I’ve noticed a recent trend where the main character of a book, TV series, movie is antagonistic. It’s spun off several seriously strong TV series such as House, MD, Fringe, Lie to Me, and the british Sherlock Holmes. In the written world, most ‘punk’ genre literature has an antagonist for a MC; someone who’s been beaten down and has a serious need to break the system–and the reader agrees with this. The trilogy The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, for example, contains a pretty ‘punky’ antagonist with Ms. Salander. She does what she wants. And farther back, if anyone remembers this, an old-school TV series called The Pretender had an antagonist for a main character.
While these people AREN’T villains, they are brilliant starting points to get into a villain’s head: if you were to look at any of these perspectives out of context, or with a slightly different view, the MCs in these works would be “villainous.”
If you choose to have a villain in your novel–someone who is straight-up out to wreck your story arc, your MC’s coolness groove, or cause overall frustration–he absolutely must be more than a “bad guy.” I’ll be frank with you: my ability to create a villain is very underdeveloped. I’m sorely inept at getting into that kind of mind frame. I’ve always struggled, and I perhaps will continue to struggle with it. Why?
Villains don’t really effect me in the real world. I mean, I have a boss dedicated to the company, a girlfriend dedicated to independence, customers dedicated to keeping the holes in their walls at a minimum, but nobody’s ever been out to get me. Not me, as a person. I spent a whole heck of a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a smart villain and not just someone forged in petty jealousy or shallow callousness.
Then I read Drood by Dan Simmons (enter obligatory swoon here). It’s a novel that hinges–hinges–on the hero/villain play as a fundamental tool AND THEME of the novel. The MC believes he’s Charles Dickens’ best friend, and also constantly tells the reader how unoriginal Mr. Dickens is. As the novel progresses, the reader realizes that while the two are professional cohorts and sometimes team up for book-related enterprises, the two of them are hardly close friends. The MC dedicates so much of the book to trying to convince the reader that Dickens is a no-talent hack, all the while the reader slowly realizes how unhinged the MC is, and often how creepy Dickens can be. I realized the MC WAS the villain. Literally, this man dedicated his life to ruining Dickens’s, while neglecting all the wholesome things going on around him.
A light bulb turned on. Boom. Your villain will rarely see himself as such. In fact, if he does, he has a single word on his plate: Revenge. Plain and simple. Or anarchy, I guess. While some bloggers feel a villain is a direct counter-point to another character, still others put villains under the simple category of “bad.”
I think these are outmoded concepts. For me, anyway. I spent eleven years of my life trying to understand how a person can simply be “bad,” or simply exist as a counterpoint to another character. It lessens them, somehow, as characters. As fictional (or perhaps not) people. These examples imply that a villain exists ONLY to muck up another person’s plans, or exists only to do dastardly things. I’m going to disagree with these guys and go into a little more wholesome perspective.
If you want to fall in love with your villain, make him the main character. Give him a mic. Let him talk. See where it goes. Do everything for your villain, your bad guy, your shadow-character you do for the main character, the focal point.
Do you know what I realized? Every time I get to know my villain this way, I start to like him. I can’t help it (and it isn’t always a “him,” either. I’m just a guy, so I’m going with “him.”). Take the novel I’m nigh finished with: the protag is a 26 year old guy with a pain in his heart. He recently lost his girlfriend to a violent murder. He’s not taking it so well. The antagonist is actually a foursquare group of demons who, on one level or another, represent the four levels of what Soren dislikes about Christianity: the preachiness, the people, the degrading moral code, and his own insecurities. He topples the first three handily, even though they are formidable and dangerous. It’s the fourth one, the one where he’s looking at the visage of his girlfriend, that he comes up short.
Who is the villain? If I were to use the first blogger’s definition, Jack would be Soren’s villain–a literal shadow in the corners of Soren’s home–and he’s mostly untouched throughout the novel. If I were to use the second blogger’s definition, Soren would most likely be the villain, because he doesn’t even know if he’s sane or any of this is going on, and he’s doing all kinds of misanthropic stuff. He’s a jerk. He’s outwardly self-serving. He’s caustic. He’s “bad.”
The villains are clearly (to me) the demons. But I fell in love with them. Two of them, actually. The other two have their charms–Holi Man and Schoolboy–but none surpass the one who takes up Soren’s late girlfriend’s mantle as a way to manipulate him (“Between you and me, baby? You should stop killing people. Turn yourself in, get some therapy, and recognize you’re a mass murderer.”), and the “Watcher,” a shape-changer who literally tells Soren to dispatch of them as quickly as possible, so she can move on to better things. She seems above everything Soren does, and in fact becomes a part of him simply by him observing her: she shows up in the second novel, during Soren’s darkest time, alone in a cave a la The Descent, with no light to speak of. And they have a conversation about morality.
She literally becomes Milton’s idea of darkness tangible. But then, she is supportive. A most supportive of villains. Which, in this light, she is a hero, according to the first blogger’s definition, because she’s the shadow of Soren’s shadow, Jack. Where Jack is black and foreboding and abusive and indirect, Watcher is beautiful, distinct, visible, seductive, and assisting.
What I’m trying to say is, if you do it right, if your characters are developed enough, they don’t have to be “bad.” They have to have ideals. And that’s it! They have to stand for something, and for the sake of the story, that something should counteract or contradict your MC in some way or another. What does your hero have to do? Why? The “villain” needs for the hero NOT to do that one thing, because HE needs the opposite. Or something else. Two guys who want a promotion. A jealous lover wants to win at everything. The sky is the limit. We deal with conflicts daily. All the time. It makes us human. Pick a conflict and explode that conflict into something epic. She’s a vegan. He’s a hunter. DUN DUN DUNN.
How do you fall in love with your villain? Make him the hero in his own eyes. Why not?
Because after all, we’re the hero to our own story. Even the villains. Unless you’re the Joker. And then, girls just wanna have fun.