Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations- Vicariously Villainous #1

Well, depending on when you read the last post, this could qualify as ‘tuning in tomorrow,’ so whatever. Sorry folks, exams got in the way. Behold, my first weekly piece, now to be written at some point every Monday from here UNTO THE SUNDERING OF THE WORLD! Or, you know, until I can’t write anymore due to senility and/or a bad case of the deads. These first few I’m going to cover a topic near and dear to my shriveled little blood-pumper- how to write the character of a good villain. And no, that’s not a paradox, even if you take good to mean ‘morally upright’ and not ‘high quality’. For this issue, I’m going to hammer on the one thing I think you absolutely must do- make your villain at least your hero’s equal in skill, power and raw guts.

First, a question: What kind of malevolent supergenius has time to nitpick every detail of capturing a hundred different cities, but can’t bestir himself to make sure his windows are rigged against the inevitable heroic rebels? A plot convenient one, says I. The difference between a fortunate coincidence and a plot convenience is simply this- the former barely ever happens, so is believable when it does, and the latter involves the main antagonist of your entire story being simply crap at his job. Well, in theory there are more types than that, but let’s face it- it doesn’t get much more convenient than your hero, heroine or heroes’ arch-nemesis making enough grave errors of judgment to let them beat him in a single chapter. This sort of thing happens a lot; rather than beating the villain through their own grit, determination or ingenuity, the heroes stumble upon some piddly weakness he has, or an ancient Macguffin O’ Destiny that allows them to beat him. This deus ex machina nonsense simultaneously devalues both the heroes and the villain, making all of them less impressive by association. In moderation it’s okay, but this easy way out gets taken a little too often- especially in cases where the villain was already so pathetic a stiff warm breeze should kill him.

The most important thing for a villain, above everything else, is that he/she at least be competent enough to be threatening. Saying that your villain is competent doesn’t mean jack squat, and the #1 cheap way to build up a character is to have other people talk about how awesome that character is. Show, don’t tell. Instead of yakking about your villain’s talents, use your mystic author’s ability to piggyback in any character’s brain, and let’s have some first-hand stuff. For best effect, the villain’s motivation for this act should be obvious, and no, burning down a village doesn’t count. That’s just massacring the weak, which pretty much every villain does for some reason.

Let’s say I decide to write a high fantasy novel, featuring an Inquisitor-in this context, a mage-hunter- as the protagonist. The villain of our story is a necromancer heading up a cult, all of whom think he’s a god because he can raise the dead. So, I open the necromancer’s intro with him bringing some of his followers back to, er, unlife, after a successful battle against a bunch of would-be do-gooders. Let’s say they’ll be paladins, because I don’t like preachy types anymore than anyone else, but it’s a given that paladins know how to fight. So our villain’s already defeated one meaningful effort. But of course, he needs a goal of his own- ‘evil for evil’s sake’ is just ridiculous, no one has time for that. So let’s say that this necromancer has a grand delusion of bringing peace to the world through forced unity- still cliche, but not nearly as bad as “MY DARK RITUAL REQUIRES THE BLOOD OF A THOUSAND NUBILE VIRGINS!” or whatever it is all the grimdark necromancers do these days.

This isn’t a goal he has much shot at achieving if everyone already knows he’s the one running this cult, so cue some cover-up stuff- this is also to show that our villain has a basic helping of critical thinking, and hasn’t somehow forgotten all the tricks he used to stay hidden back before he was powerful. Even villains should have the implication of a formative, weak phase- they’re people too, remember? They do not, in fact, spring fully formed from the festering existential bowels of the Ancient Darkness, or some drivel like that. Let’s further say that our necromancer doesn’t destroy villages- remember, in his own mind he’s doing this for good reasons, to protect the weak from those who would abuse their strength. He doesn’t want to forcibly recruit people. And as far as basic competence goes, there’s no reason for him to pick fights with every kingdom on the continent of Gimmickia by torching random hamlets (as opposed to torching a random pamphlet of Hamlet, which he might do if he doesn’t like interdimensional literature).

Now, this necromancer is also almost painfully nice to his underlings. In fact, absent the rest of the context, you’d think he was a great guy if you just watched how he interacts with his people. This is because he knows the best way to engender loyalty is to show some yourself, and again, it doesn’t fit with his personality or motivations to be a complete asshole. He fancies himself as a strong but benevolent leader, and it seems to be working. The cultists are utterly fanatical in defending their ‘god,’ and will readily die of torture without giving away anything. Save any debates for how much torture a human can actually withstand for later. This is a mystic death-avoidance cult, I’m sure they can work around ripping agony if they have to.

So, why all this? Why go to all the trouble to make the villain have these admirable traits? Simple! It’s so that when he does something less likable, it hits the reader much harder- not just because of the contrast, but because on some level they’re probably reminded of all the times they’ve been two-faced. It’s much easier for us to hate an uncomfortable truth, after all- often the arguments that cause the most fury are the ones hitting closest to home.

Next Monday (I swear it’s true!), I’ll get into the daunting maze of possibilities for making your villain interesting- in other words, having your enemy character actually qualify as a character.

(Find Part Two here)

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