Writing Essentials: Characters Part Two: A Darker Villain

>> Friday, January 29, 2010

Disclaimer: 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.

I've talked about the deluded villains, those that aren't so much evil as severely misguided, trapped within their own beliefs into doing evil things. But there are some people who go beyond that step, venturing into that gray-to-black area beyond an honest mistake and into either insanity or at least taking things to such extremes that results aren't rational even within the paradigm. Many times, what they do and how they act's so heinous, it seems impossible they can't be evil (and even the most generous would have to say they're skirting the line at least), but many are mentally ill, driven beyond their limits or completely in the thrall of someone knowingly evil. These are people who might have been decent but their feet stumbled on the path, yet they are often too far gone to be retrievable. They are not masterminds. There is no method to their madness. They are lost but they defy sympathy since they take out their insanity with violence on the blameless.

Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of examples:

Fanatics: People who believe something, but have let loose of any sane way of addressing it. Instead of thinking of regrettable steps they feel they must take in pursuit of their perception of necessity, they begin to see all destruction as a means to whatever end they originally had. It's the difference between a suicide bomber taking out an army barrack (which makes a certain kind of brutal sense) and taking out a marketplace of civilians of their own nationality (which no longer means anything). It can mean blind faith in any task set by a manipulative but trusted leader and unquestioning loyalty. It can mean that original beliefs become the rationale for striking out in every direction.

Timebombs: Sullen people who have labored for a long time under a sense of martyrdom but haven't done anything about it only to explode in the end in a spree of senseless violence. Like shooting children in an Amish school, or the Columbine massacre, or drowning all your children one after another. Something snaps and the target of the violence often has little or nothing to do with the original cause of pain. The acts can be planned or impromptu, but the end result is frequently a large number of innocents killed with no way of understanding what drove someone to do so (suicide frequently punctuates these kinds of sprees).

Compounders: Individuals who do a little transgression and are either so emboldened by not getting caught that they keep pushing their new limits or are so paranoid about someone finding out that they compound the original mistake with more and worse crimes. Gambling becomes embezzling becomes framing someone else becomes murder. In the end, what they do is so horrible that the original concern seems completely trivial. Their perspective is shot as they become, often in surprisingly little time, monsters by degrees without ever realizing they've slipped from rational behavior.

Dark Depths: People who are pushed into doing something violent, for example, through circumstance, only to find they've a taste for it. Soldiers gone wrong, for example. Taught to be a sniper for a purpose, perhaps one can find himself with a taste for it above and beyond a satisfaction in a job well done or the comfort of believing what one does is for the greater good. People like this may have started out with innocent intentions, but, as they find pleasure in their evil-doings, they begin to manufacture excuses for more, manipulate the situation to give them opportunities. Over time, the excuses become flimsier, they targets less justifiable until one is just a madman taking out random subjects.

(On that last one, I've often wondered about the assertion that serial killing is a modern disease. It occurs to me that if one were into sadism, torture, mayhem or murder, in early days there were plenty of opportunities to indulge it in professions. One could become an executioner [many punishments, capital and otherwise, were horrifically painful] or a mercenary and do your worst on a Crusade or as a Conquistador. It's only as we've become less tolerant of sanctioned horrors that they've had to strike out on their own. The career choices aren't what they used to be.)

Insanity and mental illness often play a part in these and we've given some credence to that in the legal profession. But how far does it go before insanity isn't a viable excuse any more, before we say we slid past crazy and into evil? I don't think the answer's easy and I don't think everyone has the same line. I write a great deal of sword and sorcery and my protagonists have quite a few bodies in their wake, but they never do anything I consider evil. Yet I can read another book where someone torments a child and feel they are evil to the core.

I probably have more of these types of villains, these skirting around the black, than I have of the full-blown psychopaths. Or, one of my villains can start here where there's still a potential for sympathy only to end up completely gone over to the dark side in the end.

I think what's interesting about the villains I've talked about the past four posts is that there might be some hope of redemption in them. They could learn. They could grow. You might even be able to wrangle one into a protagonist or an anti-hero, more so the misguided ones of the last three posts than the ones that are so far gone here. Still, even here there could still be hope. Tomorrow (or maybe Monday), I delve into what makes someone an irredeemable villain to me, what I see as evil.


  • Jeff King

    Severus Snape comes to mind... he wasn't the main villain but played a big role.

    I love those kind of twists... I wish she would of had Neville Longbottom, be the real chosen one. And Harry just a regular boy, like when Nevel cuts off the snakes head in the end of book #7. He would have fought and killed volermort, revealing it was him the whole time.

    Sorry got off on a bit of a rant.

  • Shakespeare

    Honestly, I don't think of Severus as a villain. He had been--though not to the extent that many others were... and yet his redemption was love... and he'd redeemed himself, to a degree, years earlier, long before Harry even knew he had magic.

    The problem with redemption is that it is hard for us to believe. For a person to be truly redeemed, for them to overcome their earlier tendencies--even for lesser villains you've been describing in the earlier posts--they have to prove they are changed.

    The only villain I can recall in this way is a recent one, the nemesis to Robin Hood in the BBC series (third year). He was evil through the first two seasons (even if he was also hot), and yet we understood why he was, that life had not dealt with him in the same way it had with Robin... and he proved, undeniably, that he had changed. Somehow the writers made his transformation believable in a single episode, too. Really amazing.

    American films seem to work under the assumption that a person must be all good (or mostly good) or all bad--and the only way to solve the bad people's influence is by killing them.

    I think real life is far less cut and dried. No one is entirely good or entirely evil, with a few exceptions. We are all a mixture, fighting the worst tendencies or thoughts and struggling to act upon our best urges. For me, gray is more poignant and beautiful than black and white.

  • Stephanie B

    Redemption can be very powerful, can add interest to diverse characters.

    It's odd, because I agree with Shakespeare - most people aren't all bad or good, yet I frequently write Sword and Sorcery where the "bad" guys end up dead. Part of it is it's tidy. Part of it is that, especially for a series, the two main camps fighting every book can get tedious (and I think in terms of series). Part of it is that death doesn't frighten me much. Part of it is that it's a world of kill or be killed. And part of it is that I usually have a bevy of bad guys and some of them are irredeemable.

    Part of it is that I'm ruthless. :)

    However, "bad guys" who are more than black and white (and good guys as well) make for much more interesting reading. Else, you might as well be watching a chess match.

  • Jeff King

    I am not looking for an augment-but-when Severus killed Dumbledore, you didn't consider him a villain?
    I did, I wanted him dead; I wanted him to die a horrific, painful death...

  • The Mother

    I admit to having read the next post first, so this comment is related--

    I actually deal better with the idea of the true psychopath--someone who really, truly does not believe what he is doing is actually wrong--than the faith-based delusionists who let an iron age book run their moral judgements.

    Those guys are the crazy ones.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm not sure they're mutually exclusive, The Mother, though I don't really like either kind.

    I use them in my work, but that's why villain's, per se, are never my main character. I just don't like 'em.

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