Villains or Monsters

An interesting question came up at a talk I was doing last week in Hackensack, NJ for the Science Fiction Association of Bergen County.  When does a villain cross the line from straight up villainy and become a monster?

This might not matter for a lot of fiction, but in fantasy, especially epic and heroic fantasy, it’s a legitimate question.  Epic and heroic fantasy is often concerned with the Manichaean fight between GOOD and EVIL, which means that the villains (and the heroes) are frequently terribly one-sided.  Is there a point at which an over-the-top villain ceases being a villain and becomes a monster instead?  (We’ll deal with impossibly perfect heroes some other time.)

What is the difference between a villain and a monster, anyway?  To my thinking, a villain is someone who chooses to be evil.  (Or, if that’s not morally relativistic enough for you, who chooses to oppose the aims and goals of the hero for the sake of narrative tension and structure in theme and plot.)  There has to be a conscious decision on the villain’s part to do things that are to his benefit, and others’ detriment.  It has to be a rational choice.

Monsters, on the other hand, are just doing what comes naturally.  They’re forces of nature.  They do what they have to do, what is essential to their being.  They have no choice in the matter, no more than a hurricane has choice.  Monsters just are.

To use a simple illustration, I’d say that, in The Lord of The Rings, Saruman is a villain, while Shelob is a monster.  Sauron, I assume is also a villain, though he might be both.  Which begs the question:  How do you define a psychopath?

Anyone have any good examples out there of characters who straddle the line?  And which would you rather the hero face when you’re reading a book? 

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  1. 1. Adam Heine

    My favorite villains have been the ones who truly believe they are doing what’s right and good. The Operative in Serenity is a good example of this. He knew he was a monster because of the terrible things he did, but he did them because he believed he was making a better world for the people who would come after him. Ender’s Game also did a fantastic turn-around with the villains along the same lines.

  2. 2. Patrick Regan

    That does bring up the question of how to classify the insanely evil. Not like, say, the aforementioned Operative. But people like the Joker or Hannibal Lector. With minds that warped, can we even rightly say that they “choose” to be evil? Does that make them unusually intelligent and cunning monsters.

    There’s also vampires, I suppose, but that all depends on what your mythos is and your take on the whole blood drinking thing, blah blah blah.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    I vote for antagonists over villains and monsters both. My dividing line there is that antagonists aren’t evil; they’re just opposed to the heroes. They may be wrong about the causes they champion, but if so, it’s because they’re operating from incorrect information, or just different base assumptions about what is and is not right. If you see the world from the antagonists’ point of view, you can totally see why they act the way they do.

    Villains, to me, are aware that they’re behaving cruelly or selfishly, and they don’t care. And I can get behind your definition of monsters — they just are. But those interest me the least of all, because then they’re forces of nature instead of characters. They have to be particularly well-done to hold my interest, in that case.

  4. 4. James Alan Gardner

    I like a good antagonist (to use Marie’s terminology), but I despise mediocre ones and there are so many around. So many “humanized” bad guys are just tiresome whiny snots. Others are really villains (or monsters) with “meaningful” bits unconvincingly tacked on — hands up everybody who’s sick of formulaic childhood traumas. (In my notebook, I once wrote “Child molestation is the new nanotech”…by which I meant a god-awfully overused cliché.)

    Gleeful villains, on the other hand, are fun. Not believable or realistic, but I don’t hold that against them. A villain who’ll do anything in pursuit of his/her agenda can entertain by sheer displays of gall…something that is sadly lacking in much modern sf.

    As for monsters…eh. They’re good as intermediate obstacles for the heroes, but they’re too impersonal to hang a whole story on. A plot needs someone consciously plotting, doesn’t it?

  5. 5. Daryl Gregory

    Sam, this reminds me of the panel you were on at ReaderCon in 2007, about Sauron and other dark lords. What I wanted to say then, and you say above, is that monsters are like hurricanes. But I think Sauron is a monster, not a real character — he’s weather. He’s a condition of the story, and we’re no more interested in why he went “evil” than why a tornado slammed into that trailer park — that’s just what tornadoes do. Frodo’s job is to weather the storm.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Adam – I actually prefer my villains to know they’re bad. A villain who thinks he’s doing good is more tragic to my mind. Tragic figures often elicit sympathy from the reader, and I like my readers to be sympathetic to the hero, not the villain.

    Patrick – The Joker and Hannibal the Cannibal are good examples. I think it depends on your definitions of madness and personal responsibility. Me, I’d call them both villains. Really, really evil villains. But then I think even psychopaths have choice.

    Marie – I agree that monsters are the least interesting of your three examples. With a monster, the hero doesn’t have to choose, she just has to act.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    James – Um, maybe I should just get you to write my blog for me next time. You said it all, and much better. Tiresome whiny snots – you nail them perfectly!

    Daryl – You mean the panel where Jim Morrow smacked me down like the tiresome whiny snot I am? You’re right – Sauron is weather in LOTR (foul weather?) – but he gets his shot at being a character in the Silmarillion. It’s remembering that book that makes me mistakenly give him more character cred in LOTR.

  8. 8. Daryl Gregory

    See, that was my problem — I never got to see Sauron as a character, because I was never able to get more than a few pages into the Silmarillion, even as an earnest 8th grader. It felt like homework.

  9. 9. Adam Heine

    S.C. Butler – I can understand not wanting to elicit sympathy for the villain. Not every villain can be sympathetic, or it just gets old kinda like James talked about. But I have to admit that the villains I remember the most are the sympathetic ones.

    As I’ve been thinking about this post, I noticed another archetype I’ve seen. There’s the protagonist, the pure-evil antagonist, and then a third antagonist – the sympathetic one who may or may not turn to good in the end.

    For example, in Avatar, the Last Airbender: Aang-Azula-Zuko. In Star Wars: Luke-The Emperor-Vader. And to a lesser extent in Curse of the Black Pearl: Will-Barbosa-Jack. I haven’t seen this triumvirate often, but I always enjoy it. It gives you both the sympathetic villain and the evil monster.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Daryl – It is homework.

    Adam – With me it’s not so much that I sympathize with a villain, as much as that I can appreciate them. The more I understand the villain, what makes them tick – that I enjoy. But I still want to dislike them. And very cool addition of the third antagonist. Could we add Lancelot to the list? He goes back and forth between good and bad several times.

  11. 11. Robert

    Villains use. Monsters consume.

    Villains use magic or tricks or other people. Monsters use their teeth or claws or spikes.

    Villains use their frontal lobes. Monsters use their brain stems.

    Villains fight the heroes. Monsters try to eat them.

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    Robert – Well put.

  13. 13. AJ Valliant

    I see Villains as an adversarial force, and Monster as a consumptive one.

    Villains are peers and rivals that contest from within the same societal continuum. The methodology, and values, differ…but their objectives (power/security/regard/revenge) closely parallel each the Hero. There is antipathy, but that antipathy is rooted a fundamental understanding of the other.

    Monsters exist outside of the Heroes experience. Their objectives are conditions of their nature, immune to negotiation or personal growth. Black holes, T-Rex’s, aliens virus’s, Chthulu, rouge computers locked into a singular objective.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    AJ – Another vote for monsters who consume. This is a popular opinion. Does this then suggest that the coverse is also true, that consumers are monsters.

  15. 15. Robert

    > consumers are monsters.

    From the perspective of the ghosts, Pac-Mac is a horrific monster hellbent on consuming all of the precious dots they have been charged with guarding. ;)

  16. 16. S.C. Butler

    Robert – Ha! Good point! I guess that game was so poular because people liked the freedom to be monstrous!

  17. 17. AJ Valliant

    “AJ – Another vote for monsters who consume. This is a popular opinion. Does this then suggest that the coverse is also true, that consumers are monsters.”

    I suppose consumption vs Use is a function of understanding (or lack thereof): that cognitive dissonance that allows us to see our actions as rational and nuanced, and the actions of something strange as narrow instinct. I suppose a villain is just a monster we’ve taken the time to know…or had the courage to see our selves in.

    And now I feel like a pretentious eighteen year old in myth and symbolism class. Any second now I’ll be spouting Nietzsche quotes and trying to grow a bad moustache.

  18. 18. Adam Heine

    AJ, that’s a good point. Even monsters can be sympathetic villains. They must eat! Who are you, arrogant hero, to deny them sustenance?

  19. 19. S.C. Butler

    AJ – Ah, myth and symbolism. They go together like pigs and excrement. (Trying to keep our PG rating here.)

  20. 20. Tamie

    Good question.
    I’m toying with the idea of writing a horror-ish story (it will still be SF/Fantasy, but hopefully with a horror trend) about one of my characters (the only one for whom horror is potentially a fit).
    I want readers to be sympathetic towards him, to recognize that he is a victim of his circumstances, and is only doing what he needs to to survive.
    A monster by your definition…though one who is at least aware of his actions, and how people are affected by them.

    Yet I want readers to wonder, at least at the beginning, who is the good guy and who the bad. The monster? Or the (clearly not nice) people pursuing him, trying to capture him?
    Especially given how that pursuit affects him….

    Of course, I’ve never written horror before, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the story across that way.

    @Marie (post 3)
    I like your point about the antagonists.
    As I’ve heard elsewhere: “What is ‘evil’? If I’m loyal to what you say is right, is that all it takes to make me ‘good’?”

    @S.C. Butler (post 6) Re: Patrick
    True. Even a madman may choose to act as he does, may believe he has reasons for his actions.
    Even a madman can CHOOSE to be evil.

    @Daryl (post 8)
    It was homework when I read it in my senior Modern Mythology class (the first I’d read ANY of the books, though I’d seen the movie “The Hobbit” in elementary).
    I thought it read like a history book. (I hate History.)
    I just kept reading because I was interested in the series.

    @Robert (post 15)
    Started laughing at that one.
    Then applauding.
    And I return you to the quote I listed above.

    @Adam (post 18)
    My monster just gave you a standing ovation.
    Along with most of my heroes.

    Cool blog, and something to consider, no matter what genre I write.
    Only problem is, I found this on Google because I was searching for tips (of a sort) on HOW to write a sympathetic “monster.”
    Like the one described early in my post.
    Guess I need to keep looking.

  21. 21. S.C. Butler

    Tamie – Just got the notification of your post. Not sure why it’s so late. Your story sounds like a great idea though. Hope you get it just the way you want.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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