Time for my final burning writing question.
I’ve been answering burning writing questions that readers of my blog submitted as part of the celebration of my 10th writing birthday, which took place back on February 12.
Sam is a former colleague who subsequently became a good friend and a member of my found family.
(It was actually “Cousin” Sam who encouraged me to start this blog, back in 2012, stating that as a writer, I needed a web presence. I was totally not into it at the time, however here I am still going strong and loving it six years after the fact.)
Sam posed an interesting question:
How have you dealt with a character you’ve created that you didn’t particularly like or felt was just loathsome in some way?
What I like about this question is that it presupposed my having indeed created loathsome (or otherwise dislikeable) characters. Because of course I have—every fiction writer has, in the form of an antagonist or villain.
Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by villains who were done right; in many ways more so than the hero of the story.
But what do I mean by “done right”?
It’s an oft-repeated adage about characters that every one is the hero of their own story. This applies to villains as well. Or at least it ought to.
For all that I dislike any character that’s poorly motivated, I especially don’t like villains that are psychotic, chaotic evil, just-because-they-can-be monsters.
Too often, both in fiction and real life, mental illness is used as a shorthand for evil and violence, which is a harmful stigma that does not bear up in research.
Unless a villain’s psychosis or psychopathy is intricately tied into the plot of the story (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs), soulless murderers, rapists, oppressors, and extortionists don’t generally make for exciting fiction.
On the other hand, I’m often hugely interested in (and at times even sympathetic to) villains who, however loathsome, nonetheless possess a non-villainous history, especially those who display even a hint of having themselves been wronged in the past while lacking the skills and emotional strength to deal with this reversal.
These are the villains I most like to read about, and also the type I endeavour to create in my own writing.
This is not to say I don’t believe a person who does bad things shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions.
However, to answer Sam’s question, I deal with the villainous/unlikeable characters I create in the following three ways:
1) By examining my privilege
On some level, a complex villain should provide a genuine moral conundrum for the hero.
It’s easy to want to defeat and destroy someone without a second thought or backwards glance when they’re portrayed as evil incarnate and without morals.
But a complex villain with a human past and perhaps a twisted yet justifiable motivation should give the hero pause—make them question the righteousness of their quest to overcome the villain.
The reason for this has to do with the very nature of a villain in Western storytelling tradition.
By convention, the villain is something of a mirror of the hero—a competitor of equal or greater strength. Someone who, while threatening everything the hero holds dear, is likewise a physical manifestation of what the hero could have become under the right (or perhaps wrong) circumstances.
Seen this way, when creating villains, it’s impossible not to reflect upon my own life and consider all the things that have gone right in it to prevent my having to do anything wrong.
Often the things we consider most villainous in real life are brought about by circumstances we’ve never had to struggle with.
I’ve never had to deceive someone in a serious way. I’ve never had to steal. I’ve never been wronged to an extent that murder seemed a viable response. I’ve never felt so insecure about myself that the oppression of others became acceptable in my mind.
This isn’t to say that these acts are excusable or even necessarily forgivable. Only that if we dig deep, deep, deep beneath the surface in their perpetrators, there may be something there that’s tragic and human that we can actually understand.
2) By acknowledging the shadow side of myself
As mentioned above, the villain is everything that a hero may have (and still might) become. As such, a hero who’s battling a villain isn’t just fighting an external individual, but rather the darker side of their own psyche.
At the same time, all characters are manifestations of the writer’s psyche. Sometimes, this might be straight-up author insertion. Other times, specific author traits are spread across a number of different characters.
Regardless, all art is an expression of ourselves and what’s in our soul. That means that, as a writer, anything you come up with—any character you create—is already inside of you, whether you wish to acknowledge it or not.
I choose to acknowledge it. To recognize that, outside of fairy tales, there is no such thing as monsters, and there never has been. We already are (and already know) all the monsters that we fear. Most of us just haven’t had strong enough occasion to become truly monstrous—yet.
Although I am a “good” person right now, this isn’t any sort of default state. Rather, it needs to be consciously preserved and maintained through the intentional, ongoing work of living up to my morals and values.
3) By not becoming a villain myself
Whenever I create a villain who started out as an everyday person subjected to circumstances they couldn’t handle, this reassures me that I’m not a villain myself.
Because being a villain is a choice. We’ve all had difficult experiences in life—some much more difficult than others—but ultimately, being a victim is no justification for victimizing others.
On a related note, neither is having willfully harmed people in the past a mandate that one must forever remain a villain.
For while redemption and forgiveness are overwhelmingly in the hands of the victims, to dispense or withhold as they see fit, any villain can choose to change at any time, for the world, for those that they’ve hurt, and by and large, for his-/herself.
What are your favourite types of villains?
(Image source #1, #2, and #3)
5 thoughts on “The Evil That Men/Women/Writers Do”
The ones who are essential – to the story. My trilogy simply won’t work without the exact villain and the steps she takes. She has been essential since the beginning, and almost wins what she wants, and costs a great deal when she is defeated. She may even still be as happy as she can be about it when it’s over. I don’t follow her after that – except with one little comment which throws the story into an uncertain future.
Alicia, your answer is almost a joke answer, it’s so perfect. Destined to become a classic. What are your favourite type of villains? The ones who are essential to the story. Since the protagonist generates the plot and the villain is the counter to the protagonist, in theory no story should work without its exact villain doing exactly as they do.
That’s what I thought, and why I don’t like Romances (the modern ones).
Come hither/go away but without anything but misunderstandings.
Not me, anyway.
“Villains” is a topic worthy of its own book.
I agree with you, on general fiction-writing principles, that villains don’t see themselves as villains. They might be tortured in that they are driven to do bad things, or they might be so selfish that they don’t think what they are doing is bad.
To me, villains can be scaled to the scope of the story, the genre, or the style of writing. A comedic villain can get away with being outlandish in ways that a dramatic villain can’t. A reality-based story might need a villain who is more restrained than one in a fantastical story. Sci-fi villains can get away with being a bit two-dimensional; all they seem to want is “power,” without much discussion of what that actually means. Tolkien fans might want to school me on this, but from my superficial vantage point, it seems like Sauron’s motivation is not much more than “I want that ring.” I enjoy the story anyway. Whether Sauron is metaphorical or representational is a different conversation.
The villains in my soon-to-be two-book series are framed by the scenario (I mean, that’s always the case in fiction, but …). The collapse of civilization has freed people to reveal their true selves and to act without fear of consequence from authority. They manipulate whatever assets they have to survive, or they act out what they would normally act out only on a larger scale. Some of your criticisms above might apply to my characters, but I think it is true that, in an apocalypse, the constraints are off the psychopaths and sociopaths. Their presence would loom large.
I think we can all agree that villains are fun to write!
Honestly, I’m not even sure that Sauron is the villain of Lord of the Rings. True, his name gets tossed around a lot and he has a base of operations in Mordor, plus there’s however many thousand years of backstory Tolkien wrote that never made it into the book. But in LOTR itself, Sauron is not an active agent, but rather has countless hoards and lieutenants acting in his name, the way people act in the name of God. This might be the difference between a villain and an antagonist comes into play. Sauron is an antagonistic force, but not a true villain, in my opinion. The Tolkien fans may end up schooling us both.
I agree with you that story, genre, and style do all matter, but I maintain that a good villain should want what they want for a reason, even if that reason is a selfish one. If, in your story, that reason is survival, that’s an understandable one. If the reason on the surface is “because I can”, I suspect a deeper dive would reveal more, although perhaps the specific story isn’t worthy of knowing why beyond a line or two of explanation.
In a real apocalypse, it would be interesting to see how many of the so-called psychopaths and sociopaths truly were just that. These sorts of people represent a relatively small proportion of the general population. Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the post, we are all monsters-in-waiting for the right (wrong) set of circumstances to set us off. Which likewise would be for a more profound reason than “because I can”.
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