On Villains 4: On Humanity, That Poor Little Psychopath
One of the most difficult things to do with a villain is to make him human, to let your audience connect with him, while still keeping him evil. Much of the time authors tend to shy away from this and, either deliberately or unconsciously, make their villains as inhuman as possible. Many times the villain in a story, especially a fantasy or science fiction story, is a demon, monster, or alien so that the audience, not to mention the author, will not have to confront that villain’s humanity. These villains can be good, entertaining, even frightening for the majority of people, however these villains rarely touch us. In fact it is much more difficult to write an inhuman villain who truly and deeply touches the reader than it is to write a human villain who is capable of doing the same.
First allow me to define my terms, by human and inhuman I do not mean the character’s race. I am not saying ‘never write a dwarfin villain, dwarfin villains are bad!’ What I am referring to is the empathy which the reader may feel for the character, the connection made which allows the reader to see him/herself in the character, or which allows the character to affect the reader on a deep level. Villains may be human or inhuman and still affect the reader, and I am going to give you some examples of each, however it is only rarely which I find an inhuman villain which is capable of significantly affecting the reader. Let me also say that it is my opinion that every villain (preferably every character) have a significant effect on the reader (At least some of them).
That being said I am going start by talking about good inhuman villains. As I said above this is a difficult thing, however one master of writing the inhuman was H.P. Lovecraft. Most inhuman villains have little affect on the reader, they might be scary, have some shock value, maybe even cause a nightmare that evening, however they have no lasting effect. Lovecraft, on the other hand, had the incredible ability to write creatures (honestly they are so alien that I hesitate to call them villains) which are completely separate from humanity, yet at the same time the readers sense of his own place, his value, and the value of humanity itself, is drastically affected.
Lovecraft writes creatures, indeed an entire cosmology has grown up around the few stories he published, which are far, far greater than man and who hold little care for man. Lovecraft writes in such a way, and his successors attempt to and sometimes succeed, that the reader is forced to confront his/her own insignificance. In Lovecraft’s fiction the human race really just doesn’t matter, we are cannon fodder at best, often driven mad by the very presence of greater beings. Lovecraft, and to a lesser extent Stephen King (though King’s stories mainly focus on the humanity of his characters), is one of the few authors/artists/directors who succeeds in this. His writing, often quite devastating to the ego, forces the reader to abandon hubris or abandon Lovecraft, and they are compelling enough to make you want to keep reading.
On the opposite side I present Stephen Erikson’s ‘Crippled God’, here we have a character who, while not technically human, displays a great amount of humanity. Anyone who has gone through significant pain will understand the crippled god because pain is the defining aspect of his character. Pain that he wishes to share with all of creation. The crippled god seeks to share his brokenness with the world, to bring all things under his rule and, apparently, break the world itself. He is a being who poisons everything he touches and believes, he seems to truly believe, that this is good. He is an extremely human character, a vision of what bitterness and hate will twist a person into. More than this we are given, in small pieces, enough of his background to understand how and why he came to be the broken thing that he is. He is not some distant malevolent power, he is a real person with real pains and needs, passions and desires. This humanity makes it very easy for the reader to put him/herself in the position of the crippled god, an undoubtedly evil creature, to see how he/she might become the same.
This is the value of humanity in villains, if you really think you’re as good as Lovecraft then go for it, write some inhuman villains that shatter our minds and show us our true place in the world. However if you’re more like me then put a lot of humanity into your villains, not just into the character sketches but into the actual story itself. Many authors allow their villains to sit in the background, allowing the reader to rarely, if ever, see them. I personally attribute this most often to an author having a villain that simply can’t support much time ‘on screen’, however I am positive that there are some cases in which I am wrong. However even the best villain can have little impact on the reader when the reader never gets an honest look at said villain.
So, this is my last bit of advice on writing villains, for now anyway. Actually write your villain. As I said, I don’t care how incredible your villain is, if he’s only in the book for two pages then he makes no significant impact on the reader.