Been a while since I posted last – what else is new?! But recently I was on Facebook and someone asked a question that prompted me to do some thinking and it occurred to me that it might be good to put my thoughts down in pixels. They might be useful to some of you out there working on your own books.
So the question that was asked is – what makes a good villain? Which is in my view a damned good question.
Often in epic fantasy we concern ourselves with the heroes. Painting them in all sorts of glorious shades of emotion and tragedy, giving them feet of clay and heads in the clouds. We pour our hearts and souls into them – and very often they turn out to be an idealised version of ourselves. The people we would want to be.
There's nothing wrong with that of course. It's probably the heart of heroic fantasy. Though of course a common criticism of epic fantasy writers is that the heroes are just not real. And that's probably true – but my response is pretty much always going to be – it's fantasy mate, get over it!
Having said that a lot of people didn't get over it, and as a result the genre of grimdark was born. So this is the fantasy of Game of Thrones etc where everyone is flawed and even good people do bad things.
Now personally I'm not a lover of grimdark though obviously a lot of people are. But to me the thing that screams most loudly, is the fact that the characters of grimdark are just as unreal as the heroes of heroic fantasy. At the heart of the genre is this idea that everyone is inherently both good and evil – which is probably true to an extent – and that all that is needed are the right conditions to bring the evil to the fore. The problem with this of course is that as I look around at the people I know in whatever capacity, I can't imagine any of them actually rushing out raping and pillaging the moment society breaks down a little. Yes people do contain good and evil, but in nearly all cases the good far outweighs the evil.
Now here's where I come to the question of villains. What makes a good one? And the first thing I can say is that the one thing I don't want in a villain is to identify with him. I don't want to think that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Some people may. I simply don't. I don't want a grimdark villain.
But having said that, one thing I do want in a villain is to be able to understand him.
There are exceptions – Bond villains in my view have mostly been one dimensional characters who really only have a single drive – to take over the world etc – and a few character traits that make them interesting. And they work perfectly in that role, because they become the people you can love to hate. And when they meet their terrible ends as they must, you can cheer. They aren't real so killing them isn't something we have to be bothered by.
I've used this sort of villain myself. In Dragon my villains were giant alien bugs set on conquering the universe and enslaving the human race because our manual dexterity was so much better than theirs as they had pincers. So they could steal our technology and then use us to build their world. Most important of all, my hero could slaughter them in huge numbers and no one would have felt in the least uncomfortable about it!
Having said that in most heroic fantasy, we writers have to walk a careful path between these two extremes. We can't have our villains as unbelievable superhero / Bond cut outs who only work if we don't question anything about them. And making them poor suffering creatures that we feel sorry for as in the grimdark genre, is going too far the other way.
So the key to writing a good villain for me, is to give them a back story that explains them. It may be more fleshed out in your notes than in the actual story, but enough needs to be there that the reader reads them and understands why they do as they do.
My approach is to go into the psychology of the villain. So for example in Fineas and Tusk my villain was a man born with a single gift – the ability to control others – and then I tried to work out what a child raised with such a gift would be like. And the answer is a simple one. He would be completely corrupted. A true sociopath. He would be a child who never learned the meaning of being told no. Who never learned to love – because why would he love something that he could control completely? More importantly, why would he value them? And the answer? He wouldn't.
In the book coming out next – Roar – my villain is instead an immortal. And immortality has two consequences for a person's moral centre. The first is that as the years pass and the people you know and love die and are forgotten, you become divorced from the world. You lose your family and friends and ultimately become a loner. Everyone else just becomes a transient figure in your life. And their value to you, becomes less. In the end they just aren't important. The other thing about immortality is that death becomes a strange sort of bogeyman to you. Everyone else in the world lives with the knowledge that they will die. And so they learn to accept it. But to an immortal for whom death is always a possibility but never a certainty, it becomes something more than that. It becomes an intolerable fear. A terror. So now the question becomes, what would such a man do to avoid ever having to face the spectre of death? And the answer? Pretty much anything!
So anyway, that's my approach to writing villains. Get into their head space. Don't make them someone you would want to identify with. But do make them someone who, when they do horrible things, you can understand why they did them. Unless of course you really do want to write a shoot em up – in which case make them one dimensional with lots of quirks and as unreal as possible! Then have at them!
Cheers, for now. Greg.