Sunday, June 28, 2009

Burning the Midnight Zeppelin: Villainous Villainy

I've talked about heroes and villains before (and somewhere else that I can't find right now), but I had a conversation today that had some interesting and surprising results, that I'd like to share. This is going to be quick because I'm sleepy, but I'm hoping it will give you all something to think about.

It probably comes as on surprise to anyone, but I really, really liked the recent Star Trek movie (though I saw it about a month ago, so I clearly wasn't in a huge hurry to tell you all about it). I thought it was an excellent revamp to an old setting. I thought what they did to the Vulcans desmarmed them and gave them some angst, making them infinitely more evocative. I think that they got better actors than the original series could ever hope to have, which helped. All this, and wrapped in a package that had the same retro-space feel as the original series, but with better special effects. Most of all, however, I loved the villain.

Wait. What? You liked the villain? Mr. Villains-Are-People-Too liked mad, bad, hates the world Captain Nero? What's up with that?

What came out of today's conversation is that there are two kinds of villains. You have your garden mill, run-of-the-variety people villains. People villains are - basically - people. They have hopes and fears, friends and affections, just like anyone else. Unfortunately, what they want is inimical to what the protagonists want, but that doesn't mean they're bad people. Even when they are bad people, it's usually in an undertandable, comprehensible way. You can see where this person went bad, and what he became is the kind of thing you could become, given the right stimulus. These are the enemy generals, overambitious wizards, and loyal priests of black gods of the world of fantastic fiction.

This kind of villain's strength is in its humanity. This kind of villain can form relationships. Protagonists can become close to him or even come to agree with him. If a hero really hates this kind of villain, it says something about her. What does it take for a hero to really hate - actualy truy despise and be prepared to kill - someone who is ultimately just a person who has made different choices and experience ddifferent consquences.

A second kind of villain is a force of nature. The villain's own inhrent nature matters less than its existence and its ill intent. This kind of villain exists to give the protagonists someone to bounce off of, rather than to have a point of view all its own. These are the evil prophesies, dark gods, exploding stars, and oncoming winters of fiction.

What's fascinating is when one kind of villain is actually the other. More specifically, when a force of nature has a name, a face, and a backstory - when a primal villain is also personified.

Don't let the trappings fool you - a force of nature villain is a force of nature villain, no matter how much she seems like a person. She doesn't exist to have a point of view, she exists to stress the protagonists' relationships and invite them to do terrible things to defeat her. She is a force of nature, she just walks like a person.

Neither villain is superior in my mind. To call either "better" is invalidated by a great wealth of literature in which the main character struggles against the environment (or some dark nature of her own) rather than another human being. Rather, I'd say what's important is knowing what you're about and sticking to it ruthlessly. When you're writing a force of nature, keep him a force of nature. Give him a personality and a backstory, make his past as tragic as it needs to be to make him make sense, but keep the story focused on the protagonists. What's exciting when this kind of villain takes the floor is not what he does, but what the heroes do in reaction to him. When you're writing a person, keep him a person. Make sure her choices are rational, her feelings are logical, and her emotions are human.

The problems come when you try to write one kind of villain as the other. When an author is writing a force of nature and tries to "soften" his image with completely extraneous, well, crap, or writing a real person and crosses that invisible line that separates "sympathetic antagonist" from "total douchebag."

Which brings us back to Nero.

Nero is an excellent example of a force of nature villain in human form. He has just enough backstory and personality to make him believable, but when push comes to shove, Nero's emotional experience isn't important to the story. What makes Star Trek tick is how everyone else reacts to Nero, how they suffer, sacrifice, bond, grow, and change in the face of his ruthlessness.

So don't be afraid to write your bad villains bad. Just be sure you know what you're doing.

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EDIT: I almost got this post out yesterday night, but then I passed at the keyboard. Repeatedly, in fact, until the Abigail came and took me to bed. So the post is late by reason of exhaustion. Enjoy.

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  • What's your favorite example of a force of nature antagonist, personified or otherwise?
  • Who's your favorite example of a human antagonist?
  • When have you seen a villain cross this line well?
  • When have you seen a villain cross this line poorly?
  • This entry brings up the possibility of villains who are personified forces of nature, but is the inverse - a force of naturified person - possible, or just silly?

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