How Veronica Roth Learned to Write Better Villains

The Divergent author on feedback, antagonists, and moving away from YA fiction.

Veronica Roth.
Veronica Roth. Nelson Fitch

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with author Veronica Roth, who wrote the first part of the multimillion-selling Divergent trilogy when she was still at Northwestern University. They discussed how the writing process has differed for each of her books, where she found trusted advisers to offer feedback on her work, and how she creates believable antagonists. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: You wrote your first published book, Divergent, very quickly—I believe you wrote a first draft on your winter break from Northwestern. Have your other books come so easily?

Veronica Roth: No, absolutely not. That was the first time it ever happened, and it was also the last time.

Why was that one so easy, or why were the other ones harder?

I had written a complete manuscript before Divergent, so I knew that I could finish a novel-length story. I had also gotten this one really useful piece of feedback from a professor. She circled a really simply and straightforwardly written paragraph in one of my pieces, and she said, “This is the best writing in the piece.” Implying, stop trying so hard to overwrite everything else.

So I decided, based on that feedback, to embrace an extremely pared down and straightforward writing style. I think that is my natural style, but I had resisted it for a long time because it didn’t feel that was poetic enough, or that’s not what good writers do. So Divergent was the first time I really let myself be the writer I actually was instead of the one I thought I was supposed to be.

Was that the only time you have had that sort of feedback loop?

No, I’ve had that a lot. I was in the creative writing program at Northwestern University, which is a very small program. I remember I submitted a short story, and then you have to sit there for workshop, which means you’re not allowed to speak, and people just pick apart your work for about a half-hour and you can’t respond, which is an amazing system. Someone just sat there and summarized my story to me. He said everything that happened in it. And I realized, “Oh, my gosh, this story is packed full of drama, and I really need to pare down what I try to focus on in this short-story form.” And that was another moment of big creative shift I think.

Back to your experience of writing. Did your other books feel the same as you were writing them? Were there different challenges each time?

There definitely were. When I was writing the second one, Insurgent, that was the first time I had written a book knowing that people would read it. So I had to learn how to navigate writing while a lot of eyes were on me. I knew people would read it, and their opinions and my anticipation of their opinions was really hard to navigate. I think everyone who has gotten published and then tries to write their second book has this feeling.

But then that one did well. How did that affect the third one?

I was writing the third one, Allegiant, while they were making the Divergent movie. I had written a draft, and then they started filming, but I was sometimes editing Allegiant on the set of Divergent. That was a real trip. It was a pretty wonderful time, but also a strange time to be making anything creative and to try to remind myself that it was OK to take risks. With Allegiant, I had planned from the beginning to take a very big risk at the end, so committing to that was the oddest part of writing that book. I also realized that in the first book of the series, I had set myself up with a real structural problem and in the third book, I had to contend with it, and there was just nothing I could do about it.

That was about world-building?

Yes. The first two books are contained in the city of Chicago, which is a dystopian city at this point, and then in the third book, they have to leave, which sets you up for this huge uploading of information. And that’s not a great thing for a book. It might work in a movie, which can go, “Here you are; we’re going to explain everything to you,” but in a book, it’s like 30 pages of backstory, which isn’t good.

The cover of Veronica Roth's The Chosen Ones.
HMH Books

Can you say a bit more about how the filming of Divergent affected the writing of Allegiant?

I think it made me occasionally consider the visual part of scenes differently, like what was possible to film. I also had to very consciously ignore certain things, because there were a lot of characters that looked different in the book than on the screen. You find yourself describing this character and thinking, “Oh, that’s not what they look like.” Keeping that straight was a challenge.

But it sometimes worked in a positive way. One of the main problems of the first movie is that they cast Kate Winslet as my main antagonist, Jeanine, and the trick was that Jeanine, as a character in the book, is a bit of a mustache-twirling archvillain. They were struggling with that because Kate Winslet is a very capable actress, and they wanted to write a more nuanced character for her. As I was hearing about that, I was developing a new antagonist for Allegiant, and it made me think you really have to focus on making sure that this person is more complicated. Ever since then I’ve tried to do a better job of making sure that even the “bad guys” have an inner life.

I’m very curious how you came up with the idea of the big bad in Chosen Ones, the Dark Lord. How did you go about creating a character who’s designed to be hated and who you really want your readers to believe is the absolute worst?

My idea for Chosen Ones is that it’s very much about this post-adolescent experience of entering the world and trying to navigate being an adult in the world. If you fight something evil when you are a teenager, you’re going to see it as very black and white. This guy’s a bad guy, and he needs to be stopped. It’s a very simplistic view of evil. And as you get older, you realize that situations and people are more complicated than that. So Chosen Ones is meant to be unraveling my main character, Sloane’s, understanding of what happened to her before and also what’s happening to her now. How everything has become more gray and more weird and more muddled as she’s gotten older, because that’s the experience I had in my 20s, just realizing how complicated things are.

You’ve written two series—a trilogy that began with Divergent and a duology that began with Carve the Mark.  How do you decide if something will be part of a series, and then how do you decide how many books it will take to tell the overall story?

When an idea comes to me, I have an idea of its size. I write a lot of short fiction, and it’s always clear what is a short story idea and what’s a novel idea. Sometimes the idea feels even bigger than a novel, and that’s usually when I know that it’s a series. However, with the Divergent series and with Carve the Mark, I proposed each of those as both a duology and a trilogy. So I outlined the duology and then I outlined the trilogy, and then I would ask my trusted friend and agent to tell me which one she thought was a better shape for those books. Which one allows a little bit of room to breathe, conceptually. Which one feels like it’s maybe stretched out too far? That was what happened with Carve the Mark. I sent her the trilogy outline and the duology outline, and she said the trilogy outline has a lot of filler, so just do the duology. And Divergent was the opposite.

How did you find the person who you trust to give important feedback on your writing?

There are two people. One of them is my husband. He’s not a writer, he’s just a reader, and that’s very important, because he can tell me this doesn’t make sense, this is boring, this is interesting. Very normal reader reactions. He is very helpful that way. But my agent has been my biggest writing adviser throughout the years. I met her at a writers conference 11 or 12 years ago.

When you had that first draft of Divergent?

I had submitted my first manuscript—the one that has not been published and never will be—to her and she rejected it, but she gave me some good notes. So when I wrote Divergent, I sent it to her because she had said, “I like your writing, but this project isn’t working, so send me the next thing you do.” For Divergent, I got two offers from two different agents. One of them was her, and she had nine pages of single-spaced notes. The other agent was like, “This is ready to go right now.” I thought, “One of these people is right, and one of them is not.” And I always trust the person who gives me notes. So I trusted her from the beginning, because she wasn’t afraid to tell me what was wrong with my draft.

To listen to the full episode of Working, in which Roth also discussed how writing for adults is different from writing YA fiction, responding to feedback from young readers, and the themes she finds herself returning to again and again, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.