Villains!

A few weeks ago, Mindy Klasky posted here asking our readers what kind of posts they wished to see.  One of the more frequent requests was for posts on the craft of writing.  And so, with that in mind, I thought I would use today’s post to write about something that came up this past weekend at JordanCon, where I was Literary GoH and sat in on several panels in the con’s writing track:  creating effective villains for our novels.

This isn’t a particularly original topic — I’m sure that writers here at SFNovelists have tackled the issue before, and I’m sure that I’ve written about it in other venues over the years.  But each of us has his or her own take on the matter, and my thinking about villains and what makes them work has changed over the course of my career.

Let me start with villain archetypes:  Obviously there are lots of them.  There’s the all powerful manifestation of evil — Sauron, Lord Foul, Rakoth Maugrim (from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionivar Tapestry).  There is the twisted evil genius (Khan, Baron Harkonnen, Mr. Wednesday in American Gods), the faceless institutional evil (the military complex in Ender’s Game), and a few others that I’m sure I’m forgetting.  But if you’re like me, while you are willing to admit that your villain might fall under one of these broad headings, you would like to think that he or she is utterly original — a unique addition to the pantheon of literary antagonists.  Good for you; I’m right there with you.

I like to begin with the following assumptions:  First, no one, not even the worst villain you can imagine, is really going to think of him/herself as “evil” or “a villain.”  As others have said, everyone is the hero of her own story (I say her because the villain in my upcoming Thieftaker series, published under the name D.B. Jackson, is a woman), and a villain is no different.  In other words, having a character be evil for evil’s sake is not always the best way to go.  On the other hand, though, if a character is evil, her motivations are going to be at odds with whatever the “good” or “normal” characters in your book want.  And so my second assumption is that there should be something in the villain’s personal history and personality to explain the things she wants and does.  When I build a character, good or evil, I spend a good deal of time on what I refer to as the ABCs of character (A — attributes; B — backstory; C — circumstance) and in this case backstory and circumstance (the current situations that provide the basis for plot) are particularly important.

The key point is this:  I like to write my characters, good and bad, in shades of gray rather than in black and white.  With very few exceptions, I don’t believe that any effective character can be completely evil or completely good without becoming completely boring.  The villains in my books all tend to be at least somewhat sympathetic and to have very clear reasons for the things that they do.  And, of course, my work is in no way unique in this regard.

It seems to me that the all-powerful, uber-evil villain like Sauron is, in many ways, a thing of the past.  Most authors these days are drawn to complexity, even ambiguity, in their character work — a blurring of the lines between good and evil.  This is one of the reasons why we see so many more “anti-heroes” among today’s protagonists.  Just as the all-evil villain is less common than she used to be, so is the perfect hero.  And thank goodness.  With heroes growing more complex, it only makes sense that anti-heroes would go in the same direction.

All of which opens up tremendous possibilities for those of us who spend our days developing characters and narratives.  Our flawed heroes must overcome their shortcomings in order to prevail in their struggles.  And our complex villains can often have at least a chance at redemption that, for one reason or another they shun or embrace, depending on how we want our plots to twist and turn.

I find it particularly fun and helpful in my plotting if the flaws of my hero and the redeeming qualities of my villain are tied to each other in some way.  For instance, in my Winds of the Forelands series, one of my heroes, Lord Tavis of Curgh, starts out as a spoiled brat who is very difficult for my readers to like.  He is selfish, rude, egotistical, impulsive.  His main nemesis is an assassin named Cadel, who was also once an alienated noble.  He dealt with his alienation by leaving his home and eventually turning to life as a hired blade.  But despite his violent profession, he is generous, charming, urbane, thoughtful — qualities that help him in his work, but that also make him likable to my readers.  The two men have similar backgrounds and opposing traits; and throughout the first several books of the series, they are on a collision course made all the more compelling by all that links them to each other.  In the same series, the two sorcerers who will battle for the fate of the Forelands, Grinsa and Dusaan, could be brothers they are so similar.  But where one of them chose a life path that led to conciliation and compassion, the other followed his ambitions and prejudices down a darker path.  Again, their similarities make their rivalry all the more interesting for my readers.

Building a villain for your books — like building any other character or setting or plot line — does not happen in a vacuum.  Your villain needs to be the product of her own background and life story.  She needs to be a creature of the world and magic system you have created.  And she should also be the perfect foil for your protagonist.  This last point may seem contrived, and if written with too heavy a hand it could turn out that way.  But fiction is an imperfect reflection of reality, and if the complementary qualities of your hero and anti-hero are handled delicately, subtly, they can add dimension and richness to the struggle between good and evil.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com

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  1. 1. sim

    Vernor Vinge has written an interesting array of villains. In “Fire Upon The Deep”, one has the Blight, an ancient evil of galactic scale that corrupted and perverted species and civilizations. On the local scale, one had Lord Steel, who was sympathetic villain once his motivations and history were revealed. His reconstruction and rehabilitation reminds me of Alfie Bester’s “The Demolished Man”.

  2. 2. Tom G

    As a reader, I’ve evolved with the writers in this way. Back in the 70′s and 80′s I preferred battles of good and evil. That’s one of the things that drew me to Fantasy. But as time passed, I’ve come to enjoy more “ambiguous” characters, on both sides of the battle.

    As a writer, I find there is little difference morally between my protag and antag, just different objectives. In fact, it got so close I have consciously tried to make my villains more villainous in the last couple of stories.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Sim, Vernor is not only a an exceptional writer, but also a terrific weaver of plots and creator of interesting characters. I’m not surprised to find that his villains would be memorable, too. Thanks very much for the comments.

    Tom, I enjoy the flawed protagonist/sympathetic villain approach, too. But as you say, you do want there to be some darkness in the villains, just to set them apart!

  4. 4. Ryan Viergutz

    One of my favorite phrases is that a hero is only as strong as his villain. It’s the truth, no matter the range of personalities in the part. Sometimes, the hero is his own worst villain, and they’re often the most fun and memorable for me.

    The antagonist gives your protagonist the conflict and it has to be at least as strong as the good guy. Everything in a good story is built around conflict and the strength of the opposing force.

    I can think of a ton of flawed heroes and bloody good villains. Scorpius in Farscape is one of my absolute favorite villains ever, because his cool, calm, unflappable – but sometimes deeply, vigorously enraged – personality plays off the strung-out, desperate, panicky John Crichton.

    D’anna Biers, or whatever her numerical designation in BSG 2K3, is another good one. She thinks she’s destined to find the salvation of her species. Lawless plays her so well, so totally and completely focused on her goal.

    Katarina Armstrong, ‘Spy Smasher’, is a damn good counterpart for Barbara Gordon, ‘Oracle’, in one of the Birds of Prey volumes by Gail Simone. Where Oracle knows things and gives information, Armstrong wields authority from a dozen different agencies and has a history with Oracle at that.

    Honestly, I could ramble about villains all day. :)

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    Late, very late to this party (and jumping genres, too) but I love Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in ‘Unforgiven.’ Like most of us, he’s flying by the seat of his pants.

    He’s doing a job that most will not/cannot do and when he’s confronted with an unorthodoxed problem, he applies an unorthodox solution. And viola! He’s Darth Cowboy. I think if we explore our basest impulses, we’ll find ourselves one step away from the unthinkable.

    Remember the anti-drug commercials from the 80′s? “No one ever says I want to be a Sith Lord when I grow up.”

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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