Hi folks – I’m back! And by “back” I mean “I’ve got somebody to cover for me today as I recover from jet lag.” Allow me to introduce Bishop O’Connell: friend, author, and apparent Irish ecclesiarch. He’s here to talk about villains and, as a frustrated super-villain myself, I can tell you that you ought to listen to his advice, because he knows what he’s talking about. He also has a series of urban fantasy novels out, the most recent being The Returned (I’ll let Bishop describe it for you at the bottom). For now, read his post. Then read his books. Then hack into and read his e-mails (they’re hilarious).
Wait…never mind that last part. You didn’t see that. Ummm…errr…just read the post, okay?
Interview with a Villain
Villains are important. Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t (necessarily) mean a Blofeld-esque villain who lives in an active volcano, on a skull shaped island, laughing as he strokes his beloved cat.
I’m talking about the antagonist. While the story might not have a true villain per se, there is always an antagonist. I learned early in my writing career that if I wanted my stories to be compelling and interesting, I’d need to spend at least as much time on my “bad guys” as I do on my “good guy.” It’s true, not every antagonist is a person, it can be an environment, a society, or anything else. But for those times when it is a person, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to my protagonist (main character):
Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”
Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” only makes for a sad caricature of a villain.
I’m not saying their motive has to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable; it has to make sense for that character. I could ask myself what my character wants, but better to ask them directly, and better style to ask them why they want it. I’ve found this can actually be incredibly helpful, especially if you pain the full picture. I imagine the scene where I’m meeting my villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for me, or am I waiting for her? If he is waiting for me, does he stand when I arrive, or even acknowledge my presence? Who chose the venue? Are other people there? If so, are they staring? If they are, how does the character react? The more detailed the imagining, the fuller the character will be to me, and thus (hopefully) to my readers. As an example—since you might not know my work and to prevent potential spoilers—let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.
Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but since the wait staff was nowhere to be seen he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.
Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.
Voldemort: Lord Voldemort, if you please. I didn’t raise a dark army and commit mass murder to not use my title.
B: Apologies, thank you, Lord Voldemort, for meeting with me.
V: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.
B: Not at all.
There is a moment of awkward silence as he takes a bite of his salad and a look comes to his face. It’s either pleasure or disgust, it’s hard to tell which with someone who looks like an escape from the Island of Dr. Moreau. After a moment he dabs the cloth napkin at the corners of his mouth and turns his attention back to me.
V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.
He laughs, and it’s more comical than unsettling.
B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Lord Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?
He skewers some salad on his fork and looks bored.
V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.
B: Okay, I got that. I know that, you know that, Harry knows that, everyone knows that. But isn’t that kind of a simplistic goal? That’s kind of short term for you, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?
He chews the salad and a smile, or his version of one, returns to his face. He sets his fork down and pours himself more tea.
V: I’m so very glad you asked. No one ever really seems to care. My underlings are just trying to suckle at the master’s teat, and everyone else is just running for their lives. What I really want, and I know it’s terribly cliché, but what I truly want is to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is really just an obstacle, the one who can best deny me those things.
B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?
V: Well, everybody wants to rule the world.
B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.
V: Those are two of my favorite things.
He laughs and drinks more tea.
V: Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, and I do, but that’s so simplistic. Power is a means, not an end. In truth, I’m a good old fashioned racist.
B: You’re a racist? That’s not something many people would openly admit.
V: I know. The word has such a negative connotation. The difference here is that my racism is based on genuine fact. I’m not biased based on anything as petty as skin color, birthplace, religion, anything like that. No, this is about magic. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards. In every way that matters.
B: Could you explain?
V: Happily. As wizards, we wield immense power. We have the capability to do things you only dream about by just saying the right words and moving a piece of wood through the air. We can violate your sad little “laws” of physics at whim. You are to us, what chimps are to you. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising you flying cars since the 1950s, and yet the only ones I have ever seen are magical. Not that I need one of course, I can fly just find on my own.
B: So your racism is based on magical ability. Why are you opposed to muggle-born wizards and witches, or those from mixed families?
V: Just because the proverbial room full of monkeys with typewriters comes up with a play doesn’t make them Shakespeare.
B: Interesting analogy. Are you saying you admire Shakespeare’s work?
V: Not at all, I’m just using a comparison your small mind can grasp. To continue the analogy, you might find said monkeys an interesting oddity, but you’d never call them human. Likewise, Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature, abominations. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries. We are the superior race, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.
B: It is a bit cliché.
V: Well, with rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins. Your history has proven this over and over.
B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—
V: Pure-blood wizards.
B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?
V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—
B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal—
V: AVADA KEDAVRA!
And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. It’s important as a writer to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations as well. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on the story. It doesn’t matter if the antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, for a villain to be a monster, having a good motive is vital. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.
Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in the various Marvel movies said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an “aha moment” for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth and it’s that truth that drives them. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons and they are meaningful to them.
No, villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, the reader will really love to hate them.
Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, CA where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. After wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he settled Richmond VA, where he writes, collects swords, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint (aquietpint.com), where he muses philosophical on life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published.
Blog – https://aquietpint.com/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/BishopMOConnell
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/bishopmoconnell/
Amazon Author Page – http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00L74LE4Y