Sunday, June 3, 2012


Imagine Harry Potter is sneaking through the Enchanted Forest.  He's just broken out of Gringotts Bank on the back of a dragon and is trying to bring order back to the world.  Once he comes to a clearing, he spies his friend Hagrid tied to a tree.  Harry breaks out of the dense underbrush and finds...

...nothing.  No one's there, so he just unties his half-giant buddy and they stroll amicably back to Hogwarts.

Yeah, I think it's dull too.  The key to any good work of fiction is the villain.  It's the villain that makes the hero heroic and provides the story focus and structure.  Had there been no Voldemort for Harry Potter to face, the novels may have well been titled, Harry Potter and His Extremely Boring Life.
Most people love an epic tale, but a tale is only as good as the conflict that motivates you to read it.  To a peasant like me, this is why "high art" literature and short stories have little appeal.  If there isn't an evil force to square off against, then the story comes across as plodding, and I find myself asking why I picked up this sleep aid in the first place.

We all want our heroes to win the day, but if the challenge is too easy, we don't identify with the hero.  I've read stories where it was clear from the outset that the main character would overcome his two dimensional nemesis without much difficulty, and it always leaves me wanting for more.  I find myself in those cases saying, "Shit, I could've beaten that asshole."

The best villains are almost appealing.  They possess confidence and intelligence.  They weave intricate lines of conflict, to the point where you can envision them winning.  Sometimes, this even makes some people root for them.  The villain is self-assured in the way we wish we were, and the villain has a certain sense of freedom since he's not constrained by the rules of society.  It appears liberating and can be intoxicating.  Some of us would love to be Darth Vader, able to crush the windpipe of those who displease us, even if only in a fantasy.

Think about the best villains you've read about.  For me, the best villain of all time is Grand Admiral Thrawn from the Heir to the Empire trilogy.  Yes, Thrawn is ruthless and crushes any hint of dissent, but his methods are elegant.  He stays calm in battle and knows when to back off if things aren't going his way.  Further, he knows how to win the loyalty of his crew, not through fear as Darth Vader or the Emperor did, but through respect and confidence in his abilities.  He's the perfect warrior leader and someone I wouldn't have minded serving under at some point.

A villain of such competence requires a hero to overcome great obstacles to win in the end.  The hero must display a greater degree of cunning and skill, and sometimes he might even have to question his own commitment to staying within the rules, thus opening up a whole new area to delve into with regards to his personality and flaws.

However, a writer should be very careful here.  A villain should be enthralling and make the reader wonder whether or not the hero can really overcome his foe, but it should be clear who the villain is.  The danger in creating such a great villain is that the reader may decide to change sides and root for the adversary, which is why a hero must be as great as the villain he or she faces.  In other words, if you have a charismatic and confident villain, don't let your hero be a whiny bitch, or people might hope the villain actually does drop your hero off a cliff.
The challenge for a writer is to create balance where your hero has foibles, but not so many that people truly want the villain to succeed.  And the villain must be able to be beaten without having that fact obvious to everyone by page two.  The conclusion should be one where people either stand and cheer when the protagonist wins, or the reader breathes a sigh of relief and says out loud, "Whew!  I didn't think he would be able to beat him, but I'm so glad (insert character's name here) did."

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