Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Not Villainous Enough?

I've been noticing a trend in my stories recently.  I love epic tales where the hero overcomes incredible odds to reach the mountaintop, but it seems, at least to me, that such tales are no longer as widespread.  The problem rarely lies with the hero, but rather with his or her opposite.  All of this got me wondering...

...what the hell is happening to our villains?

Villains rarely stay so nowadays.  Take two of my favorite TV shows - Once Upon A Time and Supernatural.  I love the way these shows take a heroic adventure and adds some spice.  However, I'd be remiss if I didn't say I noticed that my beloved villains, the ones that you want the hero to overcome, rarely stay villains.  Regina, the so-called "Evil Queen," has found a soft spot and teamed up with Snow White.  The imp Rumplestilskin has gone from near omniscient baddie to a grieving father who helps Prince Charming.  Crowley, the notorious King of Hell and the man in charge of those sentenced to suffer for all eternity, has teamed up with the Winchesters in going after even bigger villains.  Even Lucifer, Satan himself, is cast as just a misunderstood son who took issue with his dad's project.

It got me wondering just what the hell was happening, because this trend has surfaced in my books as well.  Muzta Qar Qath of the Tugar became an intermittent ally of Andrew Keane.  Lucius Malfoy brushed off Voldemort in the search for his son.  Even Atvar of The Race ran schemes in conjunction with humanity when new colonization ships showed up from Home.  Is there something in the water?  Why can't these baddies just stay bad?

I think the answer to this is manifold.  First, we grow familiar with bad guys that stick around a while.  No one likes dealing with a constant evil, and we realize over time that almost no one is pure evil.  Everyone has motivations and a backstory of their own, and a villain hanging around so long reveals these quirks to us.  We humanize the villain and start to understand him

The second answer is that complex villains make for compelling characters, and since people rarely relate to unfettered evil, nearly everyone needs a redeeming feature of some sort.  One dimensional villains are easy to root against because they offer the reader no reason to see them as anything but bad.  As such, it makes it tough to get into such a story unless the villain is so powerful, like a Voldemort, because you can't get invested in the outcome.  And more complexity means that the villain has to do more than just be bad.

Finally, I believe there is something within all of us that roots for redemption and forgiveness.  We want to see the villain not just defeated, but to realize the gravity of his or her mistake and try to make amends.  It seems much more satisfying to watch a villain attempt to right wrongs, almost like we've won an argument or something.  I realized this when I thought of the man who was undoubtedly the greatest villain in the history of movies - Darth Vader.  This was a man who choked out his subordinates for making a mistake and once slaughtered an entire temple full of children.  Yet we still cheered when he turned on the Emperor to save his son.  In the final scene where Vader was burned in a funeral pyre, we found ourselves feeling sorry for this murderous bastard.  This, I think, is the final element, and the most crucial, in empathizing with the villain, for it makes them like us.  After all, we all make mistake, so wouldn't we like to be redeemed at some point?

I've come to accept that this makes villain conversion almost inevitable in any story with depth.  As much as I love seeing the bad guy get beaten, that bad guy has to be so powerful to create a good story that they must be utterly destroyed for the story to be credible, and then where does the hero go from there?  You can't keep finding even greater villains if you want to stay believable.  Therefore, you need a believable element, and an element of redemption and change must be part of that, for it indicates growth.


  1. Yes!! I remember the last epic novel I worked on - (A Light Burns at Midnight) probably the most fun I had was figuring out my "evil" character's background and finding out what made her that way. This character may be featured if I ever decide to write that type of fantasy again (or maybe I'll use her in other ways)? But in some way, the evil has to be believable which means there has to be a human element in there!

    1. I've discarded my share of villains because they didn't fit. Some of them are stashed away for later use as well. ;-)