Nov 1, 2013

Writer Ramblings: What I Look For in a Villain

Gollum art by TL Jeffcoat
When I write an antagonist I like to dig deep into their inner workings. I want the reader to sympathize and loathe them all at the same time. Some villains I’ve created are just people in bad situations, doing bad things. Some look for the bad things to do out of boredom or compensation for an inferiority complex. And then there comes the truly evil villain. Whether he’s a pathetic envious creature that wants to reach some higher plane of existence, or bring the world down to his level. For me, every antagonist must have a human element to him. There must be some purpose to his questionable behavior that I could understand why he does what he does, even if I feel it’s the wrong approach. The worst written villains are the ones that are evil because they just are. They were born that way or created that way. Sometimes we just don’t know what drives the villain in the story, but the writer must have had a reason for the bad guy to be the bad guy.

Even the Bible’s antagonist, Satan, has a relatable story as to why he’s evil. He is jealous of the human race because God placed Adam and Eve above the angels and the angels are to protect and watch over us. Satan felt the angels were slighted because they are far more powerful than us and therefore we should serve them. Arrogance, envy, and greed are three human characteristics that drove the leader of the Angels into a revolt and branded him as evil.

Let’s look at “Lord of the Rings.” Sauron and the Nazgul are the obvious antagonists in the story, but we see the world through the eyes of innocent and naive hobbits. They don’t really understand why Sauron is bad and wants to rule the world. They only know that if he succeeds, the lifestyle of their people will be forever ruined. They would become slaves or be exterminated. Tolkien knew what made Sauron tick, he wrote about it in other books, like the Silmarillion. So Tolkien added another antagonist, Sméagol.

Sméagol was creepy, he was driven by the same evil as Sauron, but he wasn’t just some power hungry warlord. He just wanted to be left alone with his precious. We saw in “The Hobbit” how Bilbo disturbed his peace and quiet and forced him to venture back out into the nasty world to find his precious. In “Lord of the Rings” we saw how this pitiful creature was just like us in many ways. He coveted that one thing he felt made his life perfect, even if it wasn’t good for him. He was willing to do just about anything to get it.

Some of us become obsessive about something in our life that might not be good for us, but we can’t help ourselves. Sméagol was afraid, he was angry, and he was treacherous. He had many qualities that some of us have when we are at our darkest times. If you haven’t had a dark time in your life then you are a very lucky person, and I hope you never have to experience a dark moment. The odds are though, you will eventually.

We don’t always need to know all the details of how the antagonist became the antagonist. Take Darth Vader as an example. He was considered one of the biggest bad guys ever after the Star Wars movies from the 70’s and 80’s. In the end we discovered he was still human and he loved his son. That made him human. Some might even have felt sorry for him in the end. He took a wrong turn in life and he became evil. Then the 90’s came, and we got three more movies that told how Darth Vader came to be. Now we understand that he was nothing but an arrogant, selfish, whiny kid who threw temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way. Although making Darth Vader even more human, at least for me, it destroyed my vision of him as one of the greatest villains ever. Now he’s just a powerful idiot who was led around by his nose and refused to listen to wisdom. He’s a bad guy because only heard what he wanted to hear and not the truth. Some would say that makes him more human, but now he’s not really much of a villain as much as he is now is closer to becoming a protagonist throughout the entire Star Wars saga. This may have been Lucas’s plan all along. I would have preferred that Anakin’s history have remained more as rumor and speculation than finding out he was just a typical kid.

On the other hand, Tolkien never explained why Sauron was evil. Why did he want to rule the world? He was a terrible military strategist and warrior. That scene in the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t the only time he had been beaten one on one by a mere mortal. The world had mostly fallen apart already with just his partial presence leaning on it. He wasn’t always the Burning Eye bent on enslaving every nation. He once was just a shape-shifting being that excelled in architecture and metallurgy serving his Gods and masters. Tolkien doesn’t reveal that very much in Lord of the Rings, or in the Silmarillian. He’s made him a faceless enemy, ominous and frightening, with no real explanation on why he followed Morgoth down a dark path and after Morgoth fell, he picked where his master left off. His Nazgul represent him and they too are mysterious and scary. It worked wonderfully in Tolkien’s world because we knew the evil wasn’t invincible, but standing face to face with it would be too dangerous.

What kind of villain scares you the most? Or what kind do you enjoy reading the most? Have you ever related to a villain you were reading? If so who is it?

I see a little bit of Sméagol in all of us.

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