Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I've noticed an alarming trend in fantasy and science fiction over the last few years.  Though authors have improved somewhat in avoiding the Mary Sue syndrome when constructing their heroes, they've left their villains flat and unsubstantial.

I must admit that it didn't hit me until a few months ago when I was watching a Veggie Tales movie with my oldest son.

The villain's opening scene in which he sang this song:

"I love taking candy from children.
I laugh when they blubber and cry.
My heart leaps with joy
When I break their new toy!
I'm just an ordinary super villain kind of guy."

Clean and clear; the villain is established.  No child in his right mind would have any sympathy for him any longer.  The gourd was evil through and through.

That works for kids' shows, but more and more adult and YA novels are going this route now, too.  You want to eliminate all doubt about who your villain is?  Have him rape a woman or a group of women, kill children, disembowel the elderly, and laugh while he's doing it.  Clean and clear; the villain is established.

Except...it's not that interesting.  It's predictable and practically every other villain portrayed in literature in the 20th and 21st century has done the same (especially in fantasy).  Too many authors don't want their readers to have a chance at sympathizing with the villain, and that's a shame.  A truly scary villain is one who has a conscience.  Someone who believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the hero in the tale.  You create a villain like that and you have someone who's unpredictable and truly dangerous--unstoppable.

For myself, I like creating a little doubt in my WIPs.  Sometimes, I'll string the reader along, let them think they know who the villain is and change it up on them at the end.  The clues will all be there, but they won't know until it's too late.  I've done this with a few of my short stories.  In one of them, the MC himself turned out to be the villain (though he, of course, would swear he was the hero).

It's possible and better to do this because no human being is ever just pure evil and just pure good.  Without getting into a whole theological argument, for the matter of this discussion I refer to a human's standard of good and evil.

Let's take Hitler for example.  As far as I am aware (and if I'm wrong, please forgive me), he never murdered a single human being, raped a woman, or even cheated on his taxes.  He was a hero to millions and loved by many.  He was monogamous and even a pet lover.  According to today's standard--a pretty good guy.

And yet, he has become the standard for everything evil today.  Why?  Though he may have never personally dirtied his hands, millions of people died because of him.  But still, he thought he was right in doing it.  He thought he was saving his country.  He was more deadly and terrifying because he thought he was the hero.  Those under him carried out his gruesome orders because they, too, thought he was the hero.  I don't know if Hitler necessarily enjoyed hearing about the deaths of his victims, but we can be sure he thought it was his solemn duty to make sure it was done.

A victim of the holocaust (I don't know his name) attended the trial of one his guards years after WWII.  He went there prepared to see justice done upon a horrible man.  When he saw the guard, he started weeping and said later it was because he realized the man who had done such horrible things to him and the other prisoners was just a human--not the monster he had imagined.

Human beings are never just one thing.  The hero is not always good, chivalrous, and honorable, and the villain is not always despicable, loathsome, and terrible.  Both of them are usually somewhere in between and quite often closer to one another than they'd ever imagine.  It's all about perception.

One does not have to rape and/or murder someone to be evil.  They just have to go about getting their goals accomplished in a slightly different way than the hero.

What do you look for in a villain?  Do you like his evil personality to be clear cut, or do you like a little variety and depth?  How do you usually depict your villains?

~Emily White


  1. aspiring_x--LOTR is a perfect example! I always think of Frodo and Gollum. Two hobbits tempted by the same ring. One of them was considered good and the other evil, and yet both of them claimed the ring for themselves.

    Brad--Hehehe! I'm sorry. If it makes you feel any better, I've been thinking of doing this for a while, and just today decided to post about it. You don't have to rethink your post! I'm sure you would have said it in a different way anyway!

    Magneto is a great example! I always felt sorry for him. He and Xavier wanted the same thing, but Magneto just went about it in a different way.

    Thanks for your comments! :D

  2. I, too, love multi-dimensional villains. I think Hannibal is a great example of this. He has a whole different life before jail, and there is something about him that makes you sorry for him even though he eats people. I wish more fantasy villains were like him (minus the eating people part). :)

  3. Alleged Author--Ha! Hannibal is a great one! He seemed so dignified and respectable. It was hard not to sympathize with that character--until he got to the eating parts. Definitely a great villain!


  4. Love this post! I, too, try to give my villains (and my heroes) different elements to their personality. I usually feel sorry for my villains, actually, and while I don't want my readers to necessarily forgive them their nefarious deeds, I want them to be able to empathize. Great post, Emily!

  5. I'm going through this conundrum right now. Throughout writing my first draft, by villain was this unnamed sort of Big Bad group. There's a frontman, but he's pretty standard nasty. It wasn't till I was in my last quarter that I finally figured out who the "real" villain should be. Oof.

  6. Great point! Villains need redeeming qualities just as much as heroes need flaws. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. I can't stand cardboard cutout villains. I try to keep my purposeful, or perhaps seemingly extreme before introducing their motives.

  8. For me it depends on the story. I don't mind some stories having very clearly defined villains, but that doesn't mean they have to be flat. Other times, it's more interesting to try to figure out who the villain is. My villains aren't that well written, but that's because I have trouble thinking like them. I'm too much of an idealist in some ways. Ah well, I'll figure them out at some point.


Yay! Comments! Oh, how I do love them! :D