Evil Not Included – Guest Post by B.K. Bass

Often when coming up with the concept for our villains, the first thing that comes to mind is considering what kind of Evil they shall wreak upon the world.  Be it conquest of all known lands or crushing all who stand in their way under a hobnailed boot, great villains often have dark schemes in mind.

However, does a character have to be Evil to be a villain?

One advice we hear often is that a villain should be developed enough to be the protagonist in his own story.  Another is that villains should sometimes think that they are doing what is either necessary or right.

Do they have to be the embodiment of pure evil, or can they just have different opinions from our protagonists?

In my current project – Warriors of Understone – the conflict in the book is internal to the society of dwarves that I have created.  There could have been a goblin invasion or some other such external conflict, but exploring an intricate web of political rivalries seemed like an interesting background upon which to build a tale that features the oft-sidelined stout folk.

The primary antagonist in this book is Thane Volgas, a lord of some renown and influence within the city of Understone.  He is a staunch proponent of maintaining the traditions of his people. His fight is not one of conquest or oppression, but one of preserving the values which he and most in his culture hold as the best path to a stable society.

Supporting him is Shagoth, one of his warriors and cousin to our protagonist; Durgan.  Shagoth is less complicated in his motivations as Volgas, but he is a loyal follower of his lord.  He looks down upon the labor caste, and persecutes his cousin mercilessly.

The conflict herein is the struggle of change versus tradition.  The antagonistic side of the conflict wishes to maintain the status quo, and our hero wishes to make changes in society that he feels would benefit his people.  Durgan, with the help of Thane Marthok, fights to allow those born into the labor caste to make their own way in life. As a stonecutter’s son, he is fated to follow in his father’s footsteps.  He wishes to become a warrior, and Marthok is helping him to achieve this.

Our villains, therefore, are only antagonists because their political and social views oppose those of our protagonists.  Writing the story from their perspective, Durgan and Marthok could be painted as upstarts and rebels trying to upset the stability of the kingdom.

So, as we see here, villainy does not always include evil as a pre-requisite.  There are many forms of conflict that we can explore, and we have little further than our own world to look for inspiration.  Examining our own political situations can inspire many interesting possibilities, and discussing these through the lens of fiction can also open new dialogues that could change our own world.

-B.K. Bass

Author B.K. BassB.K. Bass writes at his studio in Tennessee. He enjoys crafting science fiction, fantasy, and gothic horror. B.K. has long been an avid reader, film buff, and all-around geek.

Evil As A Defense Against Writer’s Block – 3 Writing Prompts

The power of inspiration is limitless.  Unfortunately, it can sometimes be very difficult to access.

In times of trouble, consider calling upon…. your villain.

Here are three ways to adopt this as a writing exercise:

  1. One of the greatest challenges is that the things which give us writer’s block are often extremely mundane (though they can be deeply traumatic, like loss of a loved one, or divorce).  These are “enemies” of the mind which can’t be defeated by witty scientists and sharp swords.  But what if it were actually villainy?  If a villain were causing your problems, what would their powers be?  Why would they be using them to do this to you?  Taking your real-life problems and converting them into the stuff of fictional darkness might just let some lightness into your heart… and get your typewriting clicking again.  (Cautionary note: Don’t take the step of falling into the fantasy that your problems are really the result of villains.  For one thing, that would make you more resistant to our plot to take over the world.)
  2. What Would A Villain Do?   Turn your problem on its head.  Unsure what should happen with your protagonist?  Unsure about how to defeat that blank page?  Use a favorite villain (yours, or someone else’s – and go through the mental exercise of thinking about how that villain would approach your situation.  What would she do?  What would she write?  What would be on her mind?  Try getting it out on paper (or screen) – and see if it gives you the perspective to start again.
  3. There is no number three.  Actually, to be more specific, we’re attacking our own writer’s block using the second idea.  What would our villain do?  Why, she would assuredly create something that looked like a writing exercise, but was actually a subliminal trick to re-awaken the power of the imagination inside of you, thus making the world a more magical and creative place, one which would truly appreciate our villain’s flair and world-straddling ambitions.
  4. …and here’s an actual third tip, since you really deserve the three exercises you were promised.   Every villain has an untold story.  Not just a backstory or an origin, but the story of what makes them tick on a daily basis, what gets them through the day, how they feel about themselves.  That story is often divorced from reality–but very real to them.  What happens if you try putting that on paper?  That’s a tale seldom told–so there can’t be a wrong way to tell it.

 

-Dark Lord Journal

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Kill Your Villains – Permanently

bigstock--136175810 - smallerIf you truly love your villains, then you need to do something very hard:

If they die, let them die.

We don’t mean you should engage in wholesale slaughter.  We still feel that, most of the time, stories where lots of characters die on a regular basis have a number of challenges in terms of letting your audience feel safe caring about them.

But if a villain dies–let the villain die.  Let your stakes be real.  Let death matter.

It’s not impossible to find a really fascinating plot twist or a great reason for someone’s return.  We’re not saying it’s never possible.  We’re just saying: the world is damn tired of seeing villains go down, only to see them get right back up again in a sequel or, even worse, another chapter.

It’s fairly frustrating even in video games, and games have an excuse–they need a reason for the Boss Battle to evolve, because the person taking in the media has some control over their own destiny.  Even inside of games, though, players want–and deserve–an opportunity to fight something evolving, something that becomes new enough that there’s meaningful change.

Sure, we love villains–this is an entire blog about the love of villainy.  But the truth is, a really beloved villain deserves:

  1. A meaningful death.  Why has this powerful force in the story been taken out of it?  What purpose does it serve?
  2. A death which affects us emotionally.  If we don’t care about the villain’s end–even to rejoice–then perhaps we haven’t been sufficiently hooked into her life.
  3. A death which is permanent and true; a real reason to mourn her if we cared about her, a reason to feel relief if we feared her.

It’s true – you can bring your villain back.  You’re the writer and creator; you can do anything.  But some powers need to be used very, very sparingly.  Because if villain death loses meaning, then the villain loses meaning–and if that happens, the whole tale could lose its impact altogether.

-Dark Lord Journal

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PVSD: Post-Villainy Stress Disorder – a character challenge

Success, too, can be bitter

What happens after your character takes over the world or defeat the hero?

In the general Heroe’s Journey of Western writing, of course, the situation is highly temporary, and villains hardly have time to regret anything before they’re simply overthrown.

But it need not be that way.

What’s your villain going to do now that she’s won?

What’s his plan?

Does it make your antagonist happy?

….or is it an oddly hollow victory?

Villains are often overachievers.  They need to make and do things.   What happens when they’ve created a new situation…

….and that ends their dreaming?

WRITING EXERCISE:

Whether or not you plan to let your villain win, consider a scenario where she has.  Then take a piece of time for your villain to reflect.  What does she feel? Triumphant? Empty? Excited? Scared?

What happens after Evil wins?  Is it content?  Is it still hungry?  And either way–how does that feel?

What if victory is…horrible?  How does your villain deal?  There aren’t a lot of therapists for villains out there.

-Dark Lord Journal

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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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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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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.

….hopefully.

~The Dark Lord’s Journal

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