The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

I attended Albacon last weekend where, among other things, I participated in a pair of panels about Villains and Villainousness.  The panels crystallized some thoughts I had about a book I finished recently and which have been floating around in my head ever since. 

I won’t name the book, or the author.  Though I am called Sam-Who-Likes-Nothing with good reason, my policy is never to rip anything unless it’s already important and popular enough that there is absolutely no chance my harrumphing will be paid attention to.  Books are always a good thing, whether or not they’re to my taste. 

And this series of books are very good in many ways.  They’re well-written, with interesting settings and characters, and a fascinating magic system.  The story is first rate, too, with the characters going through absolute hell along the way.  But the books haven’t sold particularly well, despite critical raves. 

I think I know why. 

There’s been a movement in some fantasy circles recently calling for fantasy villains to be more interesting and well-rounded.  That’s well and good – it’s much better to have a villain with understandable motives than one who’s simply diabolus ex machina.  But the idea can be taken too far.  If, instead of a protagonist and antagonist, a story is about a pair of antagonists, and neither is given any sort of moral, ethical, or accidental advantage to rouse a reader’s sympathy, then the reader often loses interest. 

That’s what happens in these books.  Despite being wonderful in so many ways, the story left me uncompelled because the writer spent so much time making the protagonists equally interesting.  And equally sympathetic, too.  But when both sides are absolutely noble and unselfish in their motives, and want the same thing, you wonder why they didn’t just sit down at the beginning of the book and talk through their differences.   

With the antagonists so similar, there’s not nearly enough conflict in the story, at least not for my taste.  Everyone is wrong, and everyone is right.  And everyone is happy (and still alive, too) at the end despite the book having been set up as a tragedy. 

Even tragedies have villains, regardless of the protagonist’s flaws. 

It’s our job as writers to make the reader care about our books.  Otherwise, why buy them?

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  1. 1. Asakiyume

    Somehow this reminds me of the trend in kids’ sports and other competitive events to give EVeryone prizes and to declare everyone winners. But while it’s great to recognize that all kids bring a special something to the game, if we’re having a footrace, only one kid crosses the line first.

    …. But that’s tangential, really. I think from what you’ve said, the problem is as much that the tale’s purported protagonist lacked a certain protagginess as it was that the antagonist was sympathetic. And yeah, it’s one thing to make the villain an interesting person; it’s another to make his reasoning, ethics, and character as sympathetic as the protagonist’s.

  2. 2. Mary

    Well, you can manage with the noble and unselfish if you make it quickly and absolutely clear that someone is going to lose because their needs (not just desires) are incompatible. Absolutely incompatible.

    But otherwise — nothing puts me off a work faster than thinking, it doesn’t matter which side winds, unless it’s, why can’t you both lose?

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Asakiyume – Sympathy for the Devil, as someone once said. And how much sympathy can the devil take before he stops being devilish?

    Mary – I don’t think I ever wanted both sides of the story to lose. But I did want the side whose idea of a solution was obviously impractical to at least pay some price for their lack of clearheadedness.

  4. 4. Mary

    Ah, yes — if no one loses anything, where does the conflict come from?

    Probably the guys whose solution is practical ought to pay some price for it too.

  5. 5. Doug Hulick

    A villain can be interesting and well-rounded, but that does not mean they necessarily have to be sympathetic. Understanding someone’s motives is not the same as agreeing with them. It sounds like the writer in question went too far along the well-rounded track and ended up justifying the villain’s motives not only for the villain, but for the reader as well.

    It is entirely possible to have a villain the reader likes, appreciates, and even understands in terms of motive, and still have them be, well, a bad person. Yes, each villain can be a hero in their own eyes, but that does not mean they have to be a hero in the readers’ eyes as well.

    The best villain is not only complex, but deeply flawed in at least one way — that’s what helps make them the villain.

  6. 6. simon@kins

    I’m mindful of the Harlan Ellison short story “Shatterday”. The protagonist is a right SOB and the antagonist is a good and humane doppelganger. But HE made the SOB entirely sympathetic and you felt bad that this no-good-schmuck-mamzer was getting his comeuppance. Really. That’s talent.

    Villains? Well, the YA lit and comics are full of 1 or 2 dimensional no-goodniks. And, you know, the same books have heroes that are their counterparts have the same depth. What makes these things sell is the story, the plot.

    That’s likely the missing magic ingredient – the special sauce – that was missing in the books in question.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Doug – I think the writer wasn’t trying to make the antagonist a villain, just as an adversary. Hence the need to portray the villain sympathetically. Alas, there’s still no conflict.

    Simon – There’s plenty of plot in the book. There’s tension, too. But everyone’s just so darn earnest and self-sacrificing and good, you start to get a little fed up.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    The question, to me anyway, isn’t necessarily who is good and who is bad. The question or questions is/are, what’s the criteria, who decides, and what mitigates? If the ‘hero’ is justified in dealing death in pursuit of justice why isn’t the ‘villian’ justified in dealing death in pursuit of vengence? Or is it questions of victims? An old joke comes to mind, the punch-line being, ‘now we’re just haggling over price.’

    I’m interested in views on the villian as the hero.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Elias – Have you ever read Perfume? The villain can be the protagonist, but never the hero.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, thanks for the tip. I haven’t read Perfume but I’ll google for a synopsis and eval for my to-read list. My interest comes from most things writen by Elmore Leonard, a lot by Walter Mosley, and everything by Donald Westlake, RIP.

  11. 11. Elias McClellan

    Adendum, I meant to say I didn’t articulate my intent well in regards to hero/villian roles in books. I’m far more interested in the thief than the cop or the Sith than the Jedi. But moral ambiguity aside, I’d grease a vampire in a second. Then again, who over the age of 16 wouldn’t?

  12. 12. S.C. Butler

    Elias – I’m a firm believer in greasing vamps. Love that Buffy vs Edward video.

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Butler, again, you give me something to look up. By the way, I bought ‘Perfume.’ I don’t know that I’m grown enough to read it but I think that goes to Marie Brennan’s, ‘Age-appropriate’ post.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    Elias – If you don’t think you’re grown up enough to read it, cances are you aren’t.

  15. 15. NewGuyDave

    Great post. I like gray areas, but I also enjoy a definitive good vs evil in fantasy.

    I made my MC, Drohan main protagonist a vengeful murderer, but trying to change. My antagonist used to be a rule-the-world villain, but now he’s doing what he sees as just, but the ramifications would be disastrous. And he’s not afraid to shed a little blood along the way. Clearly evil for the story, but doesn’t think of himself as such, or come across as uber-cartoony eeeevil. Hopefully the lines aren’t blurred too much.

    BTW, the Evil Panel was great. Glad I could listen in and ask questions.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  16. 16. S.C. Butler

    Dave – Glad you enjoyed the panel. My own philosophy for portraying evil is to have the baddie plain not care about whether or not what he wants is going to hurt other people. Which probably comes closer to the cartoon vision.

  17. 17. Elias McClellan

    I disagree with the ‘cartoon vision,’ Mr. Butler. As I read the news on any number of hot-button issues, it seems that once you strip away the prepared arguments, it all comes down to ‘I want what I want and I don’t care about anything else.’

    What I appreciate in a thief is the honesty. What I can sympathize with in a dictator, like Mao is the initial drive to correct a wrong. What I have no patience for is the hypocrite who dresses his/her (Reagan/Thatcher) dirty-deeds as virtue.

  18. 18. David B. Coe

    Interesting post and discussion. I like well-rounded characters. I like villains who are complex and understandable enough to be sympathetic in a way, or at least understandable. But in the end, I like to kill my villains, and I like my readers to feel that the killing was a good thing.

Author Information

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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