Category Archives: Villains
Primum non nocere–First, do no harm.
Last week I talked about some of the unique opportunities that speculative fiction offers us as a broad genre. About the time I published it, I got some good, strong, fair criticism about my own attempt at speculative fiction. So, while I finish digesting that and decide how best to address it, I thought I might take a post and talk about what I’ve jokingly called “speculative fiction’s evil twin”: moral escapist fiction.
Moral escapism is, to be accurate, more of a rebellious child than it is an evil twin (“Evil twin” just sounds better in the title). It’s a particular brand of speculation where the normal rules of morality are suspended to a lesser or greater extent and characters–not to mention the reader–are set free from the need to obey regular conventions of right and wrong. Therefore, it allows people to escape from the constrictions and pressures of having to decide between the two; he or she is able to indulge some secret fantasy. Note that very few speculative works are specifically written for this purpose, but many indulge in it.
There are plenty of examples of this sort of fiction out there, and they range from the vaguely innocuous to the downright disturbing. On the one extreme, some of the various scenes in Harry Potter come to mind, where Harry and his friends purposely lie to adults and not only get away with it, but it turns out to be the right decision. On the other extreme, we have everything from well-written high fantasy and science fiction to cheap romance novels–which make adultery and unfaithfulness look harmless–to various kinds of anime/manga where people can legally depict things under the protection of “freedom of speech” that, if they tried to commit such an act on real people in the real world, would result in a life sentence or even execution.
The problem is, of course, that real life and human culture simply doesn’t operate in a moral vacuum. We all live, every day, with a set of moral laws. I call them “laws” intentionally, because though there are various culturally relative, non-binding standards* that we sometimes confuse with moral laws, there are lines that simply cannot be crossed without consequence–even if that consequence isn’t legal in nature. Violating them, for whatever reason, will lead to disaster as surely as attempting to ignore gravity by stepping off a high-rise on the premise that you just don’t feel like paying attention to physics that day.
I know that’s a “backward” thing to say in this upside down culture heading for Hell in a handbasket and desperately looking forward to the trip, but I think the reality is undeniable. Some obvious examples that few even in this postmodern age would argue with would be rape and premeditated, cold-blooded murder. Both are wrong, no matter what the extenuating circumstance, if we are talking about the events that those terms imply. Another more controversial example would be adultery, which some circles now actively promote as positive. People who, in all good faith, have made the vows necessary to enter into a marriage cannot violate those vows without significant and direct effects. Hollywood and pop-psychology can romanticize and legitimatize affairs as much as they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that engaging in one will have serious, painful consequences not only for your wife/husband and children, but for yourself as well. (Kenny Rogers has a great song that really sums up the moral angst of one of those poignant moments called, “She’ll Believe You.”)
What does all of this have to do with writing speculative fiction? There comes a point where our imaginations can do far more harm than good. Fiction that is specifically designed to allow the moral compass to spin freely can be dangerous, and it can cause specific harm to specific individuals by encouraging them to repeatedly test their moral boundaries in their minds–the author first and foremost. That by itself may not sound like much, but regularly transgressing these moral boundaries intellectually and emotionally encourages us to do it in real life too. This is especially true with younger readers, who are often just forming their strong moral guidelines for the future. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Or woman. Or child.
Am I saying that if you have an evil character in your stories who glories in murder and mayhem, that you are influencing generations of children to become serial killers who torture furry animals in their spare time? Certainly not, and I get tired of people tossing that strawman argument up in discussions like this. As I’ve argued before, your readers should see real evil. I have no problem with your villains quite literally causing people nightmares. I have no problem with realistic shades of moral belief (i.e. the pathological liar or serial murderer who literally believes that what he’s doing is “right” and can make a tempting argument in his defense). I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t have “good” characters making “wrong” choices; that’s just reality. The key is how you portray them in the end. Readers should leave knowing right from wrong. As C. S. Lewis noted,
Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.
If evil in your book or story is depicted in such a way as to make it good, make it something that otherwise reasonable people would want to admire, then there is a problem.
As you’ve noticed, then, I’m not one of those authors who believes that we can write whatever we feel like writing and forget the consequences. I’ve heard multiple arguments from a number of different people that say that the author is his or her own entity, and that we must be true only to our characters and our story–what readers choose to do as a result of reading us is their business, not ours. I’ll more than happily grant that there comes a point where we just have to loose our stories on an unsuspecting public and trust that we’ve done the right thing. Our readers are indeed morally responsible for their own actions. Still, there is a certain callous disregard for people around us in the harder forms of that argument. In some cases, it might not be too far from giving a suicidal person a loaded shotgun and saying, “I hope you won’t pull the trigger, but it’s your fault if you do.” It’s technically true, but somehow I can’t get away from assigning blame in more than one place.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you. I’m not really sure I’ve fully succeeded in communicating the nuance that needs to come across. In the end, I believe that being an author of speculative fiction isn’t just a privilege–it’s a responsibility. We need to keep that in mind.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to go wrong–some of which I’ve fallen into myself. Come back next week and we’ll start discussing some of the positive points of speculative fiction in detail, and, by implication, hopefully learn how to avoid its downfalls.
*An example of this sort of thing might be clothing styles, hair styles, etc.
As you know, Tobias Mastgrave has started his own blog after a good run with us here at LHP. In thanks to him and recognition of his work, for the next few week’s we’re running several of his highest rated posts from days past. Check out his blog athttp://tobiasmastgrave.wordpress.com
Good luck and Godspeed Tobias in your new endeavors!
Lantern Hollow Press
I want to speak today on one of the most important factors of creating a believable, frightening, impactful villain: motivations.
Ok…I’m going to rant here for just a moment, it won’t be long I promise, if you’d rather get on with things just skip down to the next paragraph. Many villains that we see in media today have no real motivations. The deciding factor behind the majority of their actions seems to be ‘how do I PROVE that I’m evil’. In the entirety of human history, I promise you, no more than a handful of people have gone out of their way to PROVE that they were evil…and the ones that did, NOT THE BEST VILLAINS IN HISTORY! Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito did not think of themselves as villains. Nero and Caligula did not think of themselves as villains. Real villains DON’T HAVE TO PROVE THEY ARE EVIL!!!
Anyway, short rant done now on to motivations. Your villains should have reasons for pretty much everything they do, good reasons, believable reasons. However the key to any character, villains included, is to define their central motivations. What factor, or combination of factors, drives your villain to his wickedness? Does he lust after power? Does he want to become a god? Does he want to protect his people or his family? Is he running away from something in his past? Is it as simple as he just doesn’t know how to do anything else?
Let’s look at the motivations of some excellent villains. In my last post I used Star Wars as an example, I love Star Wars…to be honest I’m a little bit obsessed. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are two of my favorite villains, they have excellent and CLEAR motivations. Darth Vader falls into the dark side trying to save his wife, to protect his family. However once corrupted, once he has lost everything he loved, he continues to pursue power despite clearly seeing it’s evil. In a poignant moment in ‘Return of the Jedi’ he responds to Luke’s pleas with the statement ‘It is too late for me son, you do not know the power of the dark side. I must obey my master.”
Darth Vader understands his own darkness, his own evil, but he sees no way out. The Emperor, on the other hand, does not see his own evil. He understands that others see him as evil but he sees himself as maintaining order by doing what is necessary. Vader’s desire, his only real desire, is to feed the addictive hunger inside him which the power of the dark side has created. He serves in the hope of destroying the Emperor and stealing all of his power. The Emperor’s central motivation is to create order, secondary to that is his desire to contain non-humans. Both characters had very distinct motivations that lead them to commit evil acts in the pursuit of achieving these goals.
If we look at a couple of the villains, from our group of writers, which I mentioned in my last post we see that Korluus’s primary motivation is self-perfection. His pursuit of self-perfection has led him to the assumption that whatever serves this pursuit is ‘good’. Therefore he commits horrendous acts in the name of raising humanity to perfection, himself first of course, and classifies said acts as ‘good’. On the other hand Loki, from Erik’s fantasy writing, is pursuing Ragnarök (the end of the Norse gods). The question we are confronted with is why? The two possible answers that I have seen so far (I know you all haven’t) are 1) that Loki desires the end, that he believes it is a good thing. Or 2) that his hate is so complete that he prefers destruction, the destruction of all things, to his own continued existence.
Ultimately there are many things that go into writing a good villain, as many as go into any other character, however there are some that are more often ignored or handled badly than others. I was intending for this to be my last post on this subject, however (in an effort to make my posts more manageable) I am going to split this in two. So, next time, On Villains Part Four: On Humanity, That Poor Little Psychopath.
Among the Neshelim
Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.
Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?