Heart of Villainy

2012-Feb-5 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

The most interesting characters in fantasy are the villains. In fact, I would argue that this statement is true no matter what genre you substitute in. But fantasy in particular, the bad guys can get very interesting. The limitless nature of fantasy lends itself well to the factions of evil, and this gets even more interesting if the lines get blurred, and suddenly you can't tell who is evil and who is good.

Today's guest is a master at this. J. Robert King is the award-winning author of over twenty novels, all traditionally published. He's also the founder of a cabal of writers in the Midwest called The Alliterates, and often takes to the stage, starring in local productions such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and Aresenic and Old Lace.

He's a busy guy, but has graciously accepted my invitation to write a guest post for this month's event. So here we go with a look into the mind of a man that really knows how to bring those villains to life!

I'm not a bad person. I just write that way.

Yes, I do have a penchant for writing villains. Angel of Death focuses on a serial murderer, and Death's Disciples on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Thran tells the origin story of Yawgmoth, lord of the Phyrexians, and Le Morte d'Avalon tells the Arthurian story as if Morgan le Fey were the hero. In many of my novels, in fact, the people you first consider to be the good guys turn out to be the bad ones.

It's easily enough done. After all, villains think that they are the heroes. What did Hitler call his biography? Mein Kampf.

The realization that villains think they are heroes first occurred to me as a teenager. It was 1977, and the original Star Wars had just been released. I loved it. The valiant struggle of the young knight and the beautiful princess against the evil Lord Vader resonated with me. Star Wars provided what Tolkien called "moral recovery" -- lifting me out of the gray relativism of my world and into a place with clear good and evil.

Two years later, the Iran Hostage Crisis began. Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. What evil people! What villains! How could these terrorists justify charging in on U.S. soil and endangering innocent lives just because of a political disagreement?

But part of me remembered another group who charged into a foreign base, released a terrorist prisoner, and killed tens of thousands of innocent people just because of a political disagreement. The terrorist leaders were named Luke, Han, and Chewy. In fact, they had done all of those horrific things while being certain that they were the good guys. They were as self-righteous, as cocksure, as confident as those Iranian students were -- as I was.

Such idealistic young men also committed the attacks of 911.

It is a very dangerous thing to believe in absolute right and wrong in a world of gray relativism.

So, that's the first secret to writing villains: Make them the heroes of their stories. Better yet, make the reader believe that they are in fact the heroes, only to find out partway through that they are not. Readers tend to identify with the main characters of stories, and when they realize they've taken up with the wrong side, they feel very unnerved.

The second tip I have for writing great bad guys is to show their minds. The mind of a monster is terrifying to behold, and not because of cackling and hand-wringing. Instead, the mind of the villain is frightening because it is so understandable. Here's a quick example:

I watched patiently as it put its clothes into the extra-large washer. I watched it fish into its tight jeans to pull out two quarters, fit the coins into the slot, push the metal plunger... Push... push... The thing was jammed, as I knew it would be.

I'm the one who jammed it.

I stepped up and put my arms around its shoulders and grabbed the metal plunger. "Tricky machine. Here. I'll fix everything."

What's frightening about this voice? For one, the narrator sees a woman as an "it," and the words he uses to describe her have connotations of sexuality and brutality. He is cold, premeditated, and predatory, with a self-satisfaction that shows he's proud of what he is about to do. And that's the scariest part of all -- what he is about to do.

So, to write memorable villains, make them heroes in their own minds, and then let us see inside their minds. Trap us there, so that we fear we won't ever get out.

Chilling. Even those three short, creepy paragraphs get you thinking. I hope this post has given you something to consider when writing your villains, I know it has for me.

Thank you, Rob, for taking time out of your busy schedule to participate in this event and help make it great. I really appreciate it.

And of course, thanks to all my readers for dropping by. Tomorrow, an author and personal friend of mine brings us a fantastic post on how fantasy has worked its way into every aspect of her life. You don't want to miss this post.

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.


By Natalie on Sun 5 Feb 2012 04:25:24 am [ Reply ] Yes, chilling! Those three small paragraphs made me shudder!

By Norv on Mon 13 Feb 2012 06:53:27 am [ Reply ] Great article, thank you for taking the time to share your experience!

This rings so true. Only a few days ago I had this surprise from a book, the surprise to find out mid-way that the character the reader will assume as the main (and good) character turns out... differently. Seeing in his mind.
If well done, it makes the book unforgettable. It did for me!

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