Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Your Other MC: Thoughts on Villainy

First up, I want to announce that Orbit is putting Eli Monpress is on sale this month! Get the omnibus of the first three Eli books for only $2.99 (Amazon | Nook | Everything Else)! You could even say they're a steal (har har thief humor). This is a great and cheap way to get new people hooked on the series, so please, spread the love! Now, on to the blog post!

Here at last, my long promised post about villains. It took me so long to write this because once I'd announced my intention to make a post like this, I realized I didn't actually know what I was going to write about. My original goal was to write a simple how-to guide for creating a good villain, but the more I tried, the more I realized I was attempting the impossible. First, if there was actually a reliable alchemy to creating excellent villains, we'd see a lot more of them. Second, even those bits I have penned down are so incredibly specific to my own method of story percolating that I doubt they'd be of much use to anyone else.

Honestly, I can no more describe to you how to write a truly good villain than I can teach you how have an epiphany. I can, however, write a blog post about villains--what makes them good, why we love them, and what happens to a story when the villain can't carry their end of things--and hope that knowledge spurs inspiration. So, let's talk antagonists.

What Does A Villain Do?
I went over this a bit in my AMA sessions last month, but since this whole post is about villains, I want to go ahead and get the definition out of the way, just to make sure we're all on the same page.

At the very highest level, the purpose of the antagonist is to provide the plot's push back. In a story of any sort, you have the main character(s), who generally want to do something. The antagonist is the thing/person/force that stands in their way. Without them, the MCs would just go over and do whatever they'd set out to do, and there would be no story.

You'll notice I used the term "antagonist" there. This is because this not all antagonists are villains. An antagonist is simply someone or something who is against the protagonists. This conflict doesn't always mean that the antagonists are in the wrong. There are some books where the protagonists are, in fact, horrible people who shouldn't be allowed to have their way, and in those the antagonist is often the force of good who are trying to stop them. But those sort of reverse stories are few and far between. In the vast majority of cases, the protagonist is a hero working toward some kind of good, and the one standing in their way, antaging their protag, so to speak, is the villain.

Villains are antagonists who are not doing the right thing. Who are, in the vast majority of stories, actively trying to do the wrong thing, either by preventing the heroes from doing good or by doing evil in their own right that the heroes must stop. Sometimes this evil is straight forward (kill the princess, take over kingdom, cover world in darkness for all of eternity), other times the waters can be murkier. It is in this murk, however, that the best villains often reside.

The Spectrum of Villainy
I like to think of villains as falling on a spectrum. At one end, you have the pure cackling evil sort, think Sauron or (my all time favorite) Maleficent.

Now that is some stylish evil.

As fun as villains at this end of the spectrum can be, however, their unabashed love of being, well, evil can make their characters shallow. There's a reason villains like this tend to show up in children's fiction. There's no question that this character is bad, and therefore they can be killed by the good guys without remorse. Their evil is so intense they are dehumanized. Their deaths are victories to be celebrated, not murders.

Villains like these often have monstrous forms that match the black evil of their hearts, and they're always shown being cruel without provocation or purpose: kicking puppies, killing children, etc. Sometimes they're mindless evil, like the zerg from Starcraft or the zombie hordes from any of the Romero Night/Dawn/Day of the Living Dead movies. They don't have to be physically dangerous either. Emotional abuse can be far worse than any physical danger, especially if the hero is the one being abused. Judge Claude Frolo from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame was a violent and powerful man, but he was at his most evil when he was calmly emotionally abusing Quasimodo.  However villains at this end of the spectrum present themselves, though, they are always 100% unmistakably evil beings who need to be killed for the good of everyone.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the misunderstood or reluctant villain, the one who could have been a hero had things been different. My absolute favorite example of this is Antonio Salieri from the play/movie Amadeus (one of my absolute favorite movies of all time).

Though named for Amadeus Mozart, Amadeus is actually the story of the composer Salieri and his absolute frustration and jealousy with the young Mozart. Here is a young, vulgar man who, though his genius, effortlessly produces music so beautiful that Salieri believes it is the work of God, while Salieri himself is cursed with only the ability to appreciate that genius but never create such beauty himself no matter how hard he works. The unfairness of this drives the jealous Salieri, who is otherwise a decent, if overly strict man, to set in motion a series of events that bring about Mozart's death and destroys Salieri in the process.

Salieri is the ultimate reluctant villain. So much so, in fact, that he actually ends up being both the hero and the villain of his own story. You could easily argue that the bumbling hero in this piece is Mozart, but Salieri is without a doubt the core of its story. Amadeus is the story of the rise and bitter fall of a talented but ultimately forgettable artist driven to villainy by jealousy of another's true genius. It is a deeply complex character drama where plot takes a far back seat to the relationship between Salieri, God, talent, and music.

And it is here we see the biggest different for authors between the two extremes of villainy. While cackling villains lend themselves to shallowness, misunderstood villains like Salieri demand depth. They struggle with their misdeeds and take over stories with their own internal conflict. This isn't to say that one type is better than the other, just that they are different animals who require different treatment within a story.

In a plot heavy YA fantasy, for example, a reluctant villain with highly complex motives that require a lot of exploration might end up feeling cramped or underdeveloped despite your best writing simply because there's not enough space in a 100k action adventure novel to properly deal with all of his/her issues. Especially if you're already dealing with two or more main characters who also need development time. On the flip side, if you try to put a cackling evil-for-evil's sake villain in an intense character drama where everyone else is multi-layered, you're going to have a real struggle making sure your bad guy doesn't appear flat or one note by comparison (this is actually a huge problem in Hollywood movies, the heroes will be deep and multilayered while the villain is left as almost an afterthought).

This isn't to say you can't make either of these set ups work. You're the writer, you can do whatever you can imagine. I'm just saying that these are issues that bear consideration when you're putting your book together.

I'm also not saying that all villains fall into one of these two extremes. Quite the contrary, there are thousands of highly successful villains who fall everywhere on the spectrum, and most likely your villain will also fall somewhere in the middle. But simply by upstanding that there is a spectrum of villainy can help you as a writer understand where your own villain falls, and that, in turn, can help you figure out how best to use them in your plot.

What This Means and What it Doesn't
In the section above, you'll notice I used a lot of hedging words like "tends to be" and "most of the time." This is because part of our job as writers is to break the molds we're given. Just because evil overlords tend to be overly simplified just because they're wholly committed to their evil ways and misunderstood villains tend to invite more complex narrative because of the innate complexity of a decent person driven to do bad things doesn't mean that's how you have to write them. Hannibal Lecter showed us just how complex and nuanced a wholly evil character can be, while the Grinch from the Dr. Seuss story of the same name is a perfect example of how powerful and simple a misunderstood villain can be.

With so many good counter examples, it might seem silly to bother putting villains on a spectrum at all. But the point here isn't to be right, but to create a way of thinking about the concept of villain in a broader sense. Because the only way to make something better is to understand what makes it good in the first place.

Okay, So What Makes a Good Villain?
The same things that make a good character: hooks, flaws, and motivation.

One of my favorite sayings in writing is that every villain is the hero of their own story. Like your hero, your villain needs to yearn, to crave, and to act. They need the agency to move the plot to their own ends and the motivation to make them do it. They can't just be evil because you need someone to lock your hero up so she can make her daring escape. Or, I guess they can, but this is a post about writing GOOD villains, not plot devices, which is what villains become when you let them wither.

Way back at the beginning of this post, I defined the villain/antagonist as force providing the push back that must be overcome before the heroes can achieve their goal. They are what creates the tension, doom looming on the horizon, the threat in the dark, the mountain that must be overcome. If the three act structure is defined as 1) put your characters in a tree, 2) light the tree on fire, 3) get your characters out of the tree, the villain is the one setting the fire, or the one chopping down the tree, or the one doing both at once while climbing up into the branches after them. Villains are conflict, they are your other main character, just on the opposite side of the plot.

But even more important than their vital roll in the plot is what a good villain brings to a book's emotional weight. What we as authors are really asking from our readers is investment. At the simplest level, we want them to be invested enough to turn the page, but on a larger scale, you want your readers to care about your characters, to stay up all night reading just to make sure everything turns out okay. The greater the level of reader investment, the deeper the book hooks into them, the more they remember it. I've read plenty of books that I've liked, but the ones I loved were the ones where I felt a deep emotional connection to the characters, and those are the books I bug people to read.

Commercial success in a book is directly related to reader investment, to how much people care. To that end, you want to make sure you give your reader every opportunity possible to become invested in your work, and villains are a huge part of this, because people LOVE great bad guys. I mean, I didn't watch The Dark Knight for Batman, I watched for the Joker, and I wasn't alone. But you don't get invested in a plot device, you get invested in a person, and what's what a good villain has to be: an amazing, interesting person capable of captivating your reader's attention.

The easiest way to do this is to create a villain people love to hate. Hate is the simplest emotion to inspire (see the commonality of puppy kicking mentioned above), but being easy, hate is also simple. For my money, the absolute best villains are the ones you hate but also sympathize with. Maybe they have very good reasons for the terrible things they do, and you can't help but feel for them even as you're cheering for the hero to win.

These sort of villains fall toward the "redeemable" end of the spectrum, but you can also court reader investment on the unrepentant end of things by having your villain be tempting. The will to evil is a universal constant, and villains like The Joker or Hannibal Lecter are masters at showing just how much fun life on the dark side can be. With good writing, good dialogue, and good hooks, a wholly evil villain can be hypnotic and addictive and even admirable in their unwavering dedication to being dastardly.

All that said, though, one of the true challenges of writing great villains is that you have a limited amount of space to do it in. In the vast majority of cases, the villain is not the main character. No matter how big a deal they are, in the end, it's not their story. Cutting away from the main character action to check in on the villain is a classic way to build tension, but like any powerful tool, if you use it too much it loses its impact. In fact, often the less you show a villain, the better and more interesting their scenes get, though how much is too much is something only the writer can decide.

But If You REALLY Want to Learn How to Create a Great Villain...
The best way to do it is to go and find your favorite villains and figure out why you like them. And once you've pinned those down, find some more. Read books, watch movies, read comics. Comics are actually really awesome places to find great villains (Magneto 4 EVA!) as well as some truly terrible ones. Honestly, though, that's even better. I've always found you learn way more from figuring out why a sloppy mess didn't work than trying to pick apart a masterful job that did. Pick up the bad guys and dissect them, try to think about why the author/artist/director made the choices they did. And if you don't like my villainy spectrum, make your own. That's what I did! It's just a model, a way of organizing information so you can think about it more clearly. But the important part of this, the most important part of all writing, is thinking. If you can look at Hannibal Lecter and understand why a soft spoken, over educated sociopath who likes to eat people captivated America, then you've got all the foundation you need to create your own amazing villain.

So there's my villains post. I hope you enjoyed it! Please leave your comments if you think I missed something or if you have your own way of defining villains. I'm all about learning something new. Thanks again for reading!

- Rachel

PS: My next post is going to be about my experiment writing a series that had NO villain. It was... interesting. Let's just say I got a very hard lesson in exactly how much work a villain does in a series. Until next time! - R


  1. Awesome sale! Just bought the omnibus e-edition on principle (already had the paper copies).

  2. The "villain" of my novel project is of the reluctant kind. Blinded by the well-intended goal to protect the closest "person" he has to a child, but willing to hurt others in the process to get it done. It doesn't help that he's disillusioned by his organization's black-and-white morality.

  3. There are sympathetic villains abound in the last season of Fringe. They are the same people as the heroes, just from the alternate universe. And the universes are collapsing into one another, so they're fighting to make sure their universe is the one to survive.

    Got to love Maleficent, though. Classic Disney movies are so superior to current ones...

  4. I like the description of the villain as 'your other MC' and I understand the difficulty of putting the development of one into a how-to - although I'd still be interested in knowing how you went about developing some of yours.
    The 'Every villain is the hero of their own story' is one of my favorite quotes pertaining to the subject too. :) I'm looking forward to your post on writing without villains - it's a very interesting idea, I think.

  5. Excellent post! I'm contemplating editing one of my novels and I can see that the problem with most of them is that I either don't have a villain or they're flat, which is terrible since I have a passionate love for a good villain. :P This is so helpful. Thank you!

  6. Oh, and I just remembered that I wanted to comment this - Sauron is portrayed as being on the 'just plain ol' evil' type of villain in LOTR, but if you back to the Sillmarillion, the history of that world, it's a different story. As much as you can see character through Tolkien's very broad and sweeping overview, Sauron has character - he was once a servant of good, apparently a very powerful force for good, named Mairon. Tolkien even stated that he was not completely evil a few times - even after he had served the Big Bad, Morgoth, for a very long time. When Morgoth got thrown in the Void and Sauron began asserting his rule over the Earth, Tolkien states that it was originally with good intentions - Sauron was a control freak who worried about the physical well-being of anyone he thought was subordinate to him, and in his eyes the Gods had left the Earth a mess and weren't doing anything about it, so it was up to him to save the day. :P