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Villains: *Bad* Bad Guys and *Good* Bad Guys

By :-) A.R. George

'Ah, Reader. So glad you could join me.' *strokes cat ominously*

Destroyers of cities, killers of heroes' fathers/mothers/lovers, terrorisers of little girls with fluffy kittens; villains are unquestionably the axle upon which the wheel of fantasy turns. Without villains, the genre of fantasy simply would not exist - how could you have an epic struggle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Really Nice? You couldn't, of course. Fantasy needs villains. And that is just one reason why it's so surprising that these (not so) fine men and women are so frequently neglected in the characterisation process.

Let's face it - making a villain is easy. Take one man or one woman (magically gifted), give him/her a Gothic wardrobe and a maniacal laugh, throw in a few armies of undead/goblinoid minions, and pow! One villain, made to order. But will anyone take them seriously? Will anyone think - even for a moment - that perhaps the hero might not come through unscathed? 'Wow, maybe THIS guy in the black cloak and skull mask will do better than the last one!'

Here's another question. Have you ever read a book where you thought the hero was quite dull and flat, but you absolutely adored the villain? Or even a book where you liked them both, but cheered the villain on to the end? The chances are good that you have, because nothing is quite as enjoyable as a well-written, flawed character - particularly in a genre that sometimes suffers from 'perfect protagonists'. We can't identify with perfect people, we can't identify with cackling maniacs in masks (usually), but we tend to recognise 'real' when we see it.

Villains can enrich your fantasy story beautifully, given some careful thought and even a little empathy. If you're not wary, they can even steal the limelight from your heroes. ;) Remember - nice guys finish last!

1. Villains Who Are Always Evil

These guys are the standard fare of fantasy. They also suffer most heavily from the dreaded 'AH-ha-haaah!' syndrome. In this category we find evil gods, demons and assorted malevolent magic-users, as well as the general 'born to be bad' human(oid) variety.

Due to the difficulty in envisioning a demon's point of view - well, for most of us, anyway - Always Evil villains are probably the most difficult to characterise. This doesn't mean that they should be abandoned! But instead of turning to the hazy, elemental notion of 'just evil', here are a few different angles you might like to try.

In the humanoid case - ravaging warlords, necromancers, and their ilk - fleshing out a villain can be surprisingly easy. 'The other side' is, after all, entirely dependent upon your perspective. Always go out of your way to find a reason for your villain's behaviour, even if you don't personally condone it. Why is the warlord ravaging the countryside? Perhaps it used to belong to -his- people many years ago, or perhaps the hero's people committed some atrocity in the past, and the warlord has simply fallen into the neverending 'vengeance' trap. Why is the necromancer raising the dead? Perhaps he honestly believes that the world would be better off with dead creatures to serve the living, and refuses to admit that they have escaped his control.

In the case of darker villains - the type who enjoy pain, suffering and destruction - you should still be careful with the 'why?' aspect. Always, always answer the question of motive. No-one is born with the impulse to tear everything to pieces - a lot of terrible things have to happen to them first. What happened to your villain? How? Why? Don't make it into a tragicomic exposition, but don't leave it unanswered. This is the greatest crime of modern fantasy.

When it comes to the difficult demonic/godly enemy, things are less simple. Demons and gods don't have childhood experiences - though you could perhaps consider an embittered god - and have very elemental, basic personalities by nature. Since you can't give them human feelings per se, why not consider capitalising on their elemental nature? Strip them of all feelings. Make them dedicated to destruction because they are simply a natural force, like fire or lightning. You can't rationally get angry at fire, because fire has no awareness of what it is doing. This kind of villain would still benefit from other, human 'subvillains', but is probably much better than another smirking Demon Prince who wants to destroy the world just because he's so mean.

2. Villains Who 'Turn Good'

This genre of villain - the bad guy who repents and sees the error of his ways - is a step in the right direction for better characterisation, but can still fall prey to some very unrealistic cliches. There are a lot of things to consider when writing about characters falling into this category, which includes (among others) Switching Sides For Love, Switching Sides Post-Catastrophic Event, and Switching Sides Post-Brainwashing.

The first consideration - as always - is reason. A satisfying reason is a must. 'She was so beautiful - I simply couldn't stand to fight against her!' is not a particularly realistic response for a battle-hardened general. In that kind of situation, the most you could realistically expect would be that the general would spare this mystery woman's life. He would not give up his army and betray his evil liege for a pretty face.

Likewise - 'Oh! You saved my precious brother's life! I shall follow you forever,' doesn't really wash with a general audience. Perhaps the evil enchantress might grant the hero his life and warn her evil minions not to hurt him, but would she really decide to change her entire belief system as a result?

The second consideration, which ties in quite closely with the last point, is the character's degree of 'nastiness' pre-switching. Have you ever reversed your entire life's perspective and motives within a week? Or after one event? Not 'I used to value money, then I nearly died, so now I don't', but 'I used to hate everyone, but then someone smiled at me and bought me dinner one day, so now my faith in humanity is restored'. If someone is a sadistic killer, they are NOT likely to change their perspective in any sudden way. If, on the other hand, they always had lingering doubts about their career as a ravaging bandit king, and then someone actively tries to change them (for an extended period!), it's much more likely.

In short: if someone is truly a vicious monster, they won't switch to being a force for good without several years' extended counselling and repeated viewing of 'Amelie'. A sudden epiphany is not enough.

So what's a good way to turn good? Well, to start with, it always helps to give the villain some redeeming qualities to start with, so the reader knows that he/she isn't utterly devoid of general 'niceness'. Make them merciful towards civilians, or reluctant to kill without some perceived necessity. As for the actual catalyst of switching sides, some satisfying reasons might include (it all depends on -how- it is written, of course, not just which reason is selected) the sorceror who sees a glimpse of what his grand plans will actually do to the world, ie. destroy it, or the royal servant who has been lied to (though care should be taken here not to lapse into stupidity - 'my king hangs a lot of severed heads outside his wall and likes to drink blood, but he's usually a decent sort of ... what? He's evil?!').

One last note: 'brainwashing' explanations very, very, very rarely ring true. They are very common, usually too glib, and require too much of a sudden character adjustment. Nine times out of ten, you'd be better off choosing a more satisfying explanation.

3. Good Guys Who Turn Bad

Traitors are one of the rarest kinds of villain in fantasy - quite a sad fact, since they can also be the most fascinating and complex. (This does not include one of fantasy's biggest cliches - the oily, greasy advisor who betrays the king and 'secretly' *cough* covets the princess - because the advisor is not really very good to begin with.) On the whole they are a largely unexplored breed, and experimenting with them will probably produce interesting results for your story.

To begin with, you should make an effort to show their redeeming qualities - don't paint them in a solely negative light that clearly flags them as a future traitor. One of the best possibilities for this kind of character is the 'gasp' factor: 'I can't believe she just betrayed them!' With a little care and effort, you can make readers respect your soon-to-be villain, admire them ... or even, if you really want, like them.

But here, too, you should still keep in mind that all-important question - why? Why would your character decide to make such a dramatic choice and betray his/her own? Like the transition from bad to good, the transition from good to bad should also be an extended and believable one. Does the short-tempered mage get impatient with the 'no killing' ethos that is letting his countrymen die, and start to use his power destructively? Does the proud lieutenant, after failing crucially in a battle, receive a humiliating dressing-down from his abrasive commander, and decide to show his true worth elsewhere?

Make no mistake: whether you paint the villain sympathetically to begin with or not, you should always illustrate their fatal flaw very carefully as well. Character traits should always be constant. Whether their pride, their insecurity, their ambition, their frustration or their foolishness leads them down the wrong path, you should make it obvious at all times.

4. Female Villains

There are three villainous female archetypes - the evil old hag, the scantily clad enchantress, and the power-mad queen. You know them; everyone does. And that is one of the first problems with female villains: predictability. If you want a good female villain, you have a lot of work ahead of you to make one of these three incarnations believable - or some work in coming up with something else altogether.

Seductresses are a staple of fantasy. [The author of this article promises not to tease the boys out there too much about it. ;)] There is certainly no denying that particularly in a medievalistic society, sexuality is one of the readiest and most powerful weapons a woman would have at her disposal. But - and this should be a very large 'but' - this does not necessarily mean she should crack on to everything that moves. How seriously is any self-respecting goblinoid servant going to take his mistress if she runs around acting like a horny teenager all the time? The occasional low purring is okay, if there's a good reason for it, but really, she's not going to be terribly fear-inspiring if you overdo it.

Hags can also be problematic. You will immediately evoke images of gingerbread houses and wolves in pajamas if your hag ever screeches or cackles, particularly if it's a gleeful cackle. Everyone knows by now that old women are good with magic, especially the ugly ones, and that they tend to fall into cauldrons and ovens. You don't want your audience thinking about fairytales while you're writing fantasy! Fantasy is serious stuff! ;) Try twisting the hag stereotype a little - ever considered a manipulative old woman who isn't mystically gifted in any way?

On the other hand, you could try branching off into a non-typical feminine field altogether. Create a villainous female advisor! A woman of the military persuasion! And try letting her wear more than her lingerie once in a while!

5. Stupid Villains

MINION #1: Boss! We caught dis stoopid hero down in der dunjins!
VILLAIN: Ah, excellent, my warty friend. Put him in a cell - I'll deal with him later.

You guessed it - VILLAIN is going to die.

Nothing will kill the tension of a fantasy story more quickly - or raise the blood pressure of a reader - than a stupid villain, but unfortunately, stupid villains are not rare animals. Fantasy is full of villains who want to 'deal with him later', 'watch her suffer as her lover dies', and basically do everything except kill the hero and have it over with. All the characterisation in the world won't help you if your villain is a numbnut. Your readers will simply be frustrated, or amused at best.

There are many, many insults to common sense that cliched villains commit, but they hardly need listing here when cleverer minds have put it better; a wonderful, witty list already exists. Refer to The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord when in doubt, or even when not in doubt. You won't regret it. ;)

6. A Villain's 'Je Ne Sais Quoi'

No question about it - villains have style. A lot of villains are extremely popular with audiences for the simple reason that they're drop-dead gorgeous. This is also incidentally true of fantasy stories. ;)

Of course you can make a sexy villain, but be careful of falling prey to 'style over substance'. A villain is, first and foremost, a point of conflict for the hero to struggle with. Even if you write a beautiful description for them, if they are a vapid winker or a cape-swisher, your readers will not take them seriously (too busy drooling, perhaps, but it's still not a good thing). They must always have a personality to go with the face.

Here are just a few style cliches you may want to avoid:
* Velvet-lined capes
* Skull masks
* Spiky armour
* Batskin bikinis (sorry, boys)
* Horned helmets
* Red eyes

Lastly, be wary of villainous laughter, but never underestimate the power of the smirk.

7. Some Excellent Villains, Personally Chosen, Naturally Not An Exhaustive List, Please Don't Get Mad At Me ;)

  • Sir Martel from the 'Elenium' - David Eddings
  • Vierna Do'Urden from 'The Dark Elf Trilogy' - RA Salvatore (though the article-writer confesses here that she otherwise dislikes RA Salvatore ...)
  • Raistlin Majere from the 'Dragonlance Chronicles' - Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
  • The elves from 'Lords and Ladies' - Terry Pratchett
  • Samildanach from 'Knights of Dark Renown' - David Gemmell

FARP Article Guestbook

24 Aug 201245 Anon.
once apon a time life road by kind was nice and luck was m ine is this my storie
24 Aug 201245 Kathy miles
once apon a time i found myself up in line back in rymth and nice and kind i had you in mine one more time
24 Aug 201245 Kathy miles
i will like to thank you for this writing time
11 Sep 2012:-) Jam Lebrilla
Where does Tyrion lie?
24 Jan 201345 Anon.
excuse me for adding to your list of excellent villains, but what about Sauron? Tolkien did an incredible job of his "Enemy" particularly given that you NEVER saw or heard him throughout the books.
2 Apr 201345 Anon.
Yeah, a book about a fight between Forces of Good and Forces of Really Good is an Epic theme if one can pull it off!! I sure do want to try!
7 May 201345 Anon.
24 Jun 201345 Anon.
Well done indeed, and I loved the list. I’ll have to work those qualities and traits into my story’s main character, who isn’t a villain, but is anti-hero as well 18 Either way, this was helpful.
3 Nov 2013:-) Alice Rebecca Theibault
As an anime fan, I can tell you that anime in general tends to be full of the third kind of villain mentioned here, though they’ve got their share of bad guys who were always evil too.
20 Jan 2014:-) Janeiro Llyod Dennis
I think its time to touch up my villainess a bit after this article. Thanks
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