My Top Villains

I do so love a good villain. Who doesn't? In some stories, they're more captivating than the hero. But how do you go about making a villain great?

I was recently reading a post on Murderati that suggested I begin by just listing my favorite villains, then looking to see what they had in common. Here goes:

(FYI: Spoilers for various media ahead)

1. Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs

My A-1 fave. There are so many things about Hannibal that draw me in: his utter depravity (dude, he eats people!), his paradoxical refinement (a bottle of Chianti indeed!), that creepy little voice (thanks for the nightmares, Anthony Hopkins).

But I think what captivates me most about Hannibal are the illusions he creates. You could almost believe he wants to help you. No matter how many times he fucks with you, you could almost believe he's going to play this one straight.

It's the refinement, I think. The articulate speech. The manners. It contrasts so beautifully with his inner viciousness that it almost completely disguises it.

2. Javert, Les Miserables

Javert is an odd duck, because he's exactly the opposite of what most fiction texts will tell you to make your characters. Well-rounded he ain't.

Javert's got exactly one thing going, his steadfast belief in the law. He's sort of the single-minded, Terminator-style villain, coming after Jean Valjean no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. But it's the end of his story that, for me, elevates him from your basic, garden-variety villain.

For me, the moment where Javert chooses he would rather die than live as a changed man is always exquisitely painful, yet thrilling. It mixes redemption (he lets Valjean go!) with the inability to change (he throws himself into the Seine). Two grippingly powerful personal events melded seamlessly and believably. If I could write a scene like that someday, I'd be happy.

3. Mrs. Iselin, The Manchurian Candidate

You want depravity, this woman has it in spades. What sort of mother could be so utterly devoid of human feeling that she could use her own son as a killing machine?

Mrs. Iselin is a great villain because she's so inhuman and creepy, but paradoxically she's also great because she's so believable. She's built on a real archetype: the power-grubbing politician's wife. With a few big twists that make her completely diabolical.

4. Gollum, the Lord of the Rings trilogy

It's the tragedy of this character that draws me in. The split-personality archetype is always fascinating for its sheer weirdness and spookiness, and the way it was done in the recent movie trilogy was absolutely amazing.

One Gollum plots death and destruction for our heroes, and when he speaks even his voice is twisted with hate. The other Gollum wants to be good and true, and what we hear in his voice is fear.

It's just gripping, chilling, and horrible, and it's a way of taking a real struggle we can all identify with -- the struggle to be a good person -- and amping it up to the Nth level. There's something to connect to there.

5. The Borg, Star Trek

Here we've got a villain that's inhuman in the extreme. Aside from their great strength and adaptability, what makes them epically chilling is that they simply don't acknowledge the sanctity of human life or rights. They just don't get it.

In this way, they're kind of a stand-in for the very worst humanity can be when we come together in force and decide to steamroll over someone else's rights. Naziism, genocide, the slave trade: these are the actions of a Borg-like people. The Borg are us without empathy. Now that's creepy.

6. Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

What makes Angel a great villain for me is his sadism. Sure, Angel can kill you, but given the choice, he'd much rather hurt you.

And he knows how to do it up right. Angel is an emotional sadist, using guilt, grief, fear, and humiliation to get at his victims. So much more effective than a physical sadist, and certainly a lot more fun to watch.

Combine this with his always-amused attitude, which shows contempt for his victims, and you've got a villain I can watch for hours. I mean, just look at that smirk.

7. Adaleen Grant, Big Love

There's something almost worse about serving a devil than being one, right? Something kind of broken and amoral about blithely following someone else's dark path?

That's what Adaleen does as first wife to Big Love's major antagonist, Roman Grant. I think what makes her captivating to me is the serene, breezy smile that's always fixed on her face no matter how badly she's screwing you over.

Adaleen also serves as a model for a particularly loathsome archetype: the collaborator. She's a woman who participates in the subjugation of other women, managing her husband's fourteen-wife household, including 15-year-old child bride Rhonda Volmer. Adaleen was born into this life, so in a way she can be considered a victim of her circumstances -- but her cool intelligence and lack of empathy swing her decidedly toward the villainous.

8. The Miniature Killer, CSI

Ok, I have to admit: this one kind of fell apart for me at the end of the storyline, where the killer's backstory is revealed. There was nothing about it that really made me say, "Oh, yeah, this is totally the kind of chick who would make meticulous models of people's homes, then kill them."

But I can't ignore that feeling of excitement I got every time I knew a miniature killer episode was coming on. And I think what it was was the fabulous MO. Miniatures! Really specific ones! Cuh-reepy!

It just suggested such precision and patience. How could you possibly best a villain who brought that much forethought to bear? This is a great example of a villain who managed to be a real, chilling character before ever appearing in person.

So, what's the common thread?

Well, looking over the list, it seems I like my villains on the monstrous side. Apart from Adaleen Grant and maybe Javert, there's no one here with simple, understandable flaws. My tastes tend much more toward the boogity-boogity.

I also like a bit o' philosphy with my villains. I like characters like Gollum and the Borg and Adaleen who make me think about the big things: "How do you stop your baser nature from taking over?"; "How can you come to terms with someone who doesn't agree with you about what's right and wrong?"; "In a bad situation, what will people become in order to survive?"

And I like big contrasts: Hanibal Lecter's brutality and sophistication, Gollum's patheticness and scheming, Mrs. Iselin's charming public persona and cold-blooded heart.

It was an interesting exercise, and one I'm glad I did. Anyone else have any favorite villains?


Maybe I'm a little young to be saying this, but sometimes I just don't know what this world is coming to.

1) Several teenagers are charged with child pornography for sending nude photos by cell phone.

2) Seattle parents are shocked to learn there is no law prohibiting a teacher from having consensual sex with an 18-year-old student.

3) 13-year-old boys are charged with sexual harassment for slapping girls' butts.

Is it just me, or have we forgotten that there are ways of dealing with bad behavior other than the law?

Here are my prescriptions for the cases in question:

1) The kids who were "sexting" need to lose their cell phones, get grounded, and listen to a firm lecture about respect for their own sexuality.

2) The man who was having sex with an 18-year-old student needs to be fired, blackballed from the teaching profession, and ostracized by his community.

3) And the boys who were slapping girls' butts need to be told "Wipe that grin off your face," and suspended for a week or so.

There. Done. Was that so hard?

I guess there are two things that bug me here: in the cases with child offenders, I'm appalled (and in fact frightened) that we are calling in the law to deal with what is plain and simple social misbehavior. In the case of the cradle-robbing teacher, I'm amazed that people don't seem to understand that legal behavior can still be bad behavior, and can carry very real and very serious consequences.

It's as though we've decided to throw up our hands and take no part in managing the conduct of our own community. When someone does something we don't like, we just call in the law and ask them to take care of it.

But the law is bad at this sort of stuff, gang. It's good at separating us from those whose deeds truly place them outside decent society: the rapists, the murderers, the armed robbers. But it's bad at punishing those who make socially unacceptable decisions. And it's absolutely rotten at punishing kids.

So we need to roll up our sleeves and fall back on some other tools for modulating behavior: social censure, and public discussion of morality.

People often say it takes a village to raise a child. But I believe it also takes a village to safeguard that child into adulthood,
and to maintain his world as one in which he can be proud to raise his own children.

The Deck of Many Things

A while ago I talked about my method for creating characters: (1) Choose two Defining Characteristics, (2) Select a Major Mannerism that exemplifies both of them, and (3) Some other stuff.

I don't have a pressing need for any new characters right now, but one likes to keep one's hand in. Which is why I've created the Deck of Many Things.

The Deck of Many Things is basically six or seven 50 cent poker decks, with a different character trait written on the face of each car. Things like "Childish," "Optimistic," and "Brave." Qualities that are positive or neutral are written on red-backed cards, and the blue-backed cards have flaws.

Then all I have to do for a little character-creation drill is just flip over two cards, one from each deck. Let's try it now, shall we?

From the Flaw Deck: Incompetent

And From the Virtue Deck: Skilled

Are you kidding me? Incompetent and Skilled? Is that really what I just pulled?

Ok, well, maybe I can work with this.

Mrs. Noah Pembleton

A monied old widow living in New York around 1920. Kind, fat, and cheery. Has been taken care of all her life, either by her parents, her husband, or her servants. Known to her long-suffering niece Carol as "Aunt Wilhelmina."

Generally incompetent in all things, including, but not limited to: driving, paying bills, household management, and fashion.

Skilled in exactly one area: matchmaking.

Major Mannerism: Throwing wonderful, overblown parties at which everything goes wrong with sitcom-esque wackiness. Exactly one thing goes right: the two protegees for whom she has thrown the party always wind up falling in love. The rest of the mess must be straightened out by dear Carol.

Hmm... have I been watching too much Jeeves and Wooster?

C Corps and S Corps and LLCs, oh my!

Yesterday I blogged about my decision to form a company and some of the benefits involved. Now it's time for me to look at what type of company to form.

For advice on this I looked to the Small Business Kit for Dummies.

It went over the basics, but just the basics. To really find out anything of interest, I had to crawl deep into the web.

First Up: Sole Proprietorships

This is the easiest type of business to form. Basically, you just file a DBA, a document stating that "Jane Kalmes is Doing Business As (Company Name)." And that's it. Filing your taxes as a sole proprietor is easy, which may mean savings in the form of low (or no) CPA bills.

The trouble is, most of the benefits
sole proprietorships offer don't apply to me. Sole proprietors can hire their kids without paying payroll taxes--but I don't have any to hire. They can also cover their spouse with an HRA, a Healthcare Reimbursement Arrangement, provided their spouse is an employee and this benefit is also extended to any other employees. This can be a significant benefit, because it means they can deduct legitimate healthcare expenses twice: once from income taxes, and once from self employment taxes. But I don't plan to employ Mark, and we get our healthcare coverage through him anyway.

So it looks like a sole proprietorship isn't for me. Onward, then.

Next up: C corporations

These get the most tax breaks, but they're not a great choice for a small businessman because their income gets taxed twice: once at the corporate level, and once after the profits have passed through to the shareholders. Unless you can hold a lot of income in your corporation (and I won't pretend I'm savvy enough to even know how to begin), a C corporation is not the right vehicle for you.

Then we have: S Corporations

Now we're talking. S Corporations use pass through taxation, meaning that the shareholders are taxed on the income they receive, but the revenue isn't also taxed at the corporate level. Sounds more promising. S Corporations are still very complicated to form, though. There's a lot of paperwork involved. Maybe I should hunt around for something simpler?

Last Up: LLCs

Limited Liability Companies, or LLCs, are the easiest company to form that affords limited liability. They're flexible. They don't require meeting minutes and stock certificates the way corporations do, and they have pass-through taxation. Sounds like a winner.

Here's The Rub...

S Corps have one huge advantage over LLCs, though. The owner of an LLC has to declare all the company's revenue as income, which means that she pays self-employment taxes on it. Self-employment taxes combine Social Security and Medicare. You'll pay more for Social Security than you would if you were employed, but you won't have to pay FICA, so it comes up about the same: 15.4%.

In contrast, the owner of an S Corp can pay herself a "reasonable salary," and pay self-employment taxes on only that salary. Then she can allow the rest of the corporation's revenue to pass through to her as stock dividends, thus avoiding the 15.4% tax. The salary really does have to be reasonable, though; if the IRS suspects that your $1 salary doesn't meet industry standards, they'll reclassify your distributions as salary, tax them, and then penalize you for making them go to the trouble.

So, in a nutshell, this is how a corporation saves you money. If you're making more than a reasonable salary for your industry, you can save 15.4% of that excess.

Sounds good to me. S Corp, here I come!

To Be or Not To Be... A Legal Entity

The book's nearly out the door, which means there are visions of agents and editors dancing in my head. And dollar signs. Big dollar signs.

So I've been doing a lot of research into the question of whether or not to incorporate my writing business. I still haven't made up my mind yet, because it's a complicated question, peppered with lots of incomprehensible little phrases like "2.7% SUTA on first $8500, until adjusted."

Basically, it boils down to this: if I make a lot of money (and, hey, I plan to, right?), forming a corporation can help me bring home more of that bacon. If I don't (and most writers don't), the initial investment in filing fees and assorted minutiae will be essentially wasted.

So, take the plunge or stay on dry land? Still waffling, but here are some of the issues at hand:

Limited Liability

This is one of the major reasons most people form corporations, to protect their personal assets from any lawsuit against their business.

Sadly, for a writer of fiction, this limited liability is largely illusory. It wouldn't protect me from being sued for my own wrongful acts, which means if someone came after me with a plagiarism suit (and I hope it goes without saying that such a suit would be pure nonsense), the corporation wouldn't help. They could attack me, and my personal assets, directly.

It would make sense, though, if I were going to be writing a lot of technical manuals for companies whose legal squeaky cleanness I didn't want to be responsible for. Or if I planned to hire lots of employees, such as a secretaries or research assistants. My limited liability would prevent me from being personally sued for any of their wrongdoings while working under the umbrella of my corporation.

Tax Savings

This is the real meat of the question: will I get taxed more or less if I incorporate?

The short answer is, it depends. There are several types of companies I can form, and they each have their own pluses and minuses with regards to the tax code. How much I can save (or, if I bungle things up, lose) is largely dependent on whether I choose to form a C Corporation, an S Corporation, or an LLC, all of which I'll explain in more detail in my next post.

It's also dependent on how much I make. For a writer, this is a pretty hard number to figure in advance, but it'll have deep implications on my bottom line. If I'm not going to make a significant income, I'll be better off not incorporating. (I'm thinking the threshold might be as low as $40K, though some articles I've seen online put it much higher.)

Odds and Ends

How much are filing fees? Do I have to carry worker's compensation insurance? What weird little addenda in the tax code apply to me?

This is the place where the question of whether or not to incorporate begins to get rather sticky and burdensome. Where it seems like it'd be easier to just throw up my hands and take a tax hit if that's what I have to do. This is a hard part to push through, which leads into our next area of interest:


It's work, a lot of work, getting all this information together and acting on it. Worse, if I screw up some little detail there may be serious legal or financial penalties. Still sound like a fun challenge?

The bright side, in a weird way, is that some of this work is unavoidable. A self-employed person is going to have to dig into the tax code and file quarterly returns anyway. So I might as well just go the extra mile and incorporate if it's going to save me some cash.

And those, in a nutshell, are the issues I've been wrestling with over the past weekend. It's daunting, but a little fun, too, and a welcome break from worrying whether my book will ever be the masterpiece I envisioned before the whole mess was down on paper. Tomorrow I'll discuss types of companies, and tell you which one I've decided (tentatively) to form.

The Birth of Manifesto Monday

The other day I was talking with my friend Becky about this blog. "I keep meaning to recommit to it," I said. "But I keep failing to do so."

"If you're going to recommit to it, you should find a way to make it really work for you," she replied.

Wise words. So herewith we begin a series of posts trying to find a real character for this blog, one that will keep me interested enough to keep coming back to it--and hopefully be interesting for readers as well.

This first attempt is Manifesto Monday: a weekly post about The World According to Jane. Since this is supposed to be a writing blog, we'll start out with:

Manifesto Monday: Five Things I Believe About Writing

1. I believe you CAN teach someone to write.

What you can't teach someone is how to be interested enough in writing to really go the distance. But you can definitely teach someone to write. Writing is a real profession, with a real skill set that requires study and practice. Talent is nice, but it ain't everything.

2. I believe plot is more important than prose.

Sorry, lit fic gang! It's what I believe. I can be happy reading a crappily-written thriller, but there's no chance I'm going to stick it out to the end of a beautifully lyrical novel in which I never worry that the characters are up against forces beyond their ability to surmount.

Prose matters. It does. Read some Alice Munro if you don't believe me. But also remember, it's not all there is.

3. I believe it's not THAT hard to get published.

People say "It's really hard to get published," and what they mean is this: "It's unlikely you'll be published."

Bull, I say. If you are persistent, if you are hardworking, and if you are good (and let's face it, you know if you are), you will make it. Yes, a lot more people try to become writers than actually do it. That doesn't mean it's a lottery. The people who deserve to get there? They get there.

4. I believe the success of my work is in my own hands.

Just like I believe that good writers get published, I believe that great books sell. Sure, I've read a few stinkers that were bestsellers, but here's the kicker: I have very rarely read the opposite: a beautiful, wonderful, I-will-treasure-it-always book that never really got anywhere commercially. The few exceptions to this rule were at least big successes within the literary/academic community.

That means that the best thing I can do for my success is not buy ad space in Ellery Queen, not throw together a slick website, not acquire a list of bookclubs to e-mail about my book. It's write. Write well. Write something kickass and get it out there. And write something even better to follow it up.

5. I believe writing, even "non-serious" writing, can do good in the world.

I guess that's what I have to believe, because writing is what I've dedicated my life to. And I need to believe that my being here has a chance of making the world a better place.

But deep down, I just really think it's true. I think in order to have compassion for one another, humans need to be able to imagine one another's internal lives. And reading gets us there, often more easily and completely than our own efforts to cultivate empathy toward others.

Plus, writing gives me a pulpit of sorts, and I plan to use it. So when my protagonist, Kitty, talks about what it means to really love someone else, or how guilt can cripple you, or how you need a place in the world where you feel you belong--that's me, gang. That's what I've got to give.

Revision Plan

Well, the book is done, but there's done and there's DONE. Right now we're sitting at Stage #1 Done, where all the scenes have been written but there are a few things that don't add up, a few characters that could be stronger, and a few major plot points I sorta forgot to mention in my mad rush to the finish line.

So I've taken a nice long break from active work, just reading my manuscript and making plans. And I'm finally ready with my Comprehensive Revision Plan.

Step #1: Read the book and make a list of all issues.
Status: 100 % Done
Notes: I thought there would be about 10 of these. Turns out there were 32.

Step #2: Figure out what to do about each issue.
Status: 70% Done
Notes: There are about six sticky issues remaining, and if I can figure those out, I'll be golden. Mark has promised to help me, which is good, 'cause some of them have me in conniptions.

Step #3: Re-read Scenes 1-10. Revise them.
Status: 0% Done
Notes: It's really important to keep reading the book in long sections, rather than just a scene at a time. You realize so much about characters that are inconsistent, issues that seem to fluctuate in importance to the protagonist, and other things that will be confusing to a reader.

Step #4-6: Repeat for scenes 11-20, 21-30, and 31-38.
Status: 0% Done
Notes: I suspect by the end there may be more like 42-45 scenes, as there are a few bits I want to add. In that case, this step may go on a bit longer than I plan (I'm currently hoping to get through 4 scenes per day).

Step #7: Polish tension
Status: 0% Done
Notes: I plan to look at each page and make sure that there's something tense happening on it. And if there's not, put it there. And if it's there, heighten it.

Step #8: Polish prose
Status: 0% Done
Notes: The last step, just about making it all sounds pretty. And clever. And, when appropriate, funny.

So there you have it, Jane's plan for novel revision. I'm hoping to turn this thing around pretty quickly and get it in the mail. I'm ready to have it working for me, instead of the other way around!

In Which I Leave my Life's Work at Barnes & Noble

The other night Mark and I went over to Barnes & Noble so he could indulge his new bridge fetish by browsing through the Games section. We both brought our laptops along so we could hang out and be trendy in the cafe for a while. But it turned out I was more interested in browsing than working, so I set mine aside.

I spent a couple of hours looking through Law in Plain English for Writers (not terrible, but not as detailed as I wanted it to be regarding tax liability), Can't Fail Color Schemes (I got this one), and The Devious Book for Cats (Hee hee hee! Kitty cats!). Finally Mark had made his selection, and we left.

Without my laptop.

It wasn't until after a delectable dinner at Ru San's sushi bar that we pulled into the driveway and I realized that I had left my laptop at the bookstore. I called them up and told the guy who answered the phone where I thought I had left it. And sure enough, there it was. It was 10:45 by that point, and I couldn't make it back to store by closing, so I gave him my name and told him I'd swing by in the morning.

Now, I had actually backed up my files the night before, so all I would have lost would have been my laptop, the backpack, and a couple of odds and ends. Even so, it was a few hours before my heart rate ratcheted back down into the normal range. And when it did, I found myself rather pleased with the world, content to know that I live in a place where a girl can leave a grand worth of home office equipment lying around for three hours, only to return and pick it up the next day.

I know all people aren't honest, of course, but a lot of people are honest. And it gives me a lift. It's very, very easy to get focused on the negative in the world, because the negative is so much more visible and memorable. But take it from my laptop and me: there's also a whole lotta good.

The Good Old Days

Becky over at Suburban Matron had a clever post today about "dating herself" -- a sort of "remember when" montage about how things used to be. I've decided to copy her shamelessly, so here's how old I am:

  • I used to do research in the World Book encyclopedia.
  • As children, my best friend and I couldn't bring videos to one another's houses. I had VHS, she had Betamax.
  • I remember when it was called "Japanimation."
  • In ninth grade I had a huge crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. In his role as troubled teen Luke Brower on Growing Pains.
And lastly:
  • I can remember when you could pick up any remote control and operate it with no prior tutelage.