Your Villain Deserves More


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  1. #1

    Your Villain Deserves More

    Norman Osborn becomes The Green Goblin when an experimental serum gives him superhuman abilities—and drives him insane.

    Curt Conners becomes The Lizard when an experimental serum gives him superhuman abilities and drives him—wait for it...—insane.

    Otto Octavius becomes Doctor Octopus when a radiation leak (and resulting explosion) gives him superhuman appendages and drives him... well, you get the idea.

    These are just three examples (sorry, Marvel!), but the list could prattle on, much like the villains themselves and their "Before I kill you, allow me to explain my sinister plot" speeches.

    So what's wrong with exposing a character to a superpower-generating accident? Nothing, really. It's the stuff comic legends are made of. Who can forget the day Bruce Banner took on those gamma rays?

    It's not the origin of their powers that gives villains a bad rep—it's the "and then they go insane" contrivance that seems to always come with it, like a fast-food meal with stale, day-old, unsalted fries. You know anybody who eats them isn't doing so because they love the taste of soggy cardboard. They're eating because it's there, because it's the only thing you gave them to soak up all that extra special sauce.

    The problem with the "and the character goes insane" angle is, more often than not, it's used as a convenient way to get a sympathetic character to make uncharacteristic, unsympathetic decisions.

    Want to get the beloved schoolteacher to build a weapon of mass destruction and unleash it on the citizens of an unsuspecting city that looks suspiciously like New York? Make him go insane. Problem solved.

    After all, if you're going to completely undermine a character and sacrifice them for plot necessities, you might as well go big.

    It's the good ol', "unassuming, likable character takes serum/medicine/gets irradiated and becomes super-powered and becomes demented" plot mold from which so many iconic villains have been cast.

    However, these are the same villains that are so quickly dismissed and forgotten. Like the inflatable clown toy from your childhood, the one that swooped back up every time you punched it down, these are the villains we rely on to take a beating, get locked up in prison, and keep coming back for more.

    Until we bore of them. Which can happen rather quickly.

    But then there are the characters with intricate motivations and backstories, the ones who you can tell the writers cared just a little more about. These characters often have entire comics, films, and even books written about their origins, their tragic and triumphant paths from lonely nobodies to spectacular somebodies.

    These characters usually go by a title you're more familiar with: heroes.

    Heroes like Norin Radd, who, when his planet was attacked by a world-devouring behemoth, traded his mortal life in exchange for the safety of his love, Shalla-Bal, knowing that this sacrifice meant he would never get to be with her again, doomed to travel the cosmos in infinite servitude and loneliness. This character, The Silver Surfer, became more than just an archetype. He became, in the minds of those who read him, a living, breathing being, one of substance and lore.

    Do not our villains deserve the same devotion? Why do we dig so deep into our heroes' pasts to find the platform that elevated them above the ranks, while our villains flounder in the gutters, awash with algae and the dregs of plot conveniences?

    The villain's path from Average Joe to Formidable Foe is tumultuous one, one of obstacles, choices, and prophetic turning points. Sadly, many writers see villains the same way our childhood video games depicted them: overpowered monsters standing in the way of the hero, ready to hurt, maim, or kill for no discernible reason other than the fact that, Hey, they're the bad guys.

    But what if you were the bad guy? What if your story were to be told? Don't you think your bio would deserve more than a TV Guide-ish one-liner like, "Wants to take over the world?" Don't you think you should be more than a generic punchline?

    Giving depth to our villains requires looking at them as more than just obstacles. More than antagonists, even. It means looking at them as characters, as the heroes of their own stories. Just the act of looking through this lens can reveal things beneath the surface, things about your villain you might never have known had you never decided to look. Perhaps your villain isn't so one-dimensional after all. Perhaps he hates what you're making him do. Perhaps he just wants someone to love him.

    How about an origin story for a villain for once? I know I'd love to read it. And even if it never makes it past your virtual desktop, the fact that you're aware of it might be enough to save your villain from the shallow pools of common mediocrity.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I've been having a bad cough for weeks. Hopefully this experimental super-serum I've been developing will cure it...

  2. #2
    Meh. Why can't the bad guy just...*GASP*...BE a bad guy BECAUSE he's a bad guy? What if he's just an asshole by nature?

    He's not insane. He just wants to rule the world. What's so insane about that?

    The problem with delving so deeply into a villain is that the reader, bless their hearts, are still VERY likely to consider the bad guy's actions to be insane ones. What I mean is, most readers see someone creating wanton death and destruction as being pretty well nuts in the first place. Does it really matter all that much why the bad guy is doing what he's doing when he's going to be seen as insane anyway?

    Does it really make much difference to an average reader if the bad guy didn't get enough hugs from mommy and now he hates everyone? Does it really matter that some neighborhood bully took away his (or her) favorite toy when he (or she) was five and he (or she) swore that no one would ever take anything from them again upon pain of death?

    To me...that kind of thing, and I know they aren't great examples but they are the best I could do at 3:40am, goes against one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. It doesn't do much of anything to move the story along. If anything, it would bog it down due to unnecessary flashbacks or whatever your chosen device is to explain all that stuff.
    “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” -Carl Sagan

    Real courage is found, not in the willingness to risk death, but in the willingness to stand, alone if necessary, against the ignorant and disapproving herd. --Jon Roland, 1976

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  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by T.S.Bowman View Post
    Meh. Why can't the bad guy just...*GASP*...BE a bad guy BECAUSE he's a bad guy? What if he's just an asshole by nature?

    A bad guy becomes the bad guy through his actions, decisions, and motivations, not through his personality alone. If he's become the villain because he's an asshole, then why haven't all the other assholes in the world become villains, too?

    What makes him different?

    Finding the answer to that question is what I'm recommending.

    Quote Originally Posted by T.S.Bowman
    He's not insane. He just wants to rule the world.

    Why? What's in it for him?

    Quote Originally Posted by T.S.Bowman
    The problem with delving so deeply into a villain is that the reader, bless their hearts, are still VERY likely to consider the bad guy's actions to be insane ones. What I mean is, most readers see someone creating wanton death and destruction as being pretty well nuts in the first place. Does it really matter all that much why
    Quote Originally Posted by T.S.Bowman
    the bad guy is doing what he's doing when he's going to be seen as insane anyway?
    You're making a big assumption about your reader here. Why would your reader automatically assume your villain is insane? Unless, of course, you've given them a reason to believe that.

    Quote Originally Posted by T.S.Bowman
    Does it really make much difference to an average reader if the bad guy didn't get enough hugs from mommy and now he hates everyone? Does it really matter that some neighborhood bully took away his (or her) favorite toy when he (or she) was five and he (or she) swore that no one would ever take anything from them again upon pain of death?

    Yes and no. It's up to the author if they want to provide specifics. But readers do appreciate interesting, fully-fleshed characters, and aren't villains characters as well?

    Quote Originally Posted by T.S.Bowman
    To me...that kind of thing, and I know they aren't great examples but they are the best I could do at 3:40am, goes against one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. It doesn't do much of anything to move the story along. If anything, it would bog it down due to unnecessary flashbacks or whatever your chosen device is to explain all that stuff.

    How about the hero? Has the hero's motivations and actions been shown? Or is he "just a hero because he was born a hero?"

    Let's imagine we take away Batman's origin story. We open on page one with Bruce Wayne, in his full crime-fighting attire, apprehending a gang of criminals. At some point, the reader is going to want to know who this guy is and why he dresses up like a giant bat. Readers want to know these things. Readers want to know their characters.

    We can tell them to just accept that this is what he is, and he does these things for no reason, but chances are that explanation isn't going to fly with the majority of our audience. At least some motivations and backstory would help.

    Okay, so we've established that the hero's motivations and/or backstory is probably something the reader wants to know about. Now what about the villain?

    Let's say Batman is scouring the rooftop and a villain comes along. He saunters in, stabs a shop owner to death. Then he throws a puppy off a bridge. Then he finds a baby and takes the baby's bottle away, just to watch it cry. Truly a despicable villain, indeed!

    But where did he come from? Why is he doing this? What's in it for him? These questions are going to pop up in the reader's mind, just as they did with the hero.

    We have the opportunity to answer these questions in an interesting, compelling way, creating a unique antagonist to oppose the hero, one with his own motivations, internal conflicts, and backstory.

    This is why the overdone "Let me tell you my master plan before I kill you" speech was (and still is) used by so many writers—because they know that the audience wants—deserves—more than just a "he's the bad guy because he's bad!" explanation.

    Why settle for a one-dimensional villain when he can be so much more? Don't our readers deserve a more interesting answer than, "Just because?"
    Last edited by Kyle R; September 19th, 2014 at 01:49 PM.

  4. #4
    I basically agree with Kyle on this one. I know most people aren't inherently evil (a few exceptions of course). They just have their own agenda and if you happen to get in their way, well too bad. I think the same thing can be told in our stories.
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  5. #5
    It very much depends on the sort of story you choose to write. In Halloween, Michael Myers is a motivation-less, implacable, robot and it works. In Terminator, Arnold is a motivation-less, implacable... well you get the idea. Sometimes villains are just villains and its fun to let them be bad to the bone. In other stories it works to have insight into the causation behind the villainy; Ahab in Moby Dick comes to mind, and Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood. One example of when I think it's a terrible idea to try and create a sympathetic antagonist is Hannibal Lechter. Lechter is one of the greatest villains ever written in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but when Thomas Harris tried to make him a sympathetic figure in Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising, the character loses his edge. He's no longer scary.

    The needs of the story should dictate what sort of antagonist you need to create. Do you want your reader to sympathize with your antagonist? If so, give him all the backstory and motivation you need to make that happen, but, if all you need is a foil for your protagonist (most horror, suspense, and thrillers fall into this realm) just create a bad-guy.
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  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D View Post
    It very much depends on the sort of story you choose to write.
    On this you and I agree.

    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D
    In Halloween, Michael Myers is a motivation-less, implacable, robot and it works. In Terminator, Arnold is a motivation-less, implacable... well you get the idea. Sometimes villains are just villains and its fun to let them be bad to the bone.
    I'm not familiar with Michael Myers (never watched the film series), but I have to strongly disagree with you about The Terminator being a motivation-less villain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The T-800's motivation was delved into deeply, with backstory explanations and flashbacks. SKYNET kick-started an entire film, story, and merchandise franchise.

    Arnold's character wasn't just a robot that wanted to kill random people because it was evil. It was programmed to assassinate Sarah Connor before she fathered the leader of the human resistance. A very specific motivation.

    Part of the reason The Terminator is such a memorable villain is because its motivations and back story were explored and explained so thoroughly. Here was a villain who actually had a fascinating explanation for why he was a villain!

    Quote Originally Posted by Terry D
    One example of when I think it's a terrible idea to try and create a sympathetic antagonist is Hannibal Lechter. Lechter is one of the greatest villains ever written in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but when Thomas Harris tried to make him a sympathetic figure in Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising, the character loses his edge. He's no longer scary.

    The needs of the story should dictate what sort of antagonist you need to create. Do you want your reader to sympathize with your antagonist? If so, give him all the backstory and motivation you need to make that happen, but, if all you need is a foil for your protagonist (most horror, suspense, and thrillers fall into this realm) just create a bad-guy.
    In some specific cases, yes, a "pure evil" character can work wonders by being simply there as an antagonistic force. Though, I'd argue that even poltergeists can be given some explanation for why they pester the protagonist—the more interesting the explanation, the better. Why not challenge expectations and tropes?

    I don't know about you, but I certainly appreciate it when a writer looks past villainous cliches and delivers something unique, compelling, and different.

    Keep in mind I'm not advocate making all villains sympathetic, which is only a single way to approach it. I'm talking about providing believable motivations, establishing plausibility, and, in some cases, showing causality.

    I'm not saying we have to make the reader like or pity the villain (though that's certainly one way to do it), I'm saying we should, at the very least, establish reasons for why the villain does what he does, reasons that extend beyond a surface, "The Terminator wants to kill Sarah Connor because... he's an evil robot. There is no reason. He's just a villain."

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyle R View Post

    Until we bore of them. Which can happen rather quickly.
    I'm not sure about everyone else... but I'm already insanely bored of all superhero movies/comics/merchandise... I have a friend obsessed with everything Marvel and he does not shut up about it. Needless to say, I just don't say anything. If you can't say anything nice...

    Anyway! About the main topic: It made me examine my villains' motivations in my books. One wants money, to retire on a faraway planet and never be heard from again while sipping exotic drinks and relaxing forever... the next wanted to stop reform in a colossal space empire by bringing back the previous regime to power... next were a race of genetic researchers trying to extract racial traits of aliens (the aliens being the good guys, of course)... I've got a band of slavers attempting to just do their jobs and bring home the next crop of laborers... Things like that. Individuals, usually the leaders or key members of the groups of baddies in my books have complex back stories that could be their own novels, particularly Mr. No Reform up there. His history's a long one. I think my villains' backstories and motivations just come from my daydreaming and thinking about them for hours on end...
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  8. #8
    WF Veteran ShadowEyes's Avatar
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    I'm on my phone, so this might be me throwing up my ideas into a post. Three angles. But first, I agree that in normal circumstances, insanity is a cop-out. However, in most portrayals, it works. First, difference between comic books and novels: comic book villains need to never learn. They recur issue after issue. Second, insanity is like man vs. nature except human nature is usually an explanation. It has to happen for a reason; in comic books, it's usually the protagonist's fault, think The Joker or Two-Face or Doc Oc. Third, some novels work well with insane, non-interfering villains, like Sauron. They are bit the main villains, character flaws are, or henchmen. They are most like nature. So insanity cannot be ruled out entirely.
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  9. #9
    I have to say that as an avid comic book fan, I agree with you that the whole villains going insane thing did get old with me very fast even when I was a child. Especially with Spidey because it seemed to happen so often, that's why Venom has always been my favorite Spidey villain. That and because I guess on some level, I've always been drawn to complex characters. That's probably why X-Men and Silver Surfer are my two favorite comics. I mean, Magneto has a very complex past that makes it almost understandable why he is apprehensive of normal, non-mutant humans and even less popular villains like the Juggernaut have a lot more character develop than some of the Spidey villains. I accredit this to the fact that X-Men was created after Spidey, after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby got a foothold in the comic book world and learned from their mistakes.
    We have to ask ourselves if it is important to the story? Do the readers really need to know that Random Bad Guy has decided to blow Yankee stadium because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of various foster parents and do they want to know? Even in comic books, the villain's backstory is not always revealed unless they become a fan favorite and it is apparent to the writers that the story will sell. And FYI, usually after this happens there is a good chance the villain will migrate either into anti-hero or hero camp because they come to terms with their issues and learn that being a villain, doing evil things has never really helped them. It even happened to Magneto...Although, it did nothing to help with the irreparable psychological damage he had inflicted on Quicksilver and his daughters.
    That being said, there are also villains who are villains for no reason. Usually, this is because they are not popular enough and fans don't care enough to learn their history. Then we have the Joker, who is infamous because no one really understands why he is the way he is. Except maybe for a psychiatrist. The Joker is a straight up sociopath. We don't know if he was a born with psychopathic disorder or if he was traumatized to the point that he simply stopped caring and/or feeling, but the fact that he is a legitimate psychopath is pretty apparent. That works for him (although the lack history actually annoys me), but I am definitely believe that villains deserve character development. Usually, though, I only develop villains for myself, for my notes because I just have to know who my characters are or else it will drive me nuts and because even though I consider myself a writer, I don't know if the story will warrant sharing their backstory. That's all that matters to me: Making the story flow and making sure everything fits together perfectly. If I can find a way to integrate, my villain's story into the book, then sure, I'll do it. Otherwise, it will just stay in my notes until I find a point where it will be appropriate to the story.
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  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by mrmustard615 View Post
    I basically agree with Kyle on this one. I know most people aren't inherently evil (a few exceptions of course). They just have their own agenda and if you happen to get in their way, well too bad. I think the same thing can be told in our stories.
    I don't actually disagree with Kyle. I use quite a bit of the advice he posts around here.

    I'm just not going to let him off easy.

    The villain in my novel actually does have a motivation. It's not one that is very "deep" or anything like that. He was just a fella who wanted to be left alone to work on his magic, but wasn't allowed to do so.

    I certainly agree with the idea that the "cardboard cutout" type of villain is pretty boring.
    “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” -Carl Sagan

    Real courage is found, not in the willingness to risk death, but in the willingness to stand, alone if necessary, against the ignorant and disapproving herd. --Jon Roland, 1976

    Have you checked out the Hidden Content

    Founder of the Pantsers United Group and member of the Fantasy Lords Group

    "Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful,
    insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows." - Walt Disney

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