New topic for me. Having completed the first draft of the third volume of the Wizard At Law books – Money Matters, I had a little time on my hands. Enough time to create new covers for all three of them, and then to go on my various fora and get back into some serious chatting with other writers.
On one of them a question was asked that fascinated me. Not so much for the question itself, as what it said about the entire genre of fantasy and where it's heading. And yet on the face of it the question was a stupidly simple one. How do we make our villains more real?
This is a topic I have touched on briefly before when I wrote about not really wanting to understand villains – just dispatch them. But it's not really something I've explored in any depth. This time though I want to go into the psyche of the fantasy villain in more depth. In particular the concept of making the villain more “real” and the place of this within the modern fantasy sub-genre known as grimdark.
Grimdark is as the name implies, simply a movement in the genre towards the creation of worlds and characters that are more gritty – grim and dark. It is a movement where the heroes are flawed and the villains are often as much misunderstood victims as they are actual villains. And currently the best example of this movement and certainly one of the most popular is George R. R. Martin's Game of thrones. In his world, every hero has feet of clay and every villain has a reason for being as dark and terrible as he or she is.
Proponents of grimdark, and fans of course, will argue that this is more real. That real life is not black and white. That there are no white knights slaying evil dragons. And on the face of it that almost seems reasonable – until you remember that we're all writing fantasy! But then when another writer asked that simple question I I turn had to wonder – is it actually any more “real” than what preceded it? And my thought is that it actually isn't.
The movement towards grimdark in fantasy in my view has been born of a dissatisfaction with and a rejection of the former typical heroic fantasy of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. It is a reaction to having read and seen too many heroes of pure nobility and courage and of course pure hearts, racing in to save the world from the dastardly villain – and maybe kill a dragon or two along the way. And I understand that. You can only read the same thing so many times before you start to want to read something new and fresh. But while it makes sense to want something new, it doesn't make sense to believe that that something new is more realistic. True the white knight and the Bond villain were not real. But neither are the new crop of fantasy heroes and villains.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly in my view, than in the villains.
Consider the archetypal big baddies. Starting with Ming the Merciless – and seriously what baddie would call himself “the merciless” to begin with – it sort of gives the entire game away as to who he is! Ming was a simple villain. He wanted nothing more than ultimate power and to rule the universe, while his arch enemy Flash Gordon was the all American hero. Really there wasn't a lot of character development that went into our baddie. His motivation was simply a lust for power and that was enough to explain him.
And that pattern has continued for decades with a while host of Bond villains. You know the ones – petting their cats and coming up with ingenious plans to take over the world. They had no great depth until the more recent movies. And obviously this is no longer enough for audiences.
So obviously as writers we can't use these archetypes so much any more as a basis for our villains. But what do we use instead? Because that is where grimdark falls down.
We can't use real villains, no matter how much we want to make our villains more “real”. The reason is unfortunately as simple as it is sad. Real villains are sort of pathetic. Most of those who commit serious crimes, are from bad homes, raised with little in the way of education, and by and large simply aren't very bright. The reason they commit their crimes is usually a horrible lack of coping strategies. They actually find themselves in difficult situations and the only way they can think to get out of them is by doing something bad. As a basis for arch-villains they would by and large be unconvincing and boring.
Sociopaths became rather fertile ground to explore with the advent of villains like Hannibal. And for a while we were all thrilled by the idea of this super-intelligent plotter with no moral compass. But unfortunately while sociopathy is not nearly as rare as we would like it to be, the reality is that most sociopathic criminals aren't incredibly smart. In fact they aren't particularly smart at all. For a rather disturbing view of one of them you should watch the interviews done with Richard Kuklinski – the Iceman as he was known. With what is believed to be over a hundred assassinations that can be laid at his door, the man was cold and not particularly bright, with a violent temper and little actual understanding of people.
In reality the reason he was not caught for so long was that he was protected by organised crime and there was no relationship between him and his victims and therefore no reason to suspect him. It is this same lack of connection between victim and killer that makes most serial killers harder to catch than others – not any great intelligence.
Last I suppose there's the tortured soul. The angst ridden, long suffering wretch who is so twisted up inside that he can do the most vile things. Probably the benchmark for grimdark villains. These are the ones that readers want to believe are real. But really are they? Yes there are such people in the world. Sadly I've worked in an institution and met some of these people. But the sad fact is that these people don't generally become major villains. They sometimes commit crimes, sometimes horrible crimes. But as to taking over the world etc, it's not usually in their compass. It's hard to be taken seriously as a master villain when you spend your days talking to yourself, or curled up in a corner staring at a wall. And that's the sad fact of the matter. The more tormented the soul is the more likely the man is to be so badly broken that his capability to be an arch villain is destroyed.
Which brings us back to the central thrust of this post. The question that was asked. How can we as writers make our villains more “real”? And my answer is that we can't.
This is fantasy, and the villains we write are not real at all. They never were. They weren't real when they were archetypal power crazed despots and Bond villains. They weren't real when they were super-intelligent sociopaths. They weren't super-villains when they were based on actual criminals and in fact they were too boring for the most part to even pen. They weren't real either when they were tortured souls reacting to the horror's of their past lives.
Grimdark is no more “real” than heroic fantasy was before it.
So my thought is that as authors instead of concerning ourselves with questions like how real our villains are, we should instead ask the more accurate question – how believable are they? Because that's what people actually mean when they talk about “real”.
Well, enough wild ranting from me for one day. As always be good or don't get caught.