Great Villains Aren’t Always Superhuman

a surprisingly powerful and human analysis of creating antagonists by David Gouldthorpe

I’ve been writing fiction for five years now, and of course reading for far longer than that. In my time, I’ve found that perhaps the most vital part of any story is the antagonist. Whether it’s a villain or nature or society, without a strong antagonist a story cannot sustain itself. Of course, out of the three I mentioned above… one of the most fun antagonists to write is the villain. Over the years I’ve read a lot of villains in books, watched a lot of villains in movies and television, and written a lot of villains in my own work. What are the elements I use? To begin, let me break down one villain that I draw inspiration from. He’s not a dark lord or an immortal being. He doesn’t command vast armies or feed on the blood of the innocent.

He’s merely an owlish, spectacled prison warden in Maine.

To be sure, Sauron or Darth Vader fit the villain aesthetic better. You have fire, lots of black, armies at their disposal. But their flashy aesthetic only goes surface deep. Warden Norton, from The Shawshank Redemption, eschews all the flash and grandeur to lay raw what a villain really needs to be evil.

First of all, a villain needs to have ability. If they are unable to pose a threat to the protagonist, then they’re useless. Norton most certainly possesses the ability to harm Andy Dufresne, the story’s hero, through several channels. First of all, Norton has formal authority over him; he’s the prison warden, and Andy’s a prisoner. He can (and does) have Andy detained in solitary confinement for weeks for merely speaking out of turn. Norton also works closely with Chief Hadley, the corrupt prison guard who beats a man to death within the first ten minutes of the film for crying. Norton has not only a legitimate hold over our characters’ lives, but his right hand man is willing to use illegal tactics to terrorize them, which can Norton can easily sweep under the rug. Within the confines of the prison, he commands incredible power.

Closely tied to ability is competence. It’s closely tied to ability, but I consider it separate because it’s incredible tricky to write. A villain may be very powerful, but if they’re not smarter than a fifth grader then their defeat will prompt eyerolls instead of cheers. Warden Norton shows that he is quite competent. His criminal scheme of extortion and kickbacks is run by a man that he keeps under firm control. He checks prisoners’ cells regularly, and keeps Andy close under his thumb. His machinations are only undone by a prominent banker (in other words, a well-educated man) who plots his escape for decades and has to crawl through “five football fields” of sewage pipes to escape. It’s difficult to write this kind of thing because of the great planning that has to go into how to defeat the villain, but the effort is well-spent. The added bonus is that it makes your protagonist also much stronger. Norton is smart; Andy just happens to be smarter.

The last ingredient is where things get fun: a villain needs to be actively evil. That is, not evil because people say he is, but because we the audience or reader can see it. Norton succeeds here on many levels. For example, take Tommy. Tommy is a young man who arrives in prison for theft, a non-violent crime. He wants to earn a high school equivalency so that he can go on the straight and narrow, to provide for his wife and daughter. Despite the trials, Andy tutors Tommy to a passing grade. But when Tommy reveals that he can prove Andy’s innocence, Norton has him murdered in the prison yard. Not only does it cut short a promising life, it also deals a blow to Andy. Then, Norton comes to Andy in solitary and taunts him over it. It’s a vile act that hits close to our protagonist.

On top of that though, the warden’s hypocrisy makes him more relatably evil. His demand for discipline and justice, while simultaneously running a criminal enterprise, makes him a double-talker. You might call it an “everyday evil.” Very few of us personally know a killer, but almost all of us can think of a person that preaches one thing and practices another. It’s something that we can connect to, and thus more easily gets under our skin. To look at another example, it’s the reason why Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge is more despised by fans than the main villain Voldemort. Very few people know a Voldemort in their lives, but almost everyone knows an Umbridge. It turns the abstract concrete. Of course Voldemort is still a good villain, because even though his evil actions aren’t necessarily as familiar, there’s still a certain shred left in there; losing a loved one, by any means, resonates with anyone who has suffered a loss.

Finally, and most important, a villain needs to have a rationality. Norton’s rationality is twofold: these men are prisoners, and deserve to be punished, so I can be as brutal as I want; I want to keep making money, so I need to keep Andy in line. Warden Norton wants something, and he does what he can to get it. Every villain has a purpose . Sauron wants to control Middle Earth, and will obtain whatever power necessary to achieve it. The Thenardiers want as much money as possible, and will pickpocket bodies and sell their children to obtain it. The rationality might even be to be as irrational as possible, like the Joker in The Dark Knight. A villain without a direction is not much of a threat; how can they run up against the protagonist if they have no reason to run up against anything at all?

Warden Norton may not have a horned helmet, a throne of skulls, or flowing black robes. Yet he’s a true villain in the simplest form. He’s powerful, he’s cunning, he’s evil in a very impactful and irritatingly familiar way, and he has a reason behind all of it. It creates a character with powerful screen presence, and when he’s finally defeated it’s a powerful catharsis that leaves the audience satisfied.

___

David Gouldthorpe is HR by day, author by night. He wrote fanfiction for five years before breaking into the world of original fiction. You can read his sci-fi/fantasy shorts, and learn about his upcoming thriller novel Fort Irving, by following his Twitter or by visiting his website at .

 

Machiavelli, Thanos, and Louis XII: How to play a compelling evil PC

A guest post by Josh Simons (@confusedlich)

In a recent tweet, Matthew Colville (@mattcolville) lamented the fact that there are so few evil PCs among D&D groups these days. He cited the D&D Dragonlance book series as an example of a story with an evil character that could be emulated.

What I think Colville is really pointing out, is that sometimes being bad can be so compelling that it becomes good. It would be easy to insert a series of jokes about how morality lies in the eye of the beholder, and fail to explore anything of substance, but I will resist that urge for the greater good.

Niccolò Machiavelli is kind of the poster child for evil philosophers and political thinkers. That’s not to say that he was a bad person himself, or even immoral, but in his political treatise, The Prince, he depicts a ruler who does whatever benefits him the most, and not what is considered morally right. This is the origin of the phrase, “The ends justify the means,” which is an ethicist’s way of saying, “If you do something bad and get a good result, then your actions are justified.”
Machiavelli’s writings influenced a great number of philosophical bad boys, and ultimately set the foundation for many of the systems of thought that are so prevalent in contemporary society.

At this point, I can imagine that some people might be wondering, “How does this connect to Dungeons & Dragons? Machiavelli doesn’t know a critical hit from a d4.” This is true. I suspect Machiavelli never played Dungeons & Dragons, much less any of the other incredibly popular TTRPGs available to us today. But unlike many contemporary gamers, Machiavelli was able to witness the rise and fall of powerful politicians and rulers, and he had a front row seat for all of it. During his political career, Machiavelli watched as the Medici family rose to power (and simultaneously kicked him out of power), but then a few years later, he was returned to a position of authority (partially due to his political experience and partially because he was able to gain the favor of the Medici family). If we should go to anyone for advice on how to play an evil PC, it should be Machiavelli, because he experienced that type of twisted abuse of power firsthand.

So what can we learn from him? Here are a two quick thoughts from my reading of The Prince:
Being evil is not about the end goal that you pursue, but rather it is how you attempt to reach it. We have seen great examples of this in recent superhero movies (Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Killmonger in Black Panther, and Vulture in Spider-man: Homecoming). These villains are relatable because they want to do something that is apparently good, like provide for their family, or stop injustice. However, their cruel methods lead to chaos and violence, and are ultimately what cause them to be categorized as villains.

In the first few chapters of The Prince, Machiavelli looks at the failures of Louis XII when he tried to conquer Italy in 1499 and 1500. Machiavelli writes that his downfall came when Louis XII worked together with the other powerful rulers in Italy to gain a foothold, while weakening the less powerful rulers surrounding him. When the other powerhouses of Italy combined forces to oust the French, Louis XII found himself with incredibly weak allies, and very strong enemies. Machiavelli declares that you should never help your powerful enemies, but that you should help your weaker allies grow in power.

On the surface, these two ideas seem terribly obvious, but so many players get so caught up in the “evilness” of their evil PC that they forget to make them relatable and even sometimes, good.
Colville’s tweet garnered many responses from well known and influential members of the D&D community, and a common theme in many of their responses was that the player running an evil PC needs to be mature enough to not ruin the game for everyone else. This pushback is ultimately what inspired my train of thought that led to the writing of this article.

I am currently playing an evil PC in one of my weekly D&D games and can testify that it is immensely fun and rewarding, but the risk of ruining the party’s experience is dramatically higher than if I was playing a “good” PC. The reason why is quite simple when you think about it from the viewpoint of in-game mechanics. A game of D&D runs on several basic premises; and possibly the most important one is that a group of adventurers that may have very little in common all agree to cooperate in order to go on adventures and overcome various challenges together. If one PC was inherently set against this premise (AKA a murder hobo, or someone who “doesn’t work well with others”), then the entire foundation for the game itself falls apart. Unnecessary tension comes out of it, and eventually, the other players will stop wanting to play with the evil PC.

I have heard stories of evil PCs played so poorly that the rest of the players (note: not the characters, but the players) decided to band together and kill the evil PC out of anger and spite. This is not a healthy gaming environment. With this in mind, I would like to suggest several important keys to playing an evil PC, all stemming from these principles found in Machiavelli’s writing:

As an evil character, it is in your best interest to take down other villains and evil masterminds who might challenge you in your rise to power.

You might consider helping some “good” characters, because “good” characters are painfully tied to their strict moral codes, and if they feel like they owe you something, you just might be able to get something out of them. And so long as you don’t do anything detrimental to your own plan, then the ends still justify the means.

Cooperating with a party of adventurers, goodie two shoes, and other do-gooders may help take the heat off of you, and keep prying eyes away from you while you develop your evil schemes. It’s easier to work on something evil when everyone thinks you’re a good guy.
Senseless violence and endless lies will only paint a bigger target on your back, or make your potential allies more suspicious of you.

Let’s be honest, we all love surprising others. There is nothing more satisfying than a huge, dramatic reveal that after all this time, the party has been trying to find you, and you’ve been two steps ahead of them the entire way. But the only way you’ll be able to enjoy this dramatic moment is if you don’t spoil the surprise too soon. This takes patience, but is incredibly rewarding.
Don’t feel like you have to do something maliciously grand. Maybe you want revenge for your brother’s murder and are willing to kill anyone who gets in your way… but if you do start killing people left and right, it will get a lot harder to exact your revenge. Temper your evil desires with a healthy dose of common sense and self-preservation.
Sometimes doing the “right” thing for the “wrong” reason is evil enough to make a memorable villain. Kill the orphans so they don’t have to suffer. Kick puppies for science! But whatever you do, don’t give us the same old world domination story again. Find something more creative (and ultimately more fun to RP)!

As always, you need to work with your DM if you want to play an evil PC, because they can be your best friend and help you keep your secret under wraps, while leading the party in their hunt for you the entire way. If your DM isn’t certain about it, you can talk with them and try to convince them, but depending on their experience and comfort levels, you might need to save your evil character for another campaign. That’s okay. Playing a broken and twisted “good” character can be just as enjoyable if you are willing to be flexible and have fun with it!

BIO:
Josh Simons studied Philosophy, English, and History in college, and now works in Healthcare. Born and raised in Florida, he lived there until moving to Chicago during high school. Aside from a brief stint in New York City, he has made Chicago his home. While relatively new to the TTRPG and D&D communities, Josh has always enjoyed acting and the tactical side of board games, so he found it was an easy transition getting into TTRPGs. You can find Josh on Twitter (@jedigator) where he also runs a second account that “belongs” to a mostly evil lich (@Confused_Lich). He loves talking about D&D and game mechanics/theory, in addition to his other interests.