The Villain’s Journey

We often speak about the Hero’s Journey, and that has been a classic Western model of examining a plot.  But what about the Villain’s journey?  Does it parallel the hero?  Did the villain’s action happen before the hero could do anything; is it all wholly reactive?  Or does the villain have her own arc, her own sense of meaning and purpose?  Is she just a part of the terrain, her schemes simply a mountain blocking the hero’s path, or is she a being with her own agency, her own choices, her own rich interior life?

Your hero may not care—but your reader will.

There Heroes’ Journey itself has been documented pretty extensively.  But the Villain’s Journey?  Not so much.

Here are some ways of creating your villain’s journey:

  1.  Does your villain think of herself as the villain?  …or as the hero?  How so?
  2. What is her great challenge in life?  Is it “the heroes”, as in traditional low fantasy?  Or is it something internal – like hubris, or overconfidence?
  3. What makes your villain more successful than others?  Why is she a threat when others are just a nuisance?
  4. Is this a Greek tragedy for your villain, is she doomed to fail?  Or does she have a chance?
  5. What motivates her?  What keeps her going?
  6. Does she need to stay a villain?  Could she become “good”?
  7. If she can’t – why not?
  8. If she purely, simply embraces evil–why?  As Voltaire says, “No-one loves you when you’re evil”.  What made her choose this path?

-Dark Lord Journal

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Can We Take Funny Villains Seriously?

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Can we take your villains seriously if they’re funny?

Absolutely.  It depends how, why, and when they’re funny.  The 1950s Joker inserted seemingly random stand-up material into his heists and into needlessly complicated deathtraps.  It wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t very often…funny.  You got the idea of a failed standup comedian turned to crime who forgot to turn off the “comedian” bit.

In a world of the MCU, the works of the late, lamented Terry Pratchett,  and a general sense that any main character can get off a few biting quips at any time, your Villain’s in a unique position–assuming she takes advantage of it.  If you’ve got something funny to say, allow us to suggest three rubrics.

  1. Villains can go to social and moral spaces which are barred for others.  Using the death of a dozen cute furry things as a joke?  That’s not funny, that’s just gratuitous (and questionable) animal cruelty for the sake of establishing character.  On the other hand, seeing people die and making a biting comment about how you’ve just sped up the normal workings of society?  THAT can hit home.  In short – your villain is operating from a unique place in the world, and thus able to comment on it in ways prohibited to others.  Take advantage of it.
  2. Is it ZANY, or is it FUNNY?  The distinction’s quite important.  Anyone can be silly, and any circumstances can be silly; the entire genre of humorous scifi in the 1980s was based on ridiculous situations – “Oh, no, we’re trapped on the moon, and all we have to eat is cheese!”  The circumstances are odd and could be risorial. But it’s not actually funny.  Got an acerbic comment to drop on the situation, perhaps a commentary on what would lead a world to people a quality with dairy products?  THAT is where the barb strikes home.
  3. Dare.  Your hero can be an outcast, an outsider, someone not ruled by conventional mores.  Why should she tell the same jokes as everyone else?  Let her find humor in something peculiar and weird – it doesn’t have to be cruelty necessarily; you don’t have to use this to establish meanness or psychopathy.  Just one simple trait: different.  Your villain sees things differently; what does that do to the rare moment when they express a sense of humour?

-Dark Lord Journal

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Why It’s A Good Idea to Kill Your Own Minions

Just a bit of ruthlessness. All in a day's work for certain criminals.

We’re often told that villains shouldn’t kill their henchmen – that it’s a cliche.  The ever-reliable TV Tropes talks about a few different flavors (of which we’ve picked the “You Have Failed Me” version as our sample) – and we’re sure there’s some CinemaSins commentary on the subject.

We find it ironic that, in this post-Game-of-Thrones world, where the knowledge of an upcoming wholesale hero slaughter isn’t even a spoiler anymore unless you specifically namecheck everyone who dies–that people are still beating the dead horse of “It’s a bad idea for villains to kill their own people.

We’d like to offer a rebuttal to several popular views we’ve heard.  Here are just a few:

  • Killing your minions is a waste.  Is it, really?  Whether or not we agree with the villain’s point of view, many villains work from an assumption that they’re better than their opponents.  If you cull your minions, removing the ones you deem inefficient, you might simply end up with more efficient minions; that really depends more on the size of your labor pool than whether or not an individual death is a good idea.  And sure, we often see minions killed for what look like bad or arbitrary reasons, or even for humor value.  But even then, if you’re trying to optimize your workflow, getting rid of those who might be perfectly competent but don’t match well with your needs isn’t a bad thing.  It’s potentially an evil thing – but hey: villain.
  • Nobody would work for a villain who slays their own team.  Really?  REALLY?  Consider the role of the heroic sidekick:  YOUR OPPONENTS ARE ALWAYS TRYING TO KIDNAP OR KILL YOU.  Consider the role of the villain’s minion:  Your opponents are usually not only using nonlethal force, but will probably rescue you if you’re in mortal danger.  If you work for a villain, your boss might kill you.  If you work for a superhero, EVERYONE will try to kill you.
  • There’s no incentive good enough to keep someone working for a murderer who might murder them.  That’s not even vaguely true.  Plenty of people will take hazard pay, in both fictional and real universes, for really dangerous jobs.  Some people even enjoy the thrill.  Why do we assume the villain is alone in their philosophies?  What if the henchpeople feel the same way, and plan to apply the same logic when they have their own evil organizations someday?  Supervillains ransom the world; that’s much better pay than most professions.
  • If you shoot your whole army, you won’t have an army.  That’s true, but that’s true of any resource.  We don’t necessarily know how large the villain’s army is.  It’s like saying “If you spend all your money, you won’t have any money”.  It’s true, but meaningless.  Also, if you’re good at what you do, you can make more money; and frankly, if you’re a desirable villain, you can often raise more troops.  People want to work for excellent supervillains. (And some might not have a choice – like, say, aliens, or the undead.)
  • Minion-murder is a cliche.  That’s totally true.  But it all depends on how you use it.   Let’s be honest: fantasy, science fiction, horror, superheroism, and other unique realities have been mined pretty extensively; not every concept’s going to be entirely new.  Sometimes, our goal is to have a totally unique idea; sometimes, it’s simply to do something that already exists, but do it better or with a new twist.  And that is part of the challenge, and the joy, of writing.

-Dark Lord Journal

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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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Problems With Ruling The World – A Character Exercise

Everybody wants to rule the world...or do they?

Does your fiction include a character who wants to rule the world (or one who, perhaps, already rules it?)

We’d like to put aside the plot ramifications of world dominion for now.  At this moment, we’d like to propose a writing exercise to help you get a little deeper into your villain’s character:

How does she deal with the challenges of her new position?  Ruling is not easy work, not even if you have tremendous power.  (Guilty secret: We stopped following “Game of Thrones” because we recognized: There’s no way in hell we’d ever want to sit on that throne.  That’s just a clear path to unhappiness in life.  Conversely, we admire Dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth, who, when confronted with a path to power similar to the Emperor’s, refused it.  He noted that he had absolute life-and-death control over the village in which he lived, and that this was far more satisfying to him than technically ‘ruling’ a vast swathe of people he would never meet).  The ambition to rule is exciting; the act of actually ruling can be a draining, frustrating challenge.

(We’d also like to postulate that one of the reasons living conditions are often terrible under an evil overlord isn’t because the overlord lacks empathy, but because of The Peter Principle – that is, the skills you need to achieve dominion are not necessarily as the skills you need to be good at it.)

Here are three questions we’d like to pose to you.  You can use them to flesh out your villain and gain some insight into his mind.  Try answering these, as a writing exercise:

  • When you work hard at a goal, and you’ve finally achieved it, you sometime hit a slump.  You ask yourself, “Now what?”  That’s psychologically challenging when your goal is just “Gain a hundred Twitter followers”.  How much more painful it must be when your goal is universal conquest!  So the question we’d like you to ask yourself is, “What does your villain do to fill up the void in her life, now that she’s succeeded?  What does she strive for now?
  • How are the demands of ruling differ from the demands of battling for control?  Going from an aspiring author to a published author is can be life-changing; going from an aspiring world conqueror to the owner of the world has got to be life-changing.  How does your villain deal with that level of change?
  • And finally, this thought.  Even normal people sometimes step on or hurt others in the process of climbing a ladder of “success”.  Your villain’s assuredly hurt a lot of people to get where she is.  Here’s an existential crisis: Was it all worthwhile? And if not, what can she do about it?

-The Dark Lord Journal

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Villainous Dialogue To Avoid

Not every villainous character is a great orator–but many of them are.  We adore a well-written threat, a maniacal monologue, a speech of triumph.  Properly scripted and delivered, your antagonist’s words can have deep and profound impact.

We’d love to give you some examples, but it’s been a long day and good writing is hard.  So we’re going to give you some terrible writing instead.

Pro tip – Don’t have your villains say any of these things:

  • “And now, we shall lower you into the shark pit!  Sharks were expensive; we hope hamsters will do.”
  • “You’re too late!  I’ve already hit the self-destruct button for my fortress!  Wait…why would I do that?”
  • “At last, the world is mine!  Well, not the entire world, but I’m at least going to claim this couch for a while.”
  • “My hatred for the forces of Good is like an unquenchable fire!  Or a really good hot sauce.  Basically, it’s green and goes well on french fries.”
  • “Foolish mortals!  Soon you will know the wrath of…what was my name again?  I think it was something vaguely menacing and could have been in Latin.”
  • “Welcome to my tomb of horrors!  Pleas sign this liability waiver so my insurance rates don’t go up.”
  • “Haha!  I have tied you to the train tracks!  Now, we just need someone to invent the train.”
  • “I will now leave you to a fate worse than death!  Because I’m essentially masochistic and hoping you’ll escape and destroy me.”
  • “You’ll never foil my plans! Because I don’t have any. I have no idea what I’m doing, really.  Do you know how hard it is to get good career advice as a supervillain?”

-The Dark Lord Journal

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Villainy For Fun And/Or Profit

Villainy for the hell of it.

It’s well-known that most villains don’t consider themselves evil.  Each of us is, after all, the hero of his own story.  You don’t want your antagonists to be “bad” simply because it make your protagonists “good” by default; whether or not you’re writing about the complexities of morality, your characters can’t have much of an arc if they simply choose their worldviews based on the convenience of plot.

That being said…there are some incredible reasons your characters might choose villainy.  Let’s explore a few.

Villainy rebels against conventional morality.  We’re always told to “be good”.  We’re told to accept a given set of ethics, morals, and beliefs as being reality, even though those things have all changed dramatically throughout history and all over the world.  Your villains can make a choice: They don’t want to be part of that construction.  They’re opting out.  They’re carving their own path, and that path may be powered by deception or blood or pain or criminality…but it’s theirs, no-one else’s.  And for that character, that may mean everything.

Villainy can be both vocation and avocation.  Does crime actually pay, statistically?  It depends on what you call crime; for example, there’s a certain leading soft drink company which really did put cocaine in its beverages at one point – that was perfectly legal at the time.  And some crimes can be technically legal, but morally shady.  (Woody Guthrie said it best, in his song “Pretty Boy Floyd”: “Some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen“.)  There may not be proof that crime is actually more profitable than working within an existing legal structure.  But in your fictional universe, your villain might have chosen crime simply because it seemed like a good career path, one that suites her.  The Stainless Steel Rat enjoys stealing from banks, even when he doesn’t need the money; he even justifies it by saying that he never hurts anyone, and the futuristic financial establishments involved all get the money back from insurance.

Villainy is fascinating.  What’s it like to do things that most others consider deeply wrong?  What’s it like to be hated and feared?  What kind of soul-searching is involved in being so different from others that you’re labelled a villain?  What made the villain that way?  What keeps her on that path?  It’s not simply about egotism or self-fascination.  It’s about the rich internal life of being at constant odds with societal expectation, being confronted (and confronting) that level of being different from everyone else.  Our challenges make us who we are, and villains are challenged by the entire rest of the world.   That could fuel a level of drive and desire far beyond the reach of the “normal” life of “goodness”.

-The Dark Lord Journal

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Three Joys Of Writing Evil Characters

"And there's a creepy doll...that always follows you." -Jonathan CoultonThere are so many guilty pleasure in writing villains.  And there’s a dirty little secret – you don’t actually need to feel guilty, because all of these little writing delights can actually make for better characters

1. You can take it way, way over the top.  Obviously, every villain and antihero is different; certainly, some are utterly subtle (consider Terry Pratchett’s Patrician, a man of such quiet and calm that a few of his words can utterly terrify even the very brave).  But if you want someone grandiose, someone whose schemes and words and actions play out like an exploding volcano erupting onto an attacking UFO, your villain can be that person.

Go ahead.  Let your villain monologue; the idea is a cliche, but if the actual fulminations are engaging, you can not only get away with it, you can even make it a show-stopper.

Great villains can even inspire heroes to grandiloquence.  Consider what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes said about Professor Moriarty:

“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city, He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans.”

2. You can actually be one-dimensional if you want.  Everyone knows that you need to create characters with depth and nuance; that’s an almost inviolate rule.  But (and this will lead us into our last point in a moment) – villains break the rules.  You do need to be careful here; you’re going to need nuanced, developed heroes, because they’re going to have to do the heavy lifting in terms of character development in your story.  But that’s not a bad thing.  What if you treat your villain as essentially a force of nature?  A hurricane doesn’t have a personality, just deeply dramatic effects.  A protagonist who simply meets them all without breaking a sweat will be boring; in contrast, if she fights both inner and outer battles as she struggles against the elements, she can enthrall us.  Your villain could be like that storm: powerful, destructive, theatrical, larger than any single individual.  In other words, your villain has the option of not being a fully-developed human…if her actions allow us to see more of your protagonists’ humanity in the process.

3.  Villains break rules.  Go ahead.  Shatter the fourth wall.  Let something unthinkable be thought.  Let the impossible happen.  Villains are, in effect, a disruptive technology, who either threaten a world (whether that “world” is as individual as a single person’s life, or as large as the Universe) – or who have already taken it from a normal state to some new, disconcerting, dystopic place.  Villains create in massive doses, because they’re fueled by one of the core ingredients of great change: destruction.

Of course, you can do whatever you’d like with your villains–after all, they’re your characters, and you control them.


~The Dark Lord’s Journal

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