Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Character: Villains Within and Villains Without

Everyone loves to see the bad guy brought down at the end of a story but only in Saturday morning cartoons is the villain the sole cause of the conflict. It can be tempting to create an antagonist who's sole purpose in to torture the protagonist but a writer must be careful in constructing her villains. A villain who does not have his own reasons for doing things and his own feelings about everything that is going on is not a character. He is a plot devise.

A good villain has a choice between more than one path, which makes his decision to be evil more frightening and detestable. More frightening because we see the same duel possibilities within ourselves and more detestable because we see the same duel possibilities in the hero.

A good villain is human.

Similarly, a good hero's worst foe is himself. Defeating the villain in the flesh is only an outward demonstration that he has destroyed his own inner demons. He must find the strength without joining the dark side (Luke). Even the simplest good against evil plots become static unless the hero is fighting something deeper than external conflict.

A good hero is human.

And then there are the gray areas. The --gasp---possibility that the antagonist is preventing the protagonist from getting what he wants, not because he has a dark soul, but because two men can not marry the same girl, rule the same kingdom, or win the same trophy. Perhaps the antagonist chooses the good of his own family over the good of the protagonist's family or the good of the many over the good of the one who happens to the protagonist's true love. Perhaps the antagonist is the true force of light while the protagonist tries to justify his own dark deeds by parading a great nonexistent cause.

Brood. Whine. Search. Wallow. The hero becomes more acquainted with his humanity. The writer becomes more acquainted with her humanity. The readers become more acquainted with their humanity. Pain. Tears. Struggle. Hidden wounds are unsurfaced. And when it is done?

Strength. Humanity.


Bang. Boom. The villain is dead and peace is restored to Happy Valley. You decide which you prefer.


  1. Kate Quinn had a good point--the first part of the book is to build the villain up and the last part is to pull the rug out from under her. I kind of like that.

  2. Oh is that all I have to do to create a good villain? Piece of cake. (Eeeeeep!!). Honestly, the villain is the part I struggle with.

  3. Kate's advice does make a lot of sense Stephanie. For the protagonist you could almost reverse it. Spend the first half tearing him down and the second half allowing him to fly on a magic carpet. (I don't know. Would that be the opposite of pulling a rug out from underneath him?)

    No worries Keriann. Not every story needs a straightforward, all out villain and you do do conflict very well!

  4. The humanity aspects of the villain are often the most interesting facets of the character!

  5. "A good hero's worst foe is himself." That mixture of internal conflict and external conflict makes for great stories.

    Just wondering: do you see any humanity in villains like Hannibal Lecter?

  6. Great summation of the villain's role in the story. I like to see a lot of gray area in characters. No one is all good or all bad, it's more about what people want and what the are willing to do to get it.