Sunday, November 30, 2008
Over the last year I have discovered something about myself. If I spend too much time blogging, I spend less time writing. I don't think this is a discovery that would surprise too many people; I've heard other people who say they have the same problem. The writing thing is a big part of the reason I have decided to put my book reviews back on this page and quit trying to post on too many blogs all at once. It's too time consuming and I'd like to get back to doing more writing. One of the things I like most about writing fiction is creating the characters-- especially the villains. Villains are fun for more than just the obvious reasons. I know I'm not the only one who gets a little bit of a vicarious thrill out of writing about people doing bad things, but the villain also gives the writer a little bit of a break from the main character. I think we all love our heroes but sometimes it can a bit dull dealing with good-guy angst. It's when the writer gets to write the bad-guy that the creativity really has a chance to come out and play. However, writing a villain isn't as easy at it sounds. Trying to write a credible bad-guy without having him rubbing his hands together while saying "mwaahahhaahah" takes subtlety and I find myself really having to think about villain archetypes while I put together a story and deciding what stereotypes to keep-- and which ones to throw out. Here's what's on the list so far: A Tragic Beginning: Like a lot of heroes it's not uncommon for a villain to be born out of childhood tragedy. I think a grim turning point is important for a villain's development for many reasons--not the least of which is relatability. I know that occasionally people do cruel things without having a horrible childhood to fall back on as an excuse but I think the reader (or viewer) prefers to have an explanation for why a person commits evil deeds. The idea of evil springing out of nothingness, while intriguing, is often too disturbing. For a villain to entertain, they also have to be able to be understood. Self Interest: I don't think a character can be a true villain if there is someone they won't betray. Bad guys need to be unpredictable but not too vulnerable. You might see a villain, like The Joker for instance, decide not to kill someone but it will be for some reason they alone understand-- not because they care about anyone. A villain isn't someone who steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving mother, they steal the bread only for themselves. The most horrifying bad-guys might seem to care about something (or someone) only to discard it/them the first time they become inconvenient. Lack of Moral Restraint: Bad guys will do things that other people just won't do without severe provocation. They murder for monetary gain or just for kicks. They steal without thought. It could be because they are sociopaths or just plain crazy. But it doesn't matter. A villain is capable of anything. A Plan: I'm sure most everyday criminals don't have a master plan when it comes to their enterprises. I'm guessing they just want to get as much stuff as they can the easy way-- by taking it from everyone else. But the most entertaining fiction has a villain with a plan. It might be someone like X-Men's Magneto, who wants to see mutants rule the world; or someone like Lex Luthor, who managed to become President of the United States-- for a short time anyway. But there has to be a plan for the hero to foil in order for a writer to tell a story. It might be as simple as a kidnapping for ransom or a plot to assassinate the President. Either way, there has to be a plan in motion. Henchmen: There are villains who work alone, but the big fish generally have help. Expendable help. Charisma: Most villains are able to generate a following, no matter how crazy their philosophy. Hitler didn't control Germany because of his looks, it was because he had an unfathomable charisma that allowed him to convince people that he had the answers. Any kind of villainous leader is bound to be charismatic. Desire for Revenge: I don't know that a villain has to have a vengeful nature, but it seems like a likely characteristic of a villain don't you think? When I think of driven villains it's the ones who think they have a cause that come to mind. Just look at the Wicked Witch of the West. She saw Dorothy as the cause of her sister's death and as a thief who stole the ruby slippers. She committed everything she had to stopping Dorothy-- even her winged monkeys. Inflated Ego: No matter how smart a hero is, the villain will always think they're smarter. This is why villains like to deliver the monologue to the hero detailing their evil plan. Even if the cliche of the monologue doesn't appear in the story, the villain will still think they're smarter than anyone else-- and heaven help anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. A Secret Lair: Like the hero the villain needs a place to hatch their plans-- and evil Batcave if you will. A creepy cabin in the woods pops up a lot in fiction; though an erudite villain like Hannibal Lecter would have a very classy, if creepy, hideout. A Physical Oddity: Not all villains have this trait, but a lot do. The Joker, no matter how he is portrayed, has a terribly disfigured face. A lot of Bond villains have physical oddities-- like Jaw's teeth. Darth Vader has a whole replacement body while Lex Luthor can't grow hair. I think these characteristics are thrown in to add to the isolated nature of the villain and to help explain why they do bad things. A Need to Rule: Most villains are bullies. Real life villains like Charles Manson and Hitler preyed on the weak minded and this same trait shows up in our fictional scoundrels more often than not because it's just too true to ignore. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they have in common is the need to feel superior to other people; it's just the manner in which they go about it that differs. A Mean Streak: A villain just would be a villain if they were nice. These are the guys who like to torture puppies for fun and they will always kick you when you are down. ....Oddly, I'm running out of stereotypes here. I know there are more... I think the problem is that I don't find the villain as easy to box in as the hero. A villain doesn't have to be able to fight like a ninja to be the bad-guy-- that's what henchmen are for. They don't necessarily have to have a nemesis since the bad guy will always find someone to take advantage of-- it's what they do. Anyway, I have a villain of my own that I am working on. He fits into some of the categories I have listed here though not all of them. But I would loooove to have your feedback. Who are your favorite bad guys and what do you think makes them believable? What characteristics would you add to the list? Seriously, I want to know.