I’m going to do something a bit different until I get my charting Syntax under control. In the meantime, I’m in the middle of a book Tour – check out this page for the stops so far. Also, I just participated in an Autumn Blog Hop – Check it out.
Villains: A Taste of Evil
Often a foil to our heroes, villains can serve a story in multiple ways. Whether we have a tragic character seeking vengeance against an individual or society at large, a villain-protagonist being chased by a heroic-antagonist, or some common bully who represents our inner fears, the word villain casts a large idea in our collective mindset.
For the sake of this article, I will be using the term villain as one who behaves reprehensively in the intended audience’s mindset – obviously, this can’t work in every context, especially in science fiction and fantasy, and I’ll be avoiding those examples. An example of complication would be Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, who stole bread and skipped parole. Despite that he is the central character and protagonist, he would be considered a villain from Javert’s eyes, as well as the society he came from. Javert, however uncompromising and we as readers may generally not like him, by this definition would be a hero-antagonist. He does right by the law, and opposes the central character, even though many would argue that Jean Valjean displays much more heroism throughout the narrative. We need to have this clarification, the lines become blurred when you start to tell the story from the perspective of say, the Big Bad Wolf rather than the three little pigs. Some times both sides are equally at fault, and some times, the pigs didn’t initiate the wolf/pig struggle.
Characters as Devices
Early advice on writing: Write dynamic characters. Don’t have flawless heroes and flat, boring villains. This is good advice – afterall, a hero isn’t relatable if he’s perfect (for the most part) and it’s hard to take moustache-twirling cackler seriously. Sometimes, however, the ostensible cruel character is something that is wholly accurate – if you are writing about a fictional account of an event that occurred, there is no need to invent a tragic backstory. Anyone who has worked in customer service can likely attest that they have encountered numerous people that were unbelievable, which cannot possibly work in your fiction. Another aspect to consider is the villain whose motives are never wholly clear, but hinted at – the fear of the unknown is a device used often in fiction – in the classic movie Psycho, the audience is at the end of their seats in fear of the villain, until the killer is seen. Once the killer is visible, the fear of the villain is almost completely nixed on the audience’s part – it’s more ridiculous to most of us. Since the interpretational villain is very complicated, I will not be discussing him further below.
In fiction, for the most part, we want to understand why the villain is doing what they are doing. Generally speaking, the overgrown bully who made your life miserable in the gradeschool isn’t as near as interesting as the tragic child who suffers from a broken-home or there being some explanation for his actions. Realistically, you wouldn’t assume that the kid needs to have a motivation other than, “I’m bigger than you, therefore I’ll do what I want.”
Depending on the type of fiction you want to write, a flat yet physically imposing villain might be acceptable because they represent something bigger than themselves. In some fiction, the struggle between a child and a bully isn’t really about the child defeating a bully so much as them overcoming their own fear and inhibitions. Your protagonist might only have your base antagonist (the bully) as a physical threat, but there’s more to your protagonist’s struggle than a real bully. An example of this would be in The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Sebastion’s issues aren’t just the kids at school who are picking at him, he has a strained relationship with his father and self-esteem issues, so bullies who pose a physical threat to him are just one aspect of his troubles.
Naturally, what we don’t find as interesting in fiction poses a very serious threat in the real world – an army that threatens to crush a people is interesting only if you build up either the army, or the people/culture they are going to conquer or destroy.
Simple Needs, Physically Lacking
Although it is usual for stories to have power in the villain’s favor, power doesn’t have to be physical. For example, a villain might be physically weak compared to the hero, but the battle is fought with wits, or the villain uses their influence to manipulate to turn the social order against the protagonist. Consider a physically weak classic femme fetale – while she might have an ace or two up her sleeve or in her garter, this character is more brains than brawn, and her motive is often very relatable – she desires something that has been denied her to her – what she lacks in strength, she’ll use her charm or wits to gain. A classic example of a male character who has simple motivations but limited physical power would be from Shakespeare’s Othello – the villain Iago cannot take Othello down in a fight, nor can he besmudge Othello by rumor. He needs to get into Othello’s head to plot his downfall, which only works when Othello believes the lies spouted by Iago. While Othello in this case is his own worst enemy, Iago remains a dangerous villain in his own right.
Believing they Are in The Right
For me, one of the scariest types of villains are ones that believe that they are doing good. Whether we take an extremist or they assume that they are above the law, such as Judge Claude Frodo from Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, these characters can worm their way into the reader’s minds if done well, or look ridiculous and bigoted if not done well. Take an issue you believe strongly in – now, imagine someone championing that same issue – and they are causing more harm than good to your cause, making your cause look like an extreme case or offering a viewpoint you don’t agree with.
The bully discussed above is often a dark lord who wants to rule the world. This villain thinks he’s going to save the world – and Iago, although he’s slimy, both he and the audience knows he’s supposed to be abhorrent. Even if they don’t like the protagonist Othello, they know that Iago is going about it in a wrong manner. Where this villain gets tricky is if he has merit to what he is saying.
The slipperly slope of the ends justifying the means makes this type of villain dangerous and goes beyond physical manipulation. The bully might hurt you, the physically lacking schemer might destroy your reputation or kill you. This villain might kill you if he can’t get you to convert and serve – but he’d much rather make you give up what you believe in to follow a new order – his.
Rejecting Social Order Altogether
I’m sure I’ll get some flack for discussing The Joker, because I’m only so-so familiar with the Joker in his various interpretations. However, as Nolan’s Batman film trilogy is meant to stand on its own, I think we I can discuss the movies as they are completed.
All three movies are about villains trying to destroy social order. And to a limited degree, most of us who watch the films understand the hatred towards the elite and upper-class. However, doing away with all social order leads to complete anarchy – something in which The Joker thrives.
The second movie in my opinion was the strongest in regards to this mindset, because it dealt almost exclusively with the Joker – to the point where I often forget that he movie had two villains, Harvey Dent/Two-Face. The Joker’s game isn’t power – he’s not out to save the world, he’s out to destroy it for the sake of destroying it, and it’s not about using a nuke and destroying it quickly – he’ll get in your head and make you turn on your neighbor – fill you with fear. Much like the extremist noted above, this fellow will make you convert – and he’ll let you destroy yourself, or the cause you used to care about.
This, at least in my opinion, is the hardest type of villain to pull off successfully. They are your tricksters, the ones that make you question why you believe what you do. A danger with this villain is not making their motives clear – and while this might be part and parcel of true anarchy, in many ways this villain mirrors the extremist above, but goes about his goals in a different manner.
Mysterious, Above Mortal Concerns
The last sort of villain is something that we would find almost exclusively in the realm of speculative fiction – this would be your villain who might have no qualm with the protagonist, but they represent a concern. Not to be confused with a natural element (IE., Take a plot of man vs. – and unless nature is represented by a spirit or has consciousness and is actively going after your character, usually it is just a neutral, natural force, ergo, an antagonist but not a villain).
This could be an alien who doesn’t actively want to hurt your protagonist, they just want all the water on the planet, and then they’ll be on their merry way. Consider the Sea Witch from the original The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson – she is portrayed as a villainous, ugly creature in the original story, but she means the mermaid character no harm, the mermaid sought her out. She makes a trade, and isn’t interested in the mermaid’s survival or death, just provides opportunity.
I find these characters very difficult to pull off – while ambivalence is a common mentality seen in many people this day, it is also a slippery slope of casting this character as a villain. If their motives are not human, they might be interesting, but not particularly empathetic.
Once we have established the rationale for the villain, we still need to make life interesting for the heroes. I like to do a combination of numerous villain types in novels. For example, we can have a Knight Templar character who believes he is in the right, and the world needs to be purged – and he’s a physical force to be reckoned with in his own right. In my novel, Tower of Obsidian, this is Skolvane’s character – though he claims to be above mortal concerns, he is incredibly flawed and unrelenting – he has power, but desires to control further than what was given to him – and he views that lack of control something owed, destroying his honor. Although he never admits it, he knows what he and Aurore are doing is wrong, but he tells himself that it is necessary.
There are many types of motivation that accompanies villains – they might be very complicated, sympathetic, and at times, very relatable – even if we don’t understand where they’re coming from, we can see still aspects of our own psyche or desire in the mindset of a villain. However, we shouldn’t ignore a simpler villain and dismiss them altogether – many great villains had relatively simple, relatable goals and desires, and that made them interesting characters. So whether you wish to make an extremist, base a villain off an ideology or a horrible customer you ran into earlier today, consider their motives, and what they want to accomplish, and how that not only is an obstacle for your heroes, but how they serve the story, and what sort of message it presents in relation to your story’s theme. You might make things more interesting for your readers.