The Grand Mystery of It All

AverageEverygirl052Apparently there’s an unspoken rule that fictional detectives have to be off the beaten path, so to speak. I suppose we can blame that one on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his hyper-intelligent sociopath of a creation. A hundred-twenty or so years after Sherlock’s inception, the Quirky Detective has become a staple of both literature and film.

A few prominent examples of this delectable trope:

  • Sherlock Holmes (of course): anti-social and hoarding tendencies, with a smattering of recreational drug use when he’s bored.
  • Hercule Poirot: Belgian, with an enormous ego and exceptional vanity; fastidious and persnickety in his affectations.
  • Nero Wolfe: unapologetically obese, zealous about food and orchids; practically a shut-in and devoted to his daily rituals.

Almost everything about these characters screams “Eccentric!” even down to their very names. (What, you know a lot of people named Sherlock, Hercule, and Nero out there? Sure you do.) All three detectives are extremely intelligent. They also exhibit a marked indifference—even aversion—towards women, insofar as love is concerned.

We wouldn’t want any icky romance getting in the way of our sleuthing, now, would we?

But really, that particular quirk is almost a relief, because in some ways, this eccentric archetype is so off-putting that you’d have to pity anyone who was in a relationship with them. (Can you even imagine Hercule Poirot with a wife? Or a lover? The little grey cells, how they perish at the thought!)

As my stick-figure caricature indicates, Poirot is my favorite of this lot. For some reason, I like him even better knowing that his own creator did not.

“Why, why, why did I ever invent this detestable, bombastic, tiresome little creature?” ~ Agatha Christie

I especially like that Dame Agatha parodied herself in her fictional Ariadne Oliver and her doubly fictional Sven Hjerson. Ariadne, one presumes, provides a lovely window into Agatha’s life dealing with such a fussy main character.

“How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen.” ~Ariadne Oliver

(As an aside, Arthur Conan Doyle apparently hated Holmes, too. No word on how Rex Stout felt about Wolfe.)

In homage to this trope, detectives across all media platforms display a full spectrum of eccentricities.

  • Batman: dresses up in bat-themed clothing and roams the streets at night. (Does it get more eccentric than this?)
  • Adrian Monk: OCD to an extreme and (rightfully) pining after his dead wife.
  • Shawn Spencer: fake psychic; also a man-child with a fear of commitment.
  • Flavia de Luce: 11 years old, morbidly fixated on chemistry and death.

We love them not in spite of their eccentricities, but because of them. To separate the Quirky Detectives from their traits would be to bleach their very characters of color.

But sometimes… Sometimes those eccentricities push their welcome a little too far. Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back, breathe deep, and look to some other genre for entertainment.

There’s a threshold of tolerance in the consumer. It’s like eating deviled eggs. One is delicious. Two is quite nice. A dozen is cause to upchuck into a trashcan, because your system literally cannot handle that many eggs in one sitting.

Or maybe that’s just me. I loves me some eccentric sleuths, but you won’t find me binge-reading any such series. (Or binge-watching, as the case may be.) In small doses they are delightful. In large, they’re a headache.

(Yes, even you, Poirot. I’m sorry to break the news.)

The Man to Trust When the World Falls Apart


Here’s what I don’t understand. If someone majorly screws up, why is that same someone trusted to correct the massive error? You may be as well-meaning as a nun, O Clumsy Protagonist, but I instinctively want you far, far away from anything and everything regarding the conflict you just caused.

But of course, the protagonist must prove his worth. And, as the Narrative Fates would often have it, he pretty much ends up being the only one capable of correcting the mistake.

Because contrived plot.

Or not. In justifying this trope, I’ve come up with some possible reasons a bumbling protagonist might be let back into the action.


The protagonist is related to the person in charge, who may or may not be competent. Assuming the relative of higher status is competent, one of the following conditions may apply:

  1. The relative has a soft spot for the bumbling protagonist and feels obligated to let them give the fix an honest try.
  2. The relative shrewdly sees the conflict as an opportunity for the bumbling protagonist to mature and develop their character.
  3. The relative hates the bumbling protagonist and sees this as an opportunity to let them die without having to actively kill them.

Note that in the first two conditions, the conflict can’t be too dire. You don’t send someone you care about into a situation that’s obviously far above their abilities, character-development opportunity or not. Such an act would tip the higher-ranked relative toward the incompetent side of the scale (which I’m not against, mind you) unless the situation is so dire that there’s absolutely no hope to overcome it.

I mean, if everyone’s going to die anyway, why not let the screw-up take a whack at solving things, amirite?


The protagonist bears marks that indicate they are the Prophesied Hero. Whoever is in charge recognizes this and defers to that belief.

This one can readily feel like a cheap ploy, unless those prophesies are solid as all get-out. I guess my belief in this would depend heavily on the world-building and character development for the story. If either of these are shoddy, kiss the validity of this excuse goodbye.

Its near cousin, Mistaken for a Prophesied Hero, gets trotted out fairly frequently. The protagonist gets called before higher powers who think he’s a Prophesied Hero, he screws up royally (thus disproving their assumptions), and then works to fix his error. Sometimes he ends up being the true Prophesied Hero after all. Sometimes he proves that we each determine our own fate.


The protagonist is forbidden from helping to fix the problem, but they defy orders. Some possibilities for this one:

  1. They stow away with the company of heroes, not discovered until it’s too late to return them.
  2. They switch places with the chosen hero, and no one discovers the switch until it’s too late.
  3. They set off on their own, perhaps with a trusted friend or animal sidekick, and no one discovers they’re missing until it’s too late.

You might have noticed a common theme. In cases involving subterfuge, timing is an essential factor. Because no one wants the protagonist anywhere near the conflict, no one can discover what they’re up to until they’re past the point of no return. Otherwise they get sent back to square one.

Long Story Short

I’m sure there are a multitude of situations that might justify a bumbling protagonist getting a second chance. The one that doesn’t fly, for me, is when they receive that second chance simply because they’re the protagonist.

“Why?” is the best question an author can ask when plotting a story. If there’s no sure answer, keep digging until you have one.

The Right Man for the Job


The perfect pupil for a mentor/pupil relationship, if literary tradition is any indication, fits the following template:

  • Male
  • Well-meaning
  • “Ordinary” looks

And it doesn’t hurt if he’s orphaned and maybe living with a possibly unsympathetic uncle.

Epic heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker come most readily to mind. In that same vein, we never see Frodo Baggins’s parents, while his Uncle Bilbo plays a prominent role. Oliver Twist at least lives in a workhouse instead of with heartless relatives; his literary cousin, Pip Pirrip, lives with a trenchant sister rather than an uncle (although her age does put her in a different generation than him).

And all of these heroes are “ordinary,” except that they’re not.

In many cases, the author goes out of their way to describe an average appearance, perhaps something tipping toward the lower end of the physical appearance spectrum. But not too low. We wouldn’t want our hero to be outright ugly or repulsive. Instead, we find them skinny, a little on the short side, with unruly hair or freckles or some other minor aesthetic flaw. They can grow into their handsome looks along with the plot.

(If they have a quick transformation into handsome looks via magic or some other supernatural means—which, sadly, does happen—the MarySue alarm should be clanging in your ears. Just FYI.)

In essence, the “perfect pupil” is a blank canvas, something that the mentor, narrator, and author all can draw upon to create the hero that we as readers are conditioned to expect.

And while it’s a nice template, and has certainly been put to good use, imagine the possibilities if you switch up the elements. Take a moment to consider the following character templates as the pupil in a mentor-pupil relationship:

  1. Male, well-meaning, eye-candy
  2. Male, malevolent, “ordinary” looks
  3. Male, malevolent, eye-candy
  4. Female, well-meaning, “ordinary” looks
  5. Female, well-meaning, eye-candy
  6. Female, malevolent, “ordinary” looks
  7. Female, malevolent, eye-candy

With only three characteristics, a whole spectrum of scenarios emerge. (And that without even taking the pupil’s family situation into account.)

And now, a linguistic aside. Among its methods of language classifications, the field of typology looks at basic, “unmarked” word order. That is, it asks, “What is the underlying structure for this language?”

With three constituents—Subject (S), Verb (V), Object (O)—there are six possible combinations:

  1. SOV
  2. SVO
  3. VSO
  4. VOS
  5. OVS
  6. OSV

These are listed in order of frequency across the world’s languages. (Old English was SOV, but Middle English switched to SVO. Possibly because it was actually a creole between OE and French and creoles tend to be SVO. But I digress.)

For a decent chunk of time, #6 (OSV) was only theoretical. What language could possibly have a basic word order of Object-Subject-Verb? Even its nearest neighbor OVS amounted to only 1% of samples.

And then linguists went mucking about in the Amazon basin. Surprise! There lurked the underlying OSV structure.

This structure, with the handful of languages that fall into its classification, statistically amounts to 0% of the world’s languages.

But it exists.

(Proud Yoda would be.)

While it’s certainly fun to explore the field of languages that fall under the more common SOV and SVO word orders, the mere existence of OSV is something to celebrate and cherish.

In that same spirit, while it’s certainly fun to explore the ranks of male, well-meaning, ordinary-looking heroes, variations of that template ought to be encouraged. There’s room for a full spectrum of characters in literary canon. Any gaps simply mean we haven’t gone exploring deep enough into our creative jungles.

How to Recruit a Proper Apprentice


I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any mentor characters who go from place to place looking for a pupil. Most mentors seem to lurk in the background, aware of the epic hero, watching his progress up until the point that he’s ready for instruction…

And it’s not at all creepy. I mean, random old men are keeping tabs on you, right?


Okay, so in some respects, a wandering mentor would be better than the window-stalking variety. And there are certainly the reluctant mentors, those hermits living out in the middle of nowhere who don’t want to pass on their skills to anyone, let alone an upstart brat that appears on their doorstep to demand training.

Mentors, then, can come in several varieties. They have one commonality, though: they need a pupil before they can fulfill their role.

And different character archetypes qualify for that position in different ways. In accordance with today’s strip, let’s have a brief look at three such archetypes.

The Dashing Rogue

The Dashing Rogue excels at flouting authority, not obeying it. If he becomes the pupil in a mentor/pupil relationship, it’s probably after some severely humbling event that forces him to see how inept he really is against the enemies he faces.

The mentor/pupil relationship that involves a Dashing Rogue on the pupil side makes for some wonderful comedy fodder, though. Come to think of it, a Dashing Rogue on the mentor side of the relationship would probably do the same thing. Hmm.

*wanders off to plot characters*

The Sidekick

Let’s be honest here. The Sidekick has dismal chance for a straight-up mentor/pupil relationship. Sure, maybe they’ll get a secondary mentor, but the really cool mentor is always reserved for the hero. Or the hero is the sidekick’s mentor, in a Batman-and-Robin sort of scenario, and whatever moments the sidekick has to shine are quickly overshadowed by the hero’s derring-do.

A mentor/pupil relationship that involves a sidekick, then, tends to be underwhelming and serves to highlight the hero more than to enrich the sidekick. Which is kind of depressing to think about. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

The MarySue

When the hero is a MarySue, the mentor-pupil relationship runs into a few snags. MarySue, being perfect, doesn’t have horrendous learning curves to conquer when acquiring a new skill. There might be a token stumble in the process, but chances are she’s a Secret Genius at whatever she’s trying to learn.

(I’m sure we can all think of characters who have that special Knack for the one skill that’s going to save their bacon at the end of the story.)

Thus, mentoring MarySue often tips over into a going-through-the-motions exercise. The mentor, usually an irritable grouch who would trounce any other cocksure know-it-all, probably exhibits a soft spot for MarySue, indulges her whims, and ultimately defers to her exceptional prowess.

This mentor/pupil relationship leads to cheesy lines like “The pupil has surpassed the master.” While matching or surpassing really is the true goal of any mentor/pupil relationship, MarySue practically floats to it. Because she’s special like that.

And her mentor is always awesomesauce-on-a-stick, which just proves how much more awesomesauce-on-a-stick she is to have surpassed him.

The Search Continues

If none of these archetypes fits your mentor/pupil relationship needs, fear not! There are plenty of other archetypes to explore!

Oh, who am I kidding? This trope drifts towards the same outcome 90% of the time.

But that is a post for another day.


The Three Sworn Duties of an Epic Mentor



Sometimes the Mentor-Pupil relationship comes across more as trolling than education. Don’t get me wrong: I loves me some character manipulation. There should always be a purpose behind it, though, or it falls into the territory of contrived plot device rather than logical necessity.

As a disclaimer, I love the three mentors I’m about to skewer. They are wonderful characters. However, I sort of feel like they’re a bit sadistically manipulative at the same time. (And maybe that’s why I love them. Who knows.)

Also, a warning: Spoilers ahead, but not of anything recent. Proceed at your own peril.

1. Withholding Important Information

Poster Child: Dallben of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain.

This guy. Seriously. He’s raised Taran from infancy and has told him basically nothing. In fact, the fourth book in the series, Taran Wanderer, revolves around Taran’s search for himself. He wanders all over Prydain, seeking where he might have come from, what he’s supposed to do with himself, soul-searching, getting conned by people who take advantage of his ignorance, etc. He’s in love with a woman of noble birth, and he wants to discover whether he’s good enough for her. And he learns a ton of stuff and is a better person for it.

But freaking Dallben waits until the very last chapter of the fifth book to admit, “Yeah, I don’t know who your parents are. I found you hidden in a forest next to a battlefield where every other man, woman, and child was killed. You could be anyone’s kid.”

And yes, there’s some excuse about prophecies not turning out the proper way, but I never could see how this information would have derailed Taran’s choices or his life’s path. On the contrary, it could have given him greater confidence from the start, to know that his life was whatever he chose to make of it because he wasn’t beholden to titles or the lack thereof.

But then, half the angst of the series would vanish. Dallben’s strategic withholding of information serves its narrative purpose, but it also makes him look like kind of a jerk.

(But of course he doesn’t care, because he’s Dallben.)

2. Disappearing at Critical Moments

Poster Child: Albus Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

“Look, children! There’s deadly peril at Hogwarts, but I, the all-powerful wizard, am going to vanish so that you twelve-year-olds can deal with it on your own!”

I know there were always reasons for Dumbledore not to be around when the plot took its nosedive into calamity, but I also feel like eliminating a genocidal maniac from the presence of school children kind of takes precedence over any other demands on one’s time. I mean, if Zombie Hitler somehow attached himself to the back of one of my school teachers’ heads, I’d hope my principal would intervene instead of sitting back like, “Yeah, let’s see how this plays out. The kids’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

The point of the novels, though, is Harry’s growth, not Dumbledore’s prowess. Thus Harry must be an agent who acts rather than an object or appendage to the action. From a narrative standpoint, his Wizened Mentor must fade away into the shadows for this to occur.

(But part of me is still like, “Really, Dumbledore? You’re letting kids risk their lives? Really?”)

3. Dying at the Enemy’s Hand

Hmm. So many to choose from here. Gandalf the Gray? Albus Dumbledore (again)? Abbe Faria? But I’m actually going to turn to film instead and go with my ultimate example of this trope.

Poster Child: Obi-Wan Kenobi of George Lucas’s Star Wars.

I was probably five years old the first time I saw these movies. (The originals. We’ll not speak of the prequels.) I still remember watching that scene where Obi-Wan is fighting Darth Vader and Luke runs into view of the pair of them. And Obi-Wan, that manipulative old goat, simply smirks, puts up his light saber, and gets hewn down on the spot.

It’s almost as if he’s been thinking to himself the whole movie, “How can I get this whiny kid to commit to the Good Side?” and in that moment, he’s like, “Bingo!”

And it works up until Luke learns that Obi-Wan withheld some pretty crucial information from him. But that’s a throwback to Item #1.

At least Obi-Wan’s death has an emotional impact, though. I once read a book (that shall not be named) where the mentor died and the main character was blubbering over it, and I was sitting there going, “Why are you even sad? Can we please get on with this story already?”

That was not a good day.

Long story short, if the mentor has to die, make sure that everyone loves him like they love Gandalf, Dumbledore, Abbe Faria, Obi-Wan, etc.

(I’d include Dallben in that list, but he’s a combo-breaker, so cunning that he puts a secondary mentor in place to take that figurative bullet for him. RIP, Coll Son of Collfrewr.)

A Small Matter of Priorities


I’ll admit it. I tried the helmet on Prissy. It would have required me to alter her bangs, and that cute little barrette would have had nowhere to go. Barrettes under helmets are painful, and I couldn’t see Prissy casting hers aside.

Villains, like protagonists, need to have their priorities, after all.

Priorities determine a villain’s objectives, their motivation to achieve those objectives, and how much time they dedicate to the whole endeavor. A villain who prizes puppies above all else will stop in the middle of a murderous rampage to pet one, or at least agonize over the decision. (And, presumably, will be the villain of a slapstick.) Likewise, a villain who prizes power will stop at nothing to gain it.

The cliché Villain’s Exposition speech sometimes contradicts a villain’s presumed priorities. For example, how many times has James Bond been in the clutches of his arch-nemesis, only to have that arch-nemesis pause and expound upon his grand dream of destruction and control instead of just blowing Bond to bits? That’s not a villain who truly craves power. That’s a villain who craves validation.

“You see, Mr. Bond? I’m so insecure that I must have your reaction to my diabolical plans before I kill you, so that I may savor your shock and defeat all the more during those long, cold nights when I’m all alone. Only my cat loves me. And only because I feed him.”

But then, the villain simply pulling the trigger (or lever, or switching, or whatever mechanism will bring about death and mayhem) doesn’t draw out the suspense: Will Bond escape? How will he outsmart the bloviating bad guy?

Just kidding. No one goes to Bond for suspense. They go to him for action and fighting and explosions and babes and manly grunts. So it doesn’t matter that he keeps running up against insecure would-be despots who mask their insecurity with a supposed thirst for power or revenge. The Bond villain is simply part of the Bond formula. His priorities are pretty messed up, but that’s human nature for you.

In real life, there are always two sets of priorities: the What I Say and the What I Do. Rarely do these two sets match up, because humans are fractured creatures. Applying this duality to fictional characters brings an interesting dimension of reality to a story. It can either kick the reader out or draw them further in.

“Why did she do that?” The answer to this question must be something better than, “Because that’s how the story gets from A to B.” Everything a well-rounded character does ties back to who that character is as a person. If it doesn’t, the character’s not well rounded, and the canny reader, accustomed to interacting with well-rounded people in real life, will be able to tell the difference.

This applies to protagonists, antagonists, window characters, and the rest of the character spectrum.

Exhausting to consider in its full scope? Yes, absolutely.

Should writers make it a priority in their craft?

(I’m sure you can guess my answer to that.)

A Battle of the Sexes


This particular installment of Average Everygirl is, of course, pure silliness. Or is it?

Cheerleaders are pretty dang strong. They have to be to accomplish all of the lifts and flips and back handsprings and whatnot. Plus there’s all that running and dancing and… y’know… cheering. The more I’ve contemplated it, the more I’m convinced that a cheerleader could make a pretty awesome villain. So why is it that when one appears in that role, bullying and humiliation are the typical calling cards of her villainy instead of racketeering or gun running? Is it because she dedicates too much of her life to physical prowess already?

On the other hand, maniac genius inventor-villains have spent the lion’s share of their time experimenting, usually in a lab with neutral-colored walls and fluorescent lighting. There probably hasn’t been much bench-pressing in their past, and yet, the minute these glorified nerds get a ray gun and a cape, they’re somehow prime physical specimens, ready to crush the world. Their villainy takes the form of death and mayhem—in addition to any psychological elements, depending on how intelligent a character the villain is supposed to be.

Sometimes, the psychological warfare of a lesser female villain renders her more hated than the all-out genocide of a major male villain. (See Dolores Umbridge vs. Lord Voldemort for a prime example of this.) Sometimes, when poorly executed, it renders her into a caricature.

Women in general are physically weaker than men, so it makes some sense to gear a female villain’s evil-doings more towards the psychological end of the physical-psychological spectrum. If you’re going to pit a cheerleader against a lab-chair jockey in a physical fight, though, my money’s on the cheerleader.

Unfortunately, when a physically powerful female villain does come on scene, more often than not she’s posed as a sex object: super hot, super fit, and wearing super tight clothing that reveals every curve and dimple.

And in the event that she’s not impossibly attractive, she’ll probably be repulsive beyond all measure. Girl-as-Object doesn’t apply only to female protagonists.

The best female villains, though, are the ones who don’t have to pull on a spandex bodysuit to get attention. They can employ a mix of physical and psychological assaults against their victims. They are clever, devious, manipulative, self-serving, and they use their “weaker sex” stereotype to its full advantage. They are, in other words, fully rounded characters instead of flat, uninspiring Mean Girls.

And we need more of them, just as we need more level-headed female protagonists.

Really, why should men get to have all the fun?

A Heroine’s Lament


Let’s talk about sexism in literature, shall we?

*cracks open ginormous Can O’Worms*

When was the last time we had a series about a brave, courageous heroine facing a juggernaut of a villain? …that wasn’t in the “Thriller” category? …and where the heroine was not referred to as “gutsy” or “feisty” in any of the promotional copy/interviews?

(As an aside, I’m not really sure why the Thriller genre allows for women to take leading roles against heinous bad guys, but I suspect that it makes for higher drama, of the “Ooh, look! She’s part of the more delicate sex, so her chances of success are even lower than if she were a man” variety. Which is sexist. But I’ll give the genre kudos for letting women take the lead anyway.)

Now, for those series that do have a brave, courageous heroine facing a juggernaut of a villain, cross out all the stories that play some romantic pairing or love triangle as just as important a conflict.


Sadly, I’m drawing a blank here.

There’s an unspoken line between what’s okay for heroines versus heroes. Heroines, for example, do not get a story that starts when they’re 11 years old and progresses through the next seven years of their life, to culminate in them defeating a genocidal maniac. But seriously, how cool would something like Hattie Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been? (And yes, I’m using the British “Philosopher’s Stone,” because we all know that American publishers would have gone back and said, “Hey, we’re changing the name of the book… and your heroine’s a dude now because that sells better.” I’m at least giving the British ones the benefit of the doubt. /cynicism)

Far from the elusive 11-years-old starting point, most of the “strong heroine” books I can think of start with a heroine in the 14- to 16-years-old range. And we all know why.

“Oooooooh! Who’s her love interest?”

When I think “Bildungsromans with girls,” I think of Anne of Green GablesPollyanna, and other such fare. Domestic plots, easily won-over “villains,” muted love possibilities that will grow through sequels as the heroine gets old enough to be paired off, and so forth. These are wonderful books, but they’re also very tame.

Where’s the adventure for a female protagonist? Are there fantasy Bildungsromans that feature girls? Yes, they exist. They maybe don’t get as much attention as boy-as-main-character books do, and there are often some weird dynamics that wouldn’t necessarily work if genders were swapped. Like girls growing up to marry centuries-old fairy-types. (Boys growing up to marry centuries-old fairy-types kind of gets the side-eye from society, don’cha know? But I cringe a little when either gender marries a centuries-old fairy-type, to be honest. Can you imagine the culture shock in that marriage?)

This is a conundrum I’m still kind of muddling through. I have a rule that if someone sees a gap in the spectrum of literature, it’s that someone’s responsibility to fill it. This allows me to fob off other people’s writing projects—(what’s with the whole, “Oh, you’re a writer? I have a book idea that you should write for me” mentality in some people, anyway?)—but at the same time, looking at all the projects on my plate, I’m not so sure I can take up this banner at the moment.

(Which means, of course, that I’m already fiddling around with it in the back of my head.)

I’m at least happy to start the conversation. What values do we place on our heroines vs. our heroes? What restrictions? And why do we do it?

“Why” is the most important question of all. It always points to truth, if you dig deep enough.

(Thank you, Socrates.)

A Villain Is as a Villain Does


Ah, the One-Dimensional Villains, those Snidely Whiplash clones that populate the Grand Imaginarium where all fictional characters live together. They are mean and evil because they were born that way. They deserve any misfortune that comes to them. We are to rejoice when their caricatured plans go awry.

Sometimes they have names so comically evil that you can’t help but think, “What parent named their kid that?”

Sometimes they’ve taken that comically evil name upon themselves, to show how awesomely wicked they are.

Sometimes they are evil Just Because.

The Two-Dimensional Villains weren’t necessarily born that way. There may exist, somewhere in their past, a Trauma (their second dimension). Often their inability to cope with that trauma in a mature way results in their villainy.

“This person hurt my widdle feewings, so I MUST DESTROY THEM.”

The Trauma usually exists to invoke empathy in the reader, or to teach a moral lesson. If the creator is not careful, this class of villain can end up feeling flat, like they only ever existed to push a narrative. They serve their purpose, however, when the story wants to focus more on the protagonist’s internal development than any external conflicts.

The Three-Dimensional Villains, for me, come in two types.

First, there are the ones whose characters are so well developed that you almost kind of want to root for them instead. They have backstory. They battle disappointments and insecurities. Their nefarious plans often come about because of a twisted Savior Complex or a stalwart belief that their cause is just. This type frequently crosses over into antihero territory, the villains you love to love.

And sometimes, these villains are villains only because their worldview opposes that of the story’s protagonist, not because they themselves are wrong.

The second type are the sociopaths, those who commit evil acts because they enjoy it, because they don’t care about consequences. As Batman’s butler Alfred so eloquently says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (h/t The Dark Knight)

The Joker actually serves as a great example of the villain spectrum: Cesar Romero’s Joker to Jack Nicholson’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s Joker, who makes his predecessors look like… they came from the pages of a comic book. (Which, in all fairness, they did.) Each representation has value, and each carries his story well. But even though they all represent the same source material, they’re each developed to such a different degree that there’s no mistaking one for the other.

Villains should always match the depth of the story in which they appear. Whether they are born to villainy or choose that destructive path of their own free will, they carry an essential role.

A good story always has a good villain.

(But not “good” good, you know.)

Envy and the It-Couple



DESIRABLE MALE is dating EVIL HARRIDAN. They are the it-couple of their social circle. NOBLE HEROINE waits in the wings, longing.

READER quietly gags into a barf bag.

The above lines are actual stage directions from the scene that occurs every time I encounter this trope.

Reason #1

For me, “dating an evil harridan” immediately disqualifies a male from being desirable. I don’t care if he’s the nicest, sweetest, best-looking-est dreamboat ever to sail the seven seas. If his girlfriend is truly as awful as all get-out, he’s lost all sympathy from me. He’s choosing that sort of person to spend his time and affection upon, which brings into question his value system and his ability to judge good or bad character in others.

And you can give me a song-and-dance about “But she pretends to be nice when she’s around him, so he’s being completely deceived,” but I will call BS. There are red flags, always. A selfish person can’t pretend to be selfless 100% of the time, and the more selfish, the more likely those little cues will leak out.

Unfortunately, when people are in lurrrrrve, they often choose to brush off the red flags because lurrrrrve makes people twitter-pated and foolish.

But twitter-pated, foolish people are not desirable. So again, I have no sympathy for the guy.

Reason #2

This trope pits women against each other. “He would be better off with me. She’s not good enough for him.” Feelings of envy and discontent are bad enough, but when directed from one woman against another, it tears down all women collectively. I realize that’s a broad statement to make, but we have enough messages pitting us against one another already. Can we drop the competition in this one instance, please?

“But I’m better than her. I deserve that relationship more than her.”

No. No you don’t. No one is better than anyone else. Stop with the envy, stop wishing other people the misery of breaking up, stop being an all-around bitter shrew. If the relationship really is doomed, it doesn’t need your help, and there are probably a lot of lessons both parties need to learn in the process.

(Yes, this is the dialogue I have with fictional characters embroiled in Pining from a Distance. Also called Stalking in some states.)

Candid Time with Kate

I had the very unpleasant experience a few years back of having successive encounters with a woman who wanted me to date her son. She talked this guy up to me every chance she got, and every time, some new detail would surface.

He had a girlfriend. Of several years. Who lived in another country. And who was 12-15 years younger than him. And very beautiful. And belonged to a different faith. And was the one who had pursued him, not the other way around.

I tried to be discouraging. I told her point-blank, as soon as the detail of his having a girlfriend came up, that as far as I was concerned, he might as well be married. He wasn’t available and I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be trying to set me up with him.

Would that that had been the end of it.

The next time she brought him up, I asked, “Is he still together with his girlfriend?” in a “Why are you still talking to me about this guy?” tone of voice.

“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t think it will last for much longer.” Then, with a secretive smile of camaraderie, she added, “Keep praying.”

To channel Cher from Clueless: “As if!”

As if I would pray for the demise of a relationship. As if I would play the role of the Other Woman. As if I was even remotely interested!

The setting in which we met prevented me from saying, “Lady! I would never in a million years want to date someone who would willingly choose the type of relationship you’re describing!” Far from thinking this younger, exotic woman was an evil succubus (as the doting mama intended), I felt sorry for her. The guy was leading her on, keeping her dangling in a “relationship” for years because she was enamored of him. It was easy work on his part.

And I was supposed to be pining for this bloke?

Hahaha. No.

And yet, if his mother’s repeated attempts were any indication, she was convinced I would be just that desperate. Thanks bunches.

For me, if the pattern doesn’t fly in real life, it doesn’t fly in fiction. There’s no hope I’ll sympathize with a character who pines for a man already in a relationship. And I certainly won’t be rooting for her to end up with the dreamboat, no matter how dreamboat-y he is.

If it’s literary fiction where everyone is supposed to be flawed and miserable, that’s one thing. But when this is portrayed as a normal behavioral baseline, I’m out.

Sorry, not sorry.