Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 1

>> Monday, January 25, 2010

Someone suggested I write a series of posts on writing elements. One might object to my doing so since I'm completely unqualified to do so - I don't and never have taught English or writing and I'm not even a "published" author except under the loosest possible definitions. But I want to do so anyway, and not just because I'm always trying to humor Relax Max. I have some very definite opinions about what I think about when I write and what I look for when I read.

So, let me start with this disclaimer on this series: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

The most important critical element for me, when it comes to reading, movies, writing, in fact, stories of any kind, are the characters. Over the years, I think, literature has become more and more cognizant of the non-black-and-white nature of people, that people aren't "all good" as a general rule and protagonists have taken on more dark sides or gray areas as a result, which adds depth and interest (but can make a reader uncomfortable). I will go into protagonists, of course, but, today, I want to focus on villains. In fact, I'm going to focus on villains for at least a couple of posts because I often think they get too little attention. I've been guilty of it myself.

Ironically, one of the things I have seen more frequently in the past hundred years or so of writing are pure black (no gray) villains. At least, that's how I've seen it. I'm unsure if that's because of visual media that tends to polarize things or because of some of the over-the-top and very visible villains are well-known as examples, not just the Hitlers, Stalins and Mengeles, but also the Paul Bernardos (and his accomplice, Karla Homolka), Peter Sutcliffes, and Ted Bundys that have been splashed over newspapers and news programs and documentaries and more. Completely evil psycopaths, cleverly concocting their next moves for some nefarious end are great movie/novel fodder, but, in real life, they're not that common.

I'm not saying not to use them - I've got a few myself, and I'll talk about this kind in a later post. However, there is a whole host of other potential "villains," ones that aren't evil per se, though many might be quick to call them so, people who are honestly doing the best they can, following their moral imperatives only to end up doing terrible things. Sometimes, they pursue these horrible acts with willing gusto. Sometimes, they act with supreme reluctance. Both, however, are driven by the same overwhelming imperative:

Necessity exists.

So what, someone might ask. Why would it matter? Well, there are a few reasons. Not the least of which is that far more harm is done world-wide by people who feel they are doing the right thing than by people who either actively thrive on harm or those who really don't care one way or the other. The wide ranging effects of psychopaths in power would come to little or naught without their followers and those that look the other way no matter what happens. These antagonists and enablers are real, usually to a much higher degree than those mad scientists and creative and clever people who live off evil that lurk in so many works of fiction.

Another reason is that a story is more powerful if one can understand and appreciate the motivations of all characters, even the antagonists. The story is more real with a person on both sides of the conflict rather than a hero facing off against a personification of true evil.

Another reason is that misguided antagonists can often highlight a societal issue, trend, or aspect, whereas a wildcard psycho doesn't really represent anything but him/herself. People can be motivated by zenophobia or homophobia or love for the fatherland or religious fanatacism or ecoterrorism, etc., and reveal not only the dangers of any ideology taken too damn far, but also (often by contrast) its value when used with moderation.

A writer can also include aspects and history that enable the reader to understand when and what drove someone beyond a good person doing questionable things to a demented fanatic blind to the horrible things he or she does in the name of his or her necessity.

Intent matters. It matters in matters of the law. It matters to observers and jurors. It matters to readers.

If a man with a gun kills stranger on sight, I think most would think that's pretty evil behavior. Snipers rarely get a happy rap on college campuses and the like. If, however, both shooter and shootee are wearing different uniforms and in a battle venue, few would assume that the shooter was inherently evil (even if they think war is). The soldiers - on both sides - are fulfilling what they consider a moral imperative, trusting their leaders to send them in only when necessary to kill and face death.

Someone who walks by a child dying of disease is unlikely to win a humanitarian award. But someone who advocates health care except not for illegal aliens (or any other group), even if children die as a result, is not inherently evil in my opinion. Some would say that's just practical. Others, myself included, consider it misguided and tragic. The negligence can be evil, but one doesn't have to be evil to accept it as "necessary" in my opinion.

If someone tortures another for his own gratification, that's pretty twisted and evil. If someone tortures a terrorist to get information he thinks might save lives, is he evil? Even if the notion is completely wrong, is the individual who does it evil? Or is he likely convinced that this is the only option open to him? Necessity exists.

There is a difference between shooting an intruder and shooting your neighbor preemptively because you don't like how he looked at your daughter and shooting your neighbor who never did anything because you want to send the message that you're a ruthless badass. Many people, I think, understand the necessity in the first scenario, recognize the signs of mental illness in the actions of the second one, and would find the last the sign of a scumbag.

Finding sympathy with the antagonist makes for a more interesting story in many ways, less black and white; however, it makes things more challenging for your protagonists if he can't just ride through with his rocket launcher and take him out. It makes it complicated. It reflects to some extent on your protagonists, how they deal with a deluded or misguided, but dangerous, antagonist. Sometimes, there are no easy answers, just choicse between miserable options. Sometimes the happier options are there, but the antagonist can no longer see them. Sometimes, it means the good guys have to face choices that are equally bad. However, it also leaves open the option of alternative ways of dealing with our antagonists than extermination or humiliation or whatever.

No matter what kind of antagonist you favor, know why he or she is motivated to do what he or she does.

It matters.

That's what I think. What do you think?

Tomorrow, I will continue on misguided antagonists with some examples and the way I explain it.


  • Jeff King

    wow... just wow.
    now i see how you pumped out your last piece of work... might as well write a book on the matter, there is no way i could have done this.

    i do love the content, it kept me reading to the end. i'll be back of course, to read on. thx

  • Aron Sora

    Where would someone who manipulates others into doing evil things fit in? Someone who is fully aware of what he is doing. Most evil people, I find, are just people who have been convinced to follow someone. The closest I think any real human can get to evil is the manipulator.

  • Project Savior

    I absolutely love complex, understandable villains. The problem I have writing them is I get to liking them to much. In my first book, by the time I was on the third chapter, my "villain" was much more interesting and likable than my "hero". I had to change the whole POV around and make him the hero and change the Protagonist to the Antagonist. In my last book I got around this problem by having the "villain" of the book be the Protagonist and have him slowly learn that he is the bad guy.

  • Stephanie B

    That's my point, Aron. Though someone doesn't have to manipulate someone, necessarily, to make them do bad things, as I intend to explain today. If someone works from a premise that is fundamentally flawed like, all Africans are inherently inferior and more like animals than people - a premise taught with breakfast in the South and, to some extent in the North, one can do all kinds of terrible things and convince themselves its necessary. "I keep them chained and flog them when they try to escape not because of cruelty, but because they're too dumb to know what a favor I do for them by taking care of them." They saw such tactics as "necessary." It's illogical to assume that every Southern slave owner was an evil person or even that they were directly being manipulated by an evil person. They were misguided by an assumption that was terribly wrong. And innocent people paid the price for their misconception. Slavery, in my opinion, is a great evil, but good people were accomplices to it, participated in it.

    However, truly evil people can manipulate others (see Nazi Germany) using the same methods, no matter how insane the assumptions used if they have the right audience at the right time. It's a very perceptive question.

  • Stephanie B

    Project Savior, that second idea sounds fascinating! Brilliant!

    I have to say, there are certain things I can't understand and they often find their way into my novels' villains so I can keep the good guys separate. However, some of my protagonists skirt the line so closely, they might have gone either way.

  • Relax Max

    Very interesting start, I think. No, I wasn't suggesting you "teach" - I was only thinking maybe all of us could just discuss together the "elements" or whatever you want to call it, of what makes something "classic". Of course characters - interesting and believable characters are the heart and soul of any "classic" story, I agree. I was also thinking about plots and subplots, and underlying messages. Maybe "morals" to the story, if you want to put it that way. A major classic work (like Dickens' David Copperfield, for example) always seems to have many things going on at the same time, moving seamlessly back and forth in different chapters - almost like the many subplots in a tv soap opera, keeping you interested in what the others are doing and then coming back to the main characters. To Kill a Mockingbird also comes to mind. You have the kids, of course. Then you have Boo Radley next door. Then you have the rape case going on. And, through it all, there is an underlying current of "Right will triumph in the end" or at least that's what I got out of it. But characters being filled out! - like Dill always chewing with his front teeth. Stuff like that.

    I just thought maybe we could concoct our own list of things that we think must be present if a book is to end up having a chance to be a "classic." Good, interesting, well-developed characters, as you say, would certainly be on such a list. Maybe at the top of any list we were to come up with.

    Good points you made about characters.

  • Stephanie B

    Given how many of us are bloggers/writers, there's no reason we couldn't work on such a thing concurrently.

    For example, you touched on plot. I'd be the first to admit that plot is not my strength, though I have admired the work of some (Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo is my personal favorite for pulling diverse threads together). I see no reason that others who like to write and have opinions on these topics (many of whom are far more learned than myself), couldn't all write related posts. We could make a point to link the others so that someone could see a smorgasbord of discussions on writing elements.

    Some posts could conceivably cover similar topics (say characters) but either address different aspects of characters or provide contrasting views, with reader discussion being part and parcel of the whole.

    That's cool with me. The more the merrier.

  • flit

    I have always prefered villains who were "real" ... or at least realish ... all good/all bad is just SO boring.

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