Villains (huah!), what are they good for?

a guest post by William Davidson

Hi, and thanks for having me.

I am aware that it’s usual for a guest to adhere to a certain social etiquette during their visit: not putting their shoes up on the sofa; not helping themselves to food from the fridge (although I’m afraid that half-eaten trifle was just a bit too irresistible…); and not setting out comprehensively to undermine their host’s entire raison d’etre. So, that said, um…

I want to talk today about whether (and if so, why) we really need villains.

Bear with me.

I’m not talking about the sort of balance of light and shade that we get in real life or most genres of story. It would be an extremely unrealistic tale (and a slightly dull world) if everyone were sweet, gentle and kind all the time. There will always be a place for the difficult, the cantankerous, the obstinate. But a villain is something else – a central implacable opponent who epitomises all that is dark and wrong in the hero’s world. What is it about fantasy (in the broadest sense) that requires the existence of this type of ultimate enemy? As Austen might have put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a heroine possessed of magic, or super-powers, or even just a croissant-shaped hairdo, must inevitably be in search of an arch-nemesis against which to wield them. Which got me wondering (if I may momentarily channel Carrie Bradshaw rather than Carrie Fisher), what is the point of the villain?

There is, I accept, something pretty awesome about the epic showdown between a hero and their nemesis. That dialogue fraught with tension, the opportunity for each combatant to showcase the full range of their talents and powers. But… let’s say that you are a hero, with certain specialised skills that you have honed across a series of increasingly challenging adventures. Isn’t a climactic showdown against someone who represents the ultimate test of those particular skills just a little bit, well, convenient?

But it’s more than that: if you are a hero who has decided to set the world to rights, and have a set of flashy powers that are physical and dramatic and above all just crying out to be used, isn’t it frustrating to be spending your time going after bag snatchers and rescuing cats from trees? Isn’t the emergence of an all-powerful, dehumanised enemy who is clearly and unequivocally a bad thing something of a… relief?

I want to talk about three of the greatest super-hero stories in recent years: the Avengers series, Watchmen and the Incredibles. What was the greatest enemy that the creators of these stories could conceive of, in order to put their heroes to the ultimate test? It is not the super-villain, although of course each of those stories does contain plenty of villainy. In each case, it is the stifling constraints of a legislative regime which seeks to regulate super-heroic activity, or to prohibit the heroes from existing at all.

A couple of thoughts came to mind recently while I was re-watching Captain America: Civil War. Firstly, that this is absolutely how humanity would react to a group of super-powered vigilantes. A group who had wreaked enormous damage on civilian property and populations without accepting responsibility for the consequences. We would want to shackle them in bureaucracy, regulate their activities, provide for redress in the event that innocents came to harm. Their loss of autonomy, the possibility of impairing their rapid response, an emboldening of the criminal classes – these would all be risks that were worth running in order to safeguard the citizenry as a whole.

The second thought was this: if I were one of those super-heroes, there would be a little bit of me that really hoped for some massive alien menace to come and beset the Earth, leaving death and destruction in its wake, so that those grey and faceless bureaucrats could see how wrong they were. So that I could be given back my freedom to act. Society doesn’t need villains… but maybe heroes do.

This starts to cast in a different light the role that many heroes have in creating their nemesises… nemeses… ultimate opponents. Psychoanalysts would have a field day with the number of times a hero has a hand in creating his or her villain, whether through action or inaction. Can it be that there is something in the psyche of a hero that drives them to behave in ways that draw out the worst in those around them? Think about Mr Incredible. Stuck in a tedious job into which he has been forced by the rule-makers who have legislated away his powers, physically and emotionally straining against the constraints of a role that prohibit him from doing good in the way that he has always wanted to.

His self-interested, insensitive handling of a fanboy years earlier gives rise directly to the main villain of the piece. But, more critically as far as Mr Incredible himself is concerned, it sets in train a series of events which liberates him from his tedious office-based existence, gets him back in the super-suit and, in the process, enables him to rediscover a sense of self-worth and care for his health and physical appearance. It even, again through the direct agency of the villain, leads to him reconnecting with a family from whom he has become increasingly distant. For everyone else the emergence of the villain is bad news, but for Mr Incredible and his nearest and dearest, it represents almost literally a life-line.

Which, of course, almost irresistibly draws us to Watchmen – arguably (in graphic novel form at least) the greatest super hero story of them all. For every bright colour and pure ideal to be found in the Avengers or the Incredibles, Watchmen has darkness, death, depression and deception (yes! nailed the quadruple alliteration!). But look at the similarities – here we have a hero who quite literally creates the villain (and of course, therefore becomes the villain themselves) in order to demonstrate the need for heroes. What is more, again and again we are presented with heroes who, deprived of the outlet for their core impulses, have deteriorated into something less than what they once were. Seedy, melancholic, and almost heroically pungent in one case, they are washed up and directionless without the ability to be the hero in their own story. Once again, the emergence of the threat, of the villainy, is what resurrects them and re-gifts them their sense of purpose.

Is it really any surprise? Super-heroes (and, I would argue, all fantasy heroes) are essentially coercive characters. Possessed of some capability more potent than those around them, they seek to assert themselves on the world in order to change it. This is all well and good, to a point, where their ideals align with the society which they inhabit. Captain America in the 1940’s and 1950’s could fight against Nazis and Commies all day long without treading on the toes of the land whose name he carried. But it is no surprise that as those obvious threats faded, the stories of Captain America changed, to the point where he no longer felt able to associate himself with his fatherland. To the point where… well, if you know you know, and if you don’t I won’t spoil it for you.

A hero is well-equipped to take on the dark tower, the evil mastermind, the overwhelming invasion. They are singularly poorly equipped for the slow business of diplomacy and compromise. Faced with the task of negotiation, of seeing another point of view and maybe even recognising the truth of it, heroes start getting the urge to smash something up, to punch someone in the face. There is something satisfying for them (and, if we are honest, for us) to having that ability to lash out at a tangible opponent, at a symbol for all that is wrong with the world.

But there is a danger in that mentality. In our story worlds, thought is seldom given to how a new world order created by magical or super-heroic intervention might be sustained. Having demonstrated that an empire can be overthrown by force, any new republic that comes to replace it must expect to see that lesson learnt by their enemies and re-cycled against it in an a perpetual cycle of violence. A throne captured with the assistance of dragons or magic is unlikely to be preserved by liberal words and moderate tax policies. They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the same way, if the only tool you have is a magic sword, the solution to every problem looks like decapitation.

And if that is true in our fictional worlds, isn’t the risk just as great in the real world? The need to identify a villain, some figurehead against whom all of our vitriol can be directed, often blinds us to the more subtle and insidious problems in the system which they represent. If we spend our time railing against the CEO of a corporation or the leader of a political party (or even a nation), we can lose sight of the flaws in the system which brought them to power. As in George Orwell’s 1984, focusing our anger and our energy in hate of the emblematic figurehead drains us of the energy that we need to bring about the systematic (but slower, and more complicated) reforms that are really needed to effect meaningful change.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a great story of good versus evil as much as the next person. In the context of a simple story, the reductive clash of hero and villain can be a satisfying way to spend a couple of hours or a few hundred pages of text. Let’s just remember that in the real world the dividing lines are seldom so clear cut. Right and wrong are often a little more complicated than the colour of the armour (or cowboy hats) of the combatants. That’s OK, so long as we remember that the problems being confronted are no less real for lacking a visible evil mastermind who is responsible for them. The challenge, for a story-teller who hopes to reflect that reality, is depicting these more subtle challenges without losing the interest of readers who yearn for the epic showdown with the big bad.

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Will Davidson is the author of The Seventh Colour, a post-modern fantasy novel set in a world in which elves, dwarves and magic have disappeared and the humans left behind have slumped into lethargy and aimlessness. If that sounds like a laugh a minute, you might like to know that the British Fantasy Society called it “intelligent, amusing yet challenging on what is a very relevant subject” and Black Gate Magazine said that it is a “truly compelling… heist story”. It is the story of heroes with powers they are afraid to use, fighting against enemies who spend more time in bureaucratic committees and getting the folds in their cravats just so than in dastardly plotting or villainous scheming.

Will can be found on Twitter @WordDruid, and more information about his writing can be found at www.the-seventh-colour.com/.

 

The Gray Light of Villainy 101 Pt. 2 – Relationships

The Gray Light of Villainy 101 Pt. 2 – Relationships

A guest post by Rennie St. James

We previously discussed our villains’ relationships, both with other characters and readers.  We also mentioned making these characters as ‘flawed’ as our heroes. Let’s continue with those ideas while exploring the gray light of villainy a bit more.

I love the term ‘Mary Sue/ Marty Stu’ for those too-perfect goody-two-shoe characters.  As always, there are different interpretations for the label. Let’s just go with too-perfect, shall we?  How does that translate into a too-perfectly diabolical supervillain?

Not every villain needs to be the all-powerful polar opposite of our hero.  Remember, we are looking for the shadows in both – we are embracing the gray light of our characters instead of painting villains completely black and heroes completely light.  Also, the villain shouldn’t be a plot device that simply blocks our MC’s path. Villains should be living, breathing flesh and blood characters.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Consider applying the same writing tools used to flesh out your hero to your villain.

  1. Interview the character.
  2. Write their backstory – writing this in first person helps me.
  3. Cast an actor into the part to help you visualize.
  4. Give the character obstacles to overcome.
  5. Allow your villain to grow.

I’m going to use a personal example without sharing too many spoilers.  We are all afraid of the murderous psychopath characters, correct? These are the serial killers, lone wolf terrorists, and monsters that creep out of the shadows to star in our greatest nightmares.  As I adore horror movies, there are many representations floating around my head at any given time. I latched onto this vague idea for one of my villains. He came across as wonderfully homicidal, but also incredibly flat and dull after all the blood was shed.  It’s hard to be terrified of a stereotype, a two-dimensional villain.

Exploring his past a bit more gave me some insight into his motivations and his idiosyncrasies.  In truth, the good similarities between him and the hero were what made him terrifying (to the hero, at least).  

Now, we’ve taken those steps and developed a real villain – someone as personal and unique as our hero.  What about his/ her motivations?

Tropes are tropes for a reason – they work.  Our villains could be power-hungry, wronged by destiny, or the injured victim from the hero’s past.  Each one serves the purpose as a base motivation. Again though, we must apply them to our specific character and plot.

[Yes, I had to work in another picture of Loki.]

One way to find our specifics is to look for the light.  We need to find the contradictions and emotional connections our villains possess.  These could be the relationships we discussed previously as those are a great way to shine the spotlight on our villains.  It could also be that our villain simply has a different view than our hero. Perhaps, the hero allowed one to die to save hundreds.  What if the one was someone of importance to the villain? There are many concrete examples of gray areas in our world that may inspire you and/ or your characters.  Environment vs businesses. Animal rights. Immigration. Who the villain often depends on your point of view. The truth may be stranger than fiction at times, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use it to inspire our fictional works.

Now, we have a human (for lack of a better word) villain with motivations and depth.  What’s next?

Such incredible villains demand an incredible plot to reveal themselves.  Who doesn’t like the cliché of the villain’s explanation of their plan to the hero (thus allowing time for the hero to save him/herself)?!  Well, actually, I don’t. It serves a purpose, but it can also come across as a lazy way to tie the plot together.

My favorite villains in books and movies are those that are right in front of us the entire time.  A literary example is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  A more pop culture reference would be Jigsaw in the first Saw movie.  The villains are people we don’t quite see as villains until the final revelation.  However, once we look back, we see all the signs are there. Picture the Sixth Sense kid staring with wide eyes and saying ‘I see villains’.  

Those villains are the characters who stick with me as a reader.

Unfortunately, most novels are about the heroes so not every single piece of information about your villain may see the light of day.  As writers though, we will write the villains differently if we see them differently. Writers have the unique ability to lead the reader without telling or dragging them along.  We can also leave them with some doubts and thoughts – maybe even enough reasonable doubt that they wouldn’t convict our villains in court of law.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I understand these points may not sway all writers to approach villains differently.  As such, I’d like to repeat one from another Dark Lord Journal post – the better the villain, the better the hero.  If you want your hero/ heroine to shine then create a shining example of villainy to inspire him/ her to do great things.  

I would still love to hear about your villains so please feel free to comment below.  Together, I think we can bring the villains from the darkness to see at least a little gray light in our novels.

AN – I have very much enjoyed adding my two cents to The Dark Lord Journal.  Thank you for the opportunity and for reading my rambling posts. As a token of my appreciation, I’d like to offer two electronic ARCs of my upcoming novel, Azimuth (Rahki Chronicles, #1).  I will leave it to the Dark One to decide how these ebooks will be awarded! Thanks and happy reading and writing, my friends!

Dark Lord Journal note: We dearly appreciate Rennie’s generous offer of a pair of ARCs.  We’d be honored to award them to two of the first six people to post, chosen at random.  (Because we’ve got a six-sided die next to our collection of poisons over here…

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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.

The Plot Twist Generator

Welcome to the Dark Lord Journal’s Plot Twist Generator!

Looking for an idea to use?

Just look at the bottom of the page!

Want to offer us a plot twist idea?  We’d love to hear it, and if we use your plot twist, we’ll credit you and link to your website!

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PLOT TWIST: Kaboom!

This is it - your chance to write that big explosion you've been thinking about!

If you haven't been thinking about explosions, you should try it. Explodey things are fun.

...What blows up, and what does that do to the characters? Are they okay? What set this off? Are they in danger? Is someone hurt? Did a tunnel open up?

So many possibilities!”
by Dark Lord Journal www.darklordjournal.com

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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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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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Problems With Ruling The World – A Character Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The Dark Lord Journal

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