14. Your bad guys will be bad, so deliberately give them good traits — George Garrett (‘You Are Adam, You Are Eve’)
Writing villains is not something I have tremendous experience with. I don’t like villains, which maybe just means I’m a protagonist reader. I assume most of us are. But there are those that love a good villain.
Myself? I think the best I can get is a morally ambiguous villain. Perhaps someone that’s not a villain by intention (do we choose to be evil anyway, Jean-Paul?) but by action.
In my novel, I’m trying to heed Garrett’s advice here to shape my villains. Only, my villains are distant. Some villains in my novel aren’t villains at all—they’re the negative and destructive thoughts we allow ourselves. The second tree in Yeats’ poem.
What I want to do instead of creating a villain is to create moral questioning. Are we both our own hero and villain? Perhaps. And what external factors drive these two parts of ourselves?
In some ways, this may be what George Garrett is getting at in his fiction advice above. A villain that is only evil, even if just the other half of ourselves, should be given some positive light to not totally have us turn our backs.
Villains that we can empathize with cause a more elevated emotional response in readers. Think of how Black Panther built up Killmonger, its villain. The audience is torn because it sees that he’s been mistreated and that his pursuit has some justice to it. There’s a questioning the viewer must go through in treating him because we cannot cheer his defeat with an absolutism.
This makes him more complicated—more literary, let’s say—than villains without just cause. Like ‘Scar’ in Lion King, or Edward Norton’s character in The Italian Job—these are characters created without any valiant qualities, and so we cheer the heroes in those stories on unequivocally. But I also find that to be boring and it would make especially boring writing advice.
There will be stories that follow the hero and stick to the journey laid out in so many stories. The hero is on a path and that path gets interrupted. She tries to override the interruption but fails. She is cast away. During her time cast away, she meets a muse or guide who shows her how to succeed. She follows this and succeeds, perhaps to the detriment of something valued—the guide perhaps.
And on and on. But where’s the originality? Where’s the hard questions that literature provides? That’s what George Garrett is advising—the tougher road. Where a villain, for just a minute, might also be a hero.
So I’m trying to follow that even if my story is not one of a hero and a villain. Still trying to search for the hard, moral underlying journey at work here and giving my future readers the enviable but difficult challenge of finding the right side.
How about you? How have you treated your villains? Have you given them good traits or let them fester as a manifestation of evil?