(LANGUAGE ALERT: This post contains a little bit of swearing. Nothing a mature audience can’t cope with).
I’m going to vent spleen about one of my biggest gripes in fiction. I absolutely hate it when authors (and I guess this goes for film directors too) portray villains who are cardboard cut-out bad guys. You know… Tall, spindly… Wears a lot of black… Tortures small children for shits and giggles. Bad for the badness sake and for no other discernible reason.
Or, as an author friend of mine pointed out, villains who are patently “other” in that he/she’s the obvious opposite of the hero… for instance effeminate to the hunky hero, scrawny to the brawny, devil worshipper to the wholesome Christian, you geddit?
So, at the end of last year (and I’m not quite certain what fit of pique prompted this, but I must’ve been reading a submission) I asked my friends and followers on assorted social networks what their thoughts about villains are, and whether they should get their just deserts (the villains, not the friends, okay?), and how this divine justice should play out. I got some interesting (and varied) responses.
Sauron… He’s the dude in the dark tower who’s the reason the Elves, Humans and Hobbitses are trying to destroy the One Ring to Rule Them All. Nothing complicated there. He’s a dark force that’s corrupting the entire Middle Earth as a massive cosmic fuck you to Eä. We’ve got classic light/good vs. dark/bad in a literal sense. Evil wants to turn the entire world into a dismal place. Sauron represents the unknowable evil that lurks in the shadows. He is brute force, and a despot. As a reader I never quite got round to feeling any ounce of sympathy for the dear.
Darth Vader… I always tune folks that Anakin Skywalker was the true hero at the end of the day, because he truly did bring balance to the force. When he starts on his journey, there are just waaay too many Jedi. By the time he realises that the Sith shouldn’t be in charge either, he’s got the necessary wherewithal from both sides to jettison the crabby old emperor and restore order. We’ve got a little more to work with here: a tormented hero who made a huge-ass, colossal mistake. We’ve got a bad guy we can’t help but feel for, because he’s dealing with the repercussions of his mistakes. And he finds redemption through them. Satisfying, no?
Voldemort is close on Darth Vader’s heels, but he doesn’t do jack diddley squat to redeem himself. Yet… When Harry Potter triumphs in the end, I can’t help but feel a terrible twinge of empathy for old Voldy. How is it that things went so wrong for the guy? Yes, on one hand he’s a power-hungry megalomaniac who will stop at nothing to crush his opponents, but hey, he’s got a tragic history and a human side we can *almost* relate to. Remember how often it was suggested that Harry’s path might have been similar to Voldemort’s (recall that incident with the Sorting Hat that almost put him in Slytherin)?
Who remembers The Dark Crystal? C’mon… Jim Henson… Now consider the vulture-like Skeksis and nature-loving Mystics? Whenever something bad happened to the one, it was mirrored in the other?
Getting back to Luke Skywalker. Remember when he goes into that cave in Dagobah? Remember who he encounters, and whose face he sees in the helmet?
Yep. When you sit with that blank page, your heart filled to bursting with your yummy hero goodness, consider who he/she is going up against. What will make your villain especially daunting? Well, hell, if he’s rather a lot like your hero, things are bound to get reaaaaally interesting, if you ask me.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter: conflict. Know *why* your hero and villain will be in conflict from the start. Dig deep, beyond them both lusting after the Amazing zOMG Sparkly McGuffin of Power. Extra noddy badges if you create opposition that blurs the line between good and evil. If you look at historical conflict, often both sides firmly believe that Their Way Is Right. The colonists will see the natives as being uncouth savages who like to bash out babies’ brains, while the natives will view the colonists as demons with an insatiable hunger to destroy the natural order and their very way of life. Both will fight to the death for what they believe. Remember that the line between hero and villain is a matter of perception. (Tolkien, you are sooo old-fashioned in that regard, buddy.)
Another clue: no simple solutions for complex problems. Muddy the waters a bit. Even a villain should end up older, wiser and one step closer to his designs near the finish. A villain’s story arc should grow until he or she is as complex as your hero.
So, yeah, avoid those Disney moments, but also understand the formulae attached to a story (go look up Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth). Readers do not want morality tales (there are religious institutions that will bore you to tears with those) but realise also that each action will have a consequence.
Remember always to hold up that dark mirror.
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Nerine Dorman lives in South Africa where she writes about a lot of stuff and occasionally draws pictures, but she’d like to draw your attention to her Amazon Author Page to see whether there’s anything that strikes your fancy:
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