We’ve talked quite a bit about flawed characters lately. Flaws make heroes into real people, people we, as readers, can relate to and understand. But what about the bad guys?
The problem with a villain is that in order for him to really be threatening, he also needs to be someone we readers can identify with, same as the hero. Think about it for a second – the thing that makes a villain truly terrifying is the idea that we could easily be as dangerous, given just a nudge in the right direction. A villain who’s purely evil, or utterly undefeatable, is just no fun to read about. My husband and I watch “Once Upon A Time” on Sunday nights. The characters are all story book characters who’ve been trapped in the real world by a horrendous curse the Evil Queen cast. She was just hoping to ruin Snow White and Prince Charming’s lives, but she took the entire fairytale population along, too. In the real world, Snow White is a school teacher, Rumpelstiltskin is a pawn shop owner and the Evil Queen is the mayor of their small town of Storybrooke. It’s a fun show, except for one thing – the Queen never loses. No matter what plan the good guys hatch against her, whether it’s to get her removed from office or just to get a child’s playground saved, she always manages to be one step ahead. At first, it was interesting, because we were waiting for the protagonist to come up with something brilliant. But after weeks and weeks of this, I’ve reached the point that I’m only watching in the hope that the Queen will lose. The last new episode that played was supposed to tell us why the Queen hates Snow White and what made her evil. The point was to make the Queen a little more sympathetic, but I honestly think the writers waited too long. If someone doesn’t manage to put one over on the Queen before the end of the season, I may not bother watching when it comes back next year. An unbeatable villain just isn’t any fun.
On the other hand, one of my favorite trilogies is Louise Cooper’s Time Master trilogy. One of the reasons I loved these books so much was the flawed villain. There were actually a few villains, but the one who made the most impact was Keridil, son of the High Priest of the Star Peninsula and initiate of Order. His father adopts the protagonist, Tarod, when the boy is found wandering and lost, and Keridil becomes a brother to Tarod. Tarod and Keridil grow up together. When Tarod finds love with a beautiful woman named Sashka, Keridil is eaten up with jealousy, but tries to bury his feelings. Unfortunately, it turns out that Tarod is actually a servant of Chaos, and his beloved Sashka betrays him. Keridil has the chance to help his brother, but instead allows his desire for Sashka rule him. He declares Tarod to be a demon and casts him out from the only home he ever knew. By the end of the trilogy, Tarod has come into his full power, and punishes Keridil for his betrayal in a way that fits the sin perfectly.
This is a much better villain. He betrays his brother, whom he loves, because he covets his brother’s woman, behaviors that any one of us could be capable of. We like to think we’re good people, but we’re all guilty of poor choices at one time or another. It’s those poor choices that make Keridil the villain he is. As much as we despise him for the pain and anguish he causes his brother, we can all relate to his motives. That’s what makes him really scary. Any one of us could descend into that sort of darkness, given the right circumstances. And even though he’s got the power for most of the story, by the end, Keridil proves to be fallible.
When you’re creating your villains, pay careful attention to their power and ability. In the same way you don’t want a perfect hero, you also don’t want a perfect villain. Whether you give him an uncontrollable lust or merely make him a sucker for kitten videos on YouTube, give him flaws, so that the story is properly balanced.
Yesterday David started a nice discussion of heroes we like, and why we like them. Today I’d like to hear about villains who’ve made an impact on you. Ready? Go!