever think how hard it must be to keep all that black clean? Maybe that’s the real villian’s problem?


  12. A little late for the party, but wanted to add a little to the discussion. The last point made, about showing the hero having a life away from his quests, illustrates exactly why Perrin has always been my favorite character in the Wheel of Time series. Throughout the series he keeps saying “I’m not a lord/fighter/whatever, I’m a blacksmith.” His devotion to the normalcy of simple, every life (and his passion for his wife, something else that is mentioned in the podcast) keeps him grounded and connected to me as a reader in a way that the other heroes in the series aren’t.

    My two favorite scenes from the series, in fact, are the ones where Perrin is at a forge smithing–one in Tear, I think, in The Dragon Reborn, when the blacksmith gives him his hammer when the work is done, then in Towers of Midnight, when he forges his Power-forged weapon. Both scenes show him at his craft–not fighting or ruling, but being Perrin the blacksmith. Again, that’s something the other heroes really don’t get to do, and it sets Perrin apart and makes him a more complete character and a more compelling hero, I think.

  13. Stephen King’s “The Dark Half” comes to mind: it is just that kind of story where the protagonist is bland, compared to foxy old George Stark. Doesn’t stop it at all from being a terrific read.

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