Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Come to the Dark Side, Writer

I know my colleague, Kate Paulk, has gone into the mind of the villain (come back, Kate, we have cookies. Besides, it’s scary in there) in a few posts, but one of our commenters asked about villains and it occurred to me there are other ways to tackle villains.

Unlike Kate’s, my landing bridge in character-land doesn’t fall naturally in the middle of the evil Lord’s palace, right behind the dark towers and forbidding fortresses. Characters who plot their next coup d’etat while imagining their enemies drowned in bouts of malmsey don’t populate my imagination. On the contrary, for the longest time – forgive me, children, I was young and foolish – I couldn’t really write an evil character. Instead I wrote “and then he suddenly goes mad.” (I said I was young and foolish. Put down your rotten eggs and assorted wilted vegetables.)

And then I found the technique that works for me. While I’m not one of those people who believe everyone is good at heart, I do believe that evil people don’t think that of themselves. They don’t usually walk around twirling their moustaches, rubbing their hands and going nyargh, nyargh, nyargh. And dark cloaks and SERIOUSLY out of fashion.

Put it another way, the most fractured people in our society can’t help having internalized some portion of the common morals and widespread beliefs – stuff like, you don’t kick someone when they’re down. You don’t hurt puppies, children, small defenseless whatever. And we simians are, by nature, likely to want to fit in with our group, so there’s a tendency to cleave to those rules.

But, but, but, you say, didn’t I just say I believe in evil? Am I now going to claim that the people who commit horrors are in fact “just crazy”? Or that society drove them to it?

Put down the rotten eggs again. No, I’m not going to say that. Stop trembling your lip. Here’s the hanky. Do not sniffle in that annoying fashion.

I’m going to say that in most cases – there have been one or two historical exceptions, but those are characters I simply couldn’t write – people do evil by convincing themselves it’s good. It’s either good for the or good for the common people, or good for some grand, imaginary future. (The greatest crimes in human history have been committed in the name of future utopia.)

In fact, a great villain – in books at least – often has the makings of a great hero, except for... some “little” thing. Yes, the bad thing might be a hatred of someone or something. Movies tend to go in for this sort of motive. You’re going to kill the man who raped your mom, or whatever, and your hatred distorts everything out of proportion. The thing though is that though this definitely happens, the scarier horrors are perpetrated out of love.

No you say? Perhaps I should let you sleep at night... Nah, you’re writers and you want to know. The worst villains are the ones who start with a goal everyone would agree is laudable. Say you’re going to rid the world of disease. You start by sending doctors (let’s assume you’re very rich and powerful) everywhere that doesn’t have them. You send enormous amounts of medicine. But little kids keep getting sick because they play in the dirt. And you can’t stand to see them suffer. So you have every toddler killed who can’t be physically restrained from playing in the dirt.

This is an extreme example, and there would be various steps in between, as you trespass more and more on the commonly accepted version of good, but all in the name of a greater ideal. In fact, “the end justifies the means” could be the motto of most villains.

There are the exceptions, too – those who are so full of self-hatred and hatred of others that they “want to see the world burn.” But my penchant is for villains who are doing what they think is for the best and go over a little more and a little more because reality itself – human nature; the way societies work; economics; nature itself – is against them. They see the glimmer of the perfect world before them and they’ll do anything to get there. And they do.

On the flip side of that villain is the hero who sees when he’s doing more harm than good, who accepts limitations and reins himself in no matter how passionate. One of the reasons I love Pratchet’s Vimes is that he is that type of hero. I love the Villains in Phillip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers because they are mostly like that.

What type of villains do you love? Can you see them being tragic heroes with JUST a little difference in their lives? What type of villain would you like to write? Can you make one of your favorite heroes just a little less constrained, a little more ardent and see him become a villain?


C Kelsey said...

The Joker in the Dark Knight movie was hands down the most villainy villain I've ever seen.

I know it's not so well thought out to have a villain be evil because he's "the villain". On the other hand, I do think such an approach lends itself to the escapism that a lot of us seek when reading. Do I always care that the villain was a good doctor who just wanted to end suffering? No, not really. Sometimes I want him to just go insane so that when the hero drops him into a vat of acid I just say, "good", and don't get all existential about it.

I still want to write my story about the person who has all the power of good in the universe but has to allow some evil to happen in order to keep the balance. Imagine a hero that could snap his/her finger and end all suffering but knows that if she did that, evil would come back with an overwhelming bang. Would a hero that has to watch evil happen even though the hero could stop it eventually go crazy and be a villain themselves?

Synova said...

The Joker was great. (I do think that because the actor died the Joker's scenes were left longer than they would have been and it make the timing slightly off.) I liked how he never came up with the same story twice of what had happened to him. And I won't say he wasn't psychotic, but he seemed to have a reasoned need to force people to reveal the evil in their own souls. Maybe that was to comfort himself that every one else is evil too. (But it didn't work with the people on the ferry boat.)

It is actually sort of easy to see how the desire to force people to confront the truth could be an attribute of the hero rather than the villain.

Following through does sort of fail with the "I'm going to decide what is best for you" part of it, though.

I don't think that having a "good" motivation (as opposed to the Joker's bad motivation) for the same goal (forcing people to confront the truth of the evil in their souls) changes the essential evil involved.

Ending all suffering by fiat is an interesting question. How/why does someone with the power to stop all bad things (god?) allow the bad to continue? What is the cost of free will and would we be better off without it?

How about, what if the destructive power of volcanoes could be defused so that the Yellowstone thing never goes? Would the result be a saved planet or a dead one?

Then again, I always thought that the Prime Directive was blatantly immoral if not outright reprehensible.

Synova said...

Okay, wow, that was disjointed. Bleh.

Anonymous said...

Most of my recent villains started out as one side or the other of a political or international divide. Both sides have grievances, both have reasons to hate and fear the other. From that rational start, a downward spiral into "Unfortunate necessities" can make a believable villain. I think a touch of ego is needed as well: "I" will lead us out of the weak responses and endless diplomacy that has only resulted in more retreats.

I've used, as POV characters, people on the periphery of the plotting cadre. People who feel the threat, the fear and hatred, but who are new on the scene and haven't lost they're perspective.

Insane? Well, it kind of depends on how you define normal.

Bill said...

I agree with your premise of villians, in that they aren't all Snidely Whiplash.

In my WIP, the "Evil" is a semi-intelligent beastly humanoid, and every major conflict/battle scene with them is preceeded with a derivative of the phrase, "You must trade with us."

In other words, would they be at war if people weren't scared of their appearance/reputation. Etc.

I also like to flip the formats of recognizable heroes; in my RPG MUD days, I noticed a lot of the "Good" paladins/priests were the first ones to call for blood and war, when facing an odd threat. I found this hypocritical, but I love the potential it has in my own little world, and it's a theme I love to explore.

Lastly, take a hero like Robin Hood (I know who lurks here), who is all good and stuff - and have him dispatched by the story's protagonist: "I understand what you're doing, but you can't steal from the King, and expect to live."

And so forth. Villiany is easy to find when you recognize that most humanoids are essentially out for their own survival. Twisting circumstances is what makes it fun, and why everything in the world is a shade of grey.

I'm babbling, but how true is "History is written by the winners."? What might be a hero in one book could easily be the villian in another.

Anonymous said...

I have come to believe two things regarding evil. The first is that true evil rarely jumps out at you and goes "Boo!". Yes, in fiction it's an effective method of exacting an immediate response by the reader because it's easily recognizable as evil. IMHO, true evil masquerades as good, and as long as the price to be paid for the overall good doesn't come from the villain, all is well and justified. This is how evil leaders (not part of a monarchy born into their position) become leaders, by convincing the people that the long-term goal is good and that the end justifies the means. Very simple.

The other thing is that true evil sneaks up on you bit by bit. Few people are just all out bad to begin with. This one little thing justifies the end, and the next time, taking it just a bit further isn't all that bad since it was fine the first time. Soon, you're a mile down the evil road.

I've only written a couple of stories with an actual human villain. It's easy enough to explain away alien or fantasy villains since their actions are easily marked down as not understandable to us humans. One of the stories had a villain who was seen as an upstanding woman but just projecting her standards of good onto other people. The other was the main character who eventually recognized that her own beliefs of what was good for other people wasn't the way to go. Killing them to alleviate their suffering when they had means of death at their own hands wasn't justifiable since they did have a choice.

I'm not much for writing out and out human evil villains. I like the ones who look and act almost like everyone else. IMO, they're the most dangerous.


Anonymous said...

I feel the need to clarify one of my comments above. When I say that it's easy enough to justify the actions of a villain in alien or fantasy fiction, I don't mean that all writers take that easy path. Some do. But, especially in fantasy fiction regarding a human villain (meaning not a dragon or other different-species beasty), they do obviously have human motives and action since they are humans in a fantasy setting.

I write a lot of fantasy with fantasy-type villains, and I enjoy creating a character with alien motives (alien, just meaning not-like-me). I've always said that we don't need to look further than this planet for alien intelligence meaning all of the other species that live on Earth as well. They do have alien intelligence. Their IQ may not be as big as ours, but their cultures and motives are just as alien to us as true interplanetary aliens. I guess I'm saying that animal intelligence is also alien-to-us intelligence, and this is a huge staple in fantasy writing. Some of my own fantasy-creature villains have been a hobgoblin and butterflies.

So, I feel like I've rambled on in my attempt to clarify. Hope it made some sense.


heteromeles said...

There are a bunch of easy ways to make fun villains. Incompetence in power is a great one.

But for evil, my favorite and most useful definition came from a little old book called Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse.

His basic idea is that all of life is an infinite game. The point of playing the game is not to win (it's infinite after all). Rather, the point of playing the infinite game is to keep it going, with as many players as possible.

You have to play finite games inside that infinite game, and these finite games have boundaries, audiences, rules (implicit or explicit), an end, and winners and losers.

In this context, Carse sees evil as trying to win at the infinite game, to turn life into a finite game with winners, losers, and an end.

It's an abstract idea, but you know, he's right.

After all, most of us know that playing life to win is an insane way to live, but it's all too easy to get sucked in to that way of thinking, whether it's because you're powerful and afraid of your enemies, or because you're powerless and anything that promises to punish your oppressors is powerfully seductive. Or it you simply think that, if only the world would just follow your rules, everything would be perfect...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I liked what Joe Abercrombie did in his trilogy. You start out in Logan Nine-fingers' point of view. And he seems an OK sort of bloke. It is only as the book unfolds that you learn about the things he did in the past (all for very good reasons) and realise he is not one of the 'good guys'.

The other nice thing about Abercrombie's book is that the Merlin/Gandalf character is just what someone with such great power would be.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


As long as your character goes crazy in a plausible way, I doin't have an issue. My big issue is with "and then he went crazy" plots that are an excuse NOT to explain how this happened.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ditto on the prime directive. If you find a used copy of The Still Small Voice of Trumpets (I don't think it's in print anymore) read it, though. It turns around something very like the prime directive and it's a masterpiece.

No, I don't think the motivation changes but other than the Joker type villain, who is clearly sadistic (and this works better in movies than in books) MOST villains don't think they're doing evil. And certainly they make for a stronger book if they're good-corrupted than "was born evil." Of course it depends. If you're reading what I call a popcorn book (no prejurative intended. My furniture refinishing mysteries are popcorn books "read, enjoy, reach for another" as are most of what I read) sometimes as Chris said, you just want evil evil evil and no two ways about it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Your path to villaindom seems entirely too plausible, though I will add that "we will try diplomacy at all costs" also makes for a great villain, if an unintentional one. (A.k.a. "peace in our time" leads to millions of deaths.) BUT that doesn't necessarily make it as fun a villain to kill ;)

And my BIGGEST issue with "and then he went insane" is using it INSTEAD of an explanation.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Actually the problem I ran into with the "everyone has reasons" approach to villains is that a few of them "flipped" to become heroes for me. And then it was a novel of redemption.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I also think the Joker was playing on the "everyone is a misunderstood good person" or "every villain was abused in childhood" meme. And yeah, I also thought the shifting personal history was funny.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You are absolutely right about the process of "evilfying." You see it in Macbeth when he says he's so far steeped in blood he might as well go forward as retreat...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

playing life to lose is a crazy way to live too...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Great comment.

Anonymous said...


Unfortunately this is all taking place on my parallel World Of Bad Guys. I've gone and given them _reasons_. I've stopped treating them like a monolithic Enemy.I'm doomed!

Kate said...

The Dark Side has chocolate cookies. Dark chocolate (of course). And besides, what scares me most about the character hotline to Evil Bastard Central is that I'm not scared.

This is one of the things that's bothered me forever: evil is attractive in an unhealthy, seductive way. It's kind of the metaphorical prostitute gesturing from behind the bus shelter to lead the willing innocent down the path of good intentions - and we all know what road those pave.

Okay. Enough with the mangled metaphorical maunderings. I think in fiction we've got to exaggerate things to make them seem right to a reader. Partly it's because we're used to real life being... well, real. For fiction, I think we want better than real, and that means gooder good and eviller evil.

Vimes is one of those wonderful not-quite-knife-edge characters who knows what he's capable of and makes sure he doesn't go there. That Koom Valley sequence in Thud! (those who have read it know which one I mean) was magnificent. A shade or two darker, and he'd be an antihero or possibly even a villain to Carrot's hero.

Frankly, Pratchett hasn't written all that many "bad" characters, but the ones he has done have been brilliantly done. Edward D'Eath, Teatime (that's "te-ah-ti-me", thank you), Lord Hong, the deep under dwarf (whose name escapes me, mostly because I'm flat out lousy with names) from Thud!, Angua's brother...

Mind you, I don't think I'd be that keen on Lord Vetinari detaining me, either.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yeah, I have this issue too. You're not alone, sistah!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


All your comments are very apropos, especially the "unclean" call of evil. Though it can also masquerade as wholesome and quite good for you -- but even then there's something not QUITE right if you look closely.
And, heaven help me, as many of you know, I have a strong crush on Vetinari. (Yeah, yeah, part of it is wanting a boy just like the boy who married dear mama. [G]) Fortunately I KNOW dark chocolate is bad for me.

Kate said...


I suspect that if evil showed its true nature, it wouldn't attract much. But the apparently wholesome goodness, or the exotic and interesting - that's attractive, and if you don't know how to look past the facade (or don't want to), it's easy to be seduced.

Besides, dark chocolate is good for you. It has anti-oxi-whatsis or something. One of those super-healthy thingies they're always talking about.

Dave Freer said...

Dunno if it's evil... but nasty is often petty and totally self-centered. And knowing perfectly well that what they're doing is wrong or even evil, but because it's good for them... that's OK. For example: I've had a boss who quietly ripped me off - taking enormous satisfaction in his managing to gouge me. He knew, perfectly well, that what he was doing was morally wrong, and that if it had even gone to court, been properly investigated and fairly judged he'd have lost. He said as much to me - and laughed as he said it. Yes, he was a nutter. He also knew perfectly well that he had the money for lawyers and court cases... and his employees didn't. He actually took perverse pleasure in knowing he was powerful and his employees were not. That's hardly isolated. A million corporate lawyers must know perfectly well that their client is in the wrong many times, but that their role is use the law and money to see that the right thing does not happen. Some them justify this as just doing their jobs... But many of them must, realistically, know that that didn't wash for the guards at Buchenwald.

The clerk who should put through the pension payment to the old duck today instead of playing free-cell, the insurer who finds squirm loopholes... they don't rationalise they're doing good. They just don't give a damn, because they're OKay and doing well, and no-one is shining society's mirror on their little hole. Yep, the villian who does his great evil for good rationalised reasons makes a scary one. But some people enjoy hurting/ cheating other people. They know it causes distress for no justifiable reason, but they lack the empathy to care. For me, those are terrifying people. And there are a lot of them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I know those people exist and in my experience they flock around the "tempting" villain, the one who looks like he's doing good while doing evil. The ones who get really big, as in to the point of becoming "evil overlords" big enough to present a formidable villain in these books, are usually the "seductive" kind and a lot of them became evil by increments or are so narcisistic that they think they SHOULD make the world a whatever-free world which would, of course, be much better for everyone.

cedunkley said...

In my current WIP one of my main characters takes a long journey from protagonist to antagonist as he finds himself making choices to defeat an external antagonist that take him down that same path.

If I have a downright mean twisted villain he's there as an obstacle to either my main protagonists or antagonists, rather than being the main bad guy.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


My only worry with that type of arc is how satisfying the ending will be. I have no doubt that you can manage to make it satisfying, but it's something one has to watch.

cedunkley said...


Yes, the ending of this book is going to be tricky to pull off. This character is one of 3 major characters.

This book is meant to be a standalone story but it also has the dual role of being a prelude story to a 5 book epic fantasy series I want to write.

This book is a sort of how things got to be the way they are at the start of the 5 book series.

So, while this character goes in one direction, the other two go in another. Considering the fallen character is one a reader might expect to be killed and isn't (since he plays a major role in the 5 book series) it really is going to have to be delicately handled.

I suspect the finale section of this WIP will take a lot of reworking to get just right.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Ah, the famous science fiction and fantasy five book trilogy. :)

Seriously, two things -- I'm very serious about giving the readers a satisfying ending. You must work at that.

Also IMHO and what I strive to do, every book in a series SHOULD also be stand alone.