Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Clear Delineation

I've written in the past that I love characters that are complex.  I enjoy multiple levels of nuance, and I want to see it from both the hero and the villain.  Cartoony, one-dimensional villains quickly get boring and let me know there's no way he'd win, so why do I bother getting invested in the story?

That doesn't mean I don't want a clear villain.

I've seen lots of stories that try to get more morally ambiguous.  The villain is wrestling with severe psychological issues and is motivated by some deep seated goodness that he or she is just expressing wrong.  I understand that no villain, including some of history's worst, ever himself as a villain, but we, the audience, should be able to figure it out without difficulty.  What's more, we shouldn't root for the villain...at all.

JK Rowling did this real well with Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels.  If anyone was crying out for sympathy for a troubled childhood, it was Voldemort.  He was abandoned by his mother at birth and raised by an uncaring orphanage.  His father, although still alive, wanted nothing to do with him.  The character creation screamed out for sympathy.  Why then did we still despise the man?  Because Rowling did such a masterful job of showing that he was pure evil, and that his wretched childhood didn't excuse what he did as an adult.  In spite of his strength and obvious talent, no one I know wanted Voldemort to win.

Too many stories have gotten away from this simple narrative.  In our quest for realism and grittiness, we've forgotten that readers want to root for and against someone.  When we muddy the waters too much, we confuse them.  After all, is it really easy to cheer the downfall of anyone we have even the slightest hint of empathy for?

While making things complex, re-look at your villain and see if you've made him too complex.  Do you care about what happens to him?  Would you be upset if he found any satisfaction?  If the answer is yes, you might want to go back and check on how you can tilt the scales against him a bit.  It's the little things that show us that at least our stories keep good and bad in context.

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