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Villains Who Aren't.

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

One of the more common kinds of villain in today’s literature compared to literature of days past, at least in fantasy and science fiction circles, is the villain who is relatable. I consider them to be villains who in their own mind are not villains. This really isn’t hard to imagine. We often say everyone is the hero in their own story, and there is no reason the antagonist cannot be the same way. They have desires, motivations, goals and reactions to the world which may be every bit as benign in intention as the protagonist. It doesn’t mean they can’t be the baddy of the tale.

Do we really believe everyone of a different political spectrum is evil, setting out every morning to undo everything we set out to do? Do we really believe that every adherent to a different religion starts the day with a hearty breakfast of “Hate my religion?” Do they think it of you? Do we believe that every bully just enjoys being a bully, or do we recognize they are doing it for attention, or out of their own fears, and a need to be liked? Is every fantasy queen and king trying to take over the kingdom because they just want power or do they believe they are throwing off the tyranny of the ruler before them?

It is not hard to imagine that the villain might have motivations which we disagree with, but under the right circumstance could be the protagonist of a differently told tale. In fact, that is a useful way to think about it. If you are creating the villain you want to be relatable, don’t just find their side of the story, imagine you are setting out to write their side of the story, and they have to look like the hero or heroine.

Thanos wanted to save the universe from itself... Many were on team Thanos.

Remember the point of a relatable villain is, in part, to make the readers want them to be “On screen,” more. We want them conflicted about whose side to root for, but that means we need to generate motivations and needs which a reader can relate to, and which land them on the side of good, or at least not pure evil.

This involves world building for more than just the character. If a lone person stands up and declares, “The rulers of this land are evil, pompous, and insane, we must overthrow them…” but nothing else in the text leads us to believe this is true, we might have a problem finding the relatable aspect. If instead we see that indeed the king and queen torture people to maintain power, maybe even a member of the antagonist’s family, and they want them deposed, that would make them more relatable. We want justice too. If they go about deposing them through means which are even more questionable, now we know they are still the villain, and our protagonists have to walk a line in determining what are the right actions.

The key is in the balance. Relatable villains need to be relatable, but can’t accidentaly become the side of good. The ends can’t justify the means, and we need to see them do something that in the context of the book is considered outright wrong. Too wrong. We agree with them in principle, but can’t allow their methods. Another option is to hint that while their cause is right, when they are done, they would fall further to evil than what they are seeking to fix.

Baron Zemo
Zemo didn't want super powered people. Would you?

The important point is that we need to see both sides of them, and both sides need to be supported by the narrative structure and the world building around them.

Now go and make a villain and always remember, writers write.

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