How does your villain feel about his or her parents? This is a question that all too often goes unasked by screenwriters. But, to me, whenever you really want to get to know someone, anyone, it’s one of the first things to consider. This is because how we feel about our parents is an extension of how we feel about ourselves. Imagine going on a first date and the subject not coming up. It’d be strange, right? But it’s a question that writers too often overlook.
In this exercise, you’re going to find a time in your villain’s past that was particularly formative, some event with their parents that goes to the core of their character. But first, as a warm-up, I want you to think about how you feel about your own parents. Don’t forget that you’ve probably felt differently about them at different points in your life. So, spend a few minutes thinking back on some different moments in your upbringing when you felt either loving or less than loving about these two very important people. Were they kind? Mean? Unhappy? Rich? Poor? Did they give you lots of attention or did they ignore you? Were there differences between your mother and father? If so, what were they?
Now, when you’re done, find a quiet place, close your eyes, get really centered, and imagine yourself in a beautiful setting. When you’re ready, open your eyes, set your timer for five minutes, and, working very quickly, write a story about each of your villain’s parents. Start with your father.
For example, in a book I’m currently working on, one of the characters goes to visit her dad and is looking forward to seeing two lovebirds that live in the house. When she arrives, however, one of the birds is dead. The character asks her father when he is going to get another lovebird, and he replies, “Well, I actually always hated those birds. I’m just going to wait for this one to die.” This is a very revealing moment about the father and daughter, and expresses a stark difference between them.
Now write a story about your villain’s relationship with his or her mother. One kind of character might say, “My mother is an angel. When I was sick, she was there every day, took care of me, bathed my brow, and always told me I could be whatever I wanted. That’s the kind of wonderful mother I had.” However, a villain might be more likely to say, “Oh yeah, Mom. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is her slamming me to the floor and beating me every day.” Obviously, experiences like these are going to shape how your villain relates to other people and goes about pursuing his or her goals.
Once you’ve completed this exercise, go back and consider whether what you came up with will work for your story. Remember, you want something that is really going to drive your villain to dark deeds and that will challenge your protagonist to the core. So be wary of giving your villain parents who are too nice, because it’s unlikely the child of such people would have enough internal pain or rage to do what you need done. On the other hand, if you can create a past relationship between your villain and your villain’s parents that left him permanently scarred, you’ve really lifted the level of your script and created a worthy antagonist for your hero.
Here’s to your successful writing,
Professor Marilyn Horowitz