Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Makes a Good Villain?

Sunflower here, on a fairly productive writing day, musing about villains. Or, as they're called in literature, antagonists.

Antagonists are defined as "a character, enemy or institution which represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend." Sometimes, the antagonist is the foil to the protagonist and they are directly locked in competition with each other. Other times, the antagonist is more representative of an idea that opposes the main characters.

The Eye of Sauron. From Wikipedia

For my money, the most frightening literary villains I have read come from fantasy: Sauron in The Lord of the Rings and Voldemort in Harry Potter. They have a lot in common, those two. Not only are they representations of evil, but they're also disembodied, menacing, dangerous, and their plotting, their minions and their ideas of world domination and racial purity are scarier than any thriller's criminal or terrorist could be, to me at least. They both echo Hitler, after all.

I took a class in high school called Heroes and Villains. Lofty and Classical-sounding, huh? It was an extra English. I don't actually remember any note-worthy villains from that class, however. Too bad.
He Who Will Not Be Named


Not all stories have antagonists. But if there is a villain, they have to hold their weight. They have to be challenging in the context of the story and believably so, for the reader. They must have conviction in their hatred for the protagonist and not be a cackling caricature. They can be completely unhinged or misguided, angry, powerful, weak, whatever. But it fuels their behavior into negativity.

The antagonist must have psychological depth. Why does this man want to shoot the protagonist? Why does the girl want to burn the house of her ex-lover down?  He or she is a character, just like any other, and has to be written in the same way one comes up with the other characters in the tapestry.

The only difference is that this character is going to make life difficult for the protagonists, sometimes even instigate the main conflict.

On Monday, I saw The Avengers. Like any good superhero movie worth its cash, there was a villain. His name is Loki, the Norse god of mischief, and he has issues. He's also gone off the deep end, has super powers, and wants to subjugate Earthlings. I found Loki more creepy than bone-chillingly-frightening, but still.  Good movie is good movie and Loki is the one who initiates the problem which rolls the plot along until they destroy midtown Manhattan (but that's another post for another day).

In this revision, I'm working on my villain. In the first draft, she was a peripheral character who I labeled as the "village racist." I wasn't sure that this was the kind of story that would have a readily identifiable antagonist in at all. I thought it had the makings of a character vs. society instead. So I peppered the periphery with secondary characters who are people of their time and place and beliefs.

But as I've been working through the draft, reorganizing, rewriting and whatnot, I know that I need to bring "the village racist" closer to the foreground. Because when I thought about what frightens me the most in a potential villain within this particular story, it is stubborn intolerance, ignorance (because ignorance causes a great deal of the world's problems) and judgement. This isn't the kind of story where an all-powerful, disembodied villain is going to make sense. But she's frightening in her own way.

So who--or what--is a villain that has stood out to you? Why? How do you think an antagonist should be pieced together? And what do you find frightening in villains? 

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