Work in Progress: A Good Villain

I’m two-thirds of the way through what I thought would be the final rewrite of my book, having recently realised that I’m actually going to have to do at least two more rewrites of my book, and basically my book is my life now and I’m going to be writing it until the Big Crunch (always my favourite end-of-the-universe theory).

Okay, I’m a bit more optimistic than that (Sigyn is currently a Frankenstein’s Monster of assorted pieces, but at least it’s the right shape), but it’s still frustrating that writing what I thought was going to be a simple story has taken this long. And it’s even more frustrating, because I’ve realised something I should have done right at the beginning. Something that would have made the process so much quicker and easier.

I didn’t start out with a villain.

I thought I knew a decent amount about writing, but I still ended up making this rookie mistake – and the universe has really hammered it home to me recently. I went to a talk by MG Leonard, where she talked about how she started out on her Beetle Boy series by thinking up the most wicked, dastardly villain she could – because then your hero seems so much cooler and stronger for overcoming them. (It was a brilliant talk, and MG Leonard is a complete joy to listen to). Then I started watching series two of Jessica Jones, and realised I was bored – because, so far, there’s no strong villain.

Jessica Jones is one of the best examples I can think of that illustrates how key a villain is to a plot. Killgrave is the strongest villain of all the Marvel Netflix series (Kingpin was also good, as was Cottonmouth; Diamondback was actually kind of a let-down after Cottonmouth’s arc was over; and The Hand are just boring, because ninjas are inherently boring). Killgrave is a fantastic villain not just because of David Tennant’s acting, which is superb, but because he fits that essential criteria for a villain – he thinks he’s the hero. Despite being a rapist, abuser and murderer, Killgrave firmly believes that he’s a misunderstood romantic lead, and tries to make Jessica part of his story. This gives her some truly crucial stakes she has to overcome – she has to beat Killgrave, otherwise her story ends, and she becomes nothing more than a footnote in his.

I’m a few episodes into series two, and there’s no conflict that’s anywhere near the level of Jessica’s struggle to keep her independence and freedom in the face of Killgrave’s manipulation. The villain is an off-screen, random presence, and because we don’t really know what the threat is (other than “this thing is going to kill you”, which is scary in real life, but par for the course in fiction), we don’t care so much about what could happen if Jessica lost.

I’ve realised that my villain for Sigyn is much more of a whatever-it-is-in-series-two than a Killgrave. When I started writing, I focused so much on Sigyn, Loki and Valhalla that I hardly even thought about my villain, and now I’m kicking myself for it. So, I’ve spent this rewrite focusing on them, and, with any luck, the next two rounds of edits will help me settle the structure, polish the edges, and finish this thing once and for all.

At least I know what I need to work out first when I start book two.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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