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 .

 

Snuggly Villains

Snuggly Villains

A guest post by Jabe Stafford

Villains commit some terrible deeds, but that’s not why we want to snuggle them. Lovable evildoers are such a dastardly challenge to write. Sometimes an antagonist you pit against your heroine ends up hollow like a chocolate bunny. Gas station night managers sound more exciting than your bad guy on the bad days. If your she-terror sees more couch potato time than action, kick her off it and chuck the couch into orbit. Heads-up: these better-villain tips are things you’ll need to do and re-do at some point, ‘cause no antagonist is, “eh, good enough.”

Straw Man is a term you probably heard when you weren’t listening in English class. Antagonists that are only stereotypes or are only there to be beaten are Straw Women or Men. Were you motivated to care about the cannon-fodder enemies in the latest game you played or novel you read? Then build the habit of not treating your own villains that way. A solid Straw Woman cure to practice is writing from the antagonist’s POV, whatever it may be. First Person, Third Person Close, anything. That villain doesn’t even have to be a narrator in your story. Doing this and reading your own villain’s lines back to yourself will reveal some truth. “Yep, that sounds like a B movie I’d never watch.” “I can tell this bad guy’s faking his role, so the reader probably can too.” Once you hit the point where you could hug your antagonist or see her hoodwinking others into loving her, you know you improved as a writer.

Keep writing.

Villains with the voice of a bored DMV employee are such a drag. They repel reader interest, they radiate unworthiness, and they get dismissed almost as fast as you do when facing said bored DMV employee at the actual place. Starting off with a villain who sounds like this is all right sometimes if it means you build momentum and write 2,000 words in a day. It’s not all right to let this antago-bro or antago-sis stay bland. Don’t mistake willingness to wreck the hero’s life as excitement. Most villains want hero-wrecks. Yours wants more. She wants to be branded onto the brains of readers for her twisted perspective, her daring, or how close she is to being good if only this one tiny thing would change. But it won’t. ‘Cause she’s an exciting villain your readers will savor when you build a stronger voice for her. Search for common words, habit words, and run-on sentences in your baddie. Replace them by hand, one by one, with richer synonyms and short-but-addictive phrases. Don’t know what she’d say? Write some more until you come to a confrontation where you know she’d never say basic things. If writing from the antagonist’s POV isn’t enough, try twenty questions with your antag. Jotting interview questions and answers you got from an imaginary interview with her will drag more of her voice from the sassy or pissed-off depths of her heart cavity.

Keep writing.

Bad guys gotta eat too, so get ‘em hungry. Lazy villains and plot-convenience enemies aren’t a challenge to the hero or to themselves. What’s your antagonist got to lose if the protagonist wins? Did cursed porcu-bees get him rich and the hero’s siccing lawyer clerics on him to ruin his revenue and reputation? That antagonist fought hard to be public enemy number one thru ten. (Or to get whatever reward came with that status.) The most snuggleable villains are ones that gradually descend or that are so memorably active that the reader can’t help but love them despite their crimes. So make those crimes craveable to read. Challenge yourself to write down multiple reasons for each of your antagonist’s choices or crimes. “X was the easiest way,” and, “Y got him more thrills,” and, “Z was the way to make sure no one else knew I did it.” Anything can go on that list. Desire to see the hero suffer more, or to murder the hero because death means no more guff from that hero. Passion to prove he can control or outwit others, often many others, at once. Cold devotion to one goal with a few sincere emotional moments that hint at remorse or a love before the frigid soul takes over again. Or just because it was fun. That glee on the baddie’s mug has to be earned, but taking the time to flip-flop their motivations might lead to even more unique villains. Finding the three most ready-at-hand options for an antagonist’s crimes is a good way to weed out the week and predictable options. Try that next time your villain flops down on the couch and refuses to obstruct the hero. It’s a two-for-one too: if the reader can only see the antagonist’s intent once in a while, and they see the plan pay off despite being unable to guess the intent, they’ll trust in your villain. And then you have them.

Keep writing.

“Eh, good enough” villains ain’t snuggly. A bread sandwich is more satisfying than a Straw Man antagonist losing or winning. Readers develop mistrust-o-vision when a villain’s voice sounds mediocre or skippable. Unmotivated baddies that can’t be bothered to scratch their own asses won’t kick your hero’s the way it needs to be kicked. Villains make the heroes, so keep writing and enjoy being bad. For good story’s sake.

Jabe Stafford enjoys writing stories about alcoholic angels and drunk demons. He likes chatting ’em up after they’ve had a few, and the stuff they say is so bizarre that it makes his life of writing and office work sound mundane by comparison. The demons seem most interested in his years as a martial arts instructor, but then they brag about magic and challenge him to arm wrestle. Don’t arm wrestle a drunk demon or a sober one. Just read about ’em.
His wanderings have taken him to the UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and the Write-By-The-Lake Retreat. He writers with the Middleton Creative Writers, where his fellow authors hear those stories about the demons he tried to arm wrestle. He’s earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from UW-Madison, a Teaching Certification from Edgewood College, and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

The Gray Light of Villainy 101

The Gray Light of Villainy 101 – Relationships

A guest post by Rennie St. James

Before we can delve into the gray light of villainy, we must first touch upon the definition for villain. Below are just a few:

-a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.

-a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.

-a dramatic or fictional character who is typically at odds with the hero

Any good villain can easily find several gray areas in all of these definitions. Perhaps, we can find more clarity in the definition of a hero then.

-a main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength.

-a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.

Well, that makes it as clear as mud, doesn’t it?! I like to think of heroes and villains as two sides of the same coin. However, we treat them quite differently when writing. We shine a bright light of love onto our heroes while bathing our villains in darkness. There are many avenues to right this wrong, and this particular post will focus on villainous relationships.

One of the best ways to make our MCs more likable is to use their relationships with other characters. The surprising bromance and tender spot for animals are classic examples which give our heroes depth. The hooker with a heart of gold and bad boy with a secret charity abound in romances. No man is an island after all…and neither is a villain.

Now, every good villain has an army of underlings at their disposal. It’s often the case that the villain has a twisted past with the hero as well. However, those relationships only serve to reinforce their dastardly natures. What makes the villain more complex are their more personable relationships.

Hannibal Lector and Clarice is perhaps a well-known relationship that serves to define him in a new light. For the Potterheads like me, there’s Snape and Lily. It wasn’t Snape’s relationship with Dumbledore, Harry, or Voldemort that created a complex character; it was the underlying love hidden under the snark and darkness. Always.

To paraphrase one of my favorite writing quotes – write each character as if they are the hero of their own story.

In my fantasy series, I have a number of dastardly villains ranging from political snakes to terrorist masterminds. How do you write these characters as heroes even if only in their own minds?

I write first person POV character pieces for each. My pieces are typically something short that details a turning point in his/ her past. And yes, it helps if a good relationship is explored in a new way. These stories never have to be revealed in the book. Nonetheless, they will still impact the way the villain is written. They can make the villain even more human than the hero.

Heroes often exist outside of our skill set and standards. They are far beyond what most of us can hope to accomplish in our normal lives. Must the villain’s evil nature be far beyond our reach as well?

Writers are often encouraged to give our heroes flaws, but what about giving our villains any good traits? I think should remember that it’s perfectly acceptable for villains to do somewhat good things at times or even bad things for a good reason. Those bright spots in our villains’ lives contrast nicely with the shadows of death, destruction, and mayhem constantly cloaking them. They also create more of those lovely gray areas.

It isn’t just about the villain’s relationships with other characters, but also their relationship with the reader. While the hero’s goodness may be beyond most of us, the villain’s flaws and relative goodness are things we can appreciate and understand. Forming a connection to a villain makes it easier for us to cheer for them even if they are breaking the law or set against the ‘good guy’. Frankenstein? Loki? The Inside Man? The A-Team?

There are countless examples of villainous characters making questionable choices that we overlook or even relish. Sometimes, it’s just a spitefulness inside us that celebrates their vindictive natures to punish those who have wronged them (as we would like to do). Sometimes, it’s that the villain seems infinitely more likable to us.

To again reference HP, no one is all good or all bad. Each of us have light and darkness inside. Relationships are one way to spotlight the white light of goodness in a villain. On the flip side, relationships can also reveal the darkness in a hero. These contrasts and gray areas can make all the characters deeper and more human.

Again, heroes and villains are simply different sides of the same coin. Take a moment and review your villain in a new light and see what happens. Are there gray areas in which your villain shines? Do they have a strong bond to a good character? Is there an underlying good reason for their choices that readers can understand? Maybe you already have a favorite villain you cheer for in your writing? I’d love to hear about him/ her so please share in the comments.

 


Find out more about Rennie St. James at www.writerrsj.com.  Rennie St. James shares several similarities with her fictional characters (heroes and villains alike) including a love of chocolate, horror movies, martial arts, yoga, and travel. She doesn’t have a pet mountain lion but is proudly owned by three rescue kitties, and they live in relative harmony in beautiful southwestern Virginia.  Rennie plans to release the Rahki Chronicles in 2018, but new books are always in progress.

Big villains killing smaller villains?

Why should you be careful about killing your villains?

Death Tarot Card

As a followup to our earlier article, in which we advocate the idea that if you’re going to kill a villain, you should kill them permanently, we thought we’d talk about the importance of meaningful villain deaths.

We have a general rule of thumb: henchmen, armies, legions of sentries, etc.–you can kill plenty of them, if your villain is the sort to have teeming masses of followers.  In fact, that’s a piece of the puzzle: sometimes, the enemy has so many troops that one pretty much needs to destroy all of them before one seems to be making a dent.  (“The Evil Empire has hundreds of thousands of soldiers!  They outnumber our forces 8,763 to one!”)  It makes those villain deaths seem a bit pointless, except in the sense of the narrative’s need for a challenge.

(“We must cross the border into the enemy’s land!” “Well, it’s not hard.  The border is just spraypainted on the ground, and nobody’s checking it or anything” – that does, indeed, afford much less dramatic possibility than “We’ll need to get past that checkpoint!  It’s staffed by an entire legion of crack troops!  What should we do?”)

But even there, you really need something to lend it meaning.  Going to destroy a whole garrison?  Then you’d best have cracked some complex program in an interesting way, or improvised some unusual explosive, or learned some new magical power, or created a really meaningful trick.  Unless you’re filming a martial arts film, it’s seldom satisfying to say, “Okay, there’s a problem in front of us, what do we do?” “Ah, we’ll just beat everyone up because our Kung Fu is invincible”.  (Because in that story, it’s not necessarily about the ideas; it’s about displaying the martial skills.  And even those tales are vastly better when they have an engaging plot and when it is genuinely difficult to tackle one’s opponents.)

The easier an antagonist goes down, the less powerful that antagonist’s life arc is going to be.  Sure, if you want to establish how powerful a given character is, on either side of the fence, casually taking out a more “minor” villain is a good way to do it.  But there are so many better ways of doing this, so many possible displays of power, ability, cunning and guile.  There’s problem-solving, there’s creating some fascinating sorcery or technology, there’s the charisma of inspiring followers, and there’s simply being able to pull off interesting, complicated plans of dominion, conquest, or even simple wealth.

Don’t just kill off a villain just as a party trick.  Or if you do, use it sparingly.  A villain is a complex, valuable asset for a writer.  Don’t just throw your villains away.

-Dark Lord Journal

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Who’s The Villain In This Story, Anyway? (Philosophy, writing exercise)

“People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.”
― Gregory Maguire, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”

How many villains believe that they’re villains?

“Evil” is a complex and abstract concept. It varies with social mores, historical circumstances, perception of the world, and interpretations of the ramifications of your actions. Are you sure it’s your Villain who’s the “evil” one?

We usually see this clash in a time and place which is deeply advantageous for the “hero”.  It usually happens near the end of a tale, when the antagonist’s plans are almost realized, and the antagonist takes time to lecture the protagonist on the question of who is really serving society’s needs.

Bond villains are famous for this (there’s even a board game based on the villain’s need to gloat and justify his position), and Bond himself tended to respond simply by saying that they were mad, megalomaniacal, perhaps paranoid or suffering from a persecution complex.  We knew the truth of the matter, though:  Bond stood for England, a generally “good” place, and those he fought wanted to destroy or ransom the world, commit crimes with many victims, take part in mass murder, or fuel organizations based on murder or terror.  It was a simple world, but it was logically consistent.  (Particularly as Bond himself was not wholly without conflict about his own actions; he never stopped believing that fighting for England was a good thing, but he did have his doubts about the righteousness of some of his kills and other actions.)

Consider this thought:  What if you chose not< to make these questions the end?  What if they didn’t simply come up as part of a final confrontation?

What does your hero do if consistently offered a logical, reasonable way of seeing the villain’s point of view?

Candidly, too often, what we see are frankly heroes who are just too pig-headed and, perhaps, ignorant to grasp the philosophical argument.  We see a bit of “You’re crazy, I’m good and you’re bad, why are we having this conversation?”

CHALLENGE:

Let your heroes really be confronted by the moral questions of your villain.  Let your protagonist(s) consider what it would mean if the villain is right and they’re wrong.  What would that look like?  What would that self-doubt tell us about the protagonist?  How would they eventually conquer it?

Would they conquer it?  It takes courage to be a villain; how much more courage does it take to shift sides because you decide you’ve been wrong all along?

-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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