Monday, September 16, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #31: Villains

While brainstorming ideas for this week's topic, the idea of the picture book villain, or antagonist, came to mind.  I immediately thought of Master Zutsu from WINK: THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED, but when I went to my bookshelf to find other examples, I couldn't find any that had strong antagonists.  So I got to thinking...

Where have all the villains gone?

If you think back to fairy tales, there are a ton of them.  Cinderella had her evil step-mother.  Red Riding Hood had the Big Bad Wolf.  The Wolf showed up again to torment the Three Little Pigs.  Basically, you can't fling a dead cat without hitting some big nasty character out to eat/enslave some poor kid.  But nowadays ... not so much.

Why is that?

Well, for one thing, you really can't write about a child being harmed or threatened in any way.  Can you image going into a Barnes & Noble and finding a book where someone is trying to kidnap a kid but the kid outsmarts them with firecrackers.  OMG - never!

You also can't have weapons.

I learned that lesson the hard way.  When I was coming up with story ideas for the second Wink book, I had an idea for WINK AND THE YO-YO OF DOOM.  I got about three sentences into the pitch with my editor when she stopped me cold.  No weapons.  See, even though it was a yo-yo, it was also a weapon.  Boo hiss.

Master Zutsu is an acceptable modern antagonist because he doesn't want to harm Wink in any way, he's just a strict teacher and Wink is not following the rules.  Their conflict isn't about being good and bad, it's about their differing attitudes about what it means to be a ninja.  But because they both have strong personalities, they can play off each other like nemeses.

If you look at the most of the books coming out these days, the conflict comes more from a external problem in the main character's world or an internal problem in the main character (overcoming a fear, for example.)

However, there are a few mini-villains still out there.  (I call them mini-villains b/c there is no great harm intended by them.)

In SECRET PIZZA PARTY by Adam Rubin, art by Daniel Salmieri, our hero, the Raccoon, LOVES pizza.  But he's often chased off (with a broom!) by the pizza man.

In CREEPY CARROTS by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown, the Rabbit is tormented by a group of glaring carrots he sees everywhere he goes.

(Those were the only examples I could find and I'm kind of stretching it with the pizza guy.)

I love a good villain, so I'm sad to see this character on the outs.  Perhaps I'll have to write a good villain picture book.  That said, in constructing the modern picture book villain it seems like I would be wise to follow certain guidelines:

- The villain must not be too villainous.  It can either imply harm, but not exact it - like Creepy Carrots
or it's level of harm must be minimal - like broom swatting a raccoon. (And this only flies b/c the main character is not human.)

- In the case of a human MC, the villain may cause trouble to the main character's goal, without causing the main character physical harm. (Master Zutsu)

- The villain may be scary to the main character, but shouldn't be too scary to the reader.

- No weapons

- The villain should have a justifiable reason for his/her actions.  (In Creepy Carrots, the carrots are stalking the bunny so he'll stop eating them.)

Is there more?  Do you guys know of any good villains in picture books that I've left out.  I'd love to hear about them!


Mirka Breen said...

In old writing villains could be unremitting and unlikable. The new way is to paint heroes with flaws, and villains with virtues.
I must say I like the new way.

Julie_c said...

I like both. I certainly like have faceted characters but I do miss a good old fashioned villain sometimes.

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

I think Bob Staake did a fair job in incorporating kid "villains" in BLUEBIRD, although they were not central to the story they were a potent plot device.

Anna Staniszewski said...

I hadn't considered the weapon aspect, but that's a really good point. Funny how even a yo-yo can be a weapon!