One of the very first weapons that I learned in my combat classes in college was how to wield a frying pan. It was dubbed “clown fighting” because of the ridiculousness you feel using a frying pan as a weapon. However, any chef worth their weight in hummus can tell you just how deadly these seemingly useless pans can be.
Depending on what kind of pan your character happens to grab in their kitchen while being attacked will greatly depend on what that pan can do. We’ll look at three specific sizes: the “one egg” pan, then normal skillet, and the wok.
First, start with the size and weight of the pan. A lot of this will also depend on the type of pan you have. Cast iron pans can cause a lot more weight damage, but they will also be a lot heavier to wield. The newer Teflon pans will be lighter, but they will also break easily. You will also need to look at the handle. Is it welded on, or have a tiny screw that keeps it in place? Ones that are screwed on will break off on a solid hit to someone, whereas welded ones have a bit more resistance.
Next, you will want to look at the size of the base of the frying pan. This is going to be your impact area. The wider the base, the more of the body it can hit. The larger the pan is will also make it a bit less wind-resistant when swinging – stupid physics. Let’s say you’re aiming for the head – the “one egg” one will probably break a jaw with a good swing because it will be able to impact all your energy into a small area. The wok and regular pan will hit the entire face, but the impact will also spread over it. This will more than likely cause a headache with a regular pan, but could rattle the brain and knock out the victim on a cast iron pan.
You can also “stab” with a frying pan. Holding onto the handle of a regular pan and thrust into the stomach of the attacker can knock the wind out of them (and then follow up with an uppercut of the pan to their chin to knock their head backwards and out cold!). This won’t work as well with a “one egg” as it’s a smaller circumference around the pan, however it is better suited for swinging at hands to disarm knives.
The wok is awkward for stabbing motions as the top of the wok is wider than the base and will lose the force from the handle due to the shape of it. Woks are great, though, for using it’s special bowl-like design to cup a shoulder or a head to make the person move and throw them off balance.
Never use the handle of a frying pan as a weapon. They are fragile and it is awkward to hold onto the pan side and use it to fight.
There are other things that you can add to a fight scene using a frying pan in a kitchen fight:
Heat: having the pan sitting on the stove waiting to be used would have the base of the pan nice and hot. Remember that some pans have a spiral design on the bottom, so if they get hit with that on flesh, it will leave behind a burn in the design.
Cooking: was the person already cooking something? They can fling the food at the person attacking them, and then fight with a hot pan. Bonus if there is hot oil or grease in the pan – that could end the fight right there.
Also, remember the realism for frying pan scenes: a regular frying pan will only last a few good hits before it’s dented or the handle breaks. If it’s a colored pan, chances are that the color has flaked off. Also, ones that are treated to be non-stick have a coating that will break off into white flakes when dented as well. The wielder’s arm will get tired fast swinging around a cast iron pan if they are not used to using their arm muscles for prolonged periods of time.
The best advice I can give on choosing the weapon for your character comes down to have you have in your house so that you can understand your weapon as your character uses it. Frying pans can be a fun weapon to wield in any story, as long as you keep the believability of it to the scene. Enjoy finding a way to bring this into your next novel!
Image from Tangled © Walt Disney Pictures.
I received an e-mail from MACE reminding me that June is Knife Fighting Awareness Month, and felt that it was my duty to pass along a good set of information to my readers about this deadly weapon and how your characters can wield it.
Everyone knows what a knife looks like – you have some right in your kitchen. In combat terms, it’s defined as a metal or stone blade, extending from a handle. There is no set “length” when a knife becomes classified as a sword, but it’s more on the style of the blade. The average changeover though can be around 12-18 inches when it becomes classified as a sword. In the USA, the police are given the distinction on being able to classify whether the blade is a sword or knife in arrests.
There are many different kinds of knifes which are variations of the style of blade and the handle. Some other names you may have heard of would include switchblades, balisongs, daggers, poignard, dirks, bayonets, stilettos (not the shoes), machetes, bowies, and countless others in many languages. You can also put a shiv into this classification, but they are “knife like” weapons that are usually handmade by someone (i.e. a prisoner in jail) and can contain multiple pieces, uneven edges, and break easily.
When you’re choosing a knife for your character, you will want to look very closely at the time period you’re writing in, the country the character originated in, and if they are in the military, the history of the types of weapon that specific branch had. A common place reader may not know the difference between blades, but if you are writing military fiction, you will want to be as exact as you can in the description, even if you never name the blade itself.
Obviously, if your character has a history where they got their blades from a gunrunner, then you can have fun finding the deadliest looking knife that would capture their eye. Weapons have histories, though, so you would want to respect it if you’re going to make your character use the knife more than just cutting his steak or something he grabbed from the pawn shop. You can have fun creating a glorious family history for a weapon, and will find that your audience may make the weapon a “character” in your story if you do it right.
Depending on what kind of genre you’re writing in, you can also create your own knife design for your character. However, unless you plan to include a picture of the weapon in your novel or a rendition of it on your website, you will want to use a knife that already exists in our world somewhere and then build off it. That way the reader can have an image in their head to start off with.
Now onto the combat itself – knife on knife fights are very rare in the real world. There is the phrase from The Untouchables about bringing a knife to a gun fight… now those kinds of fights are a lot more common in the real world, with hand vs. hand, and gun vs. gun being the most common. Your character would have to have a reason to have the knife on them as opposed to other weapons, and hope that their opponent doesn’t carry something that has a bang to it.
A knife fight is very personal, as you have to be up close to your opponent to attack them (unless you’re throwing the knife)
There are four ways to grip a normal knife, and they are best described by where your thumb is while holding it.I’ve linked a video below that will show you visually each of the grips described.
The first position is the one people use every day. The knife is held in your hand with the thumb on the handle right before the blade starts. This is a good “cutting” position. It is called the forward saber grip in Jujutsu. It extends the blade out in front of you the longest distance from your body, and allows you to attack objects that are coming at you from any direction. If you are swiping the blade across, you can put your thumb on the back of the blade if it has a dull side, and that will add force and pressure to your blade if you hit an object. It does not help, though, if you have a double-sided blade since you risk cutting into your own thumb when you hit resistance.
The second position is where the thumb is tucked under the handle, similar to how you hold a hammer, and the blade is pointing up. This is the forward hammer grip in Jujutsu. Your hand will have a stronger grip on the knife, but you lose distance with this grip since the blade isn’t able to extend as far. This grip is better for this up close knife fights where you are thrusting the knife upwards and into body parts.
The third is the reverse hammer grip. Basically it is the same as above, but it is with the blade pointing down. It’s commonly known as the “Psycho” grip, being made famous in the movie when used by the character Normal Bates. It’s a grip that has you stabbing downwards, but you can also use it to slash since your arm will follow along with the blade, bringing your arm to protect your body as well as using your elbow to follow up with hits.
And the fourth is reverse saber grip, in which the blade rests against your forearm and your thumb is along the bottom of the handle. It’s really a defensive grip, in which you can hide the blade and attack only if needed. It’s not a cutting or a stabbing grip, but can be used to slash at an enemy if they get too close.
Most straight knives, like early swords, lack a fuller (the blood groove) from later swords. Because of this, there is always a good chance that a blade can get stuck inside of the body when stabbed because of the suction. It can also become stuck in ribs and the spine if aimed there. The longer the blade is, the more likely it is to happen.
There are also knifes with serrated edges that will allow the person to cut through bone. These are found on many hunter knives, as well as some military knifes.
Like always, before you start to write out a fight scene, watch a few movies that have good scenes in them to see how the body moves with the weapon. Don’t know where to start? Independent File Channel put together a list of their 15 Favorite Movie Knife Scenes that can start you off. I recommend the one for The Hunted.
And remember: You don’t need to be too detailed in each swing of the weapon, but it will help you choreograph the fight in your head so you know what happens and can decide what to describe, and what to just imply. Don’t bore the reader since they will want to imagine the scene in their own heads. Just give them enough to go off of that can make them see what you want them too.
Enjoy writing that knife fight!
10 Deadliest Combat Knifes / Daggers : In you are in need of picking a knife for your villain, here is a nice list to shop off of.
Knife Fighting Basics – The Grip : This video from Jujutsu.org will show you visually the four grips.
How to Throw a Knife: There are a lot of YouTube videos on knife throwing. This gentleman breaks it down really well.
When I was learning to write, the biggest lesson that was drilled into my head was the concept of “Show, Don’t Tell”. It’s the idea of using your words – and as a writer, you have lots of those – to create a scene to show someone and not just having it told to you. For this, you need to learn about how to really focus your setting in both the physical sense – where is this taking place – as well as the emotional sense – how does this feel – to create a full picture.
Most people, when they think of setting, think of the physical pieces that go into the scene. You want to know where everything is, and how you can move your characters around within it. You will go through the mental checklist to verify all the tiny props that will be used have been set. In some scenes, so much attention is paid to the physical pieces, that the parts of the setting that effect the physical and emotional responses are left as an afterthought, if not omitted.
One of those pieces is proper lighting.
I will admit, my research about light and how it can be used to create a response started in college when I was taking a class through the theatre department on how to light scenes. It is a lot more than just throwing up a bunch of lights and flipping switches, as anyone who regularly goes to the theatre can tell you. You have to learn levels, colors, and how where you aim it can make a big difference on if the audience will walk away crying or indifferent at the end of a dramatic scene.
It was cemented more when, years later, I watched the movie The Christmas Cottage and learned about the life of Thomas Kinkade and how his mentor taught him to paint the light since it lasts forever. If anyone could have been a true source on the inspiration light brings, it was Thomas. If you really want to delve into how to use light, give it a watch.
It is amazing how this one aspect can really affect your entire work is used properly. For the rest of this article, I’m going to go through a few of the easiest ways to look at adding light to your setting along with examples of scenes that you can accomplish this in. Mind you, there are probably a few hundred more ways that light can be used, but this is just a sampling to get you thinking and looking at your own work and how to implement it in.
Light is used to illuminate the setting. Duh, I know. Basically, is your characters able to see where they are going, or are they stumbling around in the dark? Where are the shadows? Is the light being hidden behind thick curtains that someone can pull aside to banish nightmares or vampires? Think about the sun cycle in the area you’re writing and how is affects the day to day business – if you’re in Alaska in the summer, there is no real “night” and in the winter there is no real “daylight”. If your character is in the jungle, how thick the trees are will alter how much light filters down, and how fast it will get dark after the sun sets.
The type of lighting can suggest time, age, and wealth. How is your setting lit? Older buildings, abandoned shacks, forests… most of them do not have their own light source beyond what the sun and moon gives them. How are your characters getting their light to see? If they are in a modern day setting, how is their light obtained? Does the home have little antique lamps in every room, or florescent lights? Does the butler give you a candle for you to carry to light your room as you enter for the night? Or is the only source of light in the room the same fire that gives the room heat?
The source of light, or absence of, can be altered to inflict a mood. You’re character arrives for a dinner date and they enter the dining room – how different is the scene if the room is lit by an overhead light, a set of two perfect candles, or a glowing chandelier above them? Most romantic scenes on screen will usually involve a candle, of not multiple ones lighting up the room with a soft glow. A dark night in a bedroom can become scary with the flash of lightning outside the window at the right moment, or even to foreshadow a growing danger. Fireflies on a field, both a creature and a use of light, can create a magical or innocent feel. The sudden absence of light – like a power outage – can bring a moment of confusion and fear.
The color of light can add to a setting. A green sky in Oklahoma will send people running for shelter from a tornado. The yellow and orange flames from a fire can add urgency or relaxation – all depending on the fire! Blue filtered light tends to be calming, where red can raise anger – the “seeing red” effect. Florescent lights give off a more hospital type sterile light that sees everything which is different from lamplight, and LED rights can be blinding for a moment. Smoke and fog can steal away the light, or alter it. While it doesn’t work in every situation, having a emotion color wheel and knowing what colors bring about certain feels works to help you in describing the light and what it reveals to bring out an unconscious emotional response from the reader.
Light can also be used as a prop. I’ve personally used a beam of sunlight as a method for a god to guide someone through a forest to safety. Fires have been habitually used to guide people who are lost to the light which provides safety. Someone trapped in the darkness can pull out a box of matches, and they have twelve little moments of light to guide them somewhere before they are trapped in the dark again with burnt fingertips. Anything that creates light can be used not only as a way to bring it in, but their presence can play with all of the above ways I’ve shown how they can set up a scene or emotion.
What other ways have you thought about using light in your work? What have you seen in your own reading that works. Also remember that while you want to bring in the light, make it subtle. You don’t want to overdo it and make it take over the description that is just one part of the full setting. Keeping everything in balance will help you create the perfect setting for your reader to get lost in.
Blogged in memory of Thomas Kinkade: January 19, 1958 – April 6, 2012. Rest in peace and thank you.
Time Period: 13th to 17th century.
Also known as: two-handed sword, longsword, greatsword, warsword, claymore, and a whole lot of others depending on your reference material and the era you are writing in.
You’ve all seen this weapon in use on more than one occasion if you’ve ever watched a fantasy or Medieval set movie. The broadsword is the most famous for being the weapon of the knights in that shining armor. You’ve seen them used in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Rob Roy, Braveheart, and well, the list goes on forever.
Why is it called a broadsword? To answer that, I will quote my friends at the Maryland Renaissance Festival’s Fight School: the use of the term “Broadsword” did not become common place until it was found as a high commodity among Victorian collectors when they found this weapon abroad… and not sticking in one. The weapon that most people are referring to when they say broadsword is actually the longsword. However, it is not the “bastard sword”, as that is technically another sword known as the short sword (and we’ll discuss this at another time).
The first thing to remember about this weapon is that it’s heavy. The average weapon weight was 5-7 pounds and can get larger and heavier as you head into the greatsword and warsword variations. The blade alone measures about 3-4 feet long, and most who carry it wield it with two hands. Using the weapon for long periods of time would make the wielder’s arms and shoulders hurt as they are learning to use them. You would also have hand and wrist cramps from gripping the weapon, similar to carpel tunnel syndrome. And like with any weapon, your thighs would be sore from the repetition of movements.
Using two hands, movement with the weapon is limited. Imagine your hands gripping a sword handle (or a golf club) and try to attack without letting either hand off the weapon. You’ll see that the fact you have elbows getting in the way that you can’t have the same moves that a rapier-wielding person would.
Because of the size, weight, and limitations of movement when fighting, this weapon tends to be the most barbaric of the sword family. This is your “hack and slash” weapon, as most of the damage from it comes from swinging it instead of stabbing. To be able to control where you want the weapon to go, you have to learn how to use the inertia from the blade’s swinging to direct it. This is not a weapon to use if you want to create and fancy duel, but instead for the battlefield of carnage.
This weapon is hard to stop once in motion, and usually only stops when hitting an object or slowing down the upward movement of the weapon. Trying to stop or redirect the weapon any other way can cause the wielder to get thrown off balance, and possible arm and shoulder pain.
One of the things that this weapon is known for is that because of the inertia and weight, it would kill people more from broken bones than actual stabbing. It is also the weapon that will cleave off body parts easily. Because of that, broadswords make excellent weapons for the zombie apocalypse and everyone should keep on in their closet or under their bed if they have this fear.
The best way I found to choreograph this weapon in your writing space is to have a fake sword to hold and move around your space with. If you do not have an actual broadsword in your home, you can substitute the cheap foam swords found at any toy store. You can also use a lightsaber type toy and just imagine the guard being there. As a sidenote, broadsword fighting is one of the styles melded into the style used for the famous Star Wars weapons.
Watch a few movies that use the weapon in a historical fashion (and not a Matrix type fight or Star Wars) and see how the wielder has to invest their entire body in moving the weapon around. Look at where they aim, how they attack, and how they kill. Also remember that with any weapon, the fighter will also use their body to try and kick, hit, throw object, and block things coming at them. Move yourself around to decide how you want to fight to look like if you were filming this for a movie. Get a friend to come be a stand-in for the other character. Write down every step. Take notes on what your body did to get that movement and how it felt to you.
Don’t forget to add in the terrain your character will be fighting in when making your choreography. A broadsword is used a lot differently in an open field than if you were in the middle of a heavily dense forest or in the middle of a desert. Are there walls, boulders, trees, roots – anything that would trip up your characters or afford them cover? Add in these elements to create advantages and disadvantages for both the character and his/her opponent.
Major writer tip: Do not write out your entire choreography on the page. People cannot see the details in the beautiful scene you just created – especially if you go into the technical terms that describe the slashes, parries, etc. If you are adamant on writing out the fight, find the novel of a movie that you have watched previously with sword fighting. Sit down with both and watch the scene and then compare it to the novel. The best example I have would be the fight in “The Princess Bride” between Inigo and Westley. Please note that they are using rapiers and not broadswords, and use this only to see how to write a good scene you have the visualization for. Watch it on the screen, and then see how Goldman views that fight through the eyes of Inigo as it happens.
The choreography you’re creating is essentially a piece of research you’re developing for the novel. What you want to do is use the choreography as a guide to how they move, what may go on in their heads, and who wins and how they win. You fill in those blanks with creative dressing that will let the reader have a sense of the speed, urgency and emotion in the fight, but not the step by step details of who moves where. You want to show the fight, not tell it.
Below are some reference notes for the technical bits and pieces, as well as a few links to more information online. Also, if you are able to go to the Maryland Renaissance Festival (August – October every year outside of Annapolis), spend a day and make sure to watch both Fight School performances. The four men who work it are very knowledgeable and friendly, and you will get a lot of information on this weapon – and others – from them.
Main Parts of the Broadsword:
Pommel – this is Latin for “the tiny apple”. It is the knob at the base of the sword. It’s used for a few things: the screw that keeps the sword put together; an object to keep your hands from sliding off the hilt; a place to hold and use force when stabbing down; and you can use it as a blunt force object to hit or “pummel” someone (notice the change in the first vowel to distinguish the difference in word).
Handle –This is where your hands go to hold the weapon. This is NOT called a hilt (see below).
Quillion – the guard. Basically, it’s the cross shaped piece that separates the blade from the handle. Its main purpose is to keep swords that strike from sliding down the blade and cutting off fingers.
Forte’ – the unsharpened part of the blade; starting from the Quillion and up to about 1/2 to 2/3 of the blade. This part is unsharpened for a few reasons, but mainly for a wielder to be able to lay a hand on the weapon and use it for defense if needed and not cut themselves. This is also the strongest part of the weapon.
Foible – the sharpened part, or tip. This is the part you would use to cut and stab people with. It’s also the weakest part of the sword, and would be the part that broke off in battles.
Fuller – aka the “blood grove”. It’s a center channel that some versions of the sword have cut into the blade in the Forte’, and its makes the blade lighter. The channeling of the blood of thy enemy is a misconception. It does, however, stop the suction that occurs when pulling the blade free after stabbing someone.
Hilt – mistakenly referred to as the handle, the hilt is actually three pieces of the sword: Pommel, Handle, and Quillion. Basically, everything that isn’t the blade.
Deadliest Weapon Wiki entry on the Broadsword
Association for Renaissance Martial Arts: Terminology Page
In Chapter 8 of the Elements of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card breaks down the three types of characters and their importance in a novel. Here is the excerpt:
1. Walk-ons and placeholders. You won’t develop these characters at all: they’re just people in the background, meant to lend realism or perform a simple function and then disappear, forgotten.
2. Minor Characters. These characters may make a difference in the plot, but we aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved with them, either negatively or positively. We don’t expect them to keep showing up in the story. Their desires and actions might cause a twist in the story, but play no role in shaping its ongoing flow. In fact, rule of thumb is that a minor character does one or two things in the story and then disappears.
3. Major Characters. This group includes the people we care about; we love them or hate them, fear them or hope they succeed. They show up again and again in the story. The story is, to one degree or another, about them, and we expect to find out what happens to them by the end. Their desired and actions drive the story forward and carry it through all its twists and turns.
This definition was published in 1988, and from the way I see books and television going, minor characters have gone from being in the background to being more involved in their stories. For instance, look at the television show CHUCK. The series revolves around a typical computer geek, Chuck, who ends up with a military super computer inside of his head. There are two government agents (Casey and Sarah) assigned to protect him and go on missions using his new found “power” to help gather intel. That’s the major plot of the series, and if that element goes missing, you lose the essence of the story in the early seasons.
However, you also have the stories of Elle and Devon – Chuck’s sister and her “awesome” fiancé – as well as Morgan, Lester, Jeff and the rest of the staff at the Buy More. The actions that happen within these two minor character groups sometimes have major affects on the story, or sometimes happen completely separate from the story and run parallel to the mission of the week.
Card’s definition would make Casey, Sarah and Chuck the major characters. His definition would also state that we should not get emotionally involved with anyone else. But what is Chuck without these other characters then, even if they are not involved with the story, nor are they even seen consistently week to week? They have no effect most of the time at all on the “missions” that Chuck goes on, but yet they get a good amount of screen time for their own subplots, and affect the main character’s relationships with each other at times.
Are they major characters though? No. You can remove their element from the episodes and the stories will still continue on. But do they fall into the Card’s definition of minor characters? No.
From my experience, there is a group of characters that falls between the two definitions – the “Minor” Main Character: people who slip in and out of the story but appear in stories or episodes that capture the attention of an audience that moves them beyond the rank of a minor character. The audience gets attached to them. They want to see more of these characters. They cry when these characters are killed off.
And in some instances, fans of certain shows have such strong attachments to minor characters that they can even change the writer’s minds on killing off a character and expanding them into even a major character – I.E. Spike in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series was only supposed to last for a few episodes and then die at the end of the season he premiered in. Instead he lived on, became a major character through the rest of the series, and even was pulled into the series Angel because the fans did not want to see him go.
Another example is Wedge Antilles in the Star Wars empire. Wedge was the X-Wing pilot in A New Hope who pulled out of the trench before Biggs was shot (for those who don’t know). To date now, Wedge has been immortalized in no less than a dozen Star Wars novels – 9 of which as a main character – as well as a successful comic series by Dark Horse comics and written by Michael Stackpole. Not bad for a guy that had 3 lines and maybe 2 minutes combined of screen time in A New Hope, and another 6 or 7 lines in the sequels with about 3 more minutes of screen time total.
When you are writing, look at your minor characters and see how you use them. Are they just there to deliver dialogue and walk off, or are they an important part of your Main Character’s lives. Do they show a personality that you want to explore more? If so, let them be a bit louder – but not too loud as to shift the story plot away or disrupt the hierarchy of who the main people really are. Let them have their five minutes of read time. Rein them back if they start to get out of control. Perhaps they hold clues for you when the story seems to come to a standstill. Maybe they are actually main characters you didn’t realize you needed.
And who knows, they may end up being the gateway to another series for you when you think the story is done: that means more work, more stories and more fun in a world you’ve already spent so much time creating, but through a new set of eyes.
There’s always a bad guy in every story: someone has to give your hero a problem that your story works through to resolve, after all. They automatically appear, and it’s up to you to show just why they are the threat your hero sees them as.
However, there is a big difference between a typical bad guy and a true villain. This difference is apparent right in their development stage. Your villain needs to be designed not only to truly live up to that threat he plans to impose in your story, but also that lets you see that yes, he too is human just as much as your hero is. And you know what… its okay to actually like them too.
Let’s look at a few of the more successful villains in popular media:
Sylar from HEROES:
This is the character who wanted to be special in a mediocre life. In the first season of HEROES you are introduced to Gabriel Gray and his fall from grace into Sylar. His hunger for power to be something “more” has him transformed into a mass murderer with little conscious during that time. As the villain, he is killed, tortured, but also given so many chances to redeem himself. Yet even with all the chances, he always takes the wrong path. Sure, he tries to save himself sometimes in the mix, but the lust of his powers always brings him back.
Everyone knows what it feels like to be different and wanting to be special. This is the reason why Marvel Comics is still in business with more mutant superheroes than a wiki can keep track of. As humans who live in what we refer to as the “daily grind”, we can relate to that need, and in most cases much more than relating to a cheerleader who likes to cut off her own finger to watch it grow back.
Sylar is a representation of us. He’s what we could become if we don’t watch our need for power, and what happens if we are willing to do anything for it. And we watch him and want to see if the next time he tries to take the good path, that he will do it and redeem himself. Because we want to think that if we were in that spot, we could too. We love him because we want to know if that was us, we could still be loved and saved too.
The writer’s achieved this in a very simple way – they showed it all to you. You get to see in flashbacks the path that Gabriel took and the manipulations that happened to make him start on the path. They also show that deep inside, he’s just a scared man who just wants to make his mother proud; wants to be accepted by a group for who he is, and allowed to grow into maturity.
And of course, its Zachary Quinto who then takes the writer’s words and is able to translate it onto the screen, using his vocal inflections, acting intentions and facial expressions to expand beyond the dialogue to round out the way Sylar is shown. It’s that final personalization that lets him be embraced by the fans.
The Joker from the Batman Comics:
The crazy, maniacal, gun wielding clown from the Batman comic empire wouldn’t be as well loved of a villain as he is today – Wizard magazine named him the Greatest Villain of All Time – without having had a lot of development into him. And talk about a character with a vast array of backgrounds! His background differs depending on which form of media you look at him in – comic, cartoon, live TV series, or the movie portrayals by Jack Nicholson and of course, the Academy Award winning performance by the late Heath Ledger. But what keeps people coming back to wanting to see this character again and fear the way they might approach him in the new way?
Part of it is history – the Joker appeared in Batman #1 in 1940. He was the first villain, and for some reason the “good guys” have yet to be able to keep him behind closed doors in Arkham. He’s hurt a lot of people in his almost 70 years of mischief and mayhem, including the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, as well as the paralysis of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. His antics have caused a lot of pain to the main hero, and so he’s earned the respect of the audience as a force to be reckoned with.
But then there is the fact that the Joker is a murdering clown! He’s crazy, unpredictable, an underestimated genius who goes into his crime sprees with a painted smile on his face and putting them on all his victims too. The character sees and plans in so many circles and layers that if he wasn’t insane he would be in politics.
It’s the “what’s he going to do now?” factor that keeps the Joker going 70 years in popularity with his audience. He has never disappointed in entertaining, always gives his best performance when the writers bring him out for a job, and we have the knowledge that Batman will tuck him back into the little padded cell with his name engraved over the door at the end of the story. But unlike most villains who have a signature style every time they appear, the Joker consistently changes things up and the tricks will just keep coming until Batman figures out the endgame.
There’s no relation that can be drawn between the reader and the Joker, however. The Batman series pulls its reader relationship in through its heroes. But you are able to respect and even love the Joker because of the feelings that your heroes go through while dealing with him, and knowing that his insanity brings depth and perspective to the heroes that lesser villains would not be able to accomplish. It’s a symbiotic relationship – to love one means you must love the other.
Darth Vader from the Star Wars Saga:
Let’s face it – when Vader first appeared back in 1977 in Star Wars: A New Hope, he was just a flunkie to the Emperor with an old school religion and awesome powers to choke people just by holding out his hand. But he wasn’t interesting then. With just the first movie out, the story revolved around the three main characters – Han, Luke and Leia – and their interpersonal relationships. Vader had no established history shown on screen or in the novelizations to make anyone give a care to him.
It was when Empire Strikes Back did Vader become interesting. You could tell that in writing the second story, George Lucas was starting to plot out the origin story for Vader. Yoda had the secret that Obi-Wan hadn’t told Luke about, or that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru died protecting Luke from. Was it that Lucas didn’t know he would make Vader into Luke’s daddy dearest until then…?
That doesn’t matter when you look at it on screen. Empire is where you have the climactic moment. “Luke, I am your Father.” That is the moment right there where suddenly Vader’s character changes and you’re forced to watch everything again to reanalyze the villain and see him for more.
Why? Because now he’s become humanized. He’s a father. He’s not trying to manipulate Luke – he’s doing what he thinks will save his son. He’s trying in some really unsuccessful fashion to even bond with him. Father and son taking over the universe? Sure, why not Dad!
When you re-watch the first movie, you then start to see the hints of humanity that you might have missed. The little things that Lucas put in that shows that this was once a man who lived and loved and wasn’t completely evil. And it sets up the expectation that now this is a man who can be saved. After all, like Sylar, a part of us always wants to see if the ultimate evil can be redeemed.
Luke is already the hero of these movies, and now he sees his goal. We already know Luke can win space battles – but can he save his father’s soul? It’s that arc in the Return of the Jedi that keeps you on the edge of your seat in that final lightsaber battle, and when Luke is then on the ground screaming in pain for his father to help him.
The prequels, no matter your opinion on them, are then trying to then take you back and show that origin story. Some of the reason why it failed is because Lucas had such a high expectation line from the fans that he would truly never be able to meet it. Everyone knew the story without it needing to be shown on screen. Many would have rather he never showed it at all.
It was that lack of a complete background story that had given the fans had twenty years of their own creativity to make up the missing pieces, pulling things from their own lives and putting them into Anakin Skywalker to make him someone they could all sympathize with.
In conclusion – You need to look at your villains as if they are the most important character in the novel, even more that your hero. They are symbiotic, have had some kind of fall from grace, and there has to be either some hope for redemption or else showing that they are completely irredeemable in order to have them be believable. Then you need to make them human so that your readers can look at them and understand how they work – or think they can try in the cases like the Joker.
You must know their background, even if you don’t plan to reveal it. Know the path that brought them to where they are at the beginning of your book. Write your origins story for them, and keep that in your pile of research or a freebie to give out on your website when it’s published. You already know your hero is going to win, but make it so that your readers may not believe that until you want them to.
And don’t be surprised if they get upset when they lose. And if you kill them off… I would avoid any fan mail with black envelopes and pictures of bloody knives on them. But take comfort in knowing that if you got this response – you did it right.