Limyaael

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08:39 pm: Rant on avoiding a villain monologue
I’m sorry to have been gone so long. Major health issues as well as writer’s block on the rants meant that I had little to post. While I think I’ll be posting more regularly again, I can’t promise it.

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This rant brought to you by Magic Bites, an urban fantasy novel that I read recently and liked well enough—with the exception of one major irritant. I bet you can guess right now what it is.



1) A traitor can tell you as much information as the villain and with better motivation. What bothers me the most about the villain confessing all his plans to the hero or heroine is that usually, he has no reason to do so. Indeed, it’s far better for him and for the plot if he keeps silent. Suspense and suspension of disbelief are not always cousins, but they are here.

If you absolutely must have someone in the know explain all the villain’s Byzantine plots to the protagonist, why not choose a traitor? Surely there has to be someone in the villain’s organization, army, or commune dissatisfied with the way he or she’s been treated. Or it could be because of something the heroes have done. Someone who’s watched her comrades go down to defeat after defeat can easily conclude that she’d like to be on the winning side just as much.

Now, the traitor might have only partial knowledge, depending on how important she was to the villain’s side. But so what? The partial knowledge means a longer tease, leading up to the all-important revelation scene when the protagonist stands awed by the gloomy glory of the villain’s plan. (See point 2).

There’s no reason to rely on dusty dramatic conventions for that all-important monologue when good old-fashioned self-interest will do.

2) Want a mystery element to your plot? Let the protagonist figure out what the villain wants. Quite a lot of stories have an element of the protagonist being puzzled by the villain’s actions. That is fine. Quite a few of these stories then go on to have the villain explain his actions to the protagonist. Not fine.

Seriously, why would you do this? If you’re going to introduce a mystery connected to the villain into the plot, presumably it’s there for a greater purpose than to be punctured like a balloon at the climax. Not to mention that someone who conceals her motives has a reason to conceal them, and that reason is never mentioned or simply negated if she eats the Exposition Mushrooms.

There may be a limit to how well your protagonist can play detective, but that’s where cleverness (of both writing and characterization) comes into it. Let her work with other people; that will build up the secondary characters more and save your heroine from leaping to “intuitive” conclusions about things she can’t actually know and becoming an Author’s Darling. Let her have a minor revelation that is reasonable and within limits that she can then use to connect the evidence that baffled her before. Let her consciously try out several different explanations, have them fail, and then pick the one that fits best.

All of these will make for a better plot and stronger growth on the protagonist’s part than forcing her to sit down and have the villain pour her ears full of poison.

3) Why would she believe this anyway? I’m trying to remember if I ever read a villain monologue in which the protagonist doubts what s/he’s hearing. I can remember a few novels in which the protagonist asked questions of the “But that doesn’t make sense! What about X?” variety, but none in which the monologue ended and s/he did anything but gape at the villain and accept that every part of the dastardly plan had happened exactly as the villain said it had.

No, seriously. Here you have someone who has tried to start a war/has committed murder/has committed rape/turned people into zombies/has tried to take over the world/has tried to destroy the whole of time and space/has done all of these things at once, and you believe him?

...Why?

If you think about it, the villain has every motive to lie, because when the protagonist tries to stop him, s/he will be trying to stop the wrong damn plan. I’m sure some of the sadistic villains that certain authors favor would get an extra laugh out of that.

Inserting a disbelieving protagonist into the scene would be a great way to avoid the usual pitfalls of the monologue, if for some reason you think you have a villain who would give such a monologue. But the time and place for such things is limited.

Which is why you take advantage of the ones that do exist.

4) Plant the protagonist in a place where she has reason to overhear the plan. This could mean infiltration; perhaps the villain is gathering an army and the protagonist sneaks in as a recruit, precisely to hear the inspiring speech that the villain gives to his troops. It could mean impersonation; the protagonist takes the place of someone close to the villain, if she is a good enough spy or actor. (Of course, there would have to be a good reason that the protagonist knew that the trusted adviser, or whoever else she’s playing, didn’t already know about the plan and could believably ask for information on it). It could mean magical eavesdropping from a distance, perhaps by astral travel, perhaps through the eyes of an insect or bird. It could mean suborning or seducing someone close to the villain.

Any and all of those would work better than the monologue. The villain must, on occasion, discuss his plan with other people. Even if he’s the paranoid sort who would never tell the whole of his scheme to anyone else, he has to give orders to his minions, and the protagonist, if she listened or sneaked around enough, could conceivably put the plan together from the separate sets of those orders.

5) Reconsider the reason for keeping the plan a secret at all. Most fantasy villains have to keep their plans secret because otherwise someone would try to stop them. The problem is, people try to stop them anyway based on whatever cover they come up with. If you’re a villain, and you’re really secretly trying to steal a country’s most precious art treasures to use them in a dastardly dark magic ritual, invading the country on the pretext of a war instead might hide your purpose but will not hinder the natives’ determination to kick your teeth in.

If the villain is powerful enough to start a war, is he in a position of enough power that he doesn’t have to hide his motives? He might well be. The excessive concern for what the public might think is largely a relic of a) times when mass communication is available, thus transmitting information more quickly than happens in your typical fantasy world, and b) times when the public is seen as having power, which would be less likely in a monarchical government. (Of course, if both of those things are true in your fantasy world, then you could have a lot of fun with a villain who has to offer soothing lies to the press). The villain is more likely to have to lie to the people immediately in power around him rather than everyone in the entire world.

This could actually work to your protagonist’s advantage, as well as for the betterment of your plot by obviating the necessity for a villain monologue. Say your protagonist is part of a group traditionally considered unimportant by her society. If the villain doesn’t bother to hide his power or his plan from that group, that might make her all the more determined to stop him.



Villain monologues irritate me for the same reason that idiot plots do: there’s no reason for them to exist, not when you have so many interesting tricks to avoid them.

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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2009 07:33 am (UTC)
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a) times when mass communication is available, thus transmitting information more quickly than happens in your typical fantasy world,


This is a big one. If your plot is taking place in an era where communication is slow and literacy is rare, a lot of news is going to be spread by word-of-mouth.

One other thing - I would think a good villain would see the value in too much information as well as too little. Perhaps he puts out tons of different possible plans through people he suspects of being funnels for information to his enemies, so they have to do the painstaking work of trying to figure out what he's actually planning. That kind of ties into your point about the villain lying due his monologue.

Anyways, good to have you back. I did seriously consider that you had either died or become incapacitated by long-term illness; you had mentioned that you were suffering from frequent illness in your November post, and it does happen.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2009 07:35 am (UTC)

One more thing

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If you're having a hard time with writing rants, definitely feel free to write book reviews of stuff you've read or are reading at any time. Your past reviews have been pretty solid stuff.
From:[info]starfishofelves.livejournal.com
Date:December 2nd, 2009 07:42 am (UTC)
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Oh wow, I just mentioned your rants the other day (explaining how I got into ASoIaF =D). It's really nice to see you back, and I hope you're doing better.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2009 07:43 am (UTC)

I was thinking about you lately!!

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I'm so glad you're back--I was even googling you in hopes that I would find out you were alive and okay! I hope you're doing well, and I'm sorry to hear about your ongoing health issues. And a belated happy birthday, too...

I missed you!
-eisoj5
From:[info]folkvangr
Date:December 2nd, 2009 07:45 am (UTC)

Welcome back

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Glad you're back :]

I think the villain monologue is one of the most irritating plot devices to reveal the mystery to the readers; the only times I've ever seen it done well is when it's been done satirically.
Re: Welcome back - (Anonymous)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2009 08:16 am (UTC)
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Was not expecting this, well, ever - I started reading after you had quit posting. It's certainly a pleasant surprise! I hope you're feeling better.

Yeah, villainous monologues are one of those cliches that I always assume is too overdone to continue seriously... And then I'll find another one. I guess it's just an easy way to wrap everything up, but endings shouldn't be easy! I waited this whole time for it!
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From:[info]ide_cyan
Date:December 2nd, 2009 08:55 am (UTC)
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Nice to read you again!
From:[info]dsgood
Date:December 2nd, 2009 09:24 am (UTC)
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Welcome back!

One twist I haven't seen lately: the villain's plan turns out to give more benefits to the Good Guys than to the villain.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2009 10:19 am (UTC)

Yes!

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These rants are my lifeblood. I read them all the time and I really think there's no better tool for aspiring fantasy writers anywhere else. I'm so glad you're back!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 2nd, 2009 10:20 am (UTC)
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So good to see you posting again!

This is Mark from over at LiveJournal...I think my name was latterdayoberon when you and I were interacting a few years back. I did a little bit of critiquing for you at the time. Anyway, my LJ is currently heartofmarkness.livejournal.com...I'm doubly excited to see you posting again because I've had a hankering to re-read the Ravenflower novels but I don't think I have access to the aventalar journal anymore. If you wouldn't mind adding heartofmarkness as a friend on that journal, I'd greatly appreciate it. I'm dying to relive the Awesome that is Eriel. :D

Great rant, btw!
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From:[info]khajidu
Date:December 2nd, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
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Welcome back !!!
And don't be gone for a whole year this time XD

Khajidu
From:[info]gehayi
Date:December 2nd, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC)
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Hooray! It's good to see you again. I'm sorry that you've been suffering from health problems as well as writer's block. (Will probably say more later AFTER I get some sleep.)
From:[info]winterfox.livejournal.com
Date:December 2nd, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
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Welcome back! I was starting to wonder where you'd gone.

Could I ask you for a favor? I know this seems terribly opportunistic especially since you've just come back online after this long, but a friend of mine, shuju_the_red (http://shuju-the-red.livejournal.com/) is facing eviction if she can't gather $2,500 within a few days. She lives in the Philippines and this amount is very, very hefty for her; combined that with the fact that she had to bribe the police to get her mother out of a military camp not long ago--it cost her $10,000--she's severely hard-pressed to dredge up more money right now.

My own journal has limited exposure and I was hoping you might be willing to link to my friend's entry (http://alankria.livejournal.com/149688.html) detailing Ju's circumstances, because every cent will help. I'd understand if you find my request inappropriate considering how long it's been since we last talked (if you even remember me), though.
From:[info]sinande.livejournal.com
Date:December 2nd, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC)
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YOU'RE ALIVE!!! Thank the FSM! Hope those health issues go away for good. And don't worry about writer's block. Post whenever you feel like it, you can be sure we'll be here waiting for you :]

Point (3) is great. Now I'm imagining scenes where an honest villain monologue comes back and bites the disbelieving protagonist in the bum. Although that still makes the villain look stupid, unless he was somehow sure that the hero wouldn't believe him.
From:[info]vatchmebeebil
Date:December 2nd, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
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Yet another excellent rant Limyaael. I will pray for your health and look forward to more rants *Friends*
From:[info]shadowvalkyrie
Date:December 2nd, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
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I'm happy to have you back! Your rants are always inspiring!
From:[info]wyatt1048
Date:December 3rd, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
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Yay! You're back! Good to see that you've got some inspiration, I've missed your insightful thoughts.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 3rd, 2009 03:01 am (UTC)
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Welcome back! Hope your health improves. :)
-otakukeith
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 3rd, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)

Welcome back!

(Link)
So glad you're back and getting better! And don't worry about the writer's block - most of us are just happy you're alive, so we'll be thrilled with whatever you can manage.

"Let her work with other people; that will build up the secondary characters more and save your heroine from leaping to “intuitive” conclusions about things she can’t actually know and becoming an Author’s Darling."

I recently started focusing on this with two different stories, as part of a more general "flesh our your minor characters, goddammit" kick. Both involve scientific/scholastic collaboration, and it's surprising how fun that is to write. It really forces some serious worldbuilding, too. In any case, if a character asks a lot of questions and consults with other people, they seem much smarter than the Author's Darling who pulls the "intuitive" crap left and right.
From:[info]lyorn
Date:December 3rd, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
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Welcome back! *waves*.

I might snatch the "lying monologuing villain" for a current story which might need the monologue exactly *because* it is such a tired dramatic convention, and I'm experimenting on how many tired dramatic conventions I can get together, turn inside out and let loose on one another.
From:[info]cathowl
Date:December 5th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
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Welcome back! I love your rants!

On this one in particular though... It's still fine to have the big villain monologue when the villain is a mad scientist trying to "show them all!", of course. Right?
Hmm - (Anonymous)
From:[info]saturnaliac
Date:December 5th, 2009 07:01 am (UTC)
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Welcome back! I actually started re-reading some of your old rants recently because I was editing a first draft of a novel of mine, so I was like, okay, what has Limyaael ranted about that might be relevant to my odd faux sci-fan story?

I look forward to anything you're up to writing in the future! Definitely missed your rants, but your book reviews are always interesting, too.
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From:[info]the_willow
Date:December 11th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the early Holiday Present.

I'd been wondering if the woods swallowed you up. I seem to recall you claiming you'd post a line at least once every six months to let some folks know you were still kicking. But no doubt health problems knocked that out; they can be all encompassing and exhausting and I'm sorry to learn you're dealing with them. I hope you're soon on the road to recovery.

From:[info]rmg.livejournal.com
Date:January 14th, 2010 10:17 am (UTC)
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It's so nice to see you posting rants again! I've been reading these for like a million years, and they were invaluable when I was building the setting for my the webcomic I'm working on. It's good to have you back! :)
From:[info]slimshadowen
Date:January 24th, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC)

Holy crap!

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You're back! And awesome as ever!

Oddly, while I was reading your rant, my mind kept flashing to a couple of villain rants that were done well and avoided most of the pitfalls listed here.
Re: Holy crap! - (Anonymous)
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