Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What Makes A Good Villain Tick?

To continue our discussion of villains, let me ask this. Is the best villain someone who personifies the ultimate evil, who has no redeeming qualities and exists as the complete antithesis of the hero/heroine? Or is it more interesting to put forth a villain that may at times be almost sympathetic? Do you love to hate your villains or prefer to try to get inside their heads and figure out what makes them do the things they do?

Science fiction and fantasy especially are filled with ‘ultimate’ evil villains, the big baddies who just cannot play well with others. I’ve noticed an interesting trend though – these ultimate bad guys, if they’re around for a while, tend to soften up a little over time. As the layers of their bad-ness get peeled back, we see that maybe they weren’t always so bad. Look at Darth Vader for instance – now there’s an ultimate bad guy – or there was, until we learned where he came from, who he really was. Anakin Skywalker was a kid from the wrong side of the galaxy with a tough beginning. Being born into slavery on some backwater planet, or no-watere planet, in this case, takes a toll. Similarly, look at Star Trek’s Borg – they were evil incarnate. Resistance is futile. Souless cyborgs whose only goal was to assimilate everyone into their emotionless world of robotic efficiency. Yet there were Borg who were rehabilitated, given new lives, who yearned for the individuality the Collective took away.

Part of the fun of a good villain is that moment when, despite rooting for the hero and heroine, you almost feel sorry for the bad guy. A good villain – maybe a great villain – has a heart buried somewhere under their black cloak and mask and when we get a glimpse of that heart, even if it is a little bit shriveled, we’re drawn deeper into the story.

Of the villains I’ve created, my favorite so far is the sorceress Graciela from Conjured in Flames. She’s wicked, self serving and a little bit desperate. She calls forth Gillian, my heroine, from another world to take her place in the dungeon of Lord Rodan so that she may escape persecution by the villagers who fear her power. In this scene, Gillian and Graciela have both ended up in chains and we see a glimpse of the woman beneath the evil legend.

* * *

Varrick's men had chained Graciela to the wall at one end of the dank, stone cell, and Madran had manacled Gillian to the opposite wall. The length of their chains didn't allow them to reach each other. With the darkness complete around them, they could locate each other only by the sound of their voices.

"Rest assured, sister, my thoughts were only to saving my own skin. The fact that you have suffered is regrettable, but unavoidable."

Gillian understood by the woman's cold, emotionless tone exactly what she was dealing with. "You're everything Rodan thought you were. How did you do it anyway? How did you bring me here?"

"A spell to draw a suitable body from another dimension. It took years to perfect, and I must say, having seen you groomed and sparkling as Rodan's concubine, it worked far better than I'd anticipated."

Gillian struggled against her chains. She wasn't sure who she wanted to hurt more, Graciela for using her, or Madran for his obvious enjoyment at manhandling her. He'd relished throwing her in the cell, probably thinking she should have never been set free in the first place. He'd never trusted her, and now that Graciela's lie made it seem like they were in cahoots, he never would. Neither would Rodan, ever again.

"I'm no one's concubine!"

"I'm sorry if he forced you, sister. Rodan is a rutting pig, as are all men. But I expected a modicum of honor from him."

"He didn't force me." The thought of it choked Gillian. Rodan may not have offered her many choices, but he hadn't assaulted her.

"Ah. You were willing? I can understand. He's a strapping specimen. Time was, I might have wanted him to sate my urges as well. But any interest in men as bed partners has been beaten out of me over the years." A tinge of regret laced the voice that sounded so much like her own.

"Don't try to make me feel sorry for you. You're a murderer."

"I've killed in self defense, and I've killed for vengeance. What I am is a survivor, though none would believe it. These vile creatures have destroyed every one who cared for me all because of my power. I want only to give back in kind."

"So it's all about revenge?"

"Yes. It is."

Gillian remained silent for a while, her thoughts in turmoil. What would Graciela have done to Rodan if he had captured her on the road that night? Would she have accepted his offer, then turned against him at her first opportunity? Probably.

"Rodan wanted to help you," she said, working her way down the cold, slick wall behind her and sitting on the floor. She heard chains clanking and figured Graciela had done the same. "He was going to offer you a chance for a life."

"Is that what he told you to lure you into his bed?" Graciela gave a harsh laugh. "Are all the women from your world so naïve? Do they all lie down for any man who makes them foolish promises? You'd deserve more respect if he forced you. At least then you could boast of some integrity."

Gillian's cheeks felt hot. "He wanted to give you a chance to redeem yourself. He wanted you to help him defeat the Saracen in exchange for his protection."

"And you jumped at the offer, I presume?"

"What choice did I have? I don't even know where I am. I was at work, minding my own business, and the next thing I know, I wake up with Rodan threatening to toss me to an angry mob unless I help him."

"Then he did force you. You did what you had to do to stay alive, sister. I admire that."
The words stung. She'd put aside the idea that she gave herself to Rodan because she had to and decided it was because she wanted to. She wanted him even now, and that realization made her cheeks burn with shame.

"It doesn't matter any more, does it? You've ruined it. He thinks I'm one of your kind and that I planned all along to betray him. What are you anyway? How come you're so powerful?"
"I am Andar, a dying breed. We came to Cazastan looking for sanctuary, and in turn, we were hunted like animals."

"So you're aliens?"

"I suppose you could say that. Yet after six thousand years on this planet, are we really alien any more?"


Skylar Masey said...

Fabulous post Bernadette/Jennifer!

I totally agree that it helps to know the past goodness of a villian before he/she turns evil because it makes the reader identify with the character completely.

The first example that popped into my head was Dennis Hopper from Speed as a wronged cop on the rampage. And I also recalled everyone's pleasure at seeing the Return of the King's flashback that showed Gollum/Smeagol before his transformation. Adding that tiny 5 minute peice made everyone feel like they had all the peices to his troubled puzzle. I think it goes to show that your villian doesn't have to have a huge backstory to match the hero/heroine's, but that he/she is far more interesting if they used to be just like him/her and took a wrong turn/alternate side.

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

Thanks, Skylar. Good villains are so complex - sometimes even more so than heroes/heroines.

Angela Verdenius said...

Hmmmm...you know, what we consider an act of villainy on Earth, in another alien species it could be taken as normal or a sign of strength.