The Role of the Villain in Fiction

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Let’s face it, the villains of our books and media often get short shrift. Quite rightly so, perhaps, when we consider what they do for a living. But while reading and researching for my own stories I started to notice a glaring lack – to my mind at least – on the other side of the dramatic coin: the role of the bad guy.

There are lots of writing guides and manuals out there devoted to the intricacies of plotting, scene-setting, or the character-arc, which is all necessary – but these guides deal overwhelmingly with the Hero’s Journey and the role of the protagonist, not the antagonist.

Protagonist.

  1. The leading character or one of the major characters in a play, film, novel, etc.
  2. An advocate or champion of a particular cause or idea.

Antagonist.

  1. A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.

That was when I realized that half the story was missing; the conflict, the complications, the blood, guts and gore of the antagonist’s journey. The usual protagonist’s journey looks something like this:

The Hero's Journey

This is the fairly standard picture, although there are tons of variations. Essentially, we have:

  1. The Hero in a place of dissatisfaction, when-
  2. A catalysing incident knocks them out of their usual routine, and causes them to-
  3. Seek help, usually from a mysterious guide or mentor.
  4. Their next step is to journey into the mystery/follow the clues/wade through problems, until
  5. They discover a key to their problem, by challenging what they were.
  6. Using this information, they are able to confront, or at least see, the true nature of their problem (with varying allies, clues, switchbacks and deeper layers of conflict).
  7. At which time, they return to their ‘normal’ situation, having changed.

 

What we see here, is that the Hero’s Journey is primarily focussed on internal change – which are often masked as external ones. Even a classic murder-mystery is usually about the Detective, Investigator, or Unlucky Journalist discovering the strength that they have in order to solve the crime, save the day, and return the world to rights.

The Hero’s Journey is a valuable, and some might say essential lens through which to structure the role of your plot. This guide in your hands doesn’t seek to dispute that, but it does seek to add a new dimension to that structure, by asking: What about the Antagonist?

Is the antagonist, bad guy, evil mafia boss, crazed millionaire playboy just a foil for your Hero’s own psychodrama? In some stories this might be the case – and can be done very well. A lot of horror stories feature nemesis which are intractable agents of chaos, existing solely to stuff-up the plans of your protagonist. Look at the zombies in The Walking Dead, or perhaps Pennywise in Stephen King’s It. There are macabre merits to having this sort of ‘unstoppable problem’ as an antagonist – it forces the story back onto Detective Rick Grimes, or Bill Denbrough, to see if they’ve got the emotional chops to live through it.

But let’s compare that type of plot with another, Greek Tragedy (I know, I promised no degrees in Narratology, but please bear with me if just for a moment):

  1. The Hero is usually from a high or comfortable station – they do not recognize the problems going on under the surface.
  2. A series of dramatic events force them to have to make a choice (usually ethical), which they generally fail.
  3. There are signposts along the way from other characters (the Antagonists) who have also failed to make ‘the right’ choice, and stand as object lessons.
  4. The gods, or the citizens, or some feature of the world finds that they have been unworthy, and punishes them. In the case of Oedipus Rex, he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother (eww!) and the ensuing shame led him to gouge his own eyes out. In Medea, we have the ‘hero’ Jason (of the Argonauts fame) being punished by his wife Medea for being unfaithful and taking on another family. In Electra, we have siblings Electra and Orestes punishing their mother and step-father for killing their real father, Agamemnon.

 

Why all this waffle about Greek Tragedy? Because so much of Greek Tragedy inverts the usual Hero’s journey, and is all about who we would call the bad guy. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know Dionysus in The Bacchae teaches a whole city what’s-what. Jealous and furious Medea schools handsome-chops Jason on family values. Cold-blooded Electra and Orestes plot and execute a murder. These are clearly our villains.

These villains are characters who want things. They desire, often insanely, to get something done to the state of the world – be it blowing it up, teaching someone a lesson, writing their name on the moon, or stealing all the gold from Fort Knoxx. You have to admire their get-up and go, at least.

The villain’s desires directly put them into conflict with the hero, either because the hero is the one staffed to stop that kind of thing from happening, or perhaps the hero (like John Maclean so often is in Die Hard) is in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

But, bad guys being bad guys – they overreach themselves. They end up trying to bite off more than they can chew (Jaws), or they are so confidant of their galaxy-spanning importance (Darth Vader) that they don’t bother to put an extra ring of laser canons around that thermal exhaust port on his baby Death Star. This essential flaw, arrogance, or inability to estimate the hero correctly is actually fundamental to the antagonist’s role in your story, and brings us right back around to the discussion of the Hero’s Journey and Greek Tragedy.

In both plots, the Hero is tested, in order to discover something about themselves. In the Hero’s Journey they do so, the protagonist manages to correct a weakness or a failing in themselves and comes back bigger and stronger. In the Tragedy – not so much.

For the antagonist, however, they fail to correct that same weakness in themselves.

This, right here, is the gold-plated magic pixie faerie-dust that drives your story. The Hero becomes a bigger personality, while the antagonist becomes narrower. You can look at it as a sort of two approaches to the same problem: when faced with a challenge, the Hero goes internal and digs deep, while the antagonist goes external, showy, and thermonuclear.

Think of Detective David Mills in the film Seven. We see him facing a series of gruesome and grotesque serial murders based around the Seven Deadly Sins, but the last one, (“what’s in the box? What’s in the box, man!!?”) is the real climax point for the hero and the antagonist. For the psychopathic serial killer, he wishes to deliver his version of judgement upon his hapless victims, and does so with ever-increasing showmanship. All he has to do at the end of the film is to serve up one perfect plate of just deserts. For Brad Pitt’s character however, he has already caught the killer by the time that the final five minutes rolls up, his success should be ensured, right? But in order to reach the end credits, and restore the word to balance (…) he has to deal with one last, horrifying discovery. Does Detective Mills become a bigger person? Less psychopathic, less like the antagonist? Less full of righteous anger?

In this way, we’re starting to see a disturbing similarity between the villains and the heroes, aren’t we? It’s almost like they are two halves of the same person… Two halves of the same problem.

But for now, here are the key points:

  • The antagonist desires change to happen.
  • It’s these desires which directly create the conflict for the hero.
  • But when tested; the antagonist fails the character test and only becomes MORE cruel, MORE evil, MORE of what they already are.

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Crafting Evil ebook on writing better villains

The above is an extract from a new guide: Crafting Evil: A Guide to Writing Better Villains that I am hoping to get out in the next month or two (while we’re waiting for Storm’s Gambit to go through the final shaping and editing):

3 thoughts on “The Role of the Villain in Fiction

  1. Villains are great. 😀 And the point about villains wanting things is timeless. All too often we stumble in the plot hole that villain is there just to oppose the hero. But say, what do you think about villains that switch sides during the course of the story – hopping from the dark side over to the hero’s side? How to do such a transition well?

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    • Hey Alice – great comment! I think that the whole Rylo-Kening of antagonists is a great way to give them more depth, and introduce more subtle (and much more satisfying) emotional pay-offs to the reader. That being said, I think in that case you generally have secondary, or hidden ‘main’ bad guys (the Emperor for Darth Vader, for example) who fulfill the villain’s essential role. How do you do that transition? Well – that hidden second antagonist would become a good comparison (“they’re not as bad as that dude, after all…”), but also take a look at that aspect of mirroring between antag/protag. If they really are different sides to the same coin, then the antag also, surely, has the opportunity to make the same ‘good choices’ as the protag does. You’ll probably need backstory for the antag to explain their emotional reasons for this.

      Without creating a whole other blog post about this, I have an editor friend whose comments apply: when we start a project we’re using a great big old house-painting wallbrush. Slapping on the events. Broadstrokes. But after we spend a longer time with the characters and plot, we aim to use finer and finer brushes – to pick out the subtle nuances and complications. For example: a fully mature character (whether protag or antag) often has lots of personal conflict – should they do this thing or that? Sometimes they make the wrong choice, say the wrong thing, sometimes they act like the character we need them to be. This ‘fine brush’ approach is of course, pushing your novel more towards realist fiction than say, allegorical.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like this. 🙂 Particularly characters making the wrong choice. As writers, we probably have an instinctive desire to see our characters succeed, and so steer them toward the “right choice”. But maybe this brutalises them as fully rounded people? Everybody fails. But they don’t fail all the time. I wonder – how to write with such emotional detachment that we steer our characters neither toward success nor failure, yet retain our emotional closeness so that our writing does not become bland? In other words, how do we let our characters exist fully as people, without interference from us?

        Liked by 1 person

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