Villains and Heroes: One Writer’s Approach


We are now officially taking requests here at Magical Words….

The other day, Faith asked me to post on epic fantasy Big Bad Uglies in the context of my own work.  In particular, she wanted me to write a bit about the duality of conflict — the external and the internal — that she so eloquently described in her post last Wednesday, and to relate it to my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle.  I’m going to do most of what she asked, but not all.  As the MW contributor whose work (up until now) is closest to traditional epic fantasy, I have wanted to weigh in on the subject since she began her wonderful series, but I happen to feel that I handled the two sides of conflict far better in my later work than in those first books.  We all aim to improve our craft as we write, and in this respect I certainly feel that I have . . . thank goodness . . . .

My villains/bad guys/BBUs tend to be a bit different from the epic fantasy norm.  I don’t use evil gods or supernatural beings with the power to destroy the world single-handedly.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy books that use such villains.   I do.  I loved LOTR.  I thought that Rakoth Maugrim, the Big Bad in Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, was a terrific villain.  Same with Lord Foul, in the Thomas Covenant books.  But I didn’t feel that this type of villain was right for my books for a couple of reasons.  First, I don’t think I would write that sort of bad guy very well.  But more to the point, while I enjoy occasionally reading books with the Evil-God type bad guy, I find the frailties of the human soul far more interesting as a source of evil, particularly when I’m writing.  Ambition, greed, envy, vindictiveness, faithlessness, bigotry — these have spawned unspeakable evils in our own world.  Shouldn’t they be enough for fictitious worlds as well?

Granted, I mix in magic, and I make my bad guys powerful enough to be a threat to the people around them and all that’s good in the worlds they inhabit.  But I also work hard to make my villains the heroes of their own stories.  What do I mean by that?  I definitely don’t mean that they are the heroes of my books.  Rather, I strive to make their backstories and their motivations understandable, even deserving of sympathy.  Put another way, I don’t like to write characters who are inexplicably and unredeemably evil.  If you look at all the villains, large and small, in my books — Sartol, Cedrych, Dusaan, Lici, and the rest — you see that every one of them felt justified in what he or she was doing.  In their own POVs, in their own conceptions of the worlds around them, they were the heroes of their stories.  Not only that, but a simple recitation of their motivations would lead my readers to say “Yeah, I can see that.  I may not agree with his/her methods, but I understand the reasons.”

I like to write in shades of gray, and I think that fantasy has suffered from too many books written in black and white.

But of course, Faith was also interested in that duality of villainy I mentioned earlier.  Our heroes don’t only have to defeat the Big Bads they confront in the climactic battles, they also have to overcome their own faults along the way.  As Faith points out, that is, in many ways, the far more interesting struggle.  That’s the one that gets at emotion, at those frailties of the human soul.  In a comment I wrote in response to one of Faith’s BBU posts, I mentioned that I like to make my heroes and villains reflections of one another.  They might have similar magics, similar backgrounds, similar motivations.  They might even look alike — in Winds of the Forelands, Grinsa and Dusaan could almost be brothers.  Well, let me take that a step further.  I think that there should be parallels between a hero’s struggle with his/her own faults and his/her struggle with the Big Bad.  If the Big Bad is driven by bigotry and envy, then my hero should have to wrestle with his/her own biases and jealousies before being able to prevail.  In my opinion, internal conflicts and the external battles should reinforce each other.  This begins to get at theme and motif, at giving your story a more powerful purpose and message.

Faith also mentioned balance in her Wednesday post.  It’s a subtle point, because she wasn’t saying that the powers and abilities of the hero have to balance those of the villain.  Instead, she was getting at a couple of things that have been important to me in my writing.  One of them A.J. touched on recently.  If you’re going to write an Evil-God BBU into your book, you’d better have a good explanation as to why this all-powerful creature hasn’t already taken over the world and destroyed all its enemies.  You can do this through worldbuilding (bury the SOB under a mountain — that ALWAYS works….) or your magic system, or through a technological advance.  Whatever.  It has to make sense in the context of your story.  And second, you have to make the evil’s omnipotence convincing enough to terrify but also convincingly vulnerable to something, so that eventually your hero can prevail.  This is another reason I like human villains.  Even the most powerful sorcerer has some weak spot.  Again, though, balance doesn’t mean that the hero’s power equals that of the Big Bad.  Think about LOTR, Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson books (which I just finished and enjoyed thoroughly, despite their occasional faults).  In all of them, and in all of my books, too, the villain has more power than the hero, at least in the ways that the villain thinks are important.  The villain’s powers run deeper, or are rooted in a greater knowledge of magic.  The villain is bigger and stronger and seems to have the upper hand at every turn.

The only way that the hero can prevail is by drawing on other skills and resources.  My good guys rely on cunning, on friendship and love.  They do the unexpected and without breaking any rules of magic, without undoing any of the worldbuilding upon which the stories rest, they find a way to overcome the big bad’s advantages.  Ideally — again bringing this back to the internal conflict — they are only able to turn the tide of battle when they have overcome whatever emotional and psychological struggles they’ve been working through, and, also ideally, prevailing in that internal conflict relates directly to the path they find to victory over the Big Bad.

There is a lot to think about in planning all of this stuff, which is why in past posts I have emphasized the importance of the End Game.  You don’t have to outline, or give up being a seat-of-the-pantser, if that’s how you like to write.  But for me when a story works, the hero and villain, the internal and external conflicts, the resolutions of the various dilemmas faced by the good guys — all of these things are woven together.  These are just my preferences, of course.  Some might see too much contrivance in all those parallels I mention.

What about you?  What kind of BBUs do you like to work with, and how do you like to kill off the bastards?

I’ll be away from my computer much of the day, but will try to respond to comments at time allows.

David B. Coe

17 comments to Villains and Heroes: One Writer’s Approach

  • As I was reading this post I kept thinking about Dusaan. In the final book of the series as all his plans appear to be coming together, I knew in the back of my mind he would fail. After all, he’s the bad guy. Grinsa, the hero, had to win somehow. And yet, I actually started rooting for Dusaan a little because I felt like he was a bit of Malcolm X — he’s trying to restore the rights of his people albeit in a violent method. I had to keep reminding myself that his approach was flawed though his motives were understandable. In the end, though I was happy to see Grinsa and mankind victorious, I felt a tinge of sadness for Dusaan and his people. I’ve not read the LonTobyn series yet but I think Dusaan and the Winds of the Forelands series is a prime example of the BBU you wrote about today.

  • Thanks, Stuart. Dusaan and Grinsa were so much fun to write, particularly in the final volume when it all came down to the two of them. And there’s actually a moment in that last book when Grinsa does something in anger that is so like Dusaan that it nearly undoes him. I wanted them to be as like each other as possible by the time their final confrontation occurs. All this by way of saying, yes, as I wrote the post I had them in mind. And also a pair from the new Thieftaker series.

    Quiet today. What do you people think this is, a national holiday?

  • D,
    it struck me as I read this that a lot of how sympathetically a villain can be represented may in part be a POV issue. I was thinking over some of my villains and I realized that those I present in the most complex way tend to be the ones who I get to describe from a limited 3rd person perspective which gets close to their thoughts. My fantasy stuff hasn’t worked that way, being tied exclusively to my protagonist, so the villain is always defined by the perception of others. A sympathetic villain needs a less fixed POV, or a lot of exposition. I guess this will seem obvious to those who had already thougth ot it, but it hadn’t struck me in these terms exactly, so thanks! Maybe my next project will be retelling LOTR from the perspective of Sauron… 🙂

  • Quote: Quiet today. What do you people think this is, a national holiday?

    Chase doesn’t think so. My wife had to work. So they decided to have a potluck and folks requested my honey bourbon wings again. Up till 1am making them, but it’s worth it.

    I do like villains that you can, if not relate to, then at least understand their motivations. My current WIP has one of these. He feels like he’s doing what’s best for civilization, but he’s also a power hungry bass turd (hey, bass turds are nasty). But this kind of villain really works for the type of story.

    However, I also like the uber-villain, Sauron, Takhisis, the dreaded Great Old One B’zuul (oh, wait, that one’s mine), especially in epic fantasy. But what I really like more than just the uber-big-bag, is the conflict between the protagonists and the lesser villains. Those villains working to bring to fruition the plans of the big bad. Without Saruman and those corrupted by the orbs or rings, Sauron wouldn’t have been near so nasty. Without the rings, and the One Ring itself, in play, and without being able to corrupt from afar those who desired power with the orbs or rings, Sauron would just be a big eye at Mt Doom looking around and wishing it could do something useful as a big scary floaty eye. Sure, he’d still be worshiped by the dark races, but without lesser villains to lead them and keep them in line, they’re just disorganized rabble. I almost see the lesser villains in play as the drive, the motivation, the strengths and failings of the amorphous big bad in the corner–part of the same whole, if you will. If they fail, the big bad fails, the demon doesn’t get free, the old god doesn’t get to come back, dread Cthulhu doesn’t rise from R’lyeh. In this way, you can instill those same failings, motivations, etc, in the uber bad, by making the lesser villains extensions of the uber bad.

    However, I do absolutely agree that for the uber big bad to work, there does have to be great thought into why it hasn’t destroyed everything already.

    Honestly, one of my favorite villains in a series was the sword Stormbringer itself. And it’s not till the end that you really realize that it was. Makes me want to read them again, but I’m still reading The Sword of Shannara for the umpteenth time.

    And hopefully this junk makes sense and isn’t just a bunch of rambling. My thought coherence quotient is a bit dodgy today, it seems. Guess I shouldn’t be up till 1am making wings that call for bourbon…but not quite the entire bottle, if you catch my meaning. 😉

  • @AJ – This makes massive sense too. In writing my WIP, which is a third person limited, I suddenly realized after reading through the first draft that I needed to have one of the perspectives be from the villain. Originally, I didn’t have his perspective at all till the end and I wasn’t feeling the villain at all. I had to go back and add scenes with his perspective to give the reader more of a sense of the villain. I think the story is now much better for it, though I actually had a slightly harder time writing from the perspective of my villain. Specifically, I kept using the villain’s name instead of saying “he,” as though I couldn’t put myself fully into his mind, as though I was still an outside onlooker.

  • David> I like the idea of balance in the villain and the the hero–that they have mirror struggles, or the balance of internal and external struggles. I’m struggling (ha) with this right now in WIP. I have a character who has her own anger issues–issues that managed to create the current problem that she has, both in the internal conflict and the larger bag guy. She didn’t create the bad guys, but she created the circumstances that made them thrive, and that dogs her a lot. So, it is her own problems (primarily her temper) she’s got to get under control in order to deal with the larger problems.

    I do use limited 3rd, and my villain does get a pov and there are scenes from his pov. He’s the minor villain (by that I mean less evil), the major one doesn’t have a pov–mostly because she’s less nuanced. She’s just evil.

  • AJ, I absolutely agree. POV is essential for finding the balance that I’m talking about. And maybe in the end that’s why I like writing this sort of villain. As Daniel points out, getting into the head of the Uber-Bads doesn’t work very well, which is one of the reasons why those surrogates become so important. But when I create a human villain I can delve into his thoughts just the way I would any other character. That said, with the new project, I’m also working from a single POV and having more trouble making the villain sympathetic. In this case it has come down to the interaction between my MC and the villain. They have a nuanced relationship that I think deepens character development on both sides.

    Daniel, I want some wings. Seriously, they sound great. I think your point about the surrogates is a great one, and I have to admit that I hadn’t given it much thought before you brought it up. But you’re right: Saruman has all the depth that Sauron is missing, and is, thus, a far more interesting nemesis for Galdalf. Same with the lieutenant of Rakoth in the Fionavar books (Galadin? Any Kay fans out there who can help me with the name?) And again, it’s, in part at least, a matter of POV.

    Emily, I love the idea of having a MC responsible, even in part, for the rise of the villain. That’s a great way of connecting them, and ultimately it’s that connection that’s most important. I like to do it with parallels, but there are other ways of forging those bonds and you’ve hit on one. The point to me is that even in winning at the end there should be some cost for the MC, some recognition that “it could have been me” or some such. Any way of connecting them. Like when Holmes and Moriarty go over the cliff together. That is the ultimate expression of what I’m talking about.

  • Ryl

    The balance between good/evil characters is vital, since the hero is only as strong as the villain is wicked. To really understand and then convey the villains’ motivations I’ve had to get into their heads — and I’ve learned that my bad guys scare me.

  • Ryl, I tend to like my villains, but I’ve certainly found that they scare the people around me. Particularly my brothers. It’s fun, actually.

  • >>>What kind of BBUs do you like to work with, and how do you like to kill off the bastards?

    To this day, my favorite villian (among the ones in my own work) was Kenno in Law of the Wild. He was human, with the heavy dose of 6th sense of his bloodline. He was a sadist — and not in a good way. 🙂 There was no balance in him, however, and if I wrote him today, he would be far more layered.

    Kenno died by: shotgun, avulsion, falling into a bayou that was burning in a gasoline fire, and being eaten by alligators.

  • I hit go too fast. I wanted to add — GREAT post! You did all I’d hoped for.

  • QUOTE: Kenno died by: shotgun, avulsion, falling into a bayou that was burning in a gasoline fire, and being eaten by alligators.

    Well, at least the alligators got a nice home cooked meal. 😉

  • Faith, I love it. And I’m with Daniel: I think it’s very nice that you cooked him for the ‘gators. And thanks. Glad you liked the post.

  • Another great post, David! Having read the Winds of the Forelands and the Southlands books, I can see the duality of which you speak. Dusaan had some but it was made even more strongly in Lici. I think I as a reader had more sympathy for Lici than Dusaan because we knew more about her background and her reasons. Plus I can identify with her when her original plan grows beyond what she intended and out of her control.

    In my WIP, my Big Bad Evil goddess isn’t that big. She isn’t all powerful. She is more like a pot stirrer. She uses humans to cause trouble against the good god in her place as in a Satan or a Loki kind of way. I am working with my antagonist to transform him from average (even kind) brigand to a Lord of Chaos type character. I want the readers to see the change from a guy who tries to pay for the damage that his brigands caused to one that levels armies and destroys lives.

  • Thanks, Mark. I think that Lici was my most ambitious villain in a way, because she’s really NOT a villain in any traditional sense. And yet she fills that role in this story. Writing her was a great challenge and also great fun. (I’ve found that those two things often go together!)

    I have always been fascinated by the Loki kind of mystical character. Your WIP sounds like great fun.

  • David, I have to agree that I prefer the idea of a human villain, rather than a being of pure evil. For me, it comes down to motivation. “Uh, why’d he just set fire to that kitten?” / “…Because he’s evil!” The one time I did try to write an all-evil villain, I wound up using “Because he’s evil” as the only reason (read: excuse) for why he was doing what he did. But kudos to anyone who can pull it off.

    I also agree with what AJ said about it partly being a POV issue. My WIP is first-person, so as I already said at length to Faith, the challenge for me is to tell his story through what other people tell the MC. Telling both sides to the story will be an even greater challenge, but the manuscript will be better for it if I manage to pull it off. 🙂

  • Right, Moira. Evil for evil’s sake just doesn’t work for me. And it can be tough with a single person limited POV to get across the badassness than is the bad guy. But I found in working on my most recent book that I could do it. Trial and error, extensive rewrites, repeat as necessary….