On Villains Part 1: On Villains, The Birth of Nightmare

It seems like Arianne set me up fairly well since I’m going to be writing a little bit about villains. I think the first question that needs to be asked is ‘Why talk about the bad guys?’, the answer is that bad guys are necessary for good literature. Think about this, what would ‘Lord of The Rings’ be without Sauron and Saruman? What would ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ be without the White Queen? What would any of our favorite fantasy stories be without the villains? Not much of anything honestly. While any story needs both a protagonist and an antagonist the fantasy genre in particular demands not only antagonists but villains. Fantasy is all about adventure, about good vs evil, about looking at our world through the eyes of another. We don’t need to look very hard to see villains in our own world, Hitler, Saddam Hussein (whatever you might think about the war you can’t deny he was a bad man), Mao Tse-Tung, and the 9/11 bombers. However, we don’t get as personally involved in the lives of their victims or those who struggle against them as we do with fictional characters. The value of a story is that we can understand it from the character’s point of view while still being somewhat insulated from the raw pain and horror of the situation itself.

The same can be said for many movies. While the vast majority of us were never exposed to the Nazi death camps the movie ‘Schindler’s List’ allows us to form in some manner an understanding of the plight of the Jews. Similarly movies such as ‘We Were Soldiers’, ‘Platoon’, and ‘Apocalypse Now’ allow us to form a degree of understanding about the reality of the Vietnam War far beyond what we may read in textbooks. The Fantasy and Science Fiction genres allow us an entirely different perspective. They allow us to deal with significant political, philosophical, and experiential questions from a fresh and entirely controlled point of view. Take the science fiction book ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert, this book and its sequels essentially revolve around one philosophical question, ‘What does it mean to be all-knowing?’ Robert Heinlein sought to make political or societal arguments through many of his novels, ‘Starship Troopers’ comes to mind which deals primarily with issues in political conservativism, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ predominantly deals with the innate difficulties of new perspectives and, to a lesser degree, the dangers of religion.

Good villains are necessary for fantasy and science fiction literature because they allow us to make our stories real. That being said the question is, how do you write a good villain? That is what I am going to be dealing with for the rest of this post and two more.

The first step in writing a good villain is finding your own villain. I spoke in my last post about ‘writing what you are’, I am going to expand on this idea now. If your villain is going to be believable then he/she must come from you. The first step to creating a great villain is finding out what kind of villain you would be. Let me give a couple of examples from my own writing. One of my favorite villains, I think probably the best villain I’ve ever written, is Horash from my Neshelim stories. Horash, as a character, was born out of my own very real desire to protect the people I care about. It is these good desires that lead him into very evil actions, he is a villain for all the right reasons, something I’m going to be talking about in my next post. His villainy is not evident when the reader first meets him in ‘The Rise of the Neshelim’ however if quickly becomes evident as he follows the path of that story. Seemingly reasonable decisions lead him to increasingly unreasonable actions and, well, I’ll let you read the story to find out what happens.

Alternatively there is Finnias Ghall, a character you have probably seen on the dark character blog at darklhp.blogspot.com. Finnias is a character born from my own issues with self-confidence and insignificance. Though over 500 years old, at heart he is still a scared little boy waiting for another beating from his father. He is a bully, to put it very simply, he is overly aggressive when in power but when confronted with greater power he becomes a coward. For all his power he feels insignificant and so he is consistently trying to prove that he is powerful.

Lastly I will put forth Sehalel, though I don’t want to say too much about him. He is also from the Neshelim stories, in fact he is their god. Above everything else Sehalel wants to be loved. He is born from my own issues with abandonment, he is a child that has been rejected and all of the pain, desire, wrath, and hate that he personifies comes from that pain.

All this to say that when we write villains the best of them will be us, if you cannot look at your villains and see some part of yourself then most other people probably won’t be able to see themselves either. Now the deeper into your own pains and the desires that you delve the better the villains will be born from them. The more you will understand them the more real they will become to your readers. The best villains are not the ones that distance us from evil but the ones that confront us with that wickedness which lies within us.

Read the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or of Stephen King and you are not confronted with villains and evils that we cannot connect with. There are some that are beyond our understanding, Lovecraft in particular was very good at writing of creatures which were above and beyond human understanding, but you do not see villains that do not affect you on some level. Their villains force us to confront parts of ourselves with which we are not comfortable. This is the purpose of a good villain, to show us the depths to which our darker natures may lead us just as the hero can show us the heights to which our better natures should strive.

Another area where fantasy villains can challenge us is an area where they correspond with real life. For every villain there are people who consider him a hero. Above I mentioned several, to the Nazi’s Hitler was a hero, Mao Tse-Tung to the communist Chinese, Saddam Hussein was a hero to his followers and the 9/11 bombers were heroes for the entire world of radical jihadi Islam. For a more current and less obvious example we can look at the dispute of the Ground Zero Mosque. Supporters of the mosque label its opponents as villains and like wise its opponents label the mosques supporters as villains. This begs the question, which side is right, most people have an opinion but we have to honestly consider ‘who are the real villains here?’ or even ‘are there any villains?’

Again, in the examples from my own writing, Sehalel and Horash are both heroes to the Neshelim people, one is their god who saved them from a horrible plague, leads them, protects them, keeps them safe. The other is their immortal king who rules them wisely and continues to ensure their prosperity. Why wouldn’t these two be considered heroes.

Finnias is a little harder to consider a hero, but there are those in his world who look up to him, who would seek him out, follow him. He has supporters just like any bully does. So a few questions you can ask yourself to get started:

  1. Who would I be as a villain?
  2. What am I capable of when it comes to real evil?
  3. Would I realize what I was doing was evil or would I explain it away?
  4. What historical villains do I see aspects of myself in?
  5. What can I learn about villains from the way they behaved, the way the led or failed to lead?
  6. What is it about evil that attracts me, that pulls at my desires?
  7. When I do create my villain who will follow him? Who will support him?
  8. Do these supporters realize that the villain is a villain?
  9. Are they deluded into thinking he is a hero?
  10. Are they villains themselves?

Ultimately we all have a villain inside us, some of us have multiple villains inside us just waiting to get out. Next time I will write on four different archetypes of villains that can be put to good use once you have dragged the basis for your villain from your own inner pains.

 

 

 

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About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on September 21, 2010, in Characters, Fantasy, Tobias Mastgrave, Villains and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. My answer to #1 – a morally compromised ninja assassin, obviously.

    #7 – who wouldn’t follow me?

    Interestingly enough, I think back on my stories and realize that I don’t really have any dark villainous types. My stories are too light to sustain them, apparently. The darkest my characters get are the morally suspect types who might or might have had something to do with, you know, that thing that happened… maybe…

  2. I have the possibility of a good villain in my story- but I haven’t really explored his past or motivations much. It will probably have to be a gradual process, as my protagonists find out a little information at a time.

    On the topic of writing believable, multi-faceted villains- Wouldn’t it be just as hard or harder to write a really good character, and make readers relate to him? I think it might be easier for many people to get in touch with their inner bad guy than their inner paladin.

  3. The more you post the more I want to read your stories…..the blog is working…

  4. In my fantasy reading I find that most writers have a much easier time writing a believable hero, flawed though he may be, than a believable villain. My guess, and this is only a guess, is that the reason for this is that a flawed hero deals with his pains in acceptable, healthy, healing ways, he makes us feel good about our pain. A good villain deals with his pain in distinctly unhealthy ways, take the Crippled God from the ‘Malazan Book of the Fallen’, an exceptional villain as far as I have read in the series (I haven’t finished it yet). He deals with his pain by trying to make everyone else share it, by forcing, convincing, or manipulating them into the same self-destruction of which he, himself, is guilty. He works so well as a villain because he deals with pain in the same way that some many of us do, he tries to share it, he simply does it on a much larger scale.

  5. Sorry, I was…interrupted mid-post…anyway, I think that what I was trying to say, if I remember correctly, is that it is harder to write a great villain than a great hero because writing a great villain requires the author to admit that, deep down, he/she really is a bad person. It might not come out in the authors actions, or in their words, but when they write that villain who embodies their worst characteristics and sentiments suddenly it’s all right there on paper for the entire world to see.

    The villains in the majority of fantasy are beyond human, they are designed to separate evilness from human nature, they are more and less than human without actually being human. You see this in their attitudes, actions, character, they represent inhuman evil which allows both the author and the reader to reaffirm the idea that ‘I am a good person’.

    However when we look at good horror (I was originally going to name this post On Villains and Horror and put some of this in it) we see villains that are entirely human, even when they are supernatural. Their desires, motivations, emotions reflect those of real, hurting people and force us to confront that part of ourselves which reacts to things in the same way.

    Many people, filmmakers especially, seem to be stuck on the idea that the essence of horror is lots of gore and sex. While it is true that horror, and villains in fantasy should always have an element of horror in them, does involve a greater visceral element than much other writing this is not the subject matter, it is the result. The subject matter of great horror is human nature, specifically the darkest parts of human nature, anger, hate, grief, obsession, manipulation, etc. The seven deadly sins of Catholicism sum it up pretty well. An honest treatment of these may require a greater degree of sex and violence, though it may not. One of my all-time favorite horror movies, ‘Apt Pupil’, had no sex and only one scene of violence which happened off screen. Yet it is by far one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen.

    And THAT is the point of villains, to disturb the reader, to make them examine themselves and confront their own evil just as the hero draws them towards righteousness.

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