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Villains Make The Protagonist

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What makes a good villain? What makes us want to keep reading about them when we hate them, or empathize with them when we know we shouldn't? Let's dig deeper into the rogues of literature. 

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Villains Who Aren't

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

Many were on team Thanos. He wanted to save the universe from itself. Seems good right? 

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.

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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Villain as Friend

Villains. Sometimes they are friends turned against us, fallen heroes, antiheroines, the side of right in their own mind, or just plain bad people. Their motivations should be at least as complex as the protagonist's, and in many cases villains drive the story, not the protagonist. Any one of the above options and many more are valid ways to construct your foil to the person we root for.

As we begin our journey into the variations of villains, we need to start first with several questions. Every villain you create should have a clear one or two sentence answer to these questions.  

  1. What is the antagonist’s motivation?

  2. What is their goal?

  3. What is their internal conflict (if any)?

  4. What is their relationship to the protagonist?

Some people may say the motivation and the goal are the same, but there is a difference that should be looked at more carefully. A goal is what the character wants to achieve, the motivation is why they want to achieve it. A motivation is usually something which stems from the character’s past, while a goal is usually an action to be carried out in the future. Examples:

I want to be the ruler of the country, (goal) because my mother was the rightful heir, and it was stolen from her. (motivation)

I want to see the current king put in jail, (goal) because he stole the throne from my mother, the rightful heir. (motivation)

I want to kill the king, (goal) because he stole the throne from my mother, the rightful heir. (motivation)

The list can keep going. One motivation may give rise to many different goals in a villain. The anger and resentment in this case may give rise to very different plots or actions. How they chose which of those they engage in, may be due to an internal conflict. The villain’s person vs. person story, may show they are unwilling to kill, because their mother was killed. Maybe they believe sternly in justice, because although their parents lost the throne, they were taught that to operate inside the law, despite an urge for vengeance. Etc.

Lastly, we must ask, how is the protagonist involved in all this? Do they know the villain? Are they in the way of the villain’s goals? Are they a pawn of the villain, and perhaps change sides? Maybe they even share the villain’s motivation, but they cannot get behind the goals.

Villain as friend allows a unique and deep look at the way a conflict may erupt between two people. Perhaps two friends both had a business destroyed by a rival. One vows vengeance while the other vows to start again. Perhaps both friends start down the road of vengeance while one comes to their senses, and the other does not. Perhaps for religious reasons, one believes to turn the other cheek, and the other won’t.

In a villain as friend tale, do you have the situation where they are not willing to harm one another? What ways they directly butt heads may be determined by the depth of their previous friendship. How will the protagonist thwart plans if they are not willing to do direct or even indirect harm? How will the villain perhaps be thwarted because they won’t hurt their friend? Perhaps all the friend needs to do is be in the right place at the right time, and the villain would call it off out of historical loyalty?

Is it possible to make the right side so ambiguous it isn’t even clear who is in the right?

Captain America Civil War

The important part is a focus on the relationship between them. When a villain is the known entity, the inner dialogues, the reasons and the conversion between these two characters on opposing sides becomes all the more important to flesh out.

Go build some villains, think about why you would be friends with them, and then why you might disagree. Always remember, writers write. If you found this inspirational for your writing, don’t forget to subscribe here for more on the villain’s series, and don’t forget to visit the conflicts series below.

Villain as Evildoer

In our exploration of villains, perhaps one of the less used versions in modern novels is the flat out, evildoer. This villain is bad. They are not redeemable and they are not even relatable. They are evil, and enjoy doing things that in the context of the book would be considered evil for evil sake. There is nothing wrong with that.

In a recent push to make sure everyone is relatable, bad guys are not so bad, and maybe just misunderstood, we can’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes, people are in fact just rotten. In addition, everyone loves to hate a good villain, so give them someone worth hating. It is at the core of our being and a kind of catharsis reading can provide. It has been part of our literature and mythology since we have chosen to tell stories.

Some points to remember for the truly evil.

Evil doesn’t mean stupid. Let me repeat that because in many a pulp fiction story and too many attempts at fantasy and science fiction, evil for evil's sake means stupid. Villains can be extremely intelligent, well mannered, planning people, who happen to have nothing but bad on the heart. It doesn’t mean they can’t be very good at it. They don’t need to monologue away their evil plan, build easily escapable traps of torture or mistreat henchmen as a side effect of being bad. Think of Sherlock Holmes's Dr. Moriarty. Incompetent villains are stopped by society's controls, like police, supervisors, and schools.  

Thanos

Thanos, evil, but his motivations are understandable. 

When creating your villain, consider the impact to and from stereotypes. World conquering military members who just want power, CEOs who just want money, political leaders who just crave adoration, and evil wizards who just desire more power are cliché. It doesn’t mean they can’t be done, but you have to bear I mind, they have been done a lot. They also don’t get borne out in reality, so suspension of disbelief is harder. The military has many checks and balances. CEOs are generally very driven but also have to play inside a set of rules, answer to a board and do in fact sacrifice a great deal for their station, not always to the end result of happiness. Political leaders are rarely beloved in modern times, and well … I’ve never met a wizard. Aim for a new take on the antagonist.

So, we can have evil antagonists, who aren’t relatable, we can have them as stereotypes, or not, but we should also remember scale.

They don’t need to be earth changing evil. A bully in school who torments other kids because they can, because they want to, and because they enjoy it, can be every bit as devious, conniving and believably hate-able as a world conquering villain. They can look like a perfect angel in front of the authority figures, have perfect grades, be friends with people, and still be cruel without purpose beyond being cruel to a protagonist character.

Bad, is partially determined by the perspective relative to the protagonist. They are not bad or mean to others but can be bad or mean to just the lead characters.

Lastly, being evil for evil sake doesn’t mean they do not have motivations and goals, it just means they are not relatable. Their motivation goal structure might look simple, but it is still present.  

Why so serious

Joker, evil and his motivations are less self evident. Is he evil for the fun of it? 

No matter who you choose as your villain, remember the basic rules. They still have motivations and goals, even if they are selfish to the core, they still require competence, and they still need to stand in the way of what your protagonist wants.

Go create the evilest person you can imagine having to go toe to toe with in your real life. What would they be like? Why would you hate them? Imagine the same thing from your protagonist’s perspective. Now write them down, and always remember, writers write.

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OP Villains

This post for villains is about a few smaller topics for your villain. Two that I want to address are the over-powered villain and the villain monologue.

Let’s start with the over-powered villain. These are present in books and movies, and can even be effective. The point of the villain is after all to be an obstacle for the protagonist, and if they are easily toppled, there is not much in the way of a challenge. Modern superhero movies and fantasy films have villains which are over-powered. If Thanos had come to earth in the first Avengers movie, things would have worked out very differently.

In fantasy we also accept that even the great works of fantasy show the side of good winning by luck sometimes. Cutting the ring off Sauron anyone?

In science fiction we see vast armies arrayed against weaker under dogs. The IDEA isn’t the problem, the implementation can be.

Why do we accept that Thanos doesn’t hunt down the stones on earth himself?

Why do we accept that the dragon queen doesn’t trounce across the world of Krynn?

Why doesn’t Artemis Entreri just kill everyone he meets? (He almost does.)

Just because Thanos is more powerful than the Avengers at the time they first begin their tertiary interactions, doesn’t mean he is their direct enemy. He doesn’t know about them yet. He has many people out looking for the infinity stones, and it took time for him to confirm the truth and send what he believed was a reasonable force to retrieve them. He was busy. It is an example of a villain as a leader who has many activities in process and an inability to directly confront the heroes and heroines.

The Dragon Queen is shown as distrusting of her own forces, which in the end proves her undoing, but also slows her war effort because she needs to constantly monitor for betrayal. We believe she can’t spread her true power because she is again otherwise occupied.

Entreri for all his skill is an assassin, who operates inside of a guild structure. We are shown a man who while ruthless has a set of laws that he follows without question. His nature prevents him killing with abandon.

These are some villain examples who are over powered but who are accepted that way because other things allow the protagonists to defeat them. Beware of having no restraint on villains who are extremely powerful. It can shatter verisimilitude if a reader sees a villain interact with a protagonist, toy with them, monologue at them, could kill them anytime, and doesn’t … because.

Because they are not respectful that the protagonist can amount to anything.

Because they are so vain, they can’t imagine anyone hurting them. (Plausible in narrow circumstances.)

Because they just are on their way out the door… but now you know my plan, so good luck stopping it…

If there is no good reason for the villain not to crush the person who tried to stand in their way, when they can, and should, the end result will feel like plot armor. The good guys and gals get away with it because the writer wants them to.

Killmonger

Moments like when Killmonger monologues, are already past the point of the trap being sprung and the plan being implemented. There is no loss to him by talking the way he does. Other similar examples can be found in literature. We need to understand the villain’s motivations, goals and actions, but don’t make your villain look silly when you do it.

Keep writing hated villains, and relatable villains, but whatever you do, beware the silly self-defeating ones!

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