Reply To: Creating relationship between reader and villain

Forums Fiction Characters Creating relationship between reader and villain Reply To: Creating relationship between reader and villain

Taylor Clogston

@erynne Thank you for the topic invite!

I really like the article by @r-m-archer , and it brought to mind that there is a distinction between antagonists opposing the protagonist and outright villains. I’m going to talk about villains, but I’m assuming they’re also antagonists.

Lucifer from DC comics, specifically Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Hellblazer during Garth Ennis’s run

LUCIFER: Oh — Morpheus? I swore once that I would destroy you, did I not?

DREAM: Yes. You did.

LUCIFER: Well, we are now outside the bounds of Hell… This is for you, Dream Lord. Take it.

DREAM: The key to Hell?

LUCIFER: Exactly. It’s yours now. Perhaps it will destroy you, and perhaps it won’t. But I doubt it will make your life any easier. It’s all yours, now, Morpheus. You’re the sole monarch of a locked and empty Hell. Perhaps I ought to have given it to you with my best wishes. I could have told you that I hoped it would bring your happiness. But somehow… somehow I doubt it will.

In these comics, Lucifer is the ruler of Hell. He is overwhelmingly powerful compared to protagonists Dream (Sandman) and Constantine (Hellblazer). He tends to enter the story when the protags want something from him.

Lucifer hates Dream and Constantine. He longs for them to fall lawfully into his hands, to destroy them for eternity. He’s a charming, vile force of nature who is at least as intelligent as the protags, but also supremely arrogant.

This villain’s strength comes from being iconic (every reader knows what the Devil’s about) and from creating immense stakes by his sheer presence. Despite being himself one of the most powerful beings in the universe, someone Odin and King Oberon treat with respect, even Dream has to use every tool at his disposal to outwit Lucifer. He doesn’t always come away unscathed.

As for Constantine, he essentially lives every moment of his life trying to escape the inevitable fate he knows he deserves for all his shenanigans. To him, Lucifer is an ever-present looming threat from whom there is no escape.

This role of spite, hatred, and absurd power is also seen in Morgoth in Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin, as Morgoth curses Hurin’s entire family and forces him to watch as they destroy themselves.

Senator Armstrong (and most of the other bosses) from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

Violence breeds violence

But in the end it has to be this way

I’ve carved my own path

You followed your wrath

But maybe we’re both the same

The world has turned

And so many have burned

But nobody is to blame

Yet staring across this barren wasted land

I feel new life will be born

Beneath the blood stained sand

This is a crazy video game about a cyborg ninja fighting a private military company of other cyborg ninjas. This game comes at the end of a long series of games asking various thematic questions about war. The theme of this game could be described as “No matter how much we go to war to end war, war will never end.” The different bosses of the game have different reasons for why they fight, from “It’s what I was born to do” to “I enjoy it.” Each of them reflects a different facet of the main character, a former child soldier trying to prove to himself that he can be something more than a soldier despite being a bloodthirsty monster at heart.

The final boss of the game is someone with almost identical philosophy to the protag. This emphasizes one of the other core themes of the series: “People fight because of political allegiances more than different ideologies.”

The game has a fantastic responsive soundtrack with gloriously on-the-nose themes for each boss, and the final theme could apply to both Armstrong and the protag Raiden.

Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series

THRAWN: You served too long under Lord Vader, Captain. I Have no qualms about accepting a useful idea merely because it wasn’t my own. My position and ego are not at stake here.

I know Zahn has rebooted Thrawn to fit the Disney-era Star Wars canon, but I haven’t read those books yet, so this only refers to him in the books he wrote decades ago.

Thrawn was an anti-Vader. Where Darth Vader was a juggernaut madman who flouted Imperial doctrine and did whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted, terrifying in his physical presence, Thrawn is an intellectual alien (in a culture which considers aliens subhuman) content to serve an empire which really doesn’t care that much about him outside his competence.

If an underling makes a mistake and takes responsibility for their actions, Thrawn shows them grace. If they go beyond the call of duty, he remembers their loyalty and capability. He does not suffer disrespect, does not tolerate deviation from military discipline, but does so because he believes it the best way to run a ship, not because he feels he is better than those around him.

And, well, Thrawn’s star destroyer fleet obliterates pretty much every fleet he fights. His study of the art of various alien races, he claims, gives him deep insight into their psychologies and warfare doctrines.

A tactical genius, a gracious leader, Thrawn commands the reader’s respect for his heroic qualities. Were circumstances different, he might easily have been one of the good guys.

Attributes I appreciate (not all of which are demonstrated above)

  • Competence – Readers respect any character who is good at their job and able to take care of business. Incompetence, unless it’s couched in cuteness or tragedy, is one of the fastest ways to make a reader annoyed at a character.
  • Power – Villains need the capacity to do real harm to the protags if things go wrong. In most cases, a villain should be able to at least match the protag’s power (physically, politically, or however) in some way.
  • Loyalty – Villains should be kind or generous or gracious to someone. It feels good to treat other people well. Not even the most evil people are exempt from that. Even if a villain isn’t willing to give up what’s most precious to them for the sake of a friend, they should still be willing to go to some lengths to help the people who serve them or who have been their lifelong friends or just who make them laugh.
  • Antagonism based on allegiance – The knowledge that an antagonist opposes a protag simply because it’s their job can be powerful. There’s no reasoning with this sort of character, and it can be a powerful tool to show the protag that the person or cause to whom they pledge their allegiance can be at least as impactful as their personal philosophy. Extra points if you play into the way people in real life will often justify their support of a problematic person organization that does, in fact, clash with their philosophy just because they’ve already been loyal for so long.
  • Antagonism based on differing philosophy – The clash of characters who represent different answers to the same ideological question is one of the strongest thematic techniques available to literature. @Josiah has an awesome course introducing this concept.

Attributes I Would Like to See Less Of

  • Tragic backstory – Evil people don’t need a convoluted reason to distrust and misunderstand the entire world, which is usually a tragic backstory’s purpose. This is easy to use as an excuse for the villain’s behavior, a cheap way to make the audience feel bad for their wasted potential. That element of wasted potential can be powerful, though, if the protag shares a very similar backstory and proves that different choices could have led to a better outcome.
  • Maniacal Evil – Disney villains are great in Disney movies, but it’s extremely hard to make them work in a non-visual medium, especially if you write for an audience above Middle Grade. The closer the rest of your story comes to real life, the more icky and unbelievable it becomes to look at a villain who has what boils down to a psychopathic and childlike disregard for the experiences of anyone outside themselves.
  • Non-Presence – Sauron isn’t a good villain in Lord of the Rings. He’s a force of nature, not a character. If you have a Dark Lord, make him an actual viewpoint character who does something other than brood on his fortress throne. Sauron is fine as an element in LotR, but he shouldn’t be used as an example of active force against the protag.

To close, both Josiah and @brandon-miller have written good articles on villains. You can read the former here and the latter here.

"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

Pin It on Pinterest