This morning’s meditation is on justifying our fictional villains. Do we need to explain them? Shall we establish empathy or at least psychological understanding, or just bring on the evil?
And if understanding and empathy is a matter of degree–as so much is in writing–how far shall we go?
The commercial villain
Sometimes the choice is obvious, as when we are writing straightforward commercial fiction. Or is it?
I recently saw the New York production of Spiderman, Take Back the Dark. The first act spent a lot of minutes showing how the Green Goblin became evil . . . and this was a show based on a cartoon. We saw a genius scientist who commited the sin of hubris, but paid the price through the death of his wife. Not that this show was a nuanced piece of work, but: you can see how the choices are not obvious. The writer makes the decision.
Continuing in the theme of monsters, in Jennifer Rardon’s urban fantasy book, Once Bitten Twice Shy the author does not for a minute bother to justify the vampires. They are evil, period. We neither see them justify nor (thankfully) listen to them explain why their lifestyle is really A-okay.
Sometimes the story wants a deeper take on the antagonist. Perhaps the story is complex and the characters, layered. Presuming that we even have an antagonist (see my post on the Forces of Antagonism), then we may want to show how the villain sees himself as justified, or is seen by the reader as justified.
The torturer Glokta from Joe Abercrombie’s Before They are Hanged is an example of character doing great evil, yet who wins the reader’s empathy. This is accomplished through Glokta’s brilliant point of view. Perhaps Glokta is rather a very dark hero than a villain. But the point remains, how much do you justify evil? Showing Glokta’s constant physical pain and describing (with restraint) his horrendous backstory is an attempt to partially justify or lead the read to forgive, evil actions.
If we are not expert at characterization, though, this kind of emphasis on the villain can lead to dilution of the tension and pacing. Why should the reader root for the hero against someone we also root for?
In literary stories, you may not wish to set up such a struggle. So, again, it’s all in the needs of the story.
No whiners, please
Lately–in character-based commercial fiction–I’ve been feeling as though the nuanced antagonist is being a bit over done. It is especially prevalent in stories where the antagonist has been given a point of view. The POV may mean that we will have an elaborate presentation of self-concept that may include:
- Everyone is like me; you’d all act like me if you were brave enough.
- I have a huge capacity for life and need a larger stage than you do to find fulfillment.
- I’m of my culture–and here are the decent underpinnings of it. Your ways and mine can’t co-exist.
- I’ve suffered beyond what you could endure. Also: I’m suffering because you have what I desire.
- I can’t help myself, I’m mentally troubled.
- and so on, ad infinitum
Frankly, sometimes showing us the inside of these characters actually diminishes a good antagonist. All this navel-gazing. How can this character generate tension if they are crying in their beer or so eager to rationalize?
We all have our flaws and mine is being wicked
While justifications of evil add some interest, the strategy can also slow the pace. When you think of all the pages you need to describe and show a major character (call it 50), how many complex characters can you afford to have? What gets short-shrift because we fear having a “cardboard villain”?
Think of the lovely examples of restraint, where the depth of the work doesn’t suffer: Circe in Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. We have a character (many characters in that series) who are a great joy to hate. Making them more self-knowing would do damage to the story.
More examples: Mrs. Colter in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Or the two bad guys in Gaiman’s Nevermore. The authors just allow us to hate them. Frankly, it’s a relief. And oh, how the heart soars when Milton has Satan say in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!” Here is a villain who is against God, for crying out loud, and almost every modern reader loves him.
Most of us, as readers, aren’t moral philosophers. We don’t want cookie-cutter villains, but we don’t need the villain’s complexity to include elaborate justifications.
A light touch will do.
And the line, “We all have our flaws and mine is being wicked?” –From James Thurber, The 13 Clocks.