5 Tips On Villains

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Droemar's avatar
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1. If any of the stuff your villain pulls is on the Evil Overlord list, you need to rethink your strategy. Yep, this one: www.eviloverlord.com/lists/ove… I encounter far, far too many stories where the villain and the hero work in an idiotic tandem, a kind of moron tango that even the average Webelo scout could probably think his way out of.  One of my biggest sticklers is story logic, and I have a tendency to hound anyone relentlessly if they’re insisting on their characters doing stupid things for the sake of the story.  (Mostly because it’s insulting to the reader, i.e., me, and the reader owes nothing.) Villains appear to be the worst offenders of this, acting like puppets whose strings are plucked occasionally by the plot.  I’m not saying that your characters need to be genre savvy, but you need to be.  Because you do no one any favors by having a mustache twirling villain tie a girl to the railroad tracks.  We all know how it’s going to end, trust me.  My favorite rule on the list is the one where the five-year-old is on the villain’s council, because I think more authors need one of them on theirs.  As with everything, it gets worse with a Mary Sue or Anti-Sue villain: how someone so obnoxious and lacking in charisma ends up ruling a state or leading an army makes my brain short circuit.  And evil laughs?  Forget it.  The Joker’s the only guy I can think of that can pull that off effectively, and he definitely lacks the “mwa-” part of it.
2. Empathy for the villain is not sympathy for them; know the difference between the two. In case you don’t know, sympathy is harmony of or agreement in feeling; while empathy is the vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.  J. K. Rowling was more than a little disturbed when a part of her fanbase sympathized, or AGREED WITH Voldemort and insisted he was just a misunderstood woobie, despite him, for all intents and purposes, being a wizard version of Hitler.  And any time one gets one to sympathize with Hitler, things get a little ... uncomfortable. Empathy is where you understand why the villain behaves how they do, but you don’t condone it.  It’s gotten very popular to do the Draco in Leathers Pants thing, like Cassandra Clare, where the villain is sexy, desirable, and more than a little misunderstood.  It’s just that, like Cassandra Clare, many fail miserably and rightly so.  Not everyone can pull off Hannibal Lector, who, I will point out, was actually a perfect execution of train-wreck-horrified-fascination-empathy, not sympathy.  While it’s perfectly okay to write from the villain’s POV, and make him the hero in his own mind, I see a lot of people who write in a way that suggests the reader should sympathize with his actions, be it atomic bombing or barbecuing puppies. This usually results in Author On Board, usually in some heavy-handed attempt to flip off the moral status quo or encourage the reader to check out other books on nihilism.  I can assure you that when I encounter this kind of crap I’m wondering A) Where did my story go? B) Why isn’t the villain the protagonist? And C) Does this author need therapy?  Villains are a chance to explore the darker side of yourself; they are not carte blanche to work out your demons on the page.  Tempting as it is, don’t use a villain as a billboard advertising the fun side of cutting yourself and attempting suicide.
3. Villains are scary because they’re competent, not because they’re evil. I have to say, I’ll take Michael or Jason over Hannibal Lector or the Joker.  Know why?  Because Hannibal and the Joker are smart.  So smart that it’s not enough for me to run away, I’ve got to out-think them, too.  A lot of authors seem to think that a villain having power is enough to make him scary.  I can grant you that if he has an atomic bomb and the desire to drop it.  That’s about the only scenario I can think of.  But it always seemed to me that in those classic slasher films, it never occurs to anyone to call the cops or get into a car and drive sixty miles in one direction.  I don’t care how unrelenting your serial killer walk is, Michael would go down under a SWAT team’s sniper.  I am not intimidated by a villain who juggles chainsaws and kittens, although that can certainly serve as a character establishing moment.  Show me how this guy manages to hide his habit and walk amongst the normals: then I might be scared.  A villain who is smart is never unarmed.  This is probably needless to say, but if your reader is thinking, “Oh, hell, I could beat this guy”, you haven’t done your job.  You may want to read this next line twice to make sure you get it, but: coolness, street-smarts, fashion sense, beauty, and wit are not competence.  They may aid the villain in some way, but they are not the same as being an effective and intelligent villain.  This isn’t to say that your villain has to be book smart, well read, or a lover of Chiante; all this means is that your villain is capable of being a villain.  As much, if not more, as your hero is capable of being a hero.  Sociopaths are scary because they’re invisible, clever, ambitious, and charming.  Madmen get cut down by the law in a frenzy; how long does it take to dig up the sociopath?  And who is scarier?
4.  Never make the hero suffer a drop in IQ just because the villain shows up. This rule sort of works in tandem with rule number one and rule number three, but on TVTropes this is called Too Dumb To Live.  Your hero, for some reason, has shown astonishing alacrity with swords and spellcasting, breezes through knight school, and climbs a mountain without breaking a sweat.  But then he meets the villain!  And suddenly, he’s a clumsy, idiotic klutz whose pathetic antics make the villain toss back his raven-haired head and laugh.  I usually only need to say one thing to get my point across when I run into to stuff like this: Aliens wasn’t an awesome movie because Ripley became as helpless as a slasher-flick teenager when she encountered the xenomorphs.  It was awesome because she became a survivalist genius out of necessity.  Too many people bump up their heros, lovingly stroking their own egos and skills, and then find themselves dumbfounded when the villain shows up.  It’s like a mental tug-of-war between “I love my hero!” and “Must-!  Tell-!  Story-!” and you see it play out on the page.  A villain is the penultimate obstacle for the hero, and should act that way.  The obstacles leading up to the villain should serve as training, giving the hero the tools to - oh, hell.  Google the Hero’s Journey and stop wasting my time!  Anyway!  When logic and common sense are not even on the board, you’re asking for trouble.  I personally might have some trouble responding to a break-in (I’m fairly certain my Rottweiler wouldn’t), but that doesn’t mean I’d suffer brain damage trying to think up a way to get away.  Like running upstairs with a killer in pursuit, when I know a neighbor with a cellphone is within screaming distance.  Don’t make your story lobotomize the characters, no matter how cool your villain is, especially if they have any kind of combat training.
5. Moral quandaries are more effective than any villain. To paraphrase Miyazaki, “to think that there is someone out there that you can blame problems on, find, and punish ... is ludicrous.”  Hence why you’ll notice many of his films lack a direct villain.  More often than not, it’s simply ideals clashing.  There is a difference between a villain and an antagonist, after all.  Fantasy (since it is my primary genre) tends to benefit from the massive dichotomy of GOOD and EVIL, but even that can be deconstructed and turned upside down.  Nowadays, with it being a global economy and all, it’s less about who we can blame and more about how the heck we all get along with each other and overcome our baser natures.  “Blaming” someone is seen as an easy answer at best and something that ends in “-ist” at worst.  Wrath’s cornered the market on war and cruelty, but how much damage do you think gluttony and sloth account for?  It can be interesting to examine things from a more grey perspective when you’re considering theme, or just attempting to get out of “easy answer” territory, which is where Jack Bauer’s heroic sociopathy finds rich roots.  Granted, sometimes readers want a good-triumphs-over-evil escapist tale, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just that, when I see a hero kill without remorse, because they believe they’re on the side of right, whether it’s a bad guy or not, a red flag goes up in my head that says “Holy crap!”.  That’s right, Eragon.  I’m looking at you!  www.oak-tree.us/blog/index.php… A hero who confronts his own hypocrisy overcomes a far greater obstacle than a mere individual.  Batman and Superman are heroic because they refuse to kill (otherwise, they'd be just like the Punisher, and we all know how lame he is.)  Just as villains go where the everyman fears to tread, so too should a hero go where the everyman lacks the strength to tread.  (But he should at least encourage us to try and get there.)  Be careful that your hero doesn't act like a villain, because when the ends justify the means by virtue of his "HERO" label, you're on a very slippery slope.
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Saiyan4life's avatar
This is quite fasinating.