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Non-Villainous Villains


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There is a light that I truly believe shines within each and every single one of us as human beings. Whether we believe in it or share it with others...it's there. We know it. We feel it. However...the brightest of lights can cast the darkest of shadows, and sliding from one side of the spectrum to the other can be a very short trip, depending on the current circumstances. And when it comes to creating villains in your writing, being able to blur the line between 'good' and 'evil' can truly create a threatening opposition to your protagonist. One that will end up being menacing as well as he is memorable. Remember...every villain is the hero of his own story. At least the way he sees it. This is an important part of building an epic conflict between your main character's motivations and the villain's, with both sides trying to succeed in reaching their goals while beating out their opponent for the desired outcome that they've been working towards.

In the last article, we talked about the 'Anti-Hero'. This time...let's take a bit of a stroll on the wild side of the equation. I want to talk about creating compelling, maybe even sympathetic, antagonists in your work. I think that it makes for a much more captivating narrative in the long run, personally. It connects your readers, not only to the conflict within your hero, but with your villain as well...forcing them to eventually pick a side. Eagerly waiting for one of them to do something awful to make the choice easier for them.

Hehehe! This is something that you can play with for quite a long time if you see fit! It makes for a fun, albeit frustrating, read for a lot of people. :P

The thing about villains...it's not always enough to simply make them the 'bad guy' anymore. I mean, sure...there are people who are mentally ill or have severe issues in general...and there are people who just kill people for the sake of killing people. Sad but true. But when writing your own stories, especially if it's a series told at length through multiple chapters, this can come off as lazy or uninteresting. Even when the hero and villain have already been defined as such, such black and white thinking can cause your antagonist to appear flat, cliche, and underwhelming. You want to avoid that at all costs if possible. What kind of cheering section is your main character going to have if he's going up against someone who's just...there to give him something to fight against? How long is that fascination going to last before they ultimately get bored with the idea? You need a little bit more than a maniac with a bloodlust to be your bad guy, right?

So...how do we accomplish this?

For starters...let's take a second to take the roles of your protagonist and your antagonist...and reverse their points of view. This is a surefire way to begin figuring out why your villain doesn't exactly feel as fleshed out as they should be. Imagine this...

A guy has gone out of his way to infiltrate a gathering of elites in a skyscraper party on the top floor. He passed all the security checkpoints, went through the trouble of falsifying a badge and an invitation, and when he gets to the party, he blends in with the other patrons, hoping to get close enough to put a bullet in the head of the billionaire who happens to be hosting the gala. Now, your protagonist is there to protect said billionaire, and he dives in to take on the assassin and save the day! Your readers have spent the better part of your story with your protagonist, and so it's assumed that they know his motivations and reasons for trying to thwart the attempt on his client's life. Right?

Ok...now, imagine what this story would look like from your villain's point of view.

Why did he do that? He can't just be some two dimensional nutcase, right? It's not like he's some screwball stabbing people on the street at random, right? I mean, that guy needs to be stopped too! Hehehe, but that's not the main villainous psychopath of your story, is it? Try to see his actions through his point of view...even if you don't reveal his motivations until later in the story. Why would he do that? It can't be that he's just crazy or evil. He planned this. He got dressed up for it to blend in. Found the time and place. Infiltrated security. Brought a weapon with him. Found a way to select a specific target, and made his way through the crowd to execute his plan to perfection until your protagonist stopped him. Well...a LOT of thought had to go into that ahead of time. In your villain's mind...your protagonist is the villain from his point of view. So...what happened there? What would make someone go through all of that trouble to commit such a dastardly crime? He's NOT just crazy. He's not just a bad apple that fell from the tree. What was his motivation? What pushed him over the edge? What events came before this murder attempt that led to this particular moment?

If you don't have definitive answers to these questions already floating around in your head while you're writing...then your main villain needs work. He'll become forgettable, uninteresting, and virtually unnecessary in the scheme of things...because your main character doesn't have a viable threat to fight against. It will cut fifty percent of the tension out of their conflict, and that will weaken your story structure in the long run.

This all comes down to MOTIVATIONS. Why are these people doing what they're doing right now? Both your protagonist and his rival should have strong and well defined motivations that make sense and appeal to your readers, even if they are in direct conflict with one another. Each character thinks of themselves as the hero, and their opposition as the villain. If you can pull that dynamic off in your writing...you can create some of the most amazing and compelling villains ever! Thanos, King Kong, Dr. Frankenstein...they all have certain relatable intentions that readers can identify and relate to...even if they never go quite that far with their pursuit of it. This is how you can create a 'non-villainous villain'...and it works. Believe me.

The most engaging and captivating part of getting to know the villain in your story is figuring out where he came from. What happened to send this person down such a dark path? Or...at least a dark path from the protagonist's point of view? (As well as your readers'.) This is where a competent backstory for your characters can really come in handy. Remember...the BEST villains, the ones you remember most...came from somewhere. You get to see the change in them along the way. You get to find out where they decide that their evil deeds are necessary in order for them to survive or accomplish their ultimate goals. If you ask me...there is nothing more terrifying than a villain who can't be reasoned or bargained with because they truly believe that their cause trumps any and all compromise. Even if it's a crazed serial killer stabbing me with a butcher knife, and crying and apologizing, like, "I'm sorry...but if I don't do this...the voices in my head won't stop!" That's a horrifying concept in itself! Yikes! But it actually builds bridges between your antagonist and your readers...and, if done with the right amount of finesse...creates a serious conflict within them as well. Because they get a glimpse into the villain as a somewhat normal person who just so happened to wander off of the civil path. Instead of embracing that 'light' that I talked about earlier...they found more comfort in the darkness instead.

When I talk about this sort of thing, I'm brought back to the same principle that I used in previous articles. Pain, fear, heroism, and villainy...all come back to the same two categories. Justice, and injustice. These factors greatly influence the ways that your readers see the characters that you use to populate your writing projects. So learn how to wield those ideas as weapons when setting up whatever plot you have in mind for the two to inevitably face off against one another. Because there are a lot of major villains that really started out as good people. People who just wanted to do the right thing, and have enough faith that other people would do the same. But that's not always the case, is it? We wait, and we struggle, and we swallow our emotions whole, and we fight off those dark shadows for as long as humanly possible, because we KNOW right from wrong! But...

Eventually, something crosses the line...and we're left with nothing but sadness, pain, disgust, and rage! When you experience this in a well told story, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing the origin of an iconic villain! Hehehe! You just kind of shrug your shoulders and think, "Those assholes DESERVED it!" I mean...it's not like he didn't try to stay a good guy, right? He really did!

I want you to take a quick look at the videos below....

In the first, while "Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones" is probably one of the slowest of the prequel trilogy, it definitely has its high points. One of them being a young Darth Vader who was trying to keep himself under control but was pushed beyond his limits and ended up doing something seriously evil! The deed was evil, but he wasn't. (At least...not yet) The second clip was taken from the "Gotham" series, where we got to meet a young teenage 'Joker' for the first time. I, personally, think Cameron Monaghan was one of the best live action representations of the Joker ever put on screen! Hehehe! He fits right in the middle between Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger! His portrayal on that show was phenomenal! But again...this was a character that was pushed over the edge by his circumstances, and ended up becoming something that the world wasn't ready to deal with later on. That brings us to the third video...another one of the most iconic villains of all time, Magneto from the "X-Men" comics and movies. A Holocaust survivor who discovered his powers during times of extreme stress and anguish, but was still just a boy and didn't know how to control them yet. The man who brought him in tried to force him to move a metal coin with his powers...or he's going to kill his mother on the count of three. An innocent child, who had no criminal or sinister plans at all...suddenly transforms into the X-Men's greatest enemy for future battles that will ultimately cause a lot of damage and death along the way.

For all three of these clips...imagine what could have been if these iconic characters hadn't been driven to this painful extreme. Keep that idea in mind...and enjoy...

 

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To paraphrase an old saying...'I love my enemies...because I made them.'

In those examples above, I believe that we get to the root of a lot of fictional villains who end up being memorable parts of many classic stories. A villain with a purpose, and a clear motivation, and a goal that they feel is worth fighting for. Even if it means severe damage on sacrifice on his part as well as the lives of many others who stand in the way. Your writing should explore a bit of both sides, even if you have clearly chosen a side as the author. Never be afraid to give your readers something to think about. In the clips above...what would you have done in those particular moments? How would you react? What murderous action would seem 'justified' to you? Think about it...hold on to that idea...NOW, write your villain with that in mind! Emotion and all!

One story that I've written where I really play around with this concept is a werewolf based story called "Savage Moon", where the main character (My protagonist) isn't meant to be a villain at all. But the whole theme of the story is the idea of being seduced into evil without even knowing. It's about temptation and acceptance and how easy it is to be corrupted when everything that is supposedly so 'bad' is actually working in your favor. The main character, Wesley, is a teenager living with his parents, his father is a preacher in the local church, his little brother is the perfect example of sweetness and joy for the parents, as well as being the baby of the family...and Wesley is the one who feels left out. Alone. He's gay and in the closet, the teenager, the rebel who gets blamed for everything. And he meets up with a group of other teens like himself who show him freedom, tolerance, and embrace him as family...where his real family falls short. You'll have to read it to see where THAT goes! Hehehe! But, evil isn't something that you're born with or without. It's a constant struggle. The light and the shadow. And it's human nature to follow the path of least resistance, sometimes. This is where yourbest villain ideas can be found.

From a reader's standpoint...nobody wants to think of themselves as being evil or irredeemable. This idea will (even if only subconsciously) disconnect them from your antagonist. They won't want to relate to someone who is just an asshole for the sake of being an asshole. Nobody wants to be that person. BUT...if you can give your main villain a motivation that makes sense, even if they are going to evil extremes to reach those goals...your audience will feel a bit more in tune with what the villain is trying to accomplish. Even if they don't agree with their methods of getting it done. It creates a bridge of understanding that doesn't exist when it's just somebody who's a psycho and wants people to feel pain because he likes it.

Again...there are stories out there that are like that, and some of them are awesome. But I prefer to add a little complexity to my antagonist's motivations wherever and whenever I can.

Something that I also want to stress before I wrap this up...is that when I use the term 'villain', I'm not just talking in comic book terms. K? This works in all genres of fiction. No matter what you're writing or how you're writing it, the concept of there being a villain present still exists. For fans of my "New Kid In School" series, you might remember that there was a time when 'Tyler' was the villain of that story. But as the chapters progressed, I allowed people to have a glimpse into his life as a human being, and his motivations and reasoning became more clear. Something that eventually made him a hero in the series over time. When I say that a character is a villain, it simply means that it's someone who has goals and a driving motivation that directly conflicts with the main character of the story. Nothing more.

Sometimes, good people do bad things. And vice versa. It depends on how well you set up the situations surrounding them. What creates a so-called villain? Past trauma, maybe? Heartbreak? Bullying? A feeling of powerlessness? A major tragedy? Sometimes villains aren't really villains at all...except for the fact that they've allowed a sense of desperation and fury dictate their current actions, and therefore have to be stopped before things go too far to ever be set right again.

That brings us to our second short series of video clips...

The first comes from the "Daredevil" Netflix series, where The Punisher is portrayed as one of the main villains...but here, you get some of the backstory on who he is and why he does what he does. The second clip is from "The Rock", where a general is also explaining his motivations in detail. The third clip is from the movie, "John Q", where a desperate father just wants to save his son's life by getting him a new heart. In all of these examples...you have people who have tried and tried and TRIED to do the right thing...but it just ended in tragedy. It wasn't effective enough. They couldn't get people to give enough of a shit to DO SOMETHING! And that's when desperate measures become necessary. So...they're technically villains here...but the readers can't say that they don't understand where they're coming from. Again...if it was you...what would you do?

 

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So, in closing...writing villains, or maybe I should just say antagonists, in your stories...if you really want to cause a bit of emotional turmoil and mental discomfort in your readers, gluing them to the screen and getting them even further invested in your characters and your project as a whole...take whatever you find useful from this article and keep it in mind. Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to be loved, everybody wants to be the hero. But the perception of the actions they use to get them there makes all the difference.

A sympathetic villain with relatable motives will carry you much further than just some sinister bad guy cackling at the top of a tower somewhere with lightning and thunder crashing behind him. Don't take the easy way out of this. Give your antagonists the same attention that you give your other characters in the story. Give it a try. You'll thank me for it later. :P

As always, I hope this helps! Take care! And best of luck on your writing! Your masterpiece is always just around the corner! Don't ever forget that!

 

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Another cool article with some excellent points. The villains always interest me and I try to make the reader at least understand their actions. I love the use of video clips as examples, but I have to resist playing them straight away. As a kid, whenever I read an illustrated book I would have to leaf through all the pages to look at the pictures first. 

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