A Villain’s Truth
My wife and I recently went to the movies and being the nerdy souls that we are, we decided to see Incredibles 2. Now, I won’t spoil anything, but as the movie progressed, I found myself sympathizing with the story’s villain more and more. When they launched into the classic villainous monologue, I turned to my wife and said, “They’re not wrong.” Even after the movie concluded, I found myself thinking that while the villain went to lengths most people would think are extreme, there was truth in what drove them.
All this got me thinking: How often do the villains of our stories actually speak truth? And how can I use this to strengthen the villains in my own stories?
Since diving into these questions, it’s become more and more apparent to me that most, if not all, villains speak the truth. Maybe not exclusively, maybe they bury it under a heaping pile of lies or distort it, but the truth is there. Better still, when the hero stumbles onto truth, it seems to be the villain who led them to it. So, whatever is driving the villain to act, whatever is pushing them to use ever-increasingly barbaric methods, it seems to me that the villains most memorable to us are the ones who have their base motivations rooted in the truth. They see the world as it is, not as it should be —like the hero does.
Now, I’ve considered how best to implement this in my own stories so I might share it with you, but unfortunately, I don’t have a “one size fits all” method. The best I can give you is several examples of villains who are firmly grounded in a truth about their world. These examples have guided me in helping my own villain find a truth on which to plant herself and it is my hope they’ll do the same for you.
Despite all of the lies one could lay at her feet, there is a measure of truth behind the way Cersei Lannister of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones acts in the world. Everything she does is predicated on one simple fact: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” In the beautiful moment when she is confronted by Ned Stark, where we get this wonderful line, Cersei not only speaks a truth Ned is unwilling to accept, but also gives the reader (or viewer) a glimmer of how she sees the world and the lengths to which she is willing to go in order to see her will come to pass.
Whatever you may think of Cersei as a character, or a villain, those of us who’ve read the book, (or watched the show), know that she is correct, as Ned goes on to find out. The world of Game of Thrones is harsh and unforgiving and only those with the will to do whatever it takes will gain the Iron Throne. In this, Cersei is a perfect example of a villain who’s caught hold of a truth about the world in which she dwells and uses it to place herself ahead of those who cannot.
Where Ned saw the world as it should be, Cersei saw the world for what it was.
Of all the villains to hold a pedestal in my twisted writer’s heart, none have ever managed to climb as high as DC Comic’s Joker as played by Heath Ledger. There is something about the unpredictably of such a character that draws me in. I can’t imagine fighting an enemy whose motivation is, as Alfred simply put, “to watch the world burn”, even if he has to burn with it. It’s terrifying. But beyond that, I find there’s something more to him, something beyond the face paint and scars that makes him such a fantastic villain: He’s right about Gotham.
Succinctly put, the Joker is driven by one simple truth: everyone is just as insane as he is and are all capable of committing the same atrocities of which he is guilty. Sure, they may try to hide it behind a façade of courtesy and well-mannered behavior, but in the darkness of their hearts, they are murderers, thieves & rapists the same as him, all of them craving chaos. And as those of us who’ve watched the movies know, he’s right. While Gotham manages to resist his influence at the end of The Dark Knight, all it takes is a little pressure (i.e. the events of The Dark Knight Rises) and the citizens of Gotham drop all pretext of being “good people”, embracing the chaos and their own inner darkness.
“Peace is a lie[.]” Perhaps the most memorable part of the code by which the Sith of the Star Wars universe live their lives, it is a statement which immediately grabbed my attention upon first hearing it. I don’t think a more brutal truth is spoken throughout any of the myriad of stories that take place within the Star Wars universe, and yet, again, it is a truth to which the characters we are led to see as heroes remain (almost willfully) blind.
Even the existence of the Jedi, warriors whose sole drive is to bring peace, stand as a testament to the truth of the Sith code. If peace were not a lie, soldiers would not be necessary to enforce such an illusion. The Sith are more than willing to accept the fact there will always be conflict and allow that truth to make them stronger. It is because of this, I think, they are always able to come back after a defeat. Their view of the world lends itself well in a galaxy where conflict rages even in times of “peace”, and for those who simply don’t wish to be swallowed up by the fighting, the power behind such a truth is tempting indeed.
As you can see, while all of these villains differ in their approach when it comes to acting in the world, they all share a common link. Each of them has discovered an alarming truth about their world, yet instead of shying away from it to hide in the comforting veil of lies their society provides, they embrace it, pushing hard to test the discovered truth against the lies of the world. As a result, they become a reckoning power upon their world, forcing the heroes for which we’re led to cheer to either deal with the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or fail.
These examples should shine a light on how best to root whatever villain comes to life within your stories in a foundation of truth. Even if the monster birthed from your imagination is a prolific liar with an unhealthy relationship with the truth, I firmly believe if you want to make them a foe worth fighting (and thus gain your audience’s enthrallment & possible sympathy) you need to ground him/her in the truth. Those who see the world as it is hold a significant advantage over those who don’t and, as we can see from the stories we all hold dear, can make for truly memorable villains.
I would like to thank the Dark Lord Journal for giving me the opportunity to write this posts, and I hope you found the topic of villains and truth as fascinating as I do.
About the Guest Author:
“Zachary S. Caulwer: Writer of dark fantasy. Lover of all things medieval. Married to the greatest woman alive.
Find Zach on Twitter at twitter.com/ZacharyS_Cauler.
He’s on Instagram at www.instagram.com/zscauler.”