Almost every story includes some sort of antagonist character, a villain who stands in contrast to all that the hero seeks to accomplish, and the entire crux of the story is to discover which of their competing resolves will win out in the end. Not that that outcome is actually in question most of the time, our culture loves a happy ending, and so with rare exception each story will conclude with good triumphing over evil. In fact, I cannot conceive of a more common and ancient archetype in all of literature than that of the eternal struggle between right and wrong. In another post we will discuss more about why we humans have this obsession for fundamental conflict, but for the time being let’s just accept that we do, and then both the need for and purpose of villains becomes immediately obvious. For how else can that strife between good and evil be represented unless there is some embodiment of that good and of that evil? And how better to embody these than in some living characters with whom the metaphorical battle can now be acted out literally? Thus our varied villains each wear one of the many faces of evil, giving us insight into another small slice of that metaphysical concept, and helping us all to better understand our universal enemy. Having established the purpose of villains, now we can consider what it is that makes one well crafted or poorly designed.
Villains need to be essential. By this I mean that the actions and characteristics of the villain in your story, ought to be the only way your villain could be. Think of the last story you read and ask if it would have worked had the author had left everything else just as it was, but then replaced the villain with some different evil character. If so, then that story just featured a generic villain who was unessential to the greater arc of the plot.
One of my all-time favorite stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, features a non-essential villain, and is admittedly weaker because of it. I am referring to the slave-catchers that are in pursuit of Eliza, Tom Loker and Marks. They each have their own characterizations, Marks is small and slimy while Loker is large and rough, and each brings their unique talents to their sinister work. Eventually Loker is wounded in a chase and then abandoned by his comrades. Rather than being left to die by his quarry, he is cared for by the Quakers, and in the process comes to experience a change of heart. It’s a nice story, but it really could have happened that way if Loker had been any other sort of vile character. He might have been small and slimy like Marks, for example, and his arc could have remained just as plausible. As a result, Loker is ultimately entirely forgettable and I actually had to Google his name just to remember what it was. So how exactly do you make your villain essential? Well, that brings us to our next point.
Your villain should define your hero. Going back to the first paragraph of this post, your villain is meant to be an incarnation of evil, but not just evil generally, evil of a specific type. They are meant to represent or be defined by specific vices, one that stand in contrast to the hero’s specific virtues. In general, though, those virtues that define a literary hero are most often only obtained by them towards the end of their stories, they do not possess them at the start. When we think of the good half of Ebenezer Scrooge we see him as a kindhearted and generous man, but he does not exist in this form until the end of his eventful night. Nicholas Nickleby is always a good person, but he is not the mighty protector of lost souls until strife and experience grow him into that role. Jim Hawkins is an unassuming boy when he leaves for Treasure Island, but by the end he has grown into a resourceful and determined young man.
These arcs and character growths each occur as a result of that main character’s conflict with the villain, the protagonist only becomes a hero by the opposition they face. Most often the villain begins the story by holding the balance of power, after all, and so can only be overcome by one that is diametrically opposed to them. Thus the hero learns love because he needs it to counter the villain’s hate, kindness to counter the villains cruelty, tranquility to counter rage, leadership to counter manipulation, courage to counter control. This is what is meant by a hero being defined by the villain that they grow to surpass.
It turns out Uncle Tom’s Cabin also has another villain that actually is essential to its story, one that defines the hero through his characteristics. Simon Legree is superstitious and fearful, and he manifests this by being unbearably cruel and savage, trying to force a sense of control on a world he doesn’t trust. By his viciousness he breaks one slave after another, but try as he might, he can’t seem to break Uncle Tom. As Simon presses down harder and harder on Tom, Tom is driven more and more towards faithfulness and courage, the exactly opposite characteristics of Simon. Though the power seems to be in Simon’s hand, he remains flighty and nervous while Tom is grounded and steady all the way through to the end. Not only is Tom a contrast to Simon, he becomes that contrast through him.
Finally, villains should also be interesting. Now I know that sounds stupidly obvious, yet we see this simple concept eluding most literary villains. One of the ways I most commonly observe this is in how a villain is introduced. So many authors, probably anxious not to slow the pace in actual character exposition, try to use as few sentences as possible to drive home the point that this character is a really bad person. The introduction to the main villain will therefore involve them doing some callous evil, such as killing in cold blood, which will establish them as irredeemable and deserving of the justice that will soon follow.
“My Lord, what should we do with this village of totally innocent bystanders?”
“Dispose of them, I suppose.” Maniacal laughter follows.
Oh my! Well this certainly is a very bad person here, isn’t it? Aside from the fact that this is so routine a trope that it has lost all impact, it is also a sign of lazy writing. What are you going to do in the sequel when you need to raise the stakes with a deeper force of evil?
“My Lord, what should we do with these two villages of totally innocent bystanders?”
That might sound facetious of me, but I’m actually trying to draw attention to the current pattern of evil-escalation in these more lazy stories. Instead of evil growing deeper, it simply grows broader. I rarely like to give specific negative examples in these blogs, so I’ll just say take a look at most comic book series, either in print or film. They tend to begin with threats to individuals, then progress to threats to cities, then threats to the whole world, and finally threats to the entire universe…what’s next, threats to a multiverse? Oh wait…
No, if you want to make a real impact, your villains can’t just be evil, they need to be uniquely evil. Readers will respond to a single ingenious act of evil on a small scale than to a generic act of evil on a universal scale. Consider the story of William Tell.
William Tell is described as a famous crossbowman who stood in defiance of the local ruler Albrecht Gessler. Gessler decided to make an example of him by arresting William and his son and ordering their execution. Then, struck by a sinister stroke of cruel genius, Gessler made an offer to William that he would spare their lives if William would demonstrate his prowess with the bow by shooting an apple off of his own son’s head at considerable distance. The obvious dilemma is that now William’s only possibility of saving his son’s life is to risk slaying him with his own hands. As a father myself, the cruelty of this hope mingled with horror is just as chilling now as it was five centuries ago, never mind that only two lives are at stake here.
A story is only as strong as its weakest of components, and a villain is one of the most critical of those pieces. When a villain is done well, it does not only produce a memorable character, it also elevates the entire story along with it. This next Thursday I will try to present the other side of the coin with the hero’s perspective from the Revelate series. As I do so I will give particular attention to ensuring that that hero is defined by the opposition he faces. I’ll see you then.