|Bad guys don’t need to wear black.
But then again, black can be awesome.
So, what do Moriarty, Modred, and Sauron have in common?
Easy, they’re all bad guys.
What else to they have in common? While all villains in their respective stories, very little connects the three. Moriarty is a math professor gone bad, seemingly to start a criminal empire for the sake of it; an intellectual exercise for fun and profit. Sauron, of Lord of the Rings, is a being of pure evil who wants to conquer the word., with him as the only free person in it. Modred … well, depending on what edition you’re looking at, he’s either a a pure tool of his mother, a weapon of evil, a manipulative little wretch, or, just guy who’s gotten caught up in events that lead to a train wreck (honestly, just read Mary Stewart’s novels…)
Creating a villain can be no different from creating every other character in a universe. A character is a character, and if you’re trying to create a fully 3-Dimensional person on the page, it shouldn’t matter if it’s a protagonist or an antagonist. With Sauron, there is literally an entire backstory on him stretching back thousands of years (Tolkien, The Silmarillion); Modred was given a great deal of emotional and personal depth by Mary Stewart in her novels of King Arthur; and Moriarty … well, he was a tool by Arthur Conan Doyle because he was tired of writing Sherlock Holmes, other people have stepped up to give Moriarty more of a back story, including Isaac Asimov.
But note, Moriarty actually has no lines in the single short story he appears in. The only dialogue he has is whatever Holmes relates to Watson. He technically doesn’t even need a backstory, but he’s inspired countless variations for villain. As far as iconic personal adversaries, he might be the beginning of the archetype for the mirror opposite for the hero.
In the case of my bad guys, I’ve done both extremes. For my Pius novels, I have the personal history going back to the antagonist’s grandparents. They have hobbies and motivations and a history. They have back stories, and I could probably make books out of the bad guys I make … but then again, the last bad guy as protagonist was probably The Talented Mr. Ripley. Unless that’s your read on the entirety of Game of Thrones.
However, there are schools of thought behind making villains. One is that “the villains really see themselves as the good guys; the heroes of their own stories.”
That’s crap. Total and complete crap.
Why is that crap? Because it makes a lot of presumptions. Starting with the presumption that the villain even believes about “right” and “wrong.” Good, bad, they’re the ones with the weapon. Going back to Greek mythology, the only constant “moral” was that right and wrong were whatever the fickle gods decided it was. Hubris was the only constant sin they appeared to acknowledge. If we want real life villains, does anyone think a Saddam Hussein believed in anything but power? How about the abortion lobby? Does anyone think they care about “women’s health”? They only murder a few million children a year in the name of “mercy.”
And you can’t merely dismiss villains as sociopaths. Why not? There are plenty of amoral little bastards out there whose only goal is whatever their whim is at the moment. They don’t think over morals, ethics, Nietzsche, the will to power … though you’d be surprised how many think they are beyond good and evil, because what’s good and evil.
And you don’t need to be a sociopath to have a mindset geared towards “this is what I want,” and “this is what’s good for me,” and screw the rest of the universe. We call it social media. What are the thugs of Anti-Fa but weaponized social media mobs? If you have that type of a person, add together a total disregard for the consequences, and for anyone who gets in your way, you have a good, solid villain.
This is my school of villainy. My bad guys don’t care about what’s right and wrong. They don’t care about anything but what they want. They don’t even see themselves as the hero of their story … because that presumes they believe in heroes and villains. If there’s no right and wrong, then what’s a villain? What’s a hero?
Can characters have a code of honor and be a villain? Sure, why not? Honor is generally considered a system based solely on pride. There’s a reason pride is a deadly sin. And pride is all about “me.”
And, no, a villain doesn’t have to be pure evil — torturing, sadistic rapist qualities are not a prerequisite. For some, not everything is about sex. And, hell, I live in New York, BDSM is considered a “subculture.”
Hey, just because the character slashes someone’s throat and watches their lifeblood coming out of them in spurts, chuckling manically, doesn’t necessarily make them a bad guy. Though it could make them a fairly scary good guy? (If you ever get the chance, look up the first Mr. Moto film with Peter Lorrie. He plays a Japanese man in the 1930s, just as everything goes to Hell in the Pacific. You seem him kill people in what looks like cold blood. He always wears black gloves, black coats, and he always looks sinister. You have no idea what side he’s on until the very end.)
On the other end of the equation, there are people who try to tell me that MacBeth was a tragic hero … Really? That’s like saying that all of the murderers caught by Columbo were heroes, as opposed to a murder mystery told from the killer’s point of view. Here’s a lesson to being a writer: if you’re trying to make your hero tragic, don’t give him a body count in the triple-digits that includes innocent women and children.
My point: you don’t need a bad guy to be crazy for him to be evil. Nor do you need a sadist, a rapist, a pervert, sex-fiend, or Jack the Ripper.
Hell, I don’t think any of my villains are that sort of psycho.
The enemy in A Pius Man, for example, is none of these. Will he kill everyone in his way? Sure. Will he go out of his way to utterly and completely destroy thousands if he can? Absolutely. Will he rape, torture, and maim for fun and profit? No. Why? Because it’s not efficient, a waste of time, and won’t help him achieve his goals in the slightest.
The Love at First Bite series have demons and vampires as the bad guys, and they want to take over the world in the service of Hell. These bastards all know whose side they’re on. They know they’re working for the forces of Hell. You can’t tell me they think they’re the hero. (And no, you can’t tell me that Lucifer is the hero of Paradise Lost — he’s the protagonist, but he’s still the villain.)
Heck, the Saint Tommy NYPD series is … oy. Again, possessed serial killer. A death cult and a warlock motivated by political power. I’ve got Jihadists who want to destroy Christendom so their culture can take over the world. There are anti-theists who have… a similar motivation. We won’t even get into the eldritch horrors from beyond.
For the record, to write an antagonist, you just need one person to have competing goals with your main character. If you have a person with goals that run counter to the protagonist, then you have a good antagonist.
What that antagonist does makes them a villain. For a villain, you need someone who must be stopped, one way or another. And reasoning with them isn’t even an option.
For a ton of good villains, and antagonists, I suggest you take a look at my Dragon Awards discussion post for some great novels that do this.
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