Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Villain! Who, Me?

By Beth Terrell

I've been thinking about villains today, and one thing that really stands out to me is this: hardly anyone thinks he is one. Take Darth Vader. He's not out there thinking, "This is me, being the villain." He's thinking, "This is me, helping build an empire while getting even with all those jerks who didn't appreciate me back when I was a Jedi."

Or take Voldemort, the over-arching villain in J.K. Rowling's best-selling series about Harry Potter. Voldemort doesn't believe he's evil. Heck, he doesn't even believe in evil. He believes he's entitled, superior, and above all, wronged. He's just taking what's rightfully his. The Harry Potter books are chock full of villains who don't believe they're villains. Lucius Malfoy thinks he's preserving the purity of the pure-blood mages from the coarse Mud-Bloods. Toad-faced Dolores Umbridge (in my opinion, one of the most horrifying villains ever written) doesn't see herself in the black-hat role. She's standing up for order and tradition, defending the Ministry of Magic against the forces of anarchy. And you can bet that Harry Potter is not the hero of their stories. In Voldemort's mind, he's the hero. In Dolores Umbridge's mind, she is.

Of course, technically, the main character is the protagonist, who may or may not really be a hero. And the antagonist is anyone who stands between the protagonist and his or her goal, regardless of his morality. He may be a perfectly nice guy who wants to drain the marshland for perfectly good reasons. But in a mystery, the villain is usually a true villain, meaning his or her motive is generally a selfish one. I don't mean he or she has no redeeming qualities, only that the murderer in a mystery very rarely acts for altruistic or noble purposes - except maybe in his or her own mind.

So how do you make an effective villain? It's no good to make a Snidely Whiplash-style villain who twirls his curly moustache and thinks of wicked ways to kidnap the girl and foil the hero. This type of two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) evil is rarely effective. Nor does it help much to show Snidely patting a stray dog on the head on his way to foreclose on a house he doesn't even need. Such tacked-on "good qualities" are rarely convincing, because they don't seem like part of the character.

On the other hand, Thomas Harris did a magnificent job of making the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, both terrifying and sympathetic. We feel for the child he was and are horrified by the monster he became, and Harris made us believe that one could easily have become the other. How? By showing us how the boy was tormented by his schoolmates because of his cleft palate, and later, how he was physically and emotionally abused by his grandmother. Harris made these scenes real, and later, when we see Francis's tenderness toward a blind woman, we understand why he takes comfort in her company, why he needs what she has to offer, and why he inevitably misunderstands her motives. None of this excuses Francis's actions. He's a villain, but he doesn't see himself that way. There are perfectly logical reasons (to him) for everything he does, even though any sane person could clearly see that his actions are evil. But because his actions grow out of his own perceptions, he is a believable villain.

That, I think, is the key. No matter how evil your villain, no matter how horrific his acts, he believes in what he is doing, and that makes us perceive him as rounded and real.

3 comments:

Ben Small said...

Beth, I think you've hit the nail on the head, as usual (pardon the cliche'). It's about having well rounded characters, whether they be good or bad, as perceived by the reader. We need to root for someone, root against someone else, but that doesn't mean both sides shouldn't be fleshed out, as well as those characters somewhere in limbo between those two extremes. And as we see time after time, not everybody's usually all good or all bad; somewhere in the middle is the humanity of the character.

Lee Lofland said...

Great post! Ironically, I'm teaching a class at the Midwest Writers Conference next week called How To Write Effective Villains.

Beth Terrell said...

Thanks, Lee. You do know you're living my dream life, right? Writing and traveling to writers' conferences...it's enough to make a girl weep with envy.

Good luck with the conference. Do they sell tapes?