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02:31 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Good vs. Evil: Villainous Villains

 

 

Today’s essay is on how to write villains. Brief disclaimer: I do not believe I have any expertise in this, but I asked around and this is what I have been able to discover.

The key to a good villain is that he presents a good challenge to the hero.

That is it.

Many people seem to make the mistake of thinking that evil is dumb, so the bad guy should be an idiot. But when the good guy, the hero, cannot beat this idiot in the first ten pages, he, then, looks like an idiot. For the hero to look cool, he has to be able to overcome a great challenge.

That means that the villain needs to present a great challenge. Either he has to be really smart, so that the hero looks good when he outwits him, or he has to be very strong, so that the hero looks really good when he outwits him/beats him up, depending on the genre.

 

The other thing a good villain often has is some personal connection to the hero. Dr. Doom is Reed Richard’s (Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) college roommate. Lex Luther lost his hair due to Superman. The Joker (some versions) killed Batman’s parents. When the villain has some tie to the hero, some way of getting under his skin, that makes him more interesting to the reader.

More interesting still is when the villain is the hero gone wrong. The French guy in the Raiders of the Lost Ark is an evil Archeologist, a guy with the same talents as Indiana Jones, only he uses them for evil. Skylark’s Blackie DuQuesne is an evil super scientist. The hero, Richard Seaton, has the same skills but is bound by his sense of virtue. And then there are the old college roommates, Reed Richards and Dr. Doom again. One uses his superpowers for good, the other for awesome…er, I mean, evil. Darth Vader is what Luke could become if he would only unleash his hatred.

Sometimes the villains contrast rather than compliment the hero. Superman’s super strength and speed are countered by the vast cunning and intelligence of Lex Luther. So, a good hero/villain match-up is either complementary or contrasting—rather like a romance, oddly.

The villain can be just a great evil…like Sauron, the original Dark Lord or a horde of invading Vikings. In stories of this sort, the villain is more a representation of adversity than a personality, and the story revolves around the hero facing up to this adversity or perhaps outwitting it.

There are many other kinds of villains, but the principle is the same. The villain has to present a problem that seems impossible for the hero, and the hero has to solve it by dint of whatever quality it is that makes him our hero to begin with.

If the hero is much more impressive than the villain, the hero starts looking less impressive for having wasted his energies on someone unworthy of him.

If the villain is more impressive than the hero, you end up with the Fu Man Chu phenomena. Many people know the insidious mastermind, Fu Man Chu. Few people remember the name of the man who opposed him.

(I happen to remember it, but only because, many, many years ago, a character of mine dated him in a roleplaying game (or wanted to, my older brother would not let me, as the fellow had “no prospects.”) His name is Nayland Smith.)

I may not know much about writing good villains, but I do know a trick for writing better villains. (By “better” here, I mean better than they would have been.)  On page 64 of his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass offers an exercise to help establish the motivation of one’s villains. I did this exercise for the Three Shadowed Ones in my novel and it improved them 100 fold. They are still merely mediocre villains, but they are much more interesting than they would have been without this extra work.
Basically, the point of the exercise is to make certain that your villains are three dimensional characters and that their motives have been established. As my husband (sf and fantasy writer John C. Wright) is fond of saying, everyone has a justification for what they are doing from their own point of view. If you can discover the justification, the villain often becomes more interesting.

However, beware of overdoing it. I have seen stories—especially modern ones—where the villain has been justified to such a degree that he is now a victim and not a villain at all. (The recent Grinch comes to mind. Instead of the Grinch being a grouch concern with material things and the Whos understanding the true meaning of Christmas. The Grinch is a pathetic, picked-on figure who teaches the Whos to stop being so materialistic. (I have heard that this movie was made as part of a new energy directive, a plan to harvest energy from authors and artists who are spinning in their graves. I believe it is called: Plan Eight From Outer Washington.)

So who is your favorite villain…and why?


 

 

 
Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon.

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From:saintjoi
Date:October 20th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
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Ooooh, favorite villains...Hmmm...

IT, from Wrinkle in Time
Pazuzu (the demon), from The Exorcist
Syndrome, from The Incredibles
Elijah Price, from Unbreakable
The Faceless Bobby, from The High House
Voldemort, from Harry Potter

There's more, but that's what I could think of quickly. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 20th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
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I should have asked people about their favorite villains first and then done an article on the subjects. My mind was such a villainous blank (as in blank on villains.)

Maybe I'll so another one sometime.
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From:damcphail
Date:October 20th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)

Me and the Road

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So...narcessistic, perhaps, but I have to say my favorite villian is Smear from my novel The Halfling's Court. Smear is a road gremlin and my challenge was to bring out the elemental connection between the critter and the context. I don't know that I can say he is three-dimensional because he is so focused and so specific in his depiction, but he is also visceral and dynamic in his reflection of his element.

As a foil for the hero Smear takes on more dimension than he would alone because of the established love-hate-dominate relationship between the biker and the road.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 20th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)

Re: Me and the Road

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You know, I just realized that I have not read the Halfling Court yet. Remind me to purchase one next time we see each other.
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From:marycatelli
Date:October 20th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
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Let's see.

Sauron from The Lord of the Rings
King Haggard from The Last Unicorn
The -- ehem -- good folk from Three Hearts and Three Lions
The devil in Operation Chaos

I note that all four have mysterious and baffling motives. None of the works really get into their minds.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 20th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
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Oh, Haggard's a good one! Wish I'd thought of that. I should really do another villain piece at some point. Maybe a piece on particular villains, like the hero piece I did.
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From:cdenmier
Date:October 20th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
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One of my favorites villains was always the emperor from Star Wars. Maybe it was the whole "don't get to really see him until the third movie" factor, maybe it was the super cool lightning.

(Embarrassing side story: I have a little figurine of the emperor and when I was younger I put it in my cubicle at work to be funny. Did I mention that I work for a large Catholic archdiocese? Well, the archbishop made a rare appearance in our offices one day and saw Emperor Palpatine...and wanted to know which saint it was. I think he figured it was a monk...)

I also like the occasional bad guy like the T-1000 from Terminator 2: pure evil, no mercy, will never stop hunting you, has nearly unlimited powers, etc. Kind of like a really scary beast.

Me, I love stories where writers hit the sweet spot with villains and their nefarious plans--that tiny space between "oh, the good guy(s) can win this for sure" and "there is no way for the good guy(s) to believably win." The verge of despair, but not quite...then something happens you barely held out hope for and couldn't imagine...
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 20th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
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Oh, gee! What did you tell him?

It reminds me of a time when I visited a friend at work and John and I recognized the Plushy Cthulu among the other plushies on the secretary's desk. She quickly shushed us, not wanting her co-workers to know it was anything other than another funny toy.
From:xander25
Date:October 20th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC)
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What about villains that turn into heroes?

"The other thing a good villain often has is some personal connection to the hero."

This is my villain from a planned story.

"Plan Eight From Outer Washington"

I've always wanted to see Plan 9 actually, mostly because it's the name Bell Labs chose for their, well done, but ultimately failed successor to Unix*.

*The long view of history may tell a different story, but in 2003 it looks like Plan 9 failed simply because it fell short of being a compelling enough improvement on Unix to displace its ancestor. Compared to Plan 9, Unix creaks and clanks and has obvious rust spots, but it gets the job done well enough to hold its position. There is a lesson here for ambitious system architects: the most dangerous enemy of a better solution is an existing codebase that is just good enough. From http://www.faqs.org/docs/artu/plan9.html
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 20th, 2010 10:37 pm (UTC)
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>What about villains that turn into heroes?

I nearly talked about this, but it seemed beyond the scope of today's piece.

A piece on converstion and redeption, when bad villains go good, would be fun.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 21st, 2010 01:13 am (UTC)
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I hated the new Grinch movie with Jim Carey. Never was a major fan of his, but the movie changed the "tue meaning" of what I always envisioned or remembered of the book and cartoon version. Having said that, one of my favorite "villians" has been Tony DiMera on Days of Our Lives. One is that he is a good looking guy. However, what makes him good is that he has a good side. There was also a guy on MacGiver occasionally I thought wa a good villian. I forget what the character name -- it might have been Murdoch-- or the reason why he had it out for MacGiver but the guy was very three dimensional almost to the point that he was jovial so viewers could relate. They look forward to him reappearing and making it difficult for Mac
From:ladyhobbit
Date:October 21st, 2010 02:46 am (UTC)
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I kinda like the villains from your husband's Orphans of Chaos trilogy. Boreas is interesting because he is smart and cunning. Grendel Glum is just creepy as all get out, but not one-dimensional. I also like the connection with Beowulf. Come to think of it, both of these guys are more subtle villains than I've encountered in, say, a Sandra Brown novel.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 21st, 2010 03:03 am (UTC)
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I liked Grendel, too, because he was awful, but yet once he's trying to marry her and introduce her to his mom and stuff, I felt very sorry for him...even though he was gross.

I thought Boreas should have been the love interest, not Victor. John wouldn't listen to me.

(I may not be a good judge of such things. Recently, in a roleplaying game, a player turned to me and asked me if I thought a certain NPC was attractive. When I said yes, he turned back to the rest of the group and said "Yep. He's evil." It was a low blow to discover that I had been reduced to evil detector. ;-)

Edited at 2010-10-21 03:04 am (UTC)
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From:marycatelli
Date:October 21st, 2010 05:13 am (UTC)
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I note that Joker symbolically represents the chaos and insanity of things where a random incident can result in an orphaned child.

From:anitaclenney
Date:October 21st, 2010 12:09 pm (UTC)

villains

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I love a good villain, and I think it's important to make them real, with strengths and weaknesses like our heroes have. I love to write from my villain's pov's. I have to say, my favorite villain is one no one will have heard of. He's my own creation, and he hasn't hit the bookshelves yet. His name is Tristol and he's half demon/half vampire with a wonderful backstory. Someday I may have to write his bio. I adore Tristol in a rotten kind of way. He isn't the main villain in Awaken the Highland Warrior, my debut novel, but he plays a part in the first three books, then book four is his turn to either conquer or be destroyed.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 21st, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)

Re: villains

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I'm impressed that you and Danielle chose your own villains, as mine are kind of whimpy. (Well, the Three Shadowed Ones are okay, but I never felt I really did the work I needed to do to make their boss more than a type. She's got one good speach. That's it.)

I look forward to meeting Tristol in the spring!
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From:kokorognosis
Date:October 21st, 2010 12:57 pm (UTC)
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Saren, from Mass Effect, is a fairly interesting villain. A highly regarded Spectre (Operatives that fill a role in ME's society similar to Jedi. No Force, though. Well, some of them, I guess. The biotics.) until he's implicated in an attack on a human colony world, and of working with one of the Evil Empires of Evil. He's so well thought of that for a good portion of the game, most of the other races in the galaxy think humans are just looking for a scapegoat. He's an effective villain, not too mention a little sympathetic. As you interact with him,it becomes clear that something's happened to warp his mind, and it's actually sort of sad.
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From:juliet_winters
Date:October 21st, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)
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One hot summer when I was ten-years-old, we had enforced "rest time" at camp. My only reading choices were over-sized comics of "Bring on the Bad Guys" and Richie Rich. You can guess which one I chose.

I grew rather fond of Lex Luthor as portrayed in that comic. He seemed to encapsulate what I understood as a kid about being jealous of "the hero."

He blames Superman (according to a 1960 origin story) because Mr. Wonderful blew up his lad when he was a kid, leaving him bald, intelligent, and angry. Any child who's had a better-looking friend or sibling wreck his stuff and then have everyone fall all over themselves about how great the miscreant is will get this.

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From:gingersea
Date:October 21st, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
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You said: "More interesting still is when the villain is the hero gone wrong." This brought to my mind the book (and movie) Shutter Island. In this case, the hero is HIMSELF his own opposing force, and all the action and conflict of the story--which is considerable--revolves around his coming to terms with this fact. There are not too many writers who can so effectively wrap their hero and their villain both up into one person and keep you on the edge of your chair as you follow the hero in his quest. Dennis Lehane is a master.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 21st, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
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Interesting! I guess Fight Club would be like that, too, though I don't know if the other guy in Fight Club counts as a villain. (I haven't actually seen the movie.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 21st, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
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Steerpike
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 21st, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC)
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Why? What about him? (Gah...I don't even like to think about those books! That doesn't mean he's not a good villain, though.)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
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From:princejvstin
Date:October 21st, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)
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Tough question.

I prefer complex villains who can oppose the characters again and again and become fully fleshed people with agendas and plans all of their own.

Darth Vader is the first one that comes to mind.
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From:headnoises
Date:October 22nd, 2010 06:16 am (UTC)
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Zuko, from A:tLA, because he's a hurt young man that's not nearly as horrible as he could be. (He uses fire. Why were there not an Fton of deaths or accidental burnings?!?!?!)

Garak: Charm, voice, eyes, @#$@#! humanoid cat with lizard-skin. I can empathize with his absolute devotion to Cardassia, and feel bad because of his family issues, while still thinking he's wrong. Like a Russian James Bond in space.

On the overdoing it: I don't think it's overdoing, I think it's an inability to write characters that are justified in their own sight but still wrong.
They can do self-righteous, but not very effectively-- they're either right in the end, or asses the whole way.
Etc, etc, etc.
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From:arhyalon
Date:October 22nd, 2010 12:16 pm (UTC)
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Both good examples. (Though I often forget that Zuko was a villain. I think of the crazy sister. It took me forever to not be really irritated by her. (My husband loved her from the start.) One of my all-time favorite lines from anything is Uncle Iro's "She's crazy, and she's got to go down!"
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