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