Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Vicariously Villainous #2

Ah, here we are, a Monday, and one where the local weather is too bleak to let me do anything other than keep my promise. I said last time that I planned on giving away ideas for making villains interesting. Well, I lied. You have to pay me 50 cents to read- wait, I’m not serious! Come back here! Could we negotiate maybe a penny? They’re being phased out soon anyway, I think. I heard a rumor in passing to that effect, so it’s obviously all planned out.

Our villains now come in three basic flavors: condescending marinated in cruelty, misguided on a bed of overzealous, and brooding drizzled with slight hints of irrelevant remorse, all of them finely seasoned with irony-free evil. Look, if you want to make your villain as stereotypically evil as possible, that’s your business, and that’s not as objectively stupid as having a horribly incompetent villain is. Some roles do benefit from having a simply nasty villain, and you’ll probably know what those roles are from the start; if you’re writing that kind of plot, continue as you are- if you’re not certain, or you want to make your villain someone who might have an interesting story in his/her own right, keep going. Hopefully you’ll find some of these marching text-columns useful.

So, our hero meets the villain for the first time, or alternatively our villain learns of the hero’s existence. In many stories, the villain will take this as an opportunity to go on a long diatribe outlining all his many superior abilities, and how utterly futile the hero’s quest is; this speech is about the same whether given to an underling or straight to the aforementioned do-gooder. It’s long, it’s too wordy, it’s cliche and by the blood of a thousand shattered strongholds is it ever boring. The villain can’t say anything here that the reader won’t already know some parts of, unless this just happens to be Baby’s First Fantasy Adventure Novel. Let’s not count on that, shall we? Besides, even readers with no other fantasy on the shelf will probably realize there’s something overdone about that “Foolish boy, I destroyed your village for such insolence! Who are you, that you would stand against me?” Besides, by this point the answer is usually, “The chosen one n’stuff. I pulled together this whole big army and I know your single magical weakness. Now what?”

I’d like to propose a different version of this. Our hero or heroine, rather than carving a path to the villain’s fortress-remember, he’s competent, it’s not so easy to find- just meets the conniving scumbag on the road. Fate? Chance? “I’ve been looking for you. Meaning to ask you something, you see,” the villain begins, conversationally. “Now, I understand why you’re trying to stop me. Really, I do. And I know why you think you’ve got a chance- believing anything else would just be dull.” It turns out that our villain actually admires his nemesis- the hero’s determination and resourcefulness are a rare blend. The villain is completely unsurprised that the hero doesn’t feel like joining him, but adds that regardless who wins, he’s glad he got to face a worthy match. Heroes, he points out, are such a mixed bag; even the ones who never ought to win, always seem to, hence the title heroes. “But it’s a little constraining, isn’t it?” he adds, watching the hero circle him. “After all, that means you can’t lose and still call yourself a hero. Win, lose, go into hiding- I’ve got options.” Whether the hero buys that or not, this is a subtle form of evil. Because he’s basically just removed all of the hero’s agency. If the hero wins, it’s preordained, and if the hero loses, than she/he isn’t the hero to begin with. The hero’s merits are broken down to gifts from some unseen power; the villain, meanwhile, because he’s struggling against destiny, can win or lose secure in the knowledge that he earned his place while he had it. He’s pretentious and insightful at the same time- insanity!

This is how our villain operates; rather than forcing a fight with every great enemy he meets- how many last times must they meet again?- he offers these small observations. Individually, and if the villain ever tipped his hand, they wouldn’t do much- but because the hero’s own threats and insults get no reaction from him, his needlings start to have an effect. The hero is powerless in a very rare way against this villain- win or lose, the hero cannot make him care more than he already does. Affecting the villain’s state of mind is out of the question, so there’s not going to be any groveling, no snot-choked begging for mercy, or even fear. The villain claims something mostly reserved for heroes- defiance of death and defeat- and by making it his own, actually becomes more hateful because of this power, because of a trait that we think of as noble in the hero.

I’ve said it before, and I’m going to keep saying it until someone agrees or they boot me offline, writing that breaks the mold is most interesting. So our villain also needs some traits that aren’t villainous or heroic- they simply are. For this manipulator I’m talking up, something that suits his more intellectual nature- something that lets him spend time in introspection, and also has some subtle use. I think our villain should illustrate manuscripts. Ha, you didn’t see that coming, did you? Definitely a quirk, but it needs an actual reason– he might have one or two weird tendencies just for laughs, but all that Gothic lettering takes way to much effort to use on silliness alone. So why? Because it allows him to leave something behind with no signature attached to him, no way for people to know he made it, so that it can’t be destroyed to spite him; at best, any damage to the books would be purely coincidental. The whole process of illuminating these things also teaches him patience, and impatience is one of the surest downfalls of any evil mastermind.

Besides that, this villain has a sense of humor; he can laugh, because if he didn’t know how to laugh at himself, that big screw-up in his last master plan- how was he supposed to predict that anorexic troglodyte would get in the way again?– would be too much to bear. He should openly admit that whatever lofty or devious goal he’s shooting for is absurd. “But like you, I’m a dreamer- even if my dreams are a bit more hallucinatory.” He doesn’t spend all his time brooding or angry, and in fact he’s cheerful and fully in control; power hasn’t made him miserable, it’s given him freedom. You want to talk about moral ambiguity, there’s a nice one for you, the niggling possibility that having power isn’t inherently bad for you, although it might be for the people around you. In general, this villain needs to be self-aware for the most part, but with either some subtle delusion or a simple difference in viewpoint that makes his end seem worth the means. Rather than dismissing deaths as ‘sacrifices’ towards his great goal, he should acknowledge that he’s not sure what he’s doing is even worth it to him- but the goal should be tantalizing enough that he feels he has to try. No matter how good the goal is, this also makes him more hateful- so I manage the way I present the villain to make the readers forget these things whenever they’re not right out in front, making the villain seem almost friendly. Then, when the readers see that they’ve been manipulated too, the villain is more hated than ever- yet now everyone has to wonder if maybe there’s not something to this guy, and when he finally dies, the triumph should be bittersweet.

These are just some ideas. You’re getting the drift though, yes? The things you pick should be off-kilter, and even seem way out of character, until your readers put some thought into them, and suddenly all of it makes perfect sense. Also, make sure you don’t explicitly state any of that stuff, hm? In a full-length book, there’s plenty of time to hint subtly at just how the villain got so patient, and elaborate a bit- but not completely- on why, in his own mind, he’s more powerful than the hero even if the hero wins. Above all, whatever you do with the villain’s personality, it should make him fun to read about; chills, laughter, and simple pleased confusion, all of those are good results. If I’m making it sound like I think any of this is easy, I apologize, but if I wanted to do the easy thing, I would’ve studied marketing to find out the most profitable content. Any time you talk about writing skillfully, it’s a bit of a give that it’s going to hurt sometimes.

This is me, signing off until next Monday, and the last part of Vicariously Villainous- having your competent, interesting villain do interesting things.

(Find Part One Here)
(Find Part Three Here)

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