Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Writing Wednesday: Shakespearean Villains

The play is the thing. In his plays Shakespeare had his villains and heroes give long soliloquies about their motivations and feelings. I've always loved how those speeches brought the characters to life. I loved how Star Trek TOS was greatly influenced by the Bard and TNG took it up a level. My writing is definitely influenced by Shakespeare. Unfortunately I'm not writing plays, I'm writing novels.

A critiquer told me, “You know that spot where your villain goes on an eight paragraph diatribe for over an entire page? You might want to trim that a bit.”

Looking it over I can see how it just might task the reader a bit.

This is one of those problems where reading it outloud makes the problem worse. When I read it aloud I summon my best Malcolm McDowell voice, add all the dramatic tones I would if I were on stage. It sounds great.

Of course not every reader can cast Malcolm McDowell to do the reading. Some are stuck with Hayden Christensen delivering the lines with all the drama he put into, “What about the other Jedi.”

So I summoned my best Hayden Christensen voice and tried it again. I fell asleep in the second paragraph.

I compromised and had my Mac read it to me. Obviously my Mac doesn't have the dramatic flair that McDowell has, but does deliver lines with more emotion than Hayden Christensen did in Star Wars.

I can see where it could be trimmed a little, like at least half.

So now I have a problem, I have a larger than life villain, with an ego to match. Such a man would naturally be fairly verbose when he outlines his goals to his latest victim. But when his speech is written out it is a bit much for the reader.

I'm wondering what are some of the great villains in literature that managed to strike the balance between being verbose without making the reader feel like they are listening to a John Kerry speech?


Disclaimer: Hayden Christensen actually can act, he just didn't in the Star Wars movies.


  1. Two options. I have a pontificator in one of my books - while he's talking, I have two of my other characters having a telepathic conversation (including complaints about the pontificator's um pontificating).

    Another is to have a paragraph or two of monologue, add a tiny bit of action, (cross the room, pour some wine or run a hand up our trussed hero's thigh, something) then let him pontificate again. Ditto, interrupt by a useless easily smacked around underling or our hero's innate bravery.

  2. I meant that last word to be bravado, not bravery. Still not doing the editing I should.

  3. Those are excellent suggestions. I had to make things harder on myself by setting the scene on the ship's deck at O'dark thirty. But I can still get in some interruptions.
    I'll also have to remember my old classes on translating Prosody (the non-grammatical intonations and rhythms of speech) into text. I've studied it twice before. Once in school, didn't do that well with it. And once when I tried, and failed, to program a 166mhz PC to answer the phone and be helpful.
    Hopefully I'll have better luck this time.

  4. Since you are inspired by the bard, what would be your opinion on Hamlet as a villain? Is he a good guy or a bad guy?

  5. I've always found Hamlet the strangest character in literature. He was pushed along by outside forces rather starting the action. That should make him a weak and dull character. But he wasn't.
    He was a situational moralist, he didn't follow the same morals that he felt others should follow. That would make him the bad guy, but his goal was honorable.
    He worked harder to kill off his friends than his enemies which makes it hard to like him.
    Basically, with Hamlet, Shakespeare broke all the rules for a hero and still made it work.

  6. I'm not so sure his goal was honorable. What if he imagined his father's story as a sort of wish-fulfillment? After all, the guards see a ghost, but only Hamlet hears him actually talk. And in the play-within-a-play, Claudius' reaction could have been for any reason. What if it was health-related? These questions could have been what took him so long to act; he needed to encircle himself in his own illusions in order to justify his acts. That's why Shakespeare is classic - his characters can be interpreted in many different ways. I hope your writing is going well!