Authorguy's Blog

Separating sheep from goats

Posted on: April 5, 2011


Anybody who’s ever read the Evil Overlord list knows all the planning (and executions) involved in being a villain, not to mention all the secrecy, boltholes, and fallback positions. I don’t think it’s gotten any easier with time, either. Way back when you would have had more room to hide in, but today there’s such a mass of information everywhere it amounts to the same thing, a world of haystack. And for what, exactly? Is the prize worth the cost paid? Basic physics says no, the price paid is always going to be more than the value received. Unless of course you can get other people to pay it, but they always seem to resent that sort of thing.

All of which makes me more than a little suspicious of heavily plotted stories, with bad guys and their intricate machinations, all just on the verge of world-conquering success, when along comes the hero and his merry band of cohorts to muck it all up. I mean they’re fun, in a puzzle-solving sort of way, but I just have trouble taking them seriously. It just seems like meaningless activity to me, climbing to the top so you can say you made it to the top, and I’m no fan of meaningless activity. Many murder mysteries seem the same way to me, cardboard characters walking from one witness to another, solving a logic problem. I like logic problems, but most of the clues end up embedded in the descriptive prose and I hate descriptive prose.

Which is why, I suppose, when I have to come up with a ‘villain’ I try to figure up ways to make him (or her, as the case may be) a ‘victim’ in some way as well. Put their actions in a context that gives them a bit more meaning. Whatever they are victims of, well, that’s the real villain, but often that’s a set of circumstances, a state of affairs that traps these innocent flies in a web that has no spider. When something like that isn’t available, emotion of some kind is the next best thing. Most crimes are crimes of passion, unplanned events. Opportunities seized for no good reason except desire. Or perhaps a woefully incomplete understanding of the actual cost, or a lack of foresight as to the eventual cost. Better still is some combination, bad decisions in one corner leaving hapless victims trapped somewhere else, with no choice but to go along even though they know it will doom them all.

This isn’t always enough, of course. While a good story allows for forgiveness, redemption or sacrifice, there really ought to be a boom to lower somewhere. A good villain is motivated by something which, in his circumstances, results in harm. That way you can feel sorry for him even as root for his destruction. Amongst our group of hapless unfortunates really should be one or two who want to be there, who are using the others as camouflage now and possible targets later. But even they have to be given some dimension. One-dimensional villains are even worse than one-dimensional heroes. It’s not enough to say that he’s motivated simply by a desire to do harm, unless you’ve got an army of flunkies/minions to destroy in front of him, and even that’s just mindless mayhem unless the flunkies/minions are given some depth.

It’s an awful lot of work, being a bad guy. The only thing harder is creating them, don’t you think? What motivates your villains?

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