The man you love to hate.

ORIGINAL CHARACTER DO NOT STEAL

Evil Mustache Master.

Since PULP! Summer/Fall 2012 is now out and “A Stiff Drink,” the latest chapter of Blowing Off Some Steam is available for public consumption, I’ve been deep in the planning stages for how I’m going to continue the story – and I’ve decided it’s time to introduce the character that’s going to act as the primary villain in the narrative.

Writing a good villain can be difficult.  Sometimes it can be much harder than writing a good protagonist, especially if you’re trying to avoid the old cliché of the Big Bad Evil Guy.  There are already too many well-established tropes out there, and there’s no need to bring out yet another a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash clone because you’ve got to have someone to pit the good guys up against.

Man, what a total Hitchcock.

What’s your motivation? Your salary.

Motivations for your characters are important.  If the reason someone’s doing something doesn’t make sense – or there’s no reason at all – the character is ultimately going to be flat, and unless your story is purposely written to be less about character interaction and more about just barreling the plot forward to the next action scene, you can’t really afford to have scenery-chewing villains that have shaky or one-dimensional motivations.  This isn’t to say that a good plot-driven action story can’t be a fun read, but you can add depth to your characters without sacrificing a well-paced plot.

NO, SENSEI!

Nuanced characters do not exist in this dojo – do they?

Villains offer a great opportunity to stretch your abilities as a writer by coming up with something that doesn’t just subvert the expected tropes but defies them altogether.  Sure, maybe your bad guy is a miserable fuck that only cares about amassing huge piles of money to swim around in like Scrooge McDuck, but if he’s just a caricature of the typical Wall Street Asshole he’s less of a real character and more of a thinly-veiled (or overt) attack on the kind of rampant, unchecked capitalism that makes people want to punch Mitt Romney right in his smug, expensive face.  Instead, you can take the core idea of that type of character and flesh him or her out – give them a motivation deeper than just greed.

And a woman makes sandwiches?

A man chooses – a slave obeys.

One of the best examples of this is how Andrew Ryan from BioShock is characterized.  Yes, on the surface he’s a stand-in for Objectivism, considering his name is a modified anagram of Ayn Rand, but the way Ryan is portrayed gives him such depth that you can empathize with the motivation behind all his actions. As you play through the game, you can find yourself sympathizing with the man – an incredibly brilliant and driven entrepreneur who believed with every last ounce of his being that he was working to create the perfect civilization – up to the confrontation you have with him (for the sake of spoilers I won’t mention what happens, but if you haven’t played the game, you’re missing out.  You can skip the sequel, though).

Far be it for me to say that I’m going to crib from BioShock, but if I can create a villain with the same amount of resonance with readers that Andrew Ryan has with gamers, I can go home happy.

What do you think?  Do you enjoy villains with depth or do you prefer the classic black-and-white of Good versus Evil?

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14 thoughts on “The man you love to hate.

  1. Depth.

    Personally, I really liked the villain from Under the Dome and the “villains” from the Game of Thrones series.

    It just occured to me that most characters are written by basically good people, so the authors tend to paint good villainy characters as rationalizing the shit out of their actions. I mean, you gotta remember the reason why we have phrases like “survival of the fittest”: because some business man in the 1800s wanted to justify his being a greedy piece of shit.

    • The villain from Under the Dome was probably the best part about that book. Well, it was good up until King just scratched his head and said “fuck it” before using a Magic 8-Ball to write the ending.

      Most writers are basically good people, this is true. By the same token we’ve all got a touch of the darkness in us – and if you’ve got to write a true bastard, tapping into that darkness might be more rewarding than rationalizing motivations.

      • Dunno if you read any of the first book, but I had a story in their titled “The Soldier.”

        The antihero was a guy named Korg. He shot people full of drugs so they could stay awake through the torture because he was on a vendetta to kill six different. He didn’t care about anything else, or anyone else.

        That character was fun and scary to write, mainly because I had to come up with some dark shit that kind of made me feel icky.

        On top of that, it’s really hard to root for him. I mean, he tortures people for information and shoots unarmed civilians.

  2. To me a good villain doesn’t have to be “deeply motivated” their actions however simply need the right context to fit the message being conveyed.

    Take Darkness from the movie legend. Now of course he does have motivations. But one of them is simply that he is the elemental force of evil. The prince of darkness himself.

    I suppose what I’m saying is I don’t need a villain to nescessarily rationalize their evil actions for me to find them believable.

    Liike craigauthor said, since villains are written presumably by good hearted people on average. The author often has to rationalize the evil otherwise it can be hard to visualize and write about.

    It is rare that a villain does evil for evils sake. But they do exist. Hp lovecraft often featured villains who do often rationalize their evil, but many times that evil is borne of irrational forces.

    To me a good villain shoould be a mysterious force of nature. If you want you villain to scare meyou need to make their evil irrational and uncompromising.

    The reapers in mass effect 3 for example. Sure they have multiple dimensions to thir motivation. But that motivation is alien to the average human way of thinking. The first time soveriegn and shepherd talk in the first game you get chillws. Well I did.

    So imho I agree a flat villain sucks. But don’t mistake the mistake of assuming a villain needs a lot of excuses to do what they do. They antagonist doesn’t have to have been abused since birth to make him an abusive monster.

    I think one reason simplistic motivators for evil (simple greed for example) fall flat so often is because the average reader would never empathize with it. Most people rationalize their greed into something else.

    To me true evil is madness. It is a mystery, and force of nature just as exquisitely enigmatic as good.

    • I like the primal evil motivation a lot, but sometimes it doesn’t have as much of an impact as more “mundane” types of evil.

      If you’re not familiar, there’s a Doctor Who spin-off that named Torchwood that’s kind of like Men In Black meets X-Files, where the main characters go around looking for aliens that are eating people’s faces and getting them to knock it off. Anyway, there’s this great episode where the team ends up getting stuck out in the Welsh countryside where they’re investigating disappearances, and the big bad evil thing that’s been killing and eating all these innocent villagers is… well I don’t want to ruin it for you if you haven’t seen it, but the way evil is portrayed in it doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of incomprehensible, elemental, alien evil. It was chilling, and is easily one of my favorite episodes.

  3. I would add that for me philosophically fear is the source of all human evil and suffering. We do evil due to fear. Why not ignorance? I belive true evil can only done intentionally. Knowingly.

    Why not desire? Because in order to desire you must know and fear the alternative.

    This imho is why villains who are evil simply because they “desire” something (say world domination for example) are boring.

    A villain who desires world domination due to some basic fundamental fear is far more interesting and compelling. Do we really think hitler for example did what he did simply out of desire for power? He feared the jews he feared a world where his power was not absolute.

    Make your villain fear something when you absolutely must go balls deep with motivation. But remember what tolkien said about keeping some mysteries, esp if you (the author) know the solution.

    Remmeber we all fear different things.

    Anyway. Just a fun adendum to think about. As the topic of evil is one I feel a certain connection with.

    • I totally understand the fear part of it! In fact, I’m working on something right now, and when I think about the sheer depravity the villain has to inflict on someone, it’s more out of desperation and fear for losing what they have.

      That said, though, there’s also stuff like the Stanford Prison Experiment (http://www.prisonexp.org/) which is absolutely terrifying.

      And what about malice? I mean, some people are just dicks. I mean, they just walk by and kick a dog for no reason. Or light it on fire with its snout wrapped shut with barbed wire. What about that shit?

      • For me I think just pure unreasoning malice is the most frightening as well. Cruelty to animals is so incomprehensible to me that it’s like staring into the face of an alien being whenever I’m confronted with it.

      • I think the reason The Dark Knight evoked so much was that the Joker was just that: pure, incomprehensible malice.

        SPOILER ALERT:

        Just the part where he explains that there’s only one spot in his gang, and three guys that want to get in, so he breaks a pool cue in half and tosses it in the middle of the room.

        Wow. Just jaw dropping wrath there and a desire to see people push themselves to the same place. I haven’t seen the new movie, but, for me, Joker is probably the most terrifying story villain I’ve encountered in a long time.

      • The main villain in the new one, Bane, is very different from the Joker’s portrayal. Bane is utterly convinced that what he’s doing is for the common good, and will stop at nothing to see his goals through. That kind of twisted commitment to your own internal moral structure isn’t nearly as terrifying as the way the Joker just wants to watch the world burn, but you can sympathize with the Bane character much more as a result.

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