As Bad As It Gets: On Hypo-Villainy
by Mark Huntley-James
I like to get under the skin of a villain, starting with a sharp blade just under the… No. Wait. I was meaning to talk about sub-villains. Or perhaps hypo-villains, nasty little characters that get under your skin, an irritation, an infection, an unsightly and spreading rash that can’t be cleaned up by a happy ending.
A villain needs to suit the hero, not just in the appropriately gross acts of yuk, but in style and personality, offering just the right contrast and perhaps, if you want to play it mean, just the right touches of similarity to make things uncomfortable. It’s not easy finding the right villain for an anti-hero living in a quiet rural backwater, running a morally bankrupt supernatural business, and just keeping his head down. He’s not a maverick, a bad-boy (well, technically yes he is, but it hardly shows), or a wise-cracking genius, but an ordinary, every-day broker of demonic deals.
I’m no good at writing big, bold, overly dramatic villains, and even if I were, that would not sit right in the circumstances. Besides, I prefer sly and nasty expressions of that solid principle – everyone is the hero of their own story. My villains are all perfectly reasonable, decent and understanding characters – honestly – and so often a hypo-villain. I’m not going to define that too closely, because left vague it sounds like it ought to fit my anti-hero perfectly and I want to leave it like that. Push it and the analogy goes to pieces faster than you can feed a victim through a bacon-slicer.
What does a good hypo-villain need, other than a really annoying voice? A well-developed narcissism is a good start, along with a petulant air of “it wasn’t my fault”, the essential thick skin to sail through life with a wake of unhappy people not quite angry enough to do lasting violence. This creature also needs its A-Z multi-vitamin supplement of “in” – insensitive, indifferent, indolent, insolent, in your face. To jazz it up, I also like to add that familiar and sour spice – incompetence.
Meet Michael Twitch. Everyone calls him Mickey, and once upon a time he was my anti-hero’s best friend. You have to have that, right? The perfect background for the anti-hero/hypo-villain relationship. The shared history, the friendship gone bad, the promise of that hard-won act of redemption… No. Not for a hypo-villain. Redemption is for bold, dramatic villains who can change their black capes if only introduced to just the right tailor. For the true hypo-villain, the whiny litany of “it wasn’t my fault” can never step aside long enough for redemption, but when cornered it can hold off trouble long enough to spot the unguarded fire-escape in the gloom.
Mickey doesn’t wear black capes, declaim vengeance on the world from atop tall buildings (unless he’s very, very drunk) and certainly doesn’t plot world domination or destruction, unless he comes across a special offer on supreme power down at Villains-R-Us. Really, he’s hardly a villain at all, except perhaps to his victims. His mother has doubts about him as well.
He is the guy who uses the last of the milk in the office kitchen and doesn’t replace it. Probably the same day he breaks your favourite mug and tosses the emergency epi-pen in the bin before handing round a plate of peanut-butter sarnies for a fun game of allergy roulette. My ideal hypo-villain is vile, but inherently lazy, and thankfully lacking in the sort of ambition and imagination that might raise him into the ranks of the super-villain.
In fact, Mickey is so ordinary, so boring, that he almost didn’t happen at all, no more than a throw-away mention in a one-liner in the first chapter. I already had a proper villain, a monstrous demon with vile plans for those scuttling little mortals, until I realised my demon was really quite boring, just a package of evil and power, lacking any useful personality – that would have to wait for a later book, to be teased out into something fun.
The demon needed a sidekick, a proxy, someone disgustingly fun to have a proper relationship with my anti-hero – like athlete’s foot or a migraine. An irritating hypo-villain suddenly granted monster status by the power of a demon and an army of minions, so that petty cruelty and harmless narcissism can be magnified and inflicted upon thousands of victims. The perfect things to get under my anti-hero’s skin, and essential drivers for him to save the day.
I like my hypo-villain. Yes, in real-life, I would want to punch him in the face, but the sheer awfulness has its own appeal. I could have dumped him after one book, but a good hypo-villain is like cheap chocolate, you have to eat more no matter how bad the taste.
Hi, my name is Mickey, and I’ll be your nemesis today. How may I spit in your coffee?
Mark Huntley-James writes fantasy, science-fiction or any other weird thing that catches his attention. He has published three humorous urban fantasy novels, won the British Fantasy Society short story competition in 2013, and has various short and flash fiction in anthologies, on his blog (https://markhuntleyjames.wordpress.com/demon-trader-series …) or on Medium (https://medium.com/@MarkHJames ). From time-to-time he says something strange on Twitter as
@MarkH_J. Mark lives in Cornwall, UK, on a small farm with his partner, multiple cats, a dangerous horde of psycho-chickens, and a flock of rare-breed sheep. Sometimes he writes about the animals, but can’t get any of them to read the stories.