Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Villain


Among all of the characters in a novel, the villain, the antagonist, is one of the hardest to write. Sure, you can make a villain that's big, bad, and mean - but a villain with actual depth is rare.

This is something all writers struggle with, including myself. I don't have all the answers to the villain question; in this post, I'll share what I do know.

Villains are essential. Without a tangible villain, the story lacks balance. If a story portrays only good, it portrays only half of life; because life is a struggle between good and evil, between Christ and the forces of darkness.

The villain, therefore, is the embodiment of that evil, and usually exhibits one main evil trait. Hate, bitterness, immorality, revenge, greed, envy, murder, brutality; all are evil ideals that the villain might embrace. Usually, it's the opposite ideal of what your hero represents. The hero shows love; the villain shows hate. Etc.

All right, so it's easy enough to tack on a trait to your villain. But how do you give him depth, humanity, and a truly chilling presence?

That's what this post is about.

1) Don't make the mistake of making your villain single-minded. That is, don't make it to where he has just one negative ideal.

Villains, like all people, have many motivations. Aside from his main ideal, he has other desires and interests. A villain can combine hatred and revenge, greed and envy, murder and and brutality and bitterness; real villains are many-layered. They have more than one desire, and when those desires conflict, that's when we are shown the villain's true driving desires.

Edmond Dantes, in the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, is a very conflicted character. He's something of an anti-hero, which gives me a lot of fertile ground for proving my points. Nothing stands in the way of his revenge; not his wise mentor, not his money, not his former dependence on God, and not even his love. Revenge is what sustained him in prison. In one scene, he says something along the lines of, "Don't take away my hate. It's all I have."

In the same way, make your villain have one driving desire; but you have to prove that his desire really is what drives him. He has to want something so badly that he'll do anything to get it.

2) Make your character have some good in him.

The scary thing about villains is that we can see ourselves in them. The villain is who we will be if the protagonist doesn't win. The villain is mostly bad, just as the protagonist is mostly good. But the "mostly" part is what makes the struggle between the two so fascinating. To our horror, we find that, in some ways, we empathize with the villain, even as we hate him.

Give him some humanity; a tenderness that seems bizarre at first. Say one villain has a reluctance to kill priests, since a priest helped him and sheltered him as a child. Make it something that makes sense but conflicts with his evil ideals.

Even better, let what is bad in the villain come about because he did something good. Again, Edmond Dantes is an excellent example. He was an honest man who trusted everyone, even the people who betrayed him. That honesty proved to be his downfall. When he was sent to prison, however, he destroyed his trust and let revenge rule him.

3) Let us know what the villain is capable of.

If the villain doesn't come into the story until the end, then why will we fear him? But if we've seen his handiwork before the hero confronts the villain, we'll be a lot more frightened for our hero's safety. In my outline of Tornado C, I already have several instances in which the villain shows just how far he has fallen, and that makes him chilling.

Again, Dantes comes up as an example. (No, he's not a villain, but he has a lot of villainous traits up until the end.) Dantes will do anything to get revenge. When he escapes from his prison, Chateau d'If, he pulls the master of the prison with him off of a cliff. The master has tortured him for years, so...well, only one of them survives afterward. This shows how far Dantes will go, and creates a fear in us. "No, Dantes, don't do it!" we want to shout. "There's a better way! Let go of your revenge!" Every time he comes near one of his betrayers, we feel a shiver of fear, because we know the need for revenge that drives him.

This doesn't mean that you have to write something gory in order to make the villain scary. In fact, the worst fear is the fear of the unknown. Leave the details to the imagination; imagination is best at scaring itself.

4) Make him or her realistic.

In other words, not everyone is a mass-murderer. But everyone struggles with anger. Make the villain understandable, because we struggle with the same things. The difference is, the villain uses that evil and embraces it to elevate himself and his desires, rather than struggling against it.

The villain must have normal human needs as well. He needs love; but because he doesn't get it, he hates those who do. An inhuman villain becomes a supernatural villain who can wave his hand and do anything, regardless of morality and conscience. Like I've said before, a true villain is horrifying because he was once like us.

Now, before I finish this post, I have one more thing to say, and it's about anti-heroes.

I mention The Count of Monte Cristo quite a bit, and Dantes (the main character) is pretty much an anti-hero. That is, he's a hero without too many heroic qualities, at least in the middle of the movie.

Here's my advice: stay away from anti-heroes. If a hero isn't heroic, then why are we reading this story? If the tale is bad-versus-bad, why write it? Honestly, which of us has the wisdom to write a story that is steeped in evil?

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the few stories that pulls off an anti-hero, mainly through good storytelling, superb characters, and a strong theme. It's very hard to write an anti-hero story well, at least for Christian writers. Why?

I believe that the purpose of the Christian story is to build up, to glorify God and retell the truths of the Bible. The problem is, anti-heroes make me feel dirty. It's not about good versus evil. In those stories, the character often hate themselves for their evil. I've read stories from young Christian writers that are, frankly, hopeless. That is, they're lacking the hope that Christianity offers. (There's a disturbing trend toward murderer protagonists, too.)

And if such stories do offer hope, they do it in a bad-guy-gets-saved-and-there's-a-happy-ending kind of way...which is pretty much unrealistic and cheesy.

Therefore, I cannot justify anti-heroes unless it is done as well as it was in The Count of Monte Cristo.

(SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE: In that movie, Dantes was redeemed in the end, and that's why it was satisfying and not degrading. He found that vengeance was the Lord's, not his. He found that revenge did nothing but waste his life. He returns to the faith that he had had before he was imprisoned.

(The final image we get from the movie was rather moving: a picture from the prison cell in which Dantes was tortured. He had scraped deep into the wall, through torture after torture, GOD WILL GIVE ME JUSTICE. And on that note, the movie ends.)

So what do you think about villains? How can we, as writers, create truly chilling but believable villains? What do you think about anti-heroes?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!


8 comments:

Starsinger said...

Good post. I've been having trouble with my villains, I always make them very similar. Now I have a few ideas, which also help with the plot, I'll need to note them down before I forget.

I occasionally anjoy anti-heroes, but I find that most of them end out being too similar.

I really like the Count of Monte Cristo. I've seen all of it before, but I just have never had the time to watch it all in one go.

Leilani Sunblade said...

Excellent post, Jake! I often struggle with my villains, though I think I have one who I've done pretty well. (Well, judging from the fact that she's one person who's read my book's favorite character . . .) My problem is mostly making them realistic and layered and all that.

On the subject of anti-heroes:
What about stories that have multiple protagonists, one of which is an antihero? For example, in a story that I wrote (and have since scrapped because it was pretty terrible), I had three protagonists. Two were most definitely good guys, and the third was more of an anti-hero. She refused to trust people, said she was on her own side, and was a bit violent, among other traits. However, in the end of the story, she does do the right thing, though she hasn't let go of her anger and trust issues yet. (I was planning to have her resolve those in the next book.) What are your thoughts on this sort of character setup?

Pathfinder said...

Ah, villains! They'be got to be among the most interesting characters. And I love/hate how it's true how well we relate to them, especially to the point where we like them better than the protagonist. *guilty laugh*

And anti-heroes... actually one of my favorite words. (Yes, I'm such a nerdy geek) Boromir. Dustfinger. Mulch Diggums. They're relatable too. I can't say that I've ever written one before, though.

Jake said...

Clarification: when I speak of anti-heroes in this post, I'm talking about anti-hero protagonists. I have little against anti-heroes in story, but when they're the main character, I have more problems with it.

Too true, Pathfinder. I love villains. XD

Leilani: first, if the character ends well, all you have to guard against is a cliche or cheesy ending. Second, because a character has vices does not mean they're an anti-hero. Weaknesses are a part of your characters. What I am warning against is protagonist anti-heroes with little good in them at all, such as a mass-murder who hates his or herself.

That being said, if you think you can pull this character off, go for it!

Ninja Tim said...

I liked your point about having some good in the villain. To me, the most fascinating (and chilling) villains are the ones who do all of their evil deeds in the name of some "greater good," who actually have motives (though usually not means) that can be sympathized with, who often have redefined morality for themselves (which is certainly realistic; that's our culture incarnate right there). That forces the audience (along with the hero) to actually ponder whether or not the villain is evil and worth defeating, a battle in itself.

Brandon Williams said...

Exccellent post about villains; I liked your analysis. I've never read the Count of Monte Cristo, but from your review it sounds quite good.

Your feelings on anti-heroes left me a little...disturbed though; I'm not sure if if was your intention, but it seemed like you took it to the darkest place possible.
I consider the protagonist of my latest story an anti-hero (as opposed to my other works where it was pretty black-and-white).
Over the course of the story he lies, kidnaps and sometimes kills but it is all to save both the entire world and his family from the villains. I think that a protagnist who sometimes does morally questionable things and feels shame is far more human than someone who does either nothing wrong, or worse, does bad things and feels nothing.
When you mentioned "murderer protagonist" I wasn't sure if you meant a person who is a criminal murderer (i.e. serial killer, etc.) or just a person who kills in battle or something.
Either way, I think I've come to enjoy stories where the line between the good guys and the bad blurs at times; it makes it more interesting than the chessboard setup where good and evil clash and there's never any ambiguity of who is right or wrong.
I know this was written some time ago, but I'd apreciate a response, if you have the time.
One more thing: I'm a Christian too, and I was just wondering...did you mean that it was a sin to write anti-heroes? Makes me a little nervous :(

Jake said...

Hey, Brandon! Thank you for your response! Right now I don't have the time to write a proper response, but I apologize if I make it sound like writing anti-heroes is a sin. There's a very big difference between a mistake and a sin. While I believe writing anti-heroes when inexperienced can be a mistake, it is in no way *morally* wrong, any more than writing a murderous character makes you a murderer.

Hopefully I'll find time tonight or tomorrow to write a better response.

Brandon Williams said...

Thank you for such a quick response and for clearing up the misunderstanding :). I guess I just got a little upset because the protagonist I described in my earlier comment is the most well-developed of the characters I've made in the nine years I've been writing and it would have been awful to abandon him because I think of him as an anti-hero.
Just a question I had, but when you say "anti-hero" did you mean person who does morally questionable things but has heroic goals or someone who is genuinely bad but is portrayed as a hero? I've heard of this, and what you described seems to be something called "villain protagonist" (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one.)