E37 – Interview With Sacha Black About Villians
In this episode, V.E. Griffith and Miss Catherine M.H. welcome guest Sacha Black to discuss the nuances of creating compelling villains in storytelling. Sacha emphasizes the importance of humanizing villains, challenging the notion of them as caricatures of pure evil. According to her, villains, like protagonists, need strong motivations and a connection to their past wounds. Furthermore, their actions should reflect their unique perspective on morality, usually involving a critique of accepted societal norms.
The discussion provides valuable insights into the craft of character development, particularly the need to approach villains as nuanced, multifaceted characters with their motivations and vulnerabilities.
Anatomy of a Best Seller by Sacha Black
The Rebel Author Podcast, available in all podcast players
The Revision Wizards are at https://www.revisionwizards.com
V.E. Griffith’s website: https://www.vegriffith.com
Miss Catherine M.H.’s website: https://www.scribes-pen.com
Transcript at: https://revisionwizards.com/?p=2358
V.E. Griffith 00:00:00
Welcome to the Revision Wizards podcast. I’m V.E. Griffith. And I’m joined by my wonderful cat familiar and co host, miss Catherine MH.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:00:08
This is episode 37, and we’re once again talking to the certified rebel and author Sasha Black. She’s come back to talk to us about writing villains and how you can edit them to make them the best gosh darn evil people that you can.
V.E. Griffith 00:00:22
We’re super excited that she was kind enough to join us again, and we’re thrilled to bring you her insight. And so with that, on with the show.
So we have an amazing returning guest today. If you would please tell us again your name and your pronouns.
Sacha Black 00:00:35
Hi, I am Sacha Black, and my pronouns are she, her.
V.E. Griffith 00:00:39
Great. Thank you very much. Today I’m going to let Catherine start us off.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:00:44
Yes. So I love villains, and I hear that you do too. So what piqued your interest in Villains?
Sacha Black 00:00:52
So when we talk about villains, I capture in that unlikable protagonists, antiheroes, and villains, because I like all three equally. They’re all kind of these morally gray beings who do all of the things that we secretly want to do. So when I say Villain, I’m doing a catch all and including antagonists as well, because even in romance, the love interest is the antagonist for clarity. I mean, everybody under that bracket. But in terms of what sparked it, I think I was just born loving them. I was like the seven year old who watched Beetlejuice and was like, this is my favorite foul. What seven year old likes Beetlejuice? I just was born like a bit of a goth. Like, I had a goth phase, but I was born loving things like bees or juice. My favorite character as a kid was Wednesday Addams, I think, because I’m a little bit weird and unusual. Literally, my top says little weirdo. But because villains are always put on the periphery of society, they are the characters that we’re not supposed to like. They are kind of alienated and hated. And if I’m honest, I was kind of that person. Nobody really got me growing up. I understood them. I understood what it felt like to be on the outside and on the edge of society and what’s acceptable. The interesting thing that I have learned about villains is that when you look at and everybody drink, but when you look at Villains strengths, nine times out of ten, they are yellow dominant. Yellow dominant. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, clifton strengths is a personality profiling metric. It’s a success system to help you reach your goals. And that means that I am also yellow dominant. And so I share many, many of the strengths that villains often have. And so, of course, I have that kind of affinity with them because I get it. I understand them. I feel your rage, baby. So I think that I was just born. I should always have played, I don’t know, Ursula in the west end or something. That’s just what I was born to do.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:03:25
That is awesome. So what is the hardest thing for writers to remember when it comes to their villains? What is something that you see happen often?
Sacha Black 00:03:38
I think it’s a mindset thing. We look at villains as the bad guy, right? But when we create characters, what we do is we slip into their frame, their character lens, and we often don’t do that with a villain. We just almost caricature them in order to make them seem really bad. But actually, a villain okay, I’m saying this in air quotes, but a villain is human, too, just in the same way that a protagonist is human, a villain is human, too. So there’s a couple of things that means that they need good bits as well as bad bits, and you have to give them some kind of humanizing element in order to make them seem real and believable. When we have these villains who are just like, world ending, everyone has to die, actually, it’s not very believable. And in order to create that depth, you have to have some kind of humanizing element. And you can either do that in one of well, I’m sure there are lots of ways, but a couple of the most popular ways are either letting them show some kind of humanity, kindness, care, compassion to one person, one thing, one animal, one henchman, for example, or you can do a reverse save the cat. So a save the cat is a moment in the story in a film usually, where the hero will, in the cliche, literally save a cat in order to connect with the readers and for the readers to think that they’re like a really nice person. A reverse save the cat is what you often see villains doing or happening to a villain. So we can take a couple of recent movie examples, but anyway, to explain the point, instead of them doing something good, something bad happens to them, and we feel sorry for them. So, a really good example is the recent Creuella movie and her mum dies, like, within the first 10% of the movie. Another one is the Joker movie, which with Joaquin Phoenix, and within the first five minutes, he’s been beaten up just for trying to do his job, right. He’s holding his placard and he’s swinging it around and being all happy, and he gets the crap beaten out of him. And so this is a reverse save the cat. It’s doing the same job, but it’s doing it with the reverse mechanism. So that’s a couple of ways to humanize your villains and give them depth and also help you to get into the mindset. And I think the other thing around villains is that they question the accepted truth. That’s really where they’re coming from. They are empowered to do what matters to them they don’t have any fucks left to give about what society says about them, usually because they’ve been marginalized anyway, and therefore they have the freedom to do what we all secretly want. And so they follow like, their hopes and their dreams and their whims. But it’s just that society doesn’t always deem those hopes and dreams and whims as acceptable. So one thing that I always say to people is like, think about what’s wrong with the current system and then take it to an extreme, right? Because that’s what they do. They take it to an extreme. You know, it’s the same as the protagonist. The protagonist wants to change something, but they go about it in a different way. So framing it like that, I think really helps you to get in to connect as the author with the villain.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:07:13
Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s really a cool way to look at it because most people are like, you don’t want to step into the shoes of the villain, but you still want to get to know them. When you do a character pass during edits, what should one be looking for when they’re doing their villain?
Sacha Black 00:07:31
Okay, so I mean, to caveat everything that I always say about craft, there are no rules and therefore you can break any rule if you know what you’re doing. But I think there’s some solid bits of advice that really help create actually good characters, just good characters. Creating a villain is creating a good character. So much of the same advice for all characters goes to creating a good villain. But a couple of very specific things, make sure that their motivation for whatever well, one, you need a motivation. Make sure there’s a very clear motivation for why they want to destroy the world or whatever. A really good thing is to connect that to a wound in their past. Now, we all know that we have to have a protagonist who has a wound in their past. What we don’t always know is what we don’t always do, sorry, is do the same for our villain. But actually our villain is much more than a flawed character, right? And our hero starts flawed. So why are we not using those same mechanisms to create the villain that we are than we are the hero? So connect the motivation to the wound. I don’t know, like, say there was a faulty boat and their parent drowned and therefore they want to get revenge on the boat company, right? The motivation comes from the wound. Another thing to think about is what are their values and their morals and what is their unique perspective or slant on what is right and just. And that goes back to what I was saying in the other question making sure that they have a very clear perspective on what is wrong and why they want to change it. But taking that to an extreme. So like a really good example is Agent Smith from The Matrix and his kind of monologue on how humans are a virus. You cannot argue with him because it is so utterly logical, but it’s taken to an extreme. So the consequence of that opinion is like death to everybody, right? And that’s the difference between a hero and a villain. And then the last thing is cliches in dialogue because villains are the easiest place to create cliches in dialogue. And so just look for unsubstantiated what’s the word? Abuse to a hero. Make sure that it’s not just I’m going to end you, or whatever. Make sure that there are reasons behind everything that they’re saying and just remove the cliches because of all your characters, they’re the ones who are the most likely to end up with cliche dialogue.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:10:16
That falls really well into my next question, which was kind of like, you’ve written a book but sort of forgot the villain. What do you recommend for people to do in that case? I’ve done that myself before. Written an entire book and then realized I stuck only the villain in in, like, one scene.
Sacha Black 00:10:35
Okay? So everything that I’ve already said, do all of those things. So it’s things like making sure they have some humanizing aspect, making sure they’ve got a backstory, making sure they’ve got a really solid motivation, that the motivation is connected to the wound, that they’ve got a solid kind of set of values. And integrity is really important for villains. So make sure they do what they say they’re going to do, even if that means causing harm to the character, to the other characters. And then the last thing that I would kind of add to that, well, two things, but the first thing is thematic representation. So this is sort of taking your villain to the next level. So we all know that the hero embodies the theme of the book, but your villain should embody the anti theme. And whatever your hero’s sort of overriding quality is, the villain should be the opposite. So the most obvious, most well known example of that is The Hunger Games, where Katniss embodies like, self sacrifice in order to save other people. Whereas President Snow, all he does, the whole book is the exact opposite. He sacrifices everybody else for his greater good. Weaving that into the story is really important. And then a couple of other last things we talked about the villain’s sort of perspective or moral perspective or slant. Make sure you show that. Like, show why your villain thinks that what they’re doing is right. That should very much be like a show as well as a dialogue. Kind of. We all know they have that moment where they clarify what their sort of mentality is, but also showing it. Like, show how they got there. It’s not always possible to do all of these things, but as best as you can to show some of that as well. And then the last thing is two last things. One, make sure that the villain is like fucking excellent at something better than the hero, right? They have to be better than the hero at something. And that something should be the thing that the hero needs to beat them at. Right? Because that makes them very difficult to beat, which means the hero is going to have to work for it. And that’s really important in order to make the climax satisfactory. And more than satisfactory, it makes it like what’s the word? More than satisfactory, it makes it words are gone…
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:10:35
Sacha Black 00:10:35
Yeah, it makes it good, basically. But it also means the hero has to work for it and that’s what the reader wants to see. So because the villain is better than the hero at this thing, make sure the hero loses something in those kind of climax scenes.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:13:27
So what about if you’re writing a series? Because I know most of your things are stand alones, but other people do write lots of series. So how do you keep building your villain through that? Do you have different levels where it’s like, ha, here’s the first one, but there’s someone who’s still above them. What is your recommendation for that?
Sacha Black 00:13:47
Yeah, so my first series was a sequential series, so to speak. Well, there’s one of many ways that you can do it, but a couple of popular ways to do it is to either have multiple villains. So a bit like, I hate using that series, she who shall not be named, I will not do it. I will reference the series without referencing the author. So there is a very popular series that we all name, know, and if I say she who shall not be named, we all know which series it is. But essentially what happened in that series is you had one villain who was across every single book, but at a very low level, there would be references to this character. This character would appear and cause a little bit of trouble, but they wouldn’t be the main villain in that book. And they didn’t sort of become the main villain until about halfway through the series. So you had these lower level villains and that’s one way to do it. So that you have like mini villains, maybe you have a henchmen, maybe you have the villains, I don’t know, whatever. You have these people working your way up to the villain. And then the other thing that you can do is to have different villains in each book or you can lay a conflict, right? So if you have one villain throughout the series, then let that villain wreak havoc on your characters in different ways. So conflict is at so many different levels from inner conflict inside the character, which is the most interpersonal conflict. Then you’ve got intra conflict where it’s two characters. So like the characters have conflict. You can have group conflict where the villain could cause conflict between characters. You can have world level conflict or societal level conflict. You can have conflict at the scene level, the book level. You can have conflict at the series level. And again. Like Hunger Games, right. So the villain is President Snow. But in the first book, you’ve got a competition. That’s the real problem and the real villain. And so you, like, layer up. You have an immediate obstacle type conflicting villain in the first book, and then it’s not until the last book that you actually reach the villain. So, yeah, think about conflict and think about how the villain can influence each one of those different levels of conflict. So the villain can make a stab at inner conflict just by poking at a hero’s psychological wound. They can then cause character conflict by seeding lies or seeding secrets or between characters, and then that causes conflict. So there are a ton of different ways that you can use your villain. If you’ve only got one, at multiple, multiple different levels.
V.E. Griffith 00:16:39
We know you have a book dedicated to villains, and Ms. Catherine is having a little lag. Again, I don’t see too many of those books out there. How did you become an expert?
Sacha Black 00:16:49
I think, how does anybody become an expert at anything? They study up and they deconstruct. Okay? So one of the things that I do is deconstruct, which I did not realize, but is like, it’s a combination of my strengths. So learner and competition. I have to know how somebody did well. So I naturally deconstruct everything. It’s very rare that I go through a book without a pen, making sacrilegious like, markings all over the pen, all over the pages, in pen, pencil, I don’t care. I will write all over my books. And I would take what somebody had done, I would lift it out of the book, and then I would go down to a forensic level to deconstruct what they had done. What was the tool they’d use? How did the pacing affect that villain scene? How did they present the logical arguments that the villains were doing? What did they foreshadow? How did that foreshadowing affect the final scene? All of these things. And I would just break down everything until I could pick out the tool that the writer had used or the screenwriter had used and point to it and say, this is how that works. This is why that works. And some of that is just a natural skill that I have to break things down. And some of it is practice. I have done this for years and years and years, breaking down everything, because I just have this insatiable need to know how somebody has done it and how I can then pluck that tool out and use it in my own work. So it was a lot of reading, a lot of studying film, studying books, a lot of also, my background is in psychology, so I have some kind of forensic psychology in there as well. So, yeah, kind of a multitude of things. But I would say the biggest factor in my craft development has been self taught through deconstruction. Like, that is the thing that means I can learn how to do anything. There is a book on that, by the way, which is The Anatomy of the Bestseller. I have told people how to do this. If you want to do it too, read The Anatomy of a Bestseller.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:19:03
Awesome. So there’s rumors that you might be writing a new villain book. Is that still a thing that you’re working on? Because last time we talked, you were like, hey, you write nonfiction. But it takes some time.
Sacha Black 00:19:18
Yes, I have about six different nonfiction projects. For a long time, I didn’t have any nonfiction that I wanted to write, and now I have about six different books that I want to write, so I don’t quite know which one is coming first. I think it’s down to two of which. This is one of them, but it’s called The Villain’s Journey. So we have the Hero’s Journey and the Heroine’s Journey, and nobody’s written a book about the villain’s journey. And basically, I want to take a look at what having a villain antihero or unlikable protagonist is like and how to because we’ve got a book on villains creating villains as villains. We have a book on heroes, but I haven’t done a book on creating a protagonist who is also a villain, and that is rising in popularity. We have seen so many films, so many TV shows recently where all of the protagonists are morally gray. It’s like a real popular thing right now. And there are some key things that you can do to really make those characters sing and pop on the page. And so I think that is basically unlikable protagonists, is what I’ll be looking at. And also the villain’s journey. So when you have a villain as a protagonist, there are a certain set of story structures that they follow, like an origin story, a redemption story, a descend story. Right. So there are all these repeating patterns. And I know that the hero’s journey and the heroines journey are based on mythology. I’m not a historian. I don’t want to go and do that. So I will do it based on current literature and film and TV.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:21:01
Sacha Black 00:21:01
But, yeah, there are certain things that I am noticing, and when I start noticing patterns, a book usually follows.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:21:10
That is awesome. I can’t wait for that one to come out.
Sacha Black 00:21:13
Thank you. Yeah.
V.E. Griffith 00:21:15
You have a preorder scheduled already. I’m sorry. Not a preorder. Not a preorder scheduled. You have a preorder sale ready to go.
Sacha Black 00:21:23
Yeah. Well, thank you.
V.E. Griffith 00:21:27
Where can we find you on the Internet?
Sacha Black 00:21:29
So you can find me at Sachablack.Co.UK. One thing I will add for this podcast is that I have a patreon masterclass where we read books together on a particular theme or topic, and then I will deconstruct those books and provide like a two hour class on taking those tools out and using them in your own work. So that might be relevant for this one. And instagram. Basically, I’m on at @Sachablackauthor and the rebel author podcast.
V.E. Griffith 00:22:11
All right, well, just a few places. Just a few places.
Sacha Black 00:22:14
Just a few.
V.E. Griffith 00:22:15
And I will continue to bother you in at least a couple of them. So we really appreciate you being on the show today.
Sacha Black 00:22:22
Oh, thank you for having me.
Miss Catherine M.H. 00:22:23
Yes, thank you so much for joining us. For today’s episode, you can find every episode on your favorite podcast player and on YouTube. For transcripts, please visit our email@example.com. They go live the same day as our episodes.
V.E. Griffith 00:22:39
If you’d like to reach out to us separately, you can find me, vegriffith.com, and Miss Catherine at scribes-pen.com.
Sacha Black 00:22:47