Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Vicariously Villainous #3

Following on from that last, admittedly somewhat abnormal post (not apologizing, though!), we come at least to the meat of the matter- the final chapter, you see, of my little plan to write about villains. It’s been a long road. Months of planning (well, weeks, semantics and all), and I’m still not sure it’ll work out. But why bother living if one can’t take a risk, hm? Why, just think what it would mean if I hadn’t decided to write this introductory tidbit in the style of a self-absorbed monologue- you might actually have understood my meaning! Can’t have that, not at all.

So. I’ve chattered about avoiding villains who suck at their jobs. I’ve yammered about how they should have all sorts of interesting little personality traits. And that brings us to both the most crucial, and most tooth-grindingly, soul-crushingly difficult part of this mess: having those villains do stuff that hasn’t been done by a huge number of other villains. Grand betrayals, world domination plots, world annihilation plots, behind-the-scenes manipulators and foreground field marshals, we actually have a way better variety of villains than we do heroes (because the villains keep dying, presumably, mandating creative swap-ins). A villain can do almost anything- except, in most cases, actually win.

Ah, there, you see? I blither on for a paragraph or two, and something comes to me. It’s basically sorcery (of a basic sort. Ha. Ha.) Now, I know some of you are thinking, ‘but the villain won in the this series.’ Firstly, please link that to me so I can study it to abduct the ideas therein, I mean it. Secondly, I know the villains win sometimes, but it’s generally only in unbelievably grimdark series. How grimdark? If the Nazis had won WW 2, the situation would still be less horrible than if Sauron had won the War of the Ring, though that’s ignoring numbers, because comparing the population of an entire post-industrial planet to one fantasy continent isn’t fair in any universe. But we’re seriously hamstringing ourselves by dealing in absolutes. I’ve covered this. You want your readers to really, really hate the villain? Make the villain believable and believably confusing. People get frustrated by things they can’t understand, even more so when they know the failure is on their part, rather than the unknown’s part. What I mean by this is that the villain’s goal shouldn’t be 100% clear cut. Have you ever met anyone who gave away their entire plan to you instantly, even if that plan just consisted of a grocery list? I mean, how many times did one of your parents or guardians say, “I’m running out to get *short, logical list* from  Target,” only to return with what appears to be enough food for an entire reinforced infantry division, four hours later than scheduled? Now, imagine how many times the Dark Lord Gurzheim Grimdark the Hundred-Ninety-Ninth must’ve had to redraft his invasion plans before conquering the noble heroes of Twoshoesia.

So, here’s two things already that I don’t see too much of. First, a villain whose goal is one that lets him/her win without instantly ruining everything. What’s the point of conquering the world if you can’t bathe in the vast tax money and forced (or possibly earned?) adulation of the great subjugated masses? Secondly, a villain who not only can, but immediately does, adapt to new scenarioes- like, say, every goddamn conqueror in human history. Even men like Hitler and Stalin had to be flexible to take power- it’s just that once they had it, they got lazy, so Hitler lost millions of soldiers, Stalin lost tens of millions of everybody, and I found my stories about men who lost eyelids to frostbite on the Eastern Front (please don’t correct me if that’s a myth. I’m begging you, it’s so deliciously morbid!) Now, how does a villain adapt? Heck, maybe by actually committing a meaningful amount of resources to finding the trouble makers who just screwed over all his plans for the last damn time! If I were the arcane overlord of the largest army in the world, I would do a better damn job of forming my own A-team of malicious killers to stave off the heroes. A perfectly evil squad to use as a rapid response team. Heroes stole what? Go get ’em!

Also, for crying out loud, if I’m not going myself, then what am I proving by sending forces that I know are dead certain to be insufficient against the enemy’s greatest heroes? That just sets me up to get pissed off and sling my entire army off to war once, leaving myself open for someone to destroy my magic decoder ring into the volcano forge that I inexplicably didn’t barricade and kill me. See, even Tolkien’s villains are kinda, er, dumb. When you think about it, anyway. But I’m getting off topic here, drifting back into the competency thing. But you see, having a villain who is intended to win in one’s repetoire is good for several reasons. First, you get you competent evildoer, the one who looks at the molds surrounding her, snorts derisively and builds a decoy fortress for the heroes to get lost in- because hey, maybe instead of randomly occupying Moria when the goblins there are totally out of position to do anything, and the biggest threat in it is the Balrog anyway, maybe a trick, lower-down entrance to Mount Doom that just leads straight to a lava-proof holding cell? You know they’re going to fall for that, no one wants to climb a volcano any further than they have to. I did hike Vesuvius once, that was bad enough.

Anyway, your villains, if they really are interesting characters, may not even be interested in world domination. They may have personal vendettas that just happen to have huge consequences- a necromancer poisons a powerful king for daring to interfere with a small land-grab- no one living was using those crypts!- thus destabilizing the whole region and sparking a catastrophic civil war. A star-fleet commander trying to draw out his hated rival resorts to brutal tactics against his nemesis’ homeworld, ranging from martial law to high-level orbital bombardment on major cities. The consequences are all the more terrible simply for being means to an end- the people didn’t have to die in that city, Admiral Dowell just thought he’d get a response faster if he hit it with a few rail-cannon slugs. The villain may have a good goal- unify the warring states- but to do that he executed the heroine’s parents for a perceived attempt on his life. Regardless how noble his end, the man is marked.

Ultimately a villain may not even need a goal, as such, or at least, not one beyond screwing with the hero, because ultimately that’s all a villain does. Depending on the scope of your story, the biggest villain may be someone totally safe from any sort of payback- for example, a reality-warping entity who views himself as perfectly balanced, but constantly empowers both good and evil people to do whatever they wish, knowing full well that the evil ones have fewer constraints on them, and so will have more of an impact. Even if he chooses to account for that, we don’t think the same way- if you take evil actions, you’re an evil person. There’s a basic disconnect between this entity’s view that everything can be balanced just so, and ours that crimes are absolute and can’t be washed away just by an equal number of good deeds. A villain’s intentions may be the very best- perhaps even as a mentor to the hero- but because of some screw-up, some missed detail or failing, she finds herself suddenly hunted, and so falling more and more into a malicious part that she never wanted. The possibilities are bountiful (though not, statements to the contrary aside, endless). These are broad examples- you may even want to try thinking up your villain’s goal later, once you’ve got some actions to frame it- a teensy experiment, if you will.

And now I must confess, I’ve been manipulating you all along, readers. My goal was to make you read as far as this sentence- so that you might come back to read more in the future! Instead of laughing maniacally, I’m going to eat a celebratory chocolate cherry. Just one. Cheers.

(Part Two Here)
(Next Entry Here)

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