Guest post from Icy Sedgwick: What Goes Into a Villain?

Posted: April 9, 2014 in Guest blogs
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

IcySedgwickAbout the author:

Icy Sedgwick was born in the North East of England, and lives and works in Newcastle. She has been writing with a view to doing so professionally for over ten years, and has had several stories included in anthologies, including Short Stack and Bloody Parchment: The Root Cellar & Other Stories.
She spends her non-writing time working on a PhD in Film Studies, considering the use of set design in contemporary horror. Icy had her first book, a pulp Western named The Guns of Retribution, published in 2011, and her horror fantasy, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, was released in March 2014.

* * * * *

What goes into a villain?

For any story to really work, there has to be conflict – humans are a naturally combative species, so it stands to reason that this conflict would happen between your characters. One character wants to achieve something, another doesn’t want them to achieve it…how do both of them act to get what they want? In other words, your antagonist needs to be just as strong as your protagonist.

Trouble is, some villains are completely one-dimensional. Take Sauron – apparently all he wants to do is take over Middle Earth. Why? Explanations are given at various points but it essentially boils down to “He’s evil”. So? So is Voldemort, but at least he was creative with it, and JK Rowling gave us enough backstory to see Voldemort before he became He Who Must Not Be Named. She didn’t give us this backstory for us to necessarily sympathise with Voldemort, but she at least wanted us to understand his motivations. Writers are cautioned that their heroes cannot be perfect, and that readers will better sympathise with them if they have flaws, so why can’t villains be equally multi-faceted?

Some of my favourite characters are villains. Maleficent, Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Captain Barbossa, Voldemort, General Zod – in some cases, they’re more interesting than the heroes. Maleficent is a case in point – she is Mistress of All Evil, while Aurora gets just sixteen lines of dialogue. Things happen to her, but Maleficent gets things done. She’s an active agent of her own destiny, rather than the passive object of the will of others. Will Turner is the epitome of all things dull, but Captain Barbossa gets an epic outfit and cool lines. The villains are either equal or superior to the hero, which naturally renders the hero’s victory all the greater.

In good stories, the villains become catalysts for the hero’s transformation into someone worthy of the final battle (except Aurora, who sleeps through it). Hannibal Lecter is a particularly interesting villain; it is he, and not Buffalo Bill, who actually murders people during the course of Silence of the Lambs, and could therefore be seen as the real monster, but his status as mentor of, and aide to, Clarice allows him to be a villain and a helper at the same time. Clarice can only defeat one villain with the help of another. General Zod is a particular favourite of mine; Superman usually saves the day through brute force, and physical superiority over others (or by ignoring his father’s decree and reversing time itself just to save the woman he loves), but Zod levels the playing field by having the same abilities. Superman can no longer rely on being bigger or stronger, and is forced to outwit him instead, making Superman into a far more interesting character as a result.Apprentice_eBook_small

What about those stories in which the hero is his own worst enemy? Give him an antagonist anyway, one who will bring the worst out in him, and push him to exploit his own weaknesses instead of his strengths. This was the approach I took in The Necromancer’s Apprentice; the eponymous apprentice, Jyx, is too impatient to learn everything as fast as he can that he doesn’t take into account his own immaturity or limitations. Eufame Delsenza, the eponymous necromancer, appears to be the villain of the piece, but at the same time she’s also got her own things to deal with and her own conflicts to resolve, and her villainy rests upon her willingness to use others to further her own ends.

Good villains need a strong presence (which is probably why they work so well when played by the likes of Terence Stamp or Geoffrey Rush) but they also need a set of motivations of their own. You might not like them, or agree with them, but you need to be able to see exactly why it’s so imperative for them to achieve their own goals, as much as the hero needs to achieve theirs. Otherwise why else are they fighting the hero to begin with?

* * * * *

Google +:

  1. […] saw me talk about what goes into a villain on Tracie McBride‘s blog, in which I had to be super careful not to start gushing about Maleficent (as […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s