Villains. Oh, how love them. We love Darth Vader’s intimidating presence and his endlessly quotable booming statements. We love the Joker’s magic tricks and his chaotic, psychotic persona that we don’t want to admit would really frighten the pants off of us in real life. We love biomechanical Aliens, conflicted mutant leaders, charming megalomaniacs, even cannibalistic serial killers if they’re played by Anthony Hopkins.
Why do love bad guys? Because they challenge our heroes. They push them, test them, mock them, defeat them, even cut off their hands and reveal shocking parental secrets to them. And in the end our heroes emerge all the better for it, albeit scarred and somewhat weary.
It’s interesting to study the evolution of what makes a villain. In the past, the lines were distinct. One one side was good, on the other was evil. The hero was morally just, the villain personified pure darkness. Think Sauron from Lord of the Rings, or the Sith from Star Wars, who literally called their creed the Dark Side.
Society today is much more conflicted. There is little trust or faith in the institutions that once were considered ‘safe’ or worthy. Today people are distrustful of the government, the military, the police, their teachers, and even one another. Small wonder that villains have become more complex, with far less distinction between them and the heroes. Many modern villains are heroes in their own mind, doing what they must to pursue what they consider a noble cause.
While this may be a sad reflection of society, it does make for rich storytelling. Telling the story of a villain that doesn’t feel his actions are villainous is much more intriguing than the introduction of some Dark Lord character who is inherently evil and wants to:
a) Rule the world,
b) Fill the world with Darkness, or
c) Destroy all life on Earth.
All three are boring reasons to be a villain, and creating such can really drag a story down. I was pretty disappointed with this year’s biggest villain fail, Ultron from Avengers AoU. Everything about his character seemed pretty lazy from the standpoint of interest, making his defeat ultimately anti-climatic. He was never believable, never truly threatening, and not all that interesting, either. And his villainous agenda? Laughable at best, pure 70s Bond villain type of shtick at worst.
That’s the problem I have with the Dark Lord archetype in fantasy. A character who is a Lord of Darkness should have something better up his sleeve as far as motivation, because evil for the sake of being evil is just not satisfying. I remember being underwhelmed by the conclusion of the Wheel of Time series, because the ultimate showdown between Rand and the Dark One just didn’t live up to expectations. And how could it? How does one battle a force that is pure darkness or evil? That same with the Lord of the Ring’s Sauron. Sure, we knew he was ‘evil’ and wanted dominion over the world of men, but to what end? What makes a Dark Lord do what he does? We never know, because the only reason they exist it to give the noble heroes an impossible foe to combat.
It’s more believable and far more interesting to get inside a villain’s head, see what makes him tick. How did they become who they are? What motivates them to perform villainous acts? The more we know, the more involved we are in their clashes with the heroes. Because we understand them, even if in a sick, twisted type of way. Or better yet, we can relate to them. That’s why Gollum makes a far better villain than Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. We understand his struggle, his weakness against the onslaught of greed and obsession that consumes him. His final fate in the story is not without regret, because we observed that he was conflicted and abused, and not without a lingering amount of humanity. The same applies to Vader. Without his redemption, he may not have become the iconic character he is today.
And in the Wheel of Time, we come to understand that the greatest villain was Rand himself. His inner turmoil was much more riveting than the shadowy posturing of some mysterious Dark Lord. Without mastering his inner conflict, he could never become the savior he needed to be.
So I try to keep those things in mind when writing my own fantasy series. It is populated with many characters that can be considered villains, though none of them see themselves in that manner. I clearly recall writing a passage where a dominating warlord strikes a subordinate in the face after being disappointed. Then I stopped and thought about it: was I writing the character in that manner just to show he was a villain? Was there a real need for him to act in that manner?
I ended up rewriting the passage with him delivering a stern reprimand instead. It cemented the character as being intimidating without any mustache twirling obviousness. Because you should never have to tell the reader who the heroes and villains are. They should be able to decipher that for themselves.
Dark Lord characters aren’t strictly confined to fantasy, of course. Any character who commits evil acts just because they are evil characters fit the bill, whether they are terrorists, dictators, abusive parents, etc. Far better to get a sense of why they act that way and what motivates them. Even the Joker had a twisted rhyme to his reason, even if it only made sense in his own head.
So what about you, readers and writers? Do you prefer your villains well blended, or delivered in one evil pour? Let me know!
My name is Bard Constantine, and if you’re reading this you already know that Bard Writes Books.