Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Thursday, January 24, 2008

My Villians are not 'Diet Evil'

Lately I've been wrestling with the idea of making my villians more sympathetic. People want sympathetic villians, right? I've read blogs devoted to the subject, so it must be. But here's my problem...

I'm not one of those people.

I don't like villians with a soft side. I don't want to know if they had a horrible childhood, they lost their puppy, they weren't asked to the prom, they had acne... I don't really care. When I'm reading a really good book, and suddenly it feels like the author is making excuses for the evil characters, it makes me want to throw the book against the wall.

My villians are unapologetically evil. I may show why they're evil, but I never make excuses for it. Take Wesley Wray in Spectacle. He's a worm. I do a flashback over his early life, and yes, his father put him on a pedestal and pushed him to be a scientist and thought the sun shone out his tiney-hiney, but Wesley made his own choices. In the end, his choices drive him insane, but before that, he's 100% in the driver's seat with his own life.

My newest villians think they're doing the world a favor, but in the end, they don't really care if they help anyone as long as their cause gets furthered. In fact, they're all quite happy if people die to further the cause. Come to think of it, the idea is the same in Caldera - but the cause is completely different, as are the characters themselves.

The point, I think, is to give your villians sufficient motivation, and then leave them to do their evil deeds. Maybe they don't think they're evil (and in fact, most often think they're the good guys), but it's obvious (at least to me and hopefully to my readers) they're wicked right down to their cores. I want them to slide across the floor like the slime they are.

Now, let's use an example. Let's take Ellsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead. I first read the book as a teenager, and even then there was no doubt in my mind he was bad bad bad. He fairly oozes evil as he slithers his way across the pages. I thought it was obvious. Flash forward a dozen or more years. I'm in a book discussion group, and we're discussing The Fountainhead. Several people in the group couldn't see how Toohey was the villian of the piece, and they didn't really like Roark (the hero). Shocked the crap out of me, lemme tell ya. Even after these people read a glaring example of Toohey's evilness - there's a whole scene where he tells the minor villian, Peter Keating, exactly what he's all about - they still couldn't see it.

Thinking about this now, I would be tickled if certain people couldn't see the villiany behind some of my villians. (And a little sickened, but that's the price one pays writing well, I guess.) Janey in Caldera, for instance, may be sympathetic to some people, and if they side with her, that's fine. They won't like me later in the book, but thems the breaks. Heck, people may like the villians in RTL (I'm sure certain types of people will love them, come to think of it) but it's not intentional. If they do, it'll be more a matter of the readers' beliefs and personalities than anything I crafted.

So what are your thoughts on the subject? Do you like a sympathetic villian? Do you want to cry for them, and feel sorry for them - even as they're threatening the MC's life? Help me understand the thought process here, because like I said, if they're evil with a sympathetic aftertaste, I don't want to know.

(Or to borrow a phrase from Mike Myers: "You're diet evil. Only two calories, not evil enough.")


Wendy Roberts said...

I don't always think it's a good idea to show the soft side of your bad guy. I do think it's sometimes fun to humanize them. Give them quirks, habits or a lifestyle that can make them seem like they could be anyone.

Janimé said...

I think on the whole that evil should be portrayed as evil. There's too much of that "humanizing" the bad guy (or gal) going around.

That said, there are going to be times when it's valid to a story to have the bad guy seem not so bad. Murder mysteries comes to mind. There are other cases too I'm sure.

Bottom line, it should be done when it's true to the story, versus being an attempt to soften evil up for the sake of softening it - which I think happens a lot.

Eddy1701 said...

True and unambiguous evil only occurs once in a blue moon IMO. People like Hitler, Stalin, or Ted Bundy are very much the exception rather than the rule after all. Most other supposed villains lave a great deal of room for debate. Basically, relying on the rare sociopath to drive your plot amounts to a plot device hinging on coincidence.

Sean Ashby said...

I think I favor something in the middle. I never did like the carboard cut-out villains, completely evil and out to rule the world (more common in fantasy, obviously). Just too fake, too silly. But, for drama, for tension, I think you need someone that the readers can truly hate, and if you soften the edges, the villain won't cut quite as deep.

I agree with Wendy; make the villain realistic, with quirks and personality (also makes them memorable), but keep them brutal. Granted, no one in reality is pure evil (with some exceptions), and true criminals are pretty vague with some goodness mixed in, but fiction, a good story, has never been reality.

Now, in my case, I started out letting the reader believe the villain was 100% pure evil, and then gradually chipped away at that facade in order to reveal another, unexpected villain as a matter of plot device. But there's still someone nasty at the end of it all and his downfall will give the reader reason to cheer when the hero finally wins the day.