- The Perfect Villain : How to Write It?
The Clichés of The Perfect Villain
One of the most amusing things I’ve ever read is “If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.” It’s a list of clichés from TV and film that we, the gullible and passive public, have been conditioned to accept when we see the antagonist. Here are a few of my favorites:
The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box.
When I employ people as advisors, I will occasionally listen to their advice.
I will not imprison members of the same party in the same cell block, let alone the same cell. If they are important prisoners, I will keep the only key to the cell door on my person instead of handing out copies to every bottom-rung guard in the prison.
If my advisors ask “Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme?”, I will not proceed until I have a response that satisfies them.
If an advisor says to me “My liege, he is but one man. What can one man possibly do?”, I will reply “This” and kill the advisor.
There are many more. Google it if you wish to read them all.
What is a Credible Perfect Villain?
When writing a villain, the value in not falling into a cliché trap cannot be understated. If your villain looks silly in the eyes of your reader, or his actions create a plot hole you can drive the Death Star through, you’ve lost. But an intelligent villain is but part of the equation.
Motivation is far more vital.
Why does your antagonist do what he (or she) does? What drives them? If your only answer is ‘power and wealth’, you need to do better. Why? Because most top villains are already powerful and wealthy, thus using more of the same as motivation is dull in this day and age. Readers today demand more.
I am going to commit blasphemy and criticize Tolkien. (Please understand, I don’t do this lightly. I owe Tolkien everything. He took fantasy out of fairy tales and Greek/Norse mythology and gave them life.) But, let’s face it, his villains sucked. (Except Gollum, who was awesome.) Sauron was an eye on a tower and Saruman was wizard who switched sides. What was their motivation? To simply rule the world? They were already powerful and timeless beings. Why did they want to rule the world? Let’s say Sauron got his ring back and won. He kills all humans and elves and now he rules a planet of…orcs? Yuck. Same for Saruman. Why try and help a slumbering god that will never share his power with you? What was his end game?
One of the Greatest Villain
Now, let’s compare that to arguably one of greatest villains ever written. Darth Vader. Forget the whole Anakin back story. Let’s just take him as he was in Episode 4 and 5. Vader was a loyal servant of the Empire who wanted to one day be emperor himself, but wouldn’t you agree there was always more to him? He was cold, calculating and menacing. He obviously felt nothing when Alderaan was destroyed. Why? Because that planet was one of thousands. Destroy one, you keep intergalactic civil war from happening. You maintain order. That, dear reader, is motivation. Kill a few billion to save hundreds of trillions from death and chaos.
The Emperor, on the other hand, is a punchline by today’s standards and the source of most of the items on the Evil Overlord list. Put all your eggs in one super-weapon basket. Invite the hero into your inner sanctum. Maniacal laughter. Employing legions of terror in matching uniforms that can shoot for shit. The list goes on. (Although, to be fair, I’d like to slap Luke upside the head for throwing his lightsaber away. I hope Ghost Yoda did that for me. But I digress.)
Back to Darth Vader. He is the hero of his own story. He believes he is making the galaxy a better place, for everyone. Can you say the same for Sauron? Not really. He was mostly a force of nature that just existed, from a time when readers accepted the two-dimensional villain. We never got to know Sauron and we weren’t really afraid of him. If Darth Vader, however, walks onto your ship, you better be wearing your brown trousers.
My Perfect Villain : Demos Azari
Let’s take a glance at my antagonist, Demos Azari. Look at this scene in The Penance of Pride when Aaron asks:
“Why? Why are you involved with these evil men?”
“Let me show you something.” Demos rose and walked over to the canvas Aaron had noticed before. “I painted this from the window in the tower above. What do you think?”
Aaron stepped closer and examined the worn artwork. It depicted the western half of Anderholm, but had several odd omissions. He pointed at places in the paining. “Where is the inner wall and observatory? And the university bell tower should be here. The forest line is all wrong.”
Demos stepped behind the easel and faced him. “That’s because I painted this a hundred and ninety years ago.”
Aaron looked at the painting again.
“Yes, that’s right. In nearly two centuries all that’s changed in Anderholm are a few buildings and a wall.”
“And what has that to do—”
Demos clenched in fist in front of Aaron’s face. “Open your eyes, historian. Humanity has stagnated. Not just in Anderholm, but everywhere. I challenge you to name one significant advance man has put forth in the last hundred years. Two hundred, even.”
Aaron searched his memories. There had been some advances in agriculture. Trade had expanded and become more efficient and profitable, but these were hardly significant. He shook his head.
Demos nodded. “Exactly. People cling to lies, working tirelessly to please false gods and waiting for death so they can frolic in the fields of Eriensym. The old ways have prevented men from seizing their true destiny, their true potential. The Innocenti alone have the strength to lead them to that truth.”
See what I mean?
The End justifies the Means for a Villain
Demos is the epitome of ‘the end justifies the means.’ He stabs a loyal apprentice in the belly and slits the throat of a young woman without hesitation, not because he enjoys killing, but because their deaths were necessary to achieve the goal of bringing humanity out of its stagnation. He gives no impression that he wants to rule. In fact, just the opposite; he wants to be the voice behind the throne.
When you write your villains, they must have motivation. You don’t need to psychoanalyze them or show their weaknesses—they don’t need to cry for the lost mother they could never save, or even be conflicted about their goals—but your reader must think, “If I was this person, would I do anything differently?” If the answer is “probably not” you’re well on your way to writing a great villain.
But still, please don’t have your villain employ a device with a digital countdown. If such a device is absolutely unavoidable, have him set it to activate when the counter reaches 117 and the hero is just putting his plan into operation. Also, your villain should never turn into a snake. It never helps.