Friday, 6 October 2017

The Makings of Darkness: The Relationship Between Heroes and Villains

Ah, October. The month of warm colours, Thanksgiving (if you live in Canada), bountiful squash, and Halloween.

It seems as good a month as any to keep the subject a little...dark. And so, let's talk about villains.

I love a good villain. To me, a villain is what makes a hero. The stronger and more interesting the antagonist is, the stronger and more interesting the protagonist must be and must become. Comic books are a good example of this. Without villains like Joker, Riddler, and Penguin, then how strong is Batman? How else does he actually grow as a superhero and prove himself as a genius, unless his villains are on par with – or further ahead than – him?

There are, of course, many great examples of heroes and their respective famous villains and rivals. Sherlock Holmes has Professor Moriarty. The Doctor has The Master. Van Helsing has Dracula. Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader. The list of memorable and fascinating villains goes on and on.

Some of the most famous villains go all the way back to one of the earliest forms of fantasy, which are the classical fairy tales. The Evil Queen archetype, the Big Bad Wolf (or, just plainly, the Wolf), the Evil Stepmother...

Apparently the old fairy tale writers had a thing for evil women. Good women too, considering that the protagonists are frequently girls (as I recently discovered, sometimes very young girls. Snow White in the original Brothers Grimm story was deemed too hot to live at the ripe old age of SEVEN YEARS OLD.)

Anyway. Back to awesome villains.

As much as there are villains that I love, I have also run into villains that are...lame. Very lame. Pathetic, really. They leave no real sense of danger for me (personally). They just don' as a villain. They don't strike me as being particularly great or scary.

I'm sure that you also have villains like this. Villains that feel more like slapped-on afterthoughts than actual threats. Or villains that are built up as dangerous and epic but when they finally show up they're just...well...lame.

So what makes a villain interesting? What makes a good villain into a good villain?

My personal theory and preference in what makes a good villain can be summed up in one simple word: Relationship.

Some of my favourite scenes to see, read, and write are when the hero and the villain are interacting. And when I say interacting, I don't mean fighting. I mean when they have to have a conversation. When they are testing the battleground. When they are one-upping one another, bantering, and working off one another in a very tense, very interesting scene. Oftentimes, the villain is toying with the hero (which I love). You know the scenes that I mean. Emperor Palpatine taunting and luring Luke toward the dark side in Return of the Jedi. Jim Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes during their many battles of wit in BBC's Sherlock. President Snow speaking to Katniss in her house in Catching Fire.

As with the list of great villains, the list of villains and heroes having these interactions goes on and on.

These interactions all come down to one thing: establishing the relationship and power balance between heroes and their adversaries. What this does (for me, at least) is greatly increase the stakes between their rivalry, because the fight between hero and villain stops being simply a battle between protagonist and antagonist, it becomes a battle between two people who actually know something of one another. It shows that there has been an effort to know one's adversary. It shows the villain being proactive and gives a direct taste of just how dangerous this villain is.

These scenes can appear in many different forms. There is, as aforementioned, the scenes where the hero and villain have a tense but civil conversation/interaction. There are also, of course, scenes where the villain catches up to the hero, and there is a pre-climax conflict between the two, often ending in a stalemate in some way, shape, or form.

Now, I'm not going to use a book, per-se, for an example of this. I am, however, going to use a television series based off of one of the most famous series of books on shelves right now.

I am, of course, talking about Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon.

Now, I haven't actually read these books. I'm not even caught up on the show. I have, however, watched most of season one, and I think it has a fairly good example.

Arguably, you could say that in Outlander the English in general are the 'villain', considering that they are the ones going after our lead characters, and the story is mostly told through the eyes of the Scottish side of the war. However, nobody can deny that there is a...well...distinct villain.

Black Jack Randall.

Oh, the things I could say about...Randall.

I'm going to keep it tame and PG in this blog, and not detail some of the...sketchier things that this character does. I'm not telling you the details. If you know the show, you already know.

Just because he does some definitely not PG things in his villainy doesn't mean that he doesn't have some AMAZING villain moments to make him one of the most (horribly) memorable villains I've ever seen.

On that note, he does have a lot of the common qualities of villains that have relationships with the main character, which is one of the reasons that I am using him as an example. He is a singular character with several of the characteristics, making him a nice little bundle of evil.

So what makes this guy so memorable as a villain, and what can we learn from him?

1) He Makes Things Personal

When Black Jack Randall pursues a character, he pursues a character. Endlessly. He is after the male lead, Jamie, and he makes a distinct point of making the poor guy's life absolutely miserable.

Throughout the series, he has frequent run-ins with the leads, and every conversation that he has with Claire somehow relates back to his pursuit of Jamie. Everything is personal to him. He goes above and beyond his military duty and past what any sane person should do in his dedicated pursuit. Jamie is a wanted man, but Randall's pursuit of him goes far past what any normal character should do. He is obsessive.

We're often told to write heroes with a personal vendetta against the villain, but having a villain who makes things personal with the hero can bring a wonderful and fascinating dynamic, and add a whole new layer to the villain's character.

Another two characters that I could use for this kind of obsessive pursuit is from Les Miserables, with Javert and Jean Valjean. The reason I'm not using Les Mis for this example is that I consider these two to be rivals rather than just hero and villain. Javert is perfectly righteous and lawful in his pursuit of Jean Valjean – a criminal who broke parole. Jean is acting outside of the law, but he is also just trying to do what's right, and is just trying to live life.

On the other hand, with Randall and Jamie (or, in some instances, Claire), Jamie really didn't do anything to deserve being ENDLESSLY PURSUED by creepy-as-anything Randall. There are, as far as I have seen, no actual redeeming qualities to Randall, and he strikes a pretty good villain.

Back to the point of the first point, though: Making things personal increases the tension between the protagonist and the antagonist. Because the villain's relationship with the hero is so personal, you know that the villain is willing to become obsessive to hunt that hero down. It's not just a job. It's not just a fight. It is a personal vendetta, and that just makes things more interesting.

Some good examples of villains (in books) who make things personal with the hero are: Victor Vale and Eli Ever in Vicious, by V.E. Schwab; Shale/Jasper and Lord Taquar in The Watergivers Trilogy, by Glenda Larke; LeLoup and Tee in The Yellow Hoods series, by Adam Dreece.

2) He is in Some Way Related to the Main Character, Or Previously Knows them in Some Way

This is a minor spoiler for Outlander, but I don't consider this one too bad. It's an episode one kind of realization.

Just a warning, though. Minor spoiler.

If you don't know, the concept of Outlander is that Claire, the main character, accidentally goes back in time to when the tensions between the Scottish and the English were at their highest. (Yeah, terrible explanation, but it will do).

How is Randall related to Claire, then? Well, he's not related to her directly. He is, however, the ancestor of her husband.

That makes things a bit complicated, doesn't it?

Even worse, Randall looks an awful lot like her husband. Close enough that they cast the same actor who plays her husband to act Randall in the show.

What does this add? Well, instead of simply fighting and running from an obsessive English soldier who is trying to hunt down the heroes, she is also running from a man who looks exactly like the man that she loved enough to marry in her own time. She's not just fighting some random villain, she is fighting a man whose face belongs to somebody that she loves.

Suddenly, this makes things even more personal, adds internal conflict to the main character, and immediately brings more tension to every interaction between Claire and Randall.

Some good examples of this are: Elend and Straff Venture in The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson; Haern and Thren Felhorn in the Shadowdance series, by David Dalglish; Victor Vale and Eli Ever in Vicious, by V.E. Schwab; Ellis and Warren in Hollow World, by Michael J. Sullivan.

3) He Does Terrible Things

Where things are already personal between the hero and villain, adding this layer simply makes the villain all the more despicable.

This can take form in many ways: physical, emotional, psychological...the list goes on and on about how many ways the villain can do terrible things to the hero. Sometimes, these things aren't even done directly to the hero. They can be done to the innocent bystanders, or people that the hero cares about.

This adds a lot of villainy to the villain, giving them the despicable edge that makes them a character that we love to hate.

As stated earlier, I'm not going to state all of Randall's despicable acts here. If you know Outlander, you know what he does.

What I will tell you is that he is an extreme sadist. This character has a certain love of torture, and though he is a subtle and wily character when he speaks, you still get a sense of the evils that he has committed toward both heroes and several other characters in the series. If anything, his soft-spoken nature makes him all the scarier, because he has a way of being deceptively kind and gentlemanly.

In many ways, villains have a tendency to go overboard with their cruelty, all the while hiding it behind a charming smile.

Some good examples of this are: Straff Venture in The Well of Ascension, by Brandon Sanderson; Eli Ever in Vicious, by V. E. Schwab (If this book were better known, I probably would have used him instead of Randall); Nicodemus in The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher; Muzien Darkhand in A Dance of Chaos, by David Dalglish.

4) He is a Consistent Character

This might be the most important one to me.

Honestly, it drives me nuts when stories bounce around with villains to the point where there is no constant threat anymore. When a series has a new villain for every single story, and the villain is gone so fast that you end up with no real emotions toward them, I end up feeling more underwhelmed than impressed. There is no build up to their threat, and oftentimes when a threat is built up around them they die so quickly that the build up ends up being wasted on them.

Sometimes there will be a twist villain at the end of the series with red herrings in front of them, or a sudden villain thrown in at the end of the book. I personally don't like these either. I've rarely seen this kind of villain work in a way that I enjoy. Sometimes they are done right, but most of the time I find these last-minute, throwaway villains to be forgettable and boring.

As an example, there was a series I read some time ago that I was enjoying, but something started to bother me, and it was the lack of consistency. There was a main villain throughout the entire series, but she didn't really do anything particularly villainous until the final book. Other villains that were obviously meant to be epic and scary were killed off so pathetically that it actually ruined the series for me. None of the 'demi-villains' ever had any point. No plot moved forward.

Randall, I already know, is not the main villain of the Outlander series. In truth, it's not a series that is meant to have a main villain. It's an account of these characters as they deal with life. It's a historical romance/drama, not a fantasy novel.

What Randall does in the first book, however, is act as a consistent villain. He doesn't wish-wash across sides. He doesn't suddenly change his mind. He doesn't suddenly grow a heart. He stays as a constant threat to be avoided and feared. He also carries over into book/season two as a threat.

He isn't just a throwaway. And that is part of why I like him.

There are ways to make demi-villains interesting as well, of course. Straff Venture was not the main villain in the Mistborn books, but he still sticks in my mind because of how interesting and despicable his character was. The character of Irene Adler in A Scandal In Bohemia is one of the most memorable villains ever written in a Sherlock Holmes story, and yet she was only in one short story. For that matter, Professor Moriarty, the greatest villain to go against Sherlock Holmes, was a throwaway villain. He was literally written because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was tired of writing the Sherlock Holmes stories, so he pulled out a character smart enough to kill Holmes off.

Yeah. Professor Moriarty, considered as one of the greatest villains ever written, was arguably a throwaway villain.

But in general, to create a great adversary over the course of a series, consistency is a must. Create a conflict early. Create a relationship early. Show off that villain. Make sure that people know exactly how evil this character is.

IN SUMMARY, here is what I'm trying to get at.

Don't treat a villain as a plot device. Treat them as a character first. Give them a relationship with the hero in some way. They aren't just there to be slain, they are there to make the hero grow. They exist to develop the main character and take them from where they are to where they need to be.

Villains are some of the most important characters. Don't treat them just as a tool. Give them the page time and respect that they deserve.

Make things personal. Make things cruel. Make things deep. A villain is just another character. The difference is that they get to do the darker things.


  1. I am enjoying your blog and how delightfully helpful it is

    1. Thanks! I'm really glad that you're enjoying it!