The Subtle Villain: Three character thoughts

What would ultimate power look like?

“Evil turned out not to be a grand thing. Not sneering Emperors with their world-conquering designs. Not cackling demons plotting in the darkness beyond the world. It was small men with their small acts and their small reasons. It was selfishness and carelessness and waste. It was bad luck, incompetence, and stupidity. It was violence divorced from conscience or consequence. It was high ideals, even, and low methods.”

― Joe Abercrombie, Red Country

Supervillainy is fascinating, but it doesn’t fit every story–not even every story in a fantastic universe.  Not every antagonist is, or should be, some kind of massively powered ultrabeing.  And they don’t have to be.  Here are three ideas for subtle villains.

  1.  The petty king.  A petty kingdom is a small kingdom – perhaps something the size of a modern town or village – which was considered too tiny to be in the same league as a united principality.  The ruler of such a place wasn’t the boss of much – but he could be one hell of a roadblock.  If an important trading route passed through his kingdom, if he guarded a particularly nasty mountain pass, if he imported something everyone needed – then he could hold up everyone else around him, if he chose.  And history shows that petty kings often DID choose to do so, through vanity, or greed, or a simple desire to feel important.  Think of all the petty kings in your character’s life.  Who might be a roadblock?  The boss who won’t let the hero out of her day job in time to thwart a particular villainy?  The officious official who insists on paperwork when every moment counts?  The underling with delusions of power who messes up a plan because she just has to grandstand?
  2. The whisperer.  Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to destroy even the best plan.  A small secret, something a small character might know, can bring down your hero.  And what’s fascinating is not the whisper itself – enough plans are “one in a million chances” that it’s easy to disrupt them – but the why.  Why did the whisperer betray the hero?  Was it for a reward?  Was it spite?  Was it jealousy?  …was it, perhaps, a certainty that it was the right thing to do?  And again, if so – why?  What dwells in the whisperer’s heart?  That’s a great question to ask yourself, when developing both that plot point and that character.
  3. The hero’s self-sabotaging side.  So many of us self-sabotage.  So many of us live with impostor syndrome.  Heroes are no exception.  Self-doubt, fear, and uncertainty can shatter the calm and mental state which can be essential to survival – much less accomplishment.  Does your hero doubt himself?  If so, why?  And what does it do?  And–is it justified?  what if he’s right?

As always – we hope this gives you something to chew on when you’re thinking about the creation and development of your antagonists!

-Dark Lord Journal

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