Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Build A Better Villain

As I sit to begin typing this blog, I already know that this is going to become a multiple-edition post, as I have far too much to say on this subject to put it all down at once. This is the part of the creative journey that I love more than any other, so I have plenty of thoughts on the matter.

Let's talk about villains, what makes them, and why we love them!

The villain and malice

My usual custom when trying to precisely define a word is just as I was taught in elementary school: type it into Google and accept whatever pops up as the first result. I'm going to restrain myself from this impulse, however, in order to try and put my feelings into their own words.

The fact that I use the word "villain" as opposed to "antagonist" probably belies my preference for the dramatic in my writing. To me, while an antagonist is a character that creates a conflict and helps to define the protagonist's character via their struggle and eventual resolution, I feel that this literary type is too broad for this sort of discussion. When I intentionally shrink my wife's clothes in the dryer so that she never again asks me to do laundry, I'm certainly the antagonist in that situation, but is that the same thing as being a villain? Actually, maybe, but probably not in the sense that we're talking about.

What a villain has that a simple antagonist does not require, in my opinion, is malice. There must be a genuine desire to do harm by the villain. Motivations are irrelevant in the definition of a villain, but can come from places of deep-seeded hate or even a desire to do good, as he or she sees it. In fact, some of the best and most iconic villains are "greater good" types that allow their devotion to some ideal or pursuit to push them over the edge of extremism or idealism and into malevolence. So, when I write a villain, I seek to find that malevolence, that malice, that drives the character. It doesn't have to be out for all to see, but must be the motivating factor.

Lex Luthor, Man of Steel was a great limited-run comic printed back in 2005, which is widely available as a trade paperback, probably sitting on your local bookstore's shelf right now. I'm not much of a Superman fan, but I highly recommend picking up this series or at least thumbing through it next time you're at the mall. It does a great job of interpreting this iconic villain and defining his malice. In this series, we get a rare look into the mind of Luthor, who genuinely fears and distrusts Superman, wondering why humanity has such faith in this alien with such awesome power. While rooted in his concern for the world and the people in it, we get to experience Luthor's hate for Superman and really see how it has turned him, going so far as to define his life.

The villain and the hero

One reason that a great and compelling villain is so important is that without villains, we would have no heroes. This relationship is not one-for-one. A villain does not require a hero in order to be a villain, if that makes sense.

For example, let's throw out this catch-all, stereotypical, over-analyzed villain and discuss him: Adolf Hitler. I don't mean to scoff at the evil that existed in this man, but he certainly is a first-ballot entry for the Villain Hall of Fame, a landmark that I insist that you visit next time you find yourself on Cobra Island. Hitler is not only a historical villain, but one of fiction as well. In either version, Hitler is a villain even in the absence of a hero, be it Captain America, Lt. Aldo Raine, or Audie Murphy.

As a literary device, however, a villain is required for the making of a hero. Without rights to wrong or injustices to defeat, there is no person to take up a banner of heroism. This makes a villain all the more important, as he or she provides not only conflict, but a measuring stick for the "good guy," even if that's a somewhat subjective measure.

Next time

Wow, look at the time! Next time, we'll talk about villain motivations and some archetypes that we can use when writing them. In the meantime, please let me know what I missed and where I went wrong. I'm sure I've strayed, somewhere along the line.


Anthony Emmel said...


Just don't get too cookie-cutter with your villains, though, or you end up like this:



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