Developing Ideas: The Devil’s in the Details

Last time, I wrote about finding your villain. If you’re writing the kind of story that is mostly driven by the villain’s actions (as a lot of “plot” stories are), coming up with the villain is probably the first step in developing the specifics of your plot.

But just finding the character isn’t enough. You also have to figure out what they’re doing and why, because that’s your plot.

First I would look at the kind of story you want to tell. A murder mystery obviously requires a murder, so your villain killed someone for a reason and is now either covering it up (and continuing to kill?) or hiding from your hero’s detection somehow. An epic action plot requires epic action, which means larger scale crimes and violence as well as a larger scale goal to go with them. A political intrigue plot is going to be more subtle, revolving probably around backroom deals and betrayals and maybe a few mysterious murders, and your villain’s goal will have to be political somehow and their method will have to be more indirect.

I don’t want my story to be too plot-based, but for what plot there is, I’m looking more for “epic fantasy” type action. This means the villain’s goal has to be at least somewhat epic—robbing a single store could be a villain’s goal, but it isn’t very epic (it could definitely make for a taut and suspenseful story though, especially if the hero is the owner of the store and it’s his life).

I might start by looking at the world as a whole, because building a conflict based on the mechanics of the entire world is pretty epic. This is where you get your genocidal villains, as well as your politically-minded “take over the world” types if they have an ideological reason for doing so (if they just want the power/money of owning the world, it is less “world-based” because it could be any world). You might also look at the sources of power in your world, and how your villain might exploit or control them to gain the most power.

A villain who just wants power for its own sake can be believable, but I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. Maybe they already have power and they want to keep it by any means necessary. Maybe they have a personal reason for needing to feel powerful. Or maybe they have an ideological reason why they deserve more power than others, or about how they would use that power differently.

Here is, I think, the time when thoughts about a series sneak in. Do you want one villain for the entire series (like Voldemort)? Or do you want multiple villains—in which case should you “save” a more powerful villain for a later story?

If you feel confident thinking about a series, then go ahead and do some planning. But if, like me, you just need to focus on the one story in front of you as though it’s the only one that matters, then do that. Develop the best villain that you can think of, the most interesting and intense. After the first draft is done, you can look back and analyze how you want to move forward—maybe this villain is working for the greater villain, or maybe they are the series villain and they get away at the end (or at the beginning of the next).

More and more I’ve realized that the only way for me to write is to look at the story in front of me as if it’s the only thing I’ll ever write. That way, I’ll put everything I have into it, and leave nothing out. And then, as I move onto the next, I’ll do the same. It’s frightening because I’ve always been a planner, and I worry about being stuck at a later project wishing I could use something I’ve already done, but I have to trust that I’ll think of something new. My previous unsuccessful strategy has been planning and patience; my new strategy is spontaneity and trust.

So I’m going to use the particular set-up of my world (and the specific time period within that world) to derive the villain’s motivations. It might end up a bit cliché, maybe drawing on some conflicts that others have used for their own villains, but if it fits the world, themes, and characters that I’m working with, it’s worth using. At least for the first draft.

Once you know what your villain wants, try and get to the most specific iteration of that desire. If they want to “take over the world,” how do they plan to accomplish that? Impersonate the president? Corrupt world financial institutions until they control all the money? Hold the world hostage with nuclear bombs? Create a doomsday device that removes the atmosphere? Think about who your villain is as a character, but also think about what resources they have access to as well as how their role in society allows them to accomplish different things. It takes a lot of money and intelligence to create advanced technology; it takes a huge army (and the ability to hide them?) to take on an entire nation. Can your villain act alone or will they need lackeys—and where would they get them? I always wonder where all these anonymous foot soldiers who are okay with destroying the world come from, especially when they take on the indestructible hero even after watching all their buddies fall (I loved that moment in Iron Man 3 where a lackey finally says, “You know what? Not worth it.”).

If your villain is built into the conflict of the world (rather than an individual rising up and causing problems), then it might be easier to give them the resources they need—but it will take more to topple them. If they’re a trusted authority figure, how is your lone hero going to convince everyone else that this guy is the villain? If he has an army—the army—how is your hero going to defeat them by herself? If the entire world contains a prejudice that the villain is exploiting, how is stopping that one villain going to keep the prejudice from continuing on?

Starting with a convincing motivation for your villain will lead to how they plan to accomplish that specific goal. Craft their plan and the elements of that plan; then start to figure out how the hero will respond. At what point will they realize what the villain’s plan is? Only at the end monologue? When will the hero even know who the villain is? You can have them fighting a shadowy figure whose identity is revealed towards the end (sometimes with a red herring suspect standing in for them along the way, such as Snape or Malfoy in almost every Harry Potter); or you can have them fighting a known group, ideology, or mysterious figure whose specific identity is hidden (such as the Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier); or you can have the villain known from the beginning but simply hard to find, capture, or stop (such as the Joker in The Dark Knight).

Knowing your villain’s plan, and your hero’s reasons for stopping them (which may evolve and change as different aspects of the plan reveal themselves or are put into play), allows the plot to develop through a see-saw motion of development. The villain makes a move; the hero responds with a move of his own; the villain has to modify his plan to deal with that; the hero discovers something new that changes his plan; the villain seizes a victory; and so on.

This is the start of how you develop the plot—but finding the right structure is key. Next time!


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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