This week, the topic is villains, and just how bad these bad boys should be. And, as always in regards to “rules for authors,” the answer is… that depends.
Like anything else, a villain is there to serve the story. This means that a villain and a story should be compatible. They should fit together. You don’t write a picture book where the villain collects the faces of dead children, and you don’t write a contemporary adult thriller about a villain who is trying to steal all of New York’s pudding. Divisions of “bad” play a very secondary role to the appropriateness of the villain.
And these divisions aren’t as clear-cut as I make them seem, above. This is because a villain should also be appropriate to the protagonist, and to the reader. If the protagonist has established family troubles, then the villain can play against that… kidnap a family member, or simply in some way intrude in a very personal way on the antagonist, so that there is no sanctuary at any level. And this intrusion should also play to the reader’s fears and tension. Just because you have a hero who has a hobby of collecting vintage tobacco packaging doesn’t mean an author should have the villain play against that by defacing all the vintage tobacco pouches with magic marker drawings of anthropomorphic genitalia. Sure, it would be traumatic to a man who has dedicated his life to tobacco collecting, but that doesn’t mean it would resonate with the reader. The villain, the hero and the reader must all connect in order to create entertaining book.
Only with all that in place can we move on to the second stage.
And that second stage is also pretty easy in concept, though of course (like everything else) somewhat more difficult in execution. The second stage of villainy is… what the hell is my villain doing? And, more importantly, WHY? It can be done that a hero exists chiefly as a foil for a villain, but a villain should never exist only as a foil for the hero. A villain must have a life of his own. Where does the villain come from? What led him to this point in his life? Why is he making these reprehensible decisions? Why does he think his plan will succeed? Are there personality traits that bring about his own downfall? Does he have a family, and do they know / accept / love what he’s become? What is his obvious goal? Are there any hidden goals? How far is he willing to go to achieve these goals? Who… IS… he???
These questions have to be answered. They don’t really need to be answered on the page, but an author ought to be able to face them, because a book where the villain is trying to take over the world and kill the hero just because he wants a shitload of power and thinks the hero is a stinky bastard is essentially the same as a schoolyard drama. No depth. No real characterization. No oomph to the story. So, a villain has to be a three-dimensional creation with three-dimensional reasoning, and then (yes!) we can really move on to the next stage… making this guy a complete bastard.
Hah! Fooled you. In reality, I’ve already skipped a step. That’s… what form does your villain take? Is he even a man at all? And I don’t mean… is he actually a woman, or a lich-king? What I mean is, take a look at my favorite all time novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. The real villains in the novel are ignorance and racism. All of the human-type-peoples are only stand-ins for prejudice.
And… now… here we go! How bad should your bad guy be? And the answer is… pour it on! Just pour it on! Make him scum. Arrogant. Powerful! Do everything you want. He should be one of the mountains the hero has to climb. But, please… do this by writing. Don’t do this by simply thinking of “bad” and then making him Even More Badder by simply moving a decimal point. You know what happens when writers do that? What happens is that every murderer on every crime drama is now a serial killer. Every damn one. And in a field of serial killers, a serial killer becomes boring. A trope. A card played way too often. A serial killer is a dark and stormy night. A villain should be Big Evil, but by means of character and situation, and a writer’s craft… not (again) by simply moving that decimal point on a moderately nasty villain.
Because, like always with writing, you can always overthink, but you can never over-craft.
And now, just for fun, what follows is a trio of my works, and quick thoughts on the villains.
The 1st installment of Bandette just went online, and is available for a mere 99 cents right here.