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The bad guys can be just as complex as our heroes. Indeed, it’s becoming something of a trend. No longer do we just see villains of pure evil, but individuals who blur the lines between right and wrong.
Understanding Your Villain
It seems of late that there’s been something of a backlash against villains of pure evil. The classic, archetypal ‘bad guy’, if you will. People argue that they’re too one dimensional; evil for evil’s sake. It seems to have sparked a trend toward the bad guys who blur the lines, who have a foot in both camps. Anti-heroes.
Just because a few individuals vocalise their opinions doesn’t relegate our classic villains to obsoletion. But there is a point to take away from it: that the bad guys need to be more than just props for the story, that they, in fact, have compelling stories of their own.
A part of reading involves exploring new perspectives, experiencing things we could never do, or to feel emotions we’re unaccustomed to. We castigate a thief for stealing food, yet when we see the story through their eyes, we learn that he is thieving to feed his starving family. Is he as evil as we thought?
A good starting point when creating an antagonist is to ask questions. The answers will help determine where on the spectrum of evil they lie. Questions could include:
- Do they regularly carry out evil acts, or this their first time?
- Have they thought about doing it before, or is it instinctive, reactive?
- What are the circumstances that lead to their current path of evil?
- What in their past could have shaped them into what they are today?
- Do they garner pleasure or satisfaction from being evil, i.e. sadistic?
- Is this something they’ve recently discovered?
- How do they justify their actions to themselves or to others?
- What is their underlying motive?
- What do they seek to achieve?
Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?
One thing worth considering when crafting a villain is their motivation. Our own lives are dictated by the things we are motivated to do. If you can’t be arsed going for a jog, then you’re not going to do it. If you’re determined and motivated to lose weight, then chances are you’ll stick on your shorts despite the lashing rain. Motives drive people, and the same goes for characters.
Motive alone does not suffice, though. To unlock that motivation we must believe and have faith. A person must believe that jog in the pissing rain will help them achieve their goal. The same applies to our villains. They have faith in what they are doing because they believe wholeheartedly it is the right thing to do, even if it involves killing people. From their perspective, they’re dead right. Everyone else is wrong. Who cares what they think? It’s a megalomaniacal stance and a pretty destructive one at that. Just take Brexit, for example.
So, let’s take a look at a few different types of villain.
Villains of Pure Evil
When designing a truly evil villain, bad behaviour alone is insufficient to characterise. More must be shown to convince the reader the antagonist is truly evil. Are they corrupted to their core? Are they sadists, deriving pleasure from inflicting pain? Let’s look at some examples.
Darth Vader – promoter of the Dark Side. Determined to obliterate the Jedi Order and Rebel Alliance. Destroys planets without hesitation to ensure he gets what he wants. In earlier years wiped out Jedi school, killing everyone, including children. The Dark Side has corrupted him, turned him evil to his core.
Gollum – always seeking to foil Frodo’s plans and reclaim the One Ring for himself. His hatred for the “filthy hobbitses” runs deep. Like Vader, Gollum has been corrupted, his nature fundamentally changed.
Sauron – an example of a character of pure evil. Little is revealed about Sauron’s true motives beyond his desire to annihilate the world of men. He is unwavering in his efforts—indeed the eye is always watching—and similarly, he commands an army which also seems to be hell-bent on achieving the same end. Conflicted orcs and goblins are few and far between in Middle Earth, it seems.
Master editor Sol Stein says in his book, Stein on Writing, that it should be extremely difficult for a villain of pure evil to be re-educated or re-conditioned into a nicer person. Frodo tried that with Gollum and lost a few fingers for his efforts—he still managed to finish Bilbo’s book, though. Anyone ever stop to wonder how he managed that?
In the first two examples, the characters went through fundamental changes in their lives, passing the point of no return. A moment of tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, embitterment.
Sauron is more of the archetypal villain. Evil through and through. There need not be any more reason than that. But that was the fifties, and this is now and writing has changed much since then.
So how can you characterise such utter bastards?
1. Physical mannerisms. Think of creepy, involuntary habits such as a twitching eye; pulling hairs out of their eyebrows, moustache or beard; earlobe tugging or lip chewing. Habitual mannerisms seem to work best—the repetitive nature can grate on readers, which is handy if you’re trying to create an unlikeable fellow.
2. Competency and an unfaltering determination to succeed. In Lord of the Rings, Sauron’s eye is forever seeking, the Ring Wraith’s forever hunting. They are effective and efficient, forever on their tail, waiting to prey upon the slightest mistake. All this creates conflict and jeopardy, things your reader will love.
3. Ask yourself how your antagonist behaves toward people he’s never met before. Some villains come across as pleasant and affable. Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad is a good example of such a villain. He makes donations to charities and has a good relationship with the D.E.A., the very people trying to catch him. Under the surface, he’s a ruthless criminal. We can look at real-life nutcases too. Jimmy Saville for example, a once loved children’s entertainer and TV presenter, turned out to be a serial paedophile. He gave millions to charity, even helped set up a children’s hospital. Talk about blurring the lines.
You could go the opposite way and have an antagonist who’s discourteous, arrogant, or sadistic. Recently I was watching Black Beauty with my grandmother and found myself on the edge of my seat in a mild fury as the Squire lashed at Beauty with his whip. Remember that tip from the previous chapter? If you want the reader to dislike a character, have them kick a dog. Well, it works.
4. Does your antagonist do something frequently that others do occasionally? Sol Stein gives the examples of a character blowing their nose every few minutes despite not being sick, a forehead slick with sweat when the temperature is cool, persistent coughing or clearing of the throat, or bobbing a leg when sat down cross-legged. All of these things suggest something about the character, about who they really are. It helps them stand out, makes us feel that something isn’t quite right.
Examples are useful. Let’s look at one from Terry Goodkind’s bestseller, Wizard’s First Rule. For the first 250 or so pages of the book we’re merely told about the antagonist, Darken Rahl. And then in chapter nineteen, we see him first hand.
“White roses, replaced every morning without fail for the last three decades, filled each of the fifty-seven gold vases set in the wall beneath each of the fifty-seven torches that represented each year in the life of the deceased. A large staff saw to it that no torch was allowed to go spent for longer than a few moments, and that rose petals were not allowed to rest long upon the floor. The staff were attentive and devoted to their tasks. Failure to be so resulted in an immediate beheading.
Staff positions were filled from the surrounding D’Haran countryside. Being a member of the crypt staff was an honour, by law. The honour brought with it the promise of a quick death if an execution was in order. A slow death in D’Hara was greatly feared, and common. New recruits, for fear they would speak ill of the dead king while in the crypt, had their tongues cut out.”
These are just the first two paragraphs of the chapter, and from them, we glean much about Darken Rahl without him even being mentioned. What kind of person would employ such a large workforce just to maintain torches and flowers? What kind of person would kill those workers for the merest of blunders? And then in the second paragraph, we see how working in the staff is an honour, but only by law. An oppressive stance by whoever enacted that law. And lastly, what kind of influence must a person have on others to compel them to cut out their own tongues for fear of speaking ill of the dead king? Before we even see Rahl, we know what he’s like.
The Doubtful Villain
The classic bad guy archetype has been cleverly adapted over the years. We know one of the main complaints about the evil for evil’s sake villain is their lack of conflict. Orcs hate humans. End of. What I’ve often wondered is whether any of those orcs felt differently. What if they came to see a different perspective, one that made them question their ways and potentially change their course? But how can they break free of that life, the only one they have ever known? Where would they go? What would they do? We choose the easiest path, often the one we know. Sometimes the right way to go is the more difficult route. Herein lies the conflict.
Let’s look at an example courtesy of Adrian Tchaikovsky. In his novel. Empire in Black and Gold, the main antagonist begins to doubt himself and the actions of the empire he’s served devoutly his whole life. We’re left wondering what he will do—will a man who prides himself on loyalty commit an act of betrayal? The conflict blurs the lines between good and evil and makes us wonder whether in fact, they are truly as evil as we believed.
It can be argued that Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire is a bad guy too. One of the first acts we see him do is shove Bran Stark out of the top window of a tower. He is selfish, arrogant, heartless. Yet, at times he seems to be a man of reason, a good guy.
George R.R. Martin is a master at creating characters who sit on the fence of good and evil. Another example from his stories is the Hound. A man who kills Arya’s friend and a whole host of other people, yet by the end he finds himself fighting on the frontline for the forces of good.
I like this kind of villain. For me, they epitomise hope. Hope that even fervently evil people can change for the better.
Things Have Gotten Out Of Hand
There’s a growing trend toward the complicated bad guy. The folks that have lived good and innocent lives, only to be corrupted. Why is this the case? One possible explanation is conflict. As we’ll come to see when we look at plotting, readers love conflict. Conflict propels stories.
A conflicted bad guy can make for an interesting character. We want to see if they’ll go through with the murder, how they’ll react when they see blood pouring from wounds, what has driven them to take such drastic action in the first place.
Once upon that evil path, to maintain their status as the central antagonist, it makes sense for them not to deviate. Indeed, Sol Stein advises them to fall deeper into their corrupted ways. Whether voluntarily or involuntarily is up to you.
If you enjoyed this article, why not stay in touch by completing the form below? Subscribers receive a free ebook on the craft of writing, lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction, and a list of fantasy book reviewers.