Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Villains

Today's post is brought to you by Google Cache. Because in trying to fix my formatting, I deleted this already published post. Several Prosers got to witness my panic before I finally figured out how to find the cache. Phew!

All right, fantasy writers. We need to have a little chat. It’s about our villains – because they seem to be getting more and more clich├ęd as the years go by.

I give a large part of the blame to Tolkien. Lord Sauron is sort of the gold standard of villains, the predecessor to innumerable Dark Lords that harassed medieval villages, kidnapped heroines, and generally sought to plunge all that is good into darkness.

 In all honesty, I’m actually fine with the Tall, Dark and Evil. It’s those villains that are one step down that I really bother me: humans that are presented as so horribly monstrous or villainous that there’s basically no humanity left to them. Some thriller or mystery novels are especially bad about this, and seem to compete over how many negative traits they can give to their villains. It can get a little ridiculous. I've come across some villains who are evil, sociopathic, perverted, serial killers who also hate kittens and rainbows, and usually tries to sexually assault the heroine near the end of the story. What, were the authors afraid that the readers would be all, "Well, he's killed three dozen people, but he hasn't run over any puppies lately! Maybe he's not all that bad!"

 In anime, the evil of any villain is easily determined by the size of his or her shoulder pads

Pretty much every author I talk to is aware of this issue. One solution that many of us choose is to give the villain a twist of good, a redeeming feature to make them seem less of a caricature and more human. More often than not, this ends up being a love for cats. Though villains’ cats are always sleek and well behaved, and don’t shred the Shroud of Evil into tiny pieces, or bat the Orb of Pain around the kitchen floor, or interrupt multiple times as the villain is trying to just get her friggin' blog post finished.

I’d like to propose the opposite. Instead of giving a bad guy a twist of good, why not instead start out your villain as a good person – with just a little twist of evil? I'm not necessarily talking about the bullied kid who suddenly turns psycopathic and sends flying monkeys after the school (I think I might be getting my Buffy the Vampire Slayer plots mixed up here). No, a person who is good, and who has been good, who has a chance of fate that makes them choose the wrong path. I'm also a big fan of people who believe they are doing the Right Thing.

I do understand the point of making a villain the epitome of evil. Then the hero doesn’t have to suffer any qualms about taking him/her/it out. I do sympathize – it can be a bit boring if we have to watch the hero suffer through agonies of guilt after utterly destroying someone who was essentially a good person. Let me know if you have any ideas on how to convey that. Other topics for study: how evil does an action have to be to merit punishment? What matters more, motives or action? What is the most essential trait of a villain - is it just opposing what the hero desires? Is that all it need to be, or should it be so much more than that?

Here are a few examples of interesting, complex villains.

Baron Wulfenbach
Is he evil? Is he good? Who knows? He does try to kill Agatha on a fairly regular basis. But he's Gil's father, and he's opposed to the Other, who seems to be the Big Bad in the series. And besides, am I really supposed to like a bad guy this much?
Here is a link to Baron Wulfenbach just trying to squeeze a little fun time into ruling an empire... though I think Othar wishes the Baron had a different idea of "fun." (the feature on the Baron goes about 10 pages)

The Queen of Attolia
She might start out seeming rather like a caricature, but by the third book in the series, well....... Just read the whole Queen's Thief series. If you need more encouragement than that, go see the 800 posts we’ve made about the series, like here, here and here. Not to mention the one Melanie did just last week!)

Loki from the Avengers
I suppose you could argue that his complexity comes from the fact that he’s a trickster character rather than a true villain. He’s definitely more bad than good, but every so often, we get a glimpse of the pain underneath the evil. Plus, he’s hilarious.

If you want advice on how to create an excellent villain, I recommend Melanie’s post ( 

Who are your favorite complex villains?


  1. I really like Arvin Sloane from the TV show Alias. In the beginning he seems like pure evil, but slowly his character evolves. I'm always left wondering which side he's really on.

    And how about Despereaux from Psych? He isn't evil at all. Shawn even spoke at one of his funerals.

  2. Excellent post! I too like complex villains, and I love your suggestion to start with them good and then have them turn evil. One of my favorite villain tropes is when they start out friends with the good guys, but then veer off down the wrong path, and end up being their enemies. Like with Magneto and Professor Xavier in X-men. There is just so much emotion layered into their relationship.

  3. This is great. The right kind of villain is so important to the success of a story. I love the examples you gave. Shoulderpads *chuckle*
    I do think how complicated a villain can be, is also affected by the age of the audience - we didn't need much more from Voldemort than pure evil for the most part, did we?

  4. Love the post. Love the Mordor forecast.

  5. I'm still not totally turned off of Once Upon a Time, but I think there are a few things happening within the villain sector that I like/don't like. Rumpelstiltskin is still my favorite villain, maybe from any TV show I've ever seen. Regina is probably one of my least favorite. I can't stand how she oscillates between good and bad with so little cause. Rumple, however, has such a fantastic back story that I love him, no matter how many people he beats up with his cane.

    1. I agree. I loved Regina in the begin, but lately she's been too inconsistent. The writers need to stop toying with the audience by making us feel like she's changing and then have her go right back to her evil ways. It's getting annoying.

    2. Yeah, she kind of peaked right before Cora showed up. I could have really liked her, but she keeps flipping back and forth, and it's getting hard to care about her anymore.

      Rumple is probably one bad decision away from becoming annoying, too, but I'll cross my fingers and hope for the best, since all his actions began with a basic desire to be with his son, and that kind of motive tugs at my heart strings.


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