A Life Of Fiction LXXXVII
For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.
Sympathy For The Devil: I like sympathetic villains, as well as flawed heroes. Some of my villains have been really nasty characters. But it is more interesting for the reader if the villain has strong reasons for doing what he is doing. Perhaps he was bullied at school. Perhaps he’s doing what he’s doing simply to ensure his long-term survival: nobody wants to die, after all.
I’ve discussed some of my gas-lamp fantasy villains in the past, so I will not repeat myself by dwelling on them here. Nor do I really want to give away too many secrets of my other novels. There would be little point in you reading them if I gave away important chunks of the plot. So, instead, I will endeavour to chat about villains in general, perhaps illustrating what I mean by examples drawn from some of the great writers of fiction. Consider these villains not as stereotypes, but as archetypes of the form. If you’re writing stories don’t just copy somebody else’s bad guy. But there is no harm in drawing inspiration from what has gone before.
The criminal mastermind: I suppose that the most obvious example of this is Professor Moriarty, from the Sherlock Holmes stories. Moriarty’s motivations were power and money; and also to prove that he was the best. But if you’re writing about such an archetype you could have some other reason why the person turned to crime. Perhaps it is all some great mental exercise to him, and he lives for the challenge of outwitting the police.
Criminal masterminds tend to be among the saner of villains. If they were not compo mentis they would not be able to lead criminal organisations. If writing about these characters make them human. Along with their flaws stress their non-villainous interests. For example Moriarty was a great mathematician, having written A Treatise on the Binomial Theorem and The Dynamics of an Asteroid. Perhaps your villain has an interest in history or archaeology; or he (or she) makes secret donation to charity, perhaps due to pangs of guilt as a result of the crime which they are involved in.
The point is to make each villain different and unique. No two bad guys should be exactly the same.
Real world examples of criminal masterminds would be gangsters like Al Capone, or heads of Yakuza families.
The reluctant criminal: This, to me, is one of the more interesting of the villainous archetypes. This represents a person who does not want to be a criminal, but who has been forced to go outside of the law. Perhaps he has been framed for something which he has not done (such as Harrison Ford’s character in the film The Fugitive). Maybe he is being blackmailed into breaking the law.
These bad guys are not really bad guys. But they can still be protagonists to set against your literary hero. And, because they are reluctant villains, you can make them as sympathetic as you like. They should also come with a long back-story explaining just why they have been forced to turn to crime to achieve their ends.
Perhaps at the end of your tale you could have the villain atone for his criminal ways. Maybe, if there are future books featuring him, he might even end up becoming a hero. The idea of redemption is a recurring one in fiction.
There are many examples from the world of comics of reluctant villains, and ones who eventually end up becoming heroes: Wonder Man and the Swordsman, to name two from Marvel Comics.
The psychotic killer: This is one of the less interesting villains to write about, interestingly enough. Perhaps it is because there have been so many books and films already, from Robert Bloch’s Psycho to Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. It is hard to anything with the character which somebody else has not done before.
While it may be interesting examining the psyche of these characters they will never really be sympathetic characters. People might like reading about them; but (hopefully) readers will never empathise with them.
Examples from real life would include Jack the Ripper, whoever he really was. Examples from fiction would include Norman Bates, from the aforementioned Psycho by Robert Bloch.
Villain with a code of honour: The villain has his own code of honour which he lives by, despite the fact that he is a bas guy. Maybe he won’t hit the hero if the hero is prone or unconscious. Maybe he is always gentle towards the fairer sex. It may be that the villain does not even consider himself to be a bad guy, and is merely ding what he considers to be necessary.
There can be some advantages in writing about such a bad guy. Maybe he is happy simply to defeat the hero, rather than kill him off. In which case you can have him defeat the hero early in your magnum opus, only to have the hero rise to the challenge in the final chapters. Not all villains have to be brutal murderers, you know.
Examples of those villains who might be said to have some sort of a code of honour could be said to include Professor Moriarty, who allowed Holmes to write a final note to Watson, before their duel to the death at the Reichenbach Falls.
A few final thoughts: The above are only a few examples of how you can try to bring villains to life. But it is my opinion that villains are far more interesting if they are not entirely evil, but if there is some reason why they have chosen the dark path. Spend as much time on their background as any other aspect of your stories, and hopefully your prose will come to life. People like to read about interesting characters.
Next time I will try to discuss making heroes interesting.