“It doesn’t make any difference. Everybody thinks he’s righteous.”
~ ADAM BALDWIN on being cast as a villain.
Good morning, friends and followers, and welcome back, or if this is your first visit, welcome! The Browncoats among you will have noticed that both the title and the quote have Firefly connections. The quote is of course from Adam Baldwin, who at the reading for the part was told that Jayne Cobb was going to be underhanded, immoral, and self-serving. The title comes from the Heart of Gold episode, when Mal, the captain, is telling the prostitutes who want his crew to defend their brothel that they’re going to run, because he’s met the bad guy, and “There’s nothing worse than a monster who thinks he’s right with God.” Extra points if you’ve worked out that I’m going to be discussing the Villain as character this week.
So, what is the Villain? Properly called the Antagonist, the Villain is the single character who works the hardest to prevent the Hero, or Protagonist, from fulfilling the conditions he needs in order to declare victory, and he or she needn’t actually be villainous. The character can be the rival in a romance, or the other team’s star athlete in a sports story. He certainly can be villainous if he lies, cheats, or rigs his rival’s equipment to fail, but it isn’t necessary. He need only be an obstacle. First let’s look at what makes a Villain “bad” in the literary sense, as in poorly written.
Many young writers, having decided to pen the Great American Novel, invest great effort in creating a Hero for the Ages, going deep into his or her backstory, figuring out what he orders when he drives through MacDonald’s, and what sort of clothes he keeps in his closet for when he goes out clubbin’. All that is good; you need to know these things and many others to write an effective Protagonist, but then when they turn to the Villain, they just say, “I’m going to make this the meanest bastard anybody ever met!” Okay, maybe he is, and maybe that works for the story you’re telling, but why is he the meanest bastard alive, and what happens when this deep development is missing?
It’s quite simple, really. A Villain, no matter how scary and powerful, whose background and motivations are not fully developed and put on display for the reader, becomes little more than a rampaging mad dog for the Hero to take down. Many writers put a great deal of effort into cataloguing their Villain’s strengths, because they’ve heard that his powers must be equal to or greater than those of the Hero so that the final confrontation won’t be a one-sided beat-down of a Straw Man. That’s well and good, but it’s also incomplete. Let’s look at the most influential author I’m aware of who completely ignored this concept, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Lord of the Rings is a magnificent opus that not only gave us a sprawling tale that spread its cloak over multiple civilizations who were facing the ultimate threat to their existence, but created modern fantasy in the telling. A work like Lord of the Rings is the only thing a writer needs on his or her resumé to be named alongside Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Woolfe as a major writer of the modern era, and rightly so; a triumph like that is what all serious writers who feel it in our souls dream of. But, who was Sauron? What did we know of him? Not much.
Peter Jackson’s epic treatment reached back to The Silmarillion to present the First War of the Ring, in which Sauron’s corporeal form, that of a raging twelve-foot berserker, is defeated by the combined armies of Elves and Men, and the One Ring taken from him by Isuldur. He was then reincarnated a thousand years later as an angry, bloodshot eyeball in command of great magic, bent on making the lives of every living being miserable, and it makes for a great read, but why? What made him like this? What a fascinating story that could have made, if only Tolkien had thought to include it. I think most viewers and readers of a Judaeo-Christian background view him in the same light as Satan, but even with Satan, we know his backstory. He was an angel cast from heaven for unacceptable defiance of God, and has been seeking revenge ever since.
In a way, my example refutes my point, as a story with no Antagonist development at all has achieved the status of a modern classic, but how much more could it have been with a fully developed Villain with needs, feelings, motivations? I’m not about to suggest that Lord of the Rings is a failure, but when you strip the mythic qualities away, what you are left with in Sauron is a Straw Man whose only purpose in the story is to showcase the strength and nobility of the Heroes.
So, let’s look at what a good Villain (no pun intended) needs. Certainly, he needs a skill set comparable to the Hero’s, be it physical, mental, emotional, whatever your story is about; he needs to be good at it. Football, gunplay, or romance, he needs to be just slightly better than the Hero, because the Hero needs to overcome the Unstoppable Force in order to be the Hero. But that’s just the simple part. The Villain didn’t hatch from an egg at the age of thirty-six, a martial arts expert with a hate on for the world. He was somebody’s baby. He was a student. He followed a path that brought him to this place at this time with these attitudes, and this path is what you have to know as a writer if your Villain is going to be memorable.
As background to what you’re attempting to accomplish, the Villain is the engine that is going to drive the story. In most cases, the Hero is a more or less ordinary person with an ordinary life who isn’t doing anything particularly heroic until he is prodded into action by the Villain. The Villain does this for reasons. He wants something, and you have to know what it is. Your Villain can only have a purpose if you give it to him, and you can’t give him anything that you aren’t aware of. Maybe his parents were shot by a cop during a routine traffic stop gone bad. Maybe he came from a country engaged in a civil war, where his daughter was used for stress relief by the occupying soldiers. That kind of revenge can be a powerful driver; look at what Boadicea did with it! Another obvious motive is greed. This can be a need for large amounts of money, and drive actions that are certainly villainous enough to please any author. As Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde) said when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is!” Greed for power and influence fosters dirty politicians, cutthroat banking practices, and boardroom scandals. A belief that one is so righteous that the normal standards of society don’t apply to him or her can lead one into actions that make one a problem for others, and often inadvertently cause a Hero to rise in opposition. Good old fashioned lust can make a man a user and ruiner of women, or lead a woman to use her charms to manipulate men into unfortunate actions. Jealousy is another good motivator; If I can’t have what you’ve got, by God, you’re not going to have it, either! Can anyone find a story in that sentence?
There are as many motivations to do evil as there are authors, and my point is that your Villain, if he’s going to be anything but a Straw Man, needs one, and you as the author need to know how he came by it. You may not need to convey the “how” to your readers. That depends on the story you’re telling, and what you think is appropriate, but a Villain who is a Villain for no discernible reason is not compelling at all, and you want him to be remembered. Ideally, you want your reader to be thinking about your Villain after she finishes her next book! So, what is the secret ingredient?
In my opinion, time. You got to know your friends over time. That’s how you know they’re your friends. Same with your enemies. The reason you don’t hang out with that slimeball in your office isn’t because of his poor taste in aftershave. No, it’s because he’s always trying to get somebody involved in something shady. He doesn’t care that it will harm your career or your employment, he just wants what he wants; he’s a Villain. Well, as you meet them in real life, so you meet them in literature. The great Villains, the ones that are remembered, get time on the page. Sometimes they’re shown directly, and sometimes the Hero talks about them, obsesses even, but they are seen. Who can indulge in a Sherlock Holmes story without a constant awareness of Moriarty scheming in the background? What is Drizzt Do’Urden without Artemis Entreri? Steve McGarrett without Wo Fat? The Villains that become part of our lives are, just as our Heroes, the ones we have time to get to know. Give them realistic motivations for their actions, then let them linger on the page for as long as possible, even be it through the course of several books. As long as they’re lurking, even though they’re neutralized or presumed to be dead, they’re playing games in the readers’ minds, and that, for an author, is a condition that is beyond price.
Make your Villains real, and make your stories great!