The Gearheart – A Free Audiobook

The Gearbox: The Blackest Heart Doesn’t Beat

by on Mar.25, 2010, under The Gearbox

Today, I’d like to write a brief note about villains for every aspiring writer out there.

I think a lot of The Gearheart‘s success is a function of the way it taps into old pulp formulas.  Heroic characters rise to the challenge against a great menace.  Gun battles, airplane chases and explosions ensue.  The first chapters were created to be simplistic, easy to read snippets of fun.  I hoped to draw the reader into a two-dimensional, comic book universe where they thought the decisions would be easy.  People tell me they get that when they hear the story, and that makes me intensely happy.

However, as the reader progressed, I wanted decisions to become more difficult, the characters to be more developed and, most of all, I wanted to subvert your sense of ease.  I had hoped to lull you into a happy place, only to shake you from your hammock when the time was right.  Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say.  That’s your job.

This is a really long way of saying, “I don’t believe in the old pulp formulas.”

In the old pulps, you have a hero and a villain.  The hero is heroic.  The villain is villainous.  The lady character is confused and easily manipulated.  Done.  It’s a pretty straightforward thing.  Unless there is some great exception, you can expect a pulp to follow the standard arc with little to no deviation.  That’s why they were considered to be cheap, disposable fiction.

However, I don’t believe this is the answer- especially not for antagonists.  I believe there are no villains, only people.  Every single person in the world, no matter how evil, has a reason for what they do.  Each tiny interaction is the product of previous stimuli and years of built-up motivation.  Granted, their choices may not always be the most noble, well thought-out or understandable.  However, an antagonist should truly believe in their cause, whether it is love, the betterment of mankind, or simply themselves. Even Old Man Withers from Scooby Doo just wanted everyone to leave so he could sell the amusement park.

When you write that mustache-twisting, railroad-dynamiting nemesis, I believe you’re doing your story a grave disservice. Likewise, if you write someone who is merely a victim of mental of sexual dysfunction (I’m looking at you, mid-90s thrillers!), then you have chosen a shortcut. People are more than a label or a list of psychobabble buzzwords.

All I’m saying is this: When you write your villain, you should do everything in your power to capture the essence of a person. Write an antagonist, not a villain. As a small corollary I would like to add that, just because a character or person is three-dimensional, that doesn’t mean we have to like them.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Sharah Blankenship

    So this book was my first foray into Steampunk, aside from the anime movie Steamboy and some works by Hayao Miyazaki.

    That being said, I really enjoyed the podcast, and I really enjoyed the characters depth and capacity to grow and change. I also appreciated the depth of Nicolas. I didn’t like him, it would be hard to like someone that functionally demented, but the fact that he wasn’t just a bad guy because he hated all humanity or desired to “rule the world” was nice. It is a difficult job to write a believable and human villian. It’s far easier to write them as just “monsters”.

    Kudos to you and your lovely wife, this podcast has been interesting, well written and much appreciated. My husband, who doesn’t fancy podcast novels all that much, is into it as well, which makes me happy.

    Please do tell me that you guys will be continuing to write, and perhaps even continuing with this world?


  • Richard A McCullough

    Re: Antagonists I agree. I take it a step further and contend that the antagonist must illustrate a premise just as the protagonist illustrates a premise. And this interweaving of two apposing story lines is the material from which the writer derives the story that he winds up telling (accept we never “tell” but only “show”).


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