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.

Inspirational Acts of Villainy

What kinds of villainy might be inspirational for your characters? What kinds of evil are enticing?

a guest post by Ashildr Dorchadon.

Looking for inspirational acts of villainy? Allow us to suggest a few!

Include (but are not limited to):
• Setting fire to/annihilating natural environments/anything worth more than a temporary structure
• torturing a *cute* good guy into insanity-induced psycopathy then unleashing them on their ex-friends
• any use of Greek Fire seeing as it can burn anything and nothing less than an incredibly specific magic spell puts it out
• vocal/a capella singing while going about villainy to increase creep factor

Do not include:
• killing
• cackling
• torture
• other normal acts of villainy
As these are standard procedure and even a paragon-type hero will resort to these when necessary. It’s the specifics that set us apart from morally grey characters and the good guys.

Bonus points if:
• You do it like a hero would if they came to the dark side
• You wear pink, bright yellow, a poncho, daisy chains or anything else vaguely happy
• You defend the actions with consequences that are morally acceptable overall

Now what does this mean for your average villain?

Generally speaking, the average villain might dabble in inspirational villainy, but a master will manage to pull a new one off every time. If you can’t, that’s fine. Human history is chock-a-block with nasty examples like catapulting severed heads over the walls in a medieval seige. And mythology is practically made out of gruesome torture for the wicked and monsters to perpetrate them like the Japanese Umibozu or the Slavic Vodyanoy. Krampus is a little too well known, but if you can make it work, so much the better.

These work so well because folklore monsters are notorious for sending children mad (example of inspirational act number two – how about The Slender Man and his like) or doing acts of terrible destruction whilst justifying it to a core moral centre (bonus point three). They’re excellent ways of slipping in pre-built evil into an existing world even if the villain is low-powered, not really evil or just plain doesn’t exist. As an extra benefit, people can only hear the shamans and elderly saying “I told you so.” and will be much more likely to heed false scare stories thereafter which distracts the authorities until it blows over.

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.

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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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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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?

bigstock--211753084 - smaller

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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