I was one of the inaugural members of the Night Bazaar, and during that first year we talked about villains, and an interesting thing came up in the comments. I’d talked about favoring the heroes and villains should be both be gray, and Doug Hulick, of Among Thieves fame, countered my post by saying (essentially) that sometimes it’s ok to have black and white villains and heroes. I’ll admit. I was pretty ensconced in my viewpoint, but I do try to step outside of my preconceptions when someone takes a view that opposes mine. So I noodled it for a bit. I thought about it. And, well, while I understood where Doug was coming from, I still didn’t think that sort of story was for me. And in fact, I’ll admit it, I kind of looked down on that type of story as simplistic. Literary popcorn.
But, as the mind tends to do, now and again my hindbrain would bring the subject up, especially when I thought about my basic approach to writing. I kept going back to an observation my agent passed on to me after he’d read my first book, The Winds of Khalakovo. He said that in general (there are always exceptions) stories with fairly easy to comprehend villains do better in the marketplace. At the time, I scoffed, not at my agent, but at shortsighted readers. I’m part of the gray crowd, I told myself. I’m a disciple of Glen Cook and George R.R. Martin.
But as I thought about this more and more, I started to see the value in making the villain more black and the hero more white. I think the biggest benefit of such an approach relates to how deeply the reader roots for the heroes and heroines. Said another way, it’s about the level of investment on the part of the reader, how emotional they become over the fate of the characters. Part of this equation is the level to which they sympathize with the heroes.
Reader sympathy is a subject that could fill a novel, but the part of that that I want to focus on is this: a goodly portion of the sympathy equation is the level to which the reader hates the villain.
Seems obvious, right? The more they detest the villain, the more they want to root for the heroes. Partly because they want to see the heroes triumph, and partly (perhaps in equal and opposing amounts) to see the villain lose. And in order to stoke those flames, the villain should be in some way detestable. They should be vile, contemptible, self-serving—choose the synonym you wish. And here we come to the crux of it. The more dark the villain is, the more repulsive they become, and that can help to create drive within the reader to root for the heroes and to see the villains thrown down.
Now, on its face, this is an awfully simple formula, and therein lies the danger. Make a character too dark and they become caricature. They become laughable. There does need to be some gray to them, doesn’t there? Otherwise the quest itself reads like a cheap comic book. So I’m certainly not suggesting to make your characters extreme polar opposites of one another in an attempt to create reader sympathy. As with so many things in writing, this is a balancing act. But I will admit that there is a certain ease by which the reader can understand when things do fall into the common black vs. white tropes.
Just look at Harry Potter. Voldemort is about as evil as evil can get, and there were times where it distanced me from the tale, but I have to admit that it was very gripping reading. Voldemort provided a mechanism by which Harry and friends could rise up and defeat all that’s evil in the world. The same is true of Lord Foul in the Thomas Covenant series, of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, of the Sixers in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. In some ways it’s even true of the cosmic horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft and others (though there’s more to the story there). It’s true of any books that use this shorthand notation of “evil” for “villain.”
It’s a very satisfying thing as a reader when the heroes throw off “all that is evil.” It plays proxy for our own desires, in our own world. We place ourselves in the shoes of those characters and we feel triumphant. Our own demons are exorcised, even if only for a little while, and that heightens the readers’ feelings of satisfaction.
So while my own feelings may still be “gray is better,” I do have to give a tip of the hat to the black and white tale. And you should too. At the very least, you should understand what you’re turning your back on when you choose one over the other.