On writing a believable villain
PART 1 / PART 2
“Nobody is the villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes in our own stories.” George R. R. Martin.
In real life, it seems fairly easy to find evil powers. They come in all shapes and colors: remember the bully in your class? Remember the nasty villain in your favorite book? Remember the welcomed scapegoat, when you parked your car in the no-no-place? If not, just open a newspaper, social media or switch on the TV. What do you see? Murder, war, hate, accidents, fear, racism, bigotry… In this frenzy of bad and catastrophic news, one can get the feeling the world is a horrible place, and humans are disgusting.
Now, how does one start to write about all the terrible stuff that’s happening? Dear writer, you start with yourself. What are your experiences? Think about your stories of survival: recall the time you escaped harm, the time you felt in danger, and the time you couldn’t avoid the hurt. Every survivor has his/her own story to tell about the evil they’ve faced.
Linger there and use that as emotional fuel, even if it hurts. Let your raw voice retell the events, bleed them unto the page. This article might help you with that.
What is the difference between a hero and a villain?
What is a villain?
- A cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.
- A character, which constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.
What is a hero?
- A person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.
- A person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal.
Under the right circumstances, ALL humans (yes, even the fictional ones) can be pushed into committing a bad/cruel thing (not necessarily a crime, but often including it), coaxing the individual into taking a leap into the eternal midnight of the soul.
There always is a “button” to monster out, and most certainly there are people who can find and push it. Everybody can be manipulated into an exceptional state of mind where one goes against one’s own nature.
In a whole black-and-white world of stories/ fairytales, a villain does all the evil stuff. That’s his job, all the lying, deceiving, stepping over the line, taking control, pushing people around, and murdering. The hero saves the day, and he gets it all what we hope for. In most stories /movies, we root for the hero, the bright side, for the forces of good. But the reality isn’t black and white. The bad guy hasn’t always got the black hat, sorry folks.
If you ask me, I pity the traditional hero. That poor sap needs to play by the book, and the reader won’t forgive him if he doesn’t. Of course, there is the antihero, who doesn’t always follow the rules, but he still needs to cater to positive expectations of some kind. I really enjoy characters who surprise me. I love characters who are reckless, who boldly go to the edge of the world, just to jump down. I’m inspired by characters who give and never shake in fear that they remain poor. You suspected right: I’m team villain, or at least, team-antihero. I love the bad guy, who needs no explanation, no justification at all. He, who has the catalyst wild card, is my favorite.
Well, at this point, you might get the idea, that all these characters represent everything I desire for myself. You’re right. But that’s the point! I need a strong character to inspire me, so does every other reader. The epic villain will coax you into creating an equally epic hero.
Chemistry of a good story is dependent on the relationship and conflict between the hero and the villain/opposing power. Everything that happens to the hero, as a person, every injury, every mistake and every loss reveals a particular truth: what the hero thinks of himself, the lies he tells himself about himself.
The villain’s job is to force/ to herd the hero into a reasonable character arc.
Let’s poke the monster a bit:
- The Human Nature: I’ll put this to the individual impediment to meet. The human nature of the character, his/her desires, flaws, their beliefs and their addictions go here. Good people sometimes do bad things. The craving of substances transforms reasonable humans into monsters, but so does loss, greed, hatred, and most traumas.
- The Dangerous: narcissistic, sadistic, thriller material, antisocial personality disorder, gaslighting, abuse.
- the Crazy: this includes aberration in personalities, some special fetishes, perversions (works of Marquis de Sade)
- the Evil One: no other explanation and motive besides the evil, the wicked game he plays; just wants to see the world burn (example: Damian from Omen)
- The Obedient One: Milgram Experiment; you know, the people following orders, those, who claim no knowledge of any horrible act against humanity.
- The Everybody: silence and inaction, are the most common signs of cowardice in the face of injustice; the false belief, that someone else will step up and stop the evildoers;
- the Shady Brute: somebody’s muscle man, not the sharpest tool in the box, often tricked into wrongdoing or forced into it.
Against a system:
- the Supernatural: entities outside the everyday life and going against nature; I put them into system obstacles because their origin lies deep within the belief system/mythology of the society (example: demons, hell itself, and the devil in Dante’s Inferno)
- the System: Gov, corporate crime, nations, beliefs
- Forces of Nature: a flood, earthquake, or a sharknado
The threshold of violence.
Messing someone up messes you up. Let’s take a closer look at the bad seed psychology.
An evil being is made, not born. This is what I choose to believe. The first thing that jumps to my mind is physical abuse, but please also count verbal, social and emotional abuse into the long list of violence – resulting in emotional and behavioral problems.
The individuals accommodated to violence, have a different stress response from the person’s who have no to little experience with it. In every psyche, there is an invisible border, that separates normal characters from violent ones. Two gatekeepers of social behavior:
- Innate psychological resistance to killing (Patrick McKinnie, Combat Psychology, 2016)
- Self-control and its dark side (psychology today)
Actions speak louder than words. Keep tabs on what somebody does, and not what they say. Go ahead and assume the person’s/character’s nature by their deeds.
Of course, there are early markers to an “evil” being. Cruelty is one of them, that and a lack of empathy and remorse. This is when you know something went horribly wrong with the person right from the start. The writer lifted the shroud of mystery from the character, and you just wait for the literal explosion of crazy.
For me, the difference between a hero and a villain isn’t that big. MOTIVE and EXPERIENCE build up to fundamental shifts in coping with adverse conditions, plot, and pacing. Tell the truth as you know it, dear writer. But first, let’s take a look where that inner truth comes from.
to be continued: Part 2