Monday, May 28, 2012

The Players on the Other Side: Some Thoughts on Villainy in Fiction

Please welcome this month's special guest blogger, Debra Doyle! Debra Doyle was born in Florida and educated in Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania -- the last at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate in English literature, concentrating on Old English poetry.  While living and studying in Philadelphia, she met and married James D. Macdonald, who was then serving in the US Navy, and subsequently traveled with him to Virginia, California, and the Republic of Panamá, accumulating various children, cats, and computers along the way.

Doyle and Macdonald left the Navy and Panamá in 1988 in order to pursue writing full-time. Since then they have lived in a big, and increasingly run-down, 19th-century house in Colebrook, New Hampshire, where they write science fiction and fantasy for children, teenagers, and adults.  Their most recent joint works include Lincoln's Sword, an alternate-historical fantasy set during and just after the Civil War, and the short story "Philologos: or, A Murder in Bistrita" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2008.)  Their Mageworlds series of space opera novels are now available from Tor as e-books at Amazon, Barnesand Noble, and other electronic outlets.  For the morbidly curious, a full bibliography is available on their web page:

In addition to writing, Debra Doyle also does freelance editorial and critique work at Dr.  Doyle's Editorial Services, and is a regular instructor at the Viable Paradise Writer's Workshop (for which registrations are still open until June 15th.)

I have a philosophical objection to Capital-E Evil in villains. Very few people -- even the ones who really ought to be removed from society in some permanent fashion for the sake of the greater good -- wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I'm going to go out and be Evil today." Some of them justify what they're doing in one fashion or another, some of them simply consider that they're doing their jobs, and some of them—frequently the most appalling of them -- think that they're doing good.

No, really.  Most people have a heroic self-image that they aspire to, or fantasize about, or attempt to live up to.  If you're a writer, one of the ways to make your villains three-dimensional is to pay attention to what kind of heroic self-images they have -- the predatory businessman may regard himself as a Prosperity-Creating Captain of Industry, for example, just as the smothering, over-controlling parent or guardian may look in the mirror and see a Protector Against All Harm  And entirely too many political villains, both fictional and real, cherish a heroic self-image as The One Who Can Make Hard Choices for the Greater Good.  These people don't think they're villains.  They think they're heroes.

(And sometimes, they actually are.  The conflict of good versus evil is a steady, reliable story-engine; but if you want some real fictional horsepower, there's nothing like the conflict of good versus good.  This is what makes Magneto, of the X-Men comics and movies, into such an effective and memorable villain: He's got serious, even sympathetic, reasons for setting out on his course of villainy, and his long-term goals are not all that far from the goals of the good guys in that universe. It's his methods that they cannot accept, and that they have to fight.)

A lot of writers suffer from a failure of nerve when it comes to writing their villains.  They resort to making their stories' antagonists into two-dimensional mustache-twirlers, or cardboard bigots, or power-mad psychos, because to do the hard thing, and write the villain as though he had an honest belief in his own (however evil) actions, would require them -- for the span of time necessary to write the guy properly -- to live inside the villain's head, and to (however temporarily) become him, to do his deeds and to believe his beliefs.  Or her beliefs, since equality of fictional opportunity should allow female characters the choice to become villainous as well.

The reader doesn't need to feel sorry for the villain. But if the story is going to go into the villain's point of view at some point, then the reader is going to have to be the villain during that time, and is going to have to look at the world through the villain's eyes; and for that to happen, the writer is going to have to go there first. A lot of writers wimp out on that one -- they have their despicable antagonist's internal musings be the equivalent of gloating and twirling his mustache, as opposed to, say, worrying about whether or not his good black cloak is going to last another winter and if not, whether the current wages of sin are going to stretch far enough to buy him a new one.

In short, the villain and his allies have no fictional life outside of their villainy, which is a failure of imagination that results in flat characters and flatter scenery. If (to invent a quick-and-dirty social milieu to avoid invidious specifics) the writer's heroic and virtuous band of generalized goodness-and-light worshipers (insert deity or principle of choice here for best personal resonance) are being persecuted by the dark votaries of the dreaded Spider God . . . then the writer has to spend some time worshiping the Spider God as well, in order to know, on a gut level, why it is that an otherwise harmless bunch of Fantasyland Unitarians (or whatever) constitute an affront to the moral order of the universe as perceived by the Great Spider.

For that matter, if the dreaded Spider God is going to be all that important to the story, then the writer needs to spend some serious time thinking about Spiderian Theology (current state of, historical state of), and Spiderian Mysticism, and Spiderian Heresies.  Because the problem with one-sided axe-grinding is that it gives us all those fantasy worlds where the evil Church (always with a capital C) appears to have nothing else to do with its time except persecute innocent elves and magic-users and uppity women and anybody else the author thinks is Good and Nice.  This generic evil Church doesn't have any theology, it doesn't have any history, it doesn't have any scriptures (except possibly for a few texts on the proper oppression of elves, et cetera), it doesn't have any internal politics, it doesn't have any saints or mystics or martyrs or missionaries or ordinary hardworking clerics or even members of the Ladies' Altar Guild (all available character slots having been completely taken up by Patriarchs, Inquisitors, and Corrupt Members of the Priesthood) -- it does not, in short, function in any way like an actual, real-world religion as far as the lives of ordinary people in the created world are concerned.  It's a cardboard institution, an all-purpose demon-on-a-stick, and it makes for bad, shallow, unoriginal writing.

For good writing, respect your villains.  Let them win some of the arguments, instead of always being crushed underneath the weight of your protagonist's overwhelming righteousness.  Give them some virtues, the better to make their vices stand out in high relief.  Love them a little, even -- they're yours, and you made them, and you set their feet on the path of evil, so who else is going to care for them even as they inevitably go down?


Terri-Lynne said...

Fantastic! What every writer needs to know about creating effective villains. You chose one of my all-time favorite villains too--Magneto. He's a villain only to those opposing him. To many, he's a hero. A savior, even.

Magneto is the "eye-for-an-eye" old testament force, while the X-men are the new testament's "turn the other cheek." Both have their points.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I rather like Evil, as in pure unadulterated malevolence directed at nothing other than crushing the spirit of the weak and enslaving the world to the will of a superior being. But enough of my weekend plans...

I'd tend to agree that Doing Evil as a motivating factor for people (ie humans or humans in fancy dress - be they gnomes or whatever) doesn't often work but there's no special reason why there shouldn't be forces whose object is nothing other than crushing the spirit of the weak and enslaving the world to the will of a superior being.

People, however can be motivated by simple hunger for power. That needn't be to do 'good', it could simply be because it's better to be master than slave. Those with power are naturally less subject to the whims of others than those without it. You could get all philosophical and say that the quest for power is really just a quest for personal freedom (often at the expense of the personal freedom of others either directly or indirectly).

Of course there's no reason why a villain shouldn't be intent on subjugating the weak so that once he has the world under his thumb he can 'set things aright', create some kind of order that he believes will create a better world for all (you'd be happy if you knew your place and were assigned to it -- a sort of Plato-esque utopia). That's fair enough as a motivation.

But me, I think there's something rather grandly meglomaniacal about wanting to subjugate the world simply so one can revel in the mastery over others that would bring.

At a mundane level, some people become teachers because they want to educate the next generation, some because they like the terms and conditions, some because they can't see they'll get a better job, and some because they will be able to lord it over (literal) little people -- become a petty god, if you like. Of course few people would admit, even to themselves, that the last was their real motivation (sure, they may have been slightly motivated by other things also), but that sort of simple lust for power is, I think, very real.

I mean if I were a wizard with phenomonal cosmic power at my fingertips, I'd be abusing that power like anything. Because having real power almost always leads to abuse of that power, even if there's no real reason for the use (abuse) of the power beyond 'The blade itself incites to violence' -- who cannot pick up a sword or axe without wanting to take a swing at something?)

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--absolute power corrupts absolutely, eh? I'm glad to see you wear your meglomaniac tendencies in the open. This way, we won't be surprised if you end up world tyrant. I hope you plan on reserving we three Heroines of Fantasy mavens a place in your heirarchy. :)

Unknown said...

This was a fabulous post! Great insights on creating effective villains. I've read too many books and seen too many movies with flat villains. A deep, complicated bad guy can really make or break of story.

batgirl said...

Just rambling here ... from various real-world examples of doing evil, while the stated motive may be to do good, set things right, I wonder if the unstated motive isn't fear? There's some evidence that the more power some people have, the more insecure they are and the more fearful of losing that power. And the more willing to use dubious means to protect it/themselves. Their power (however it looks to the outside world) is to them such a fragile creation that a homeless guy with a picket sign is equal in threat to a kevlar-clad battalion with riot shields.
It might make for kind of a pathetic fictional villain, though, trembling in his well-polished boots.

Terri-Lynne said...

Very good thoughts, B. I think you are absolutely right--the fear of losing power creates the worst sort of villains. I'm thinking of Loki in the recent Avengers movie. Most of what he does is out of fear. Vengeance! But fear too.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Debra, this was a great post! Thanks so much for joining us this week on HoF.

So many interesting & thought-provoking comments here on villainy.

I do think it's important for the author to know their villain as well as any other character in the book, but I'm not always convinced that letting the reader into the villain's mind -- allowing them to see the 'justification' of the 'evil' committed -- is a good idea.

So often what the villain might call 'justification' is really just a rationalization invented to further his or her own selfish interests (i.e., hunger for power). There are times when those motivations matter for the story, but there are also times when they do not -- when what's important is that evil is being done, and it must be stopped.

I also have a special fondness for the black hearted villain (or villainess!) So while I welcome the villains-with-occasional-virtues that have begun to populate contemporary fantasy, I do hope that the power hungry Dark Lords and Ladies, and all their dedicated minions, will continue to have a place in at least some of our stories.