Blog A Guest Post
from J.M. Frey

Heroic Villainy: What defines a villain?

What defines a hero? What about a villain? Good and Evil? Are they really two sides of the same coin? Or something less defined, something more liminal?

When I was first approached to submit to When the Hero Comes Home, I had a pretty good grasp on what editors Gabrielle Harbowy and Ed Greenwood wanted. After all, I’ve got a minor in Classical studies, and a major in Dramatic Literature. So, the Hero’s Journey? I’m all over that.

However, when they approached me a second time to submit to the sequel anthology, When the Villain Comes Home, I was a little more lost. What, I wondered, could possibly make a villain want to return home after (s)he had failed? Or won? It all clicked, however, when Harbowy quoted Greg Wilson to me: While a hero’s journey is a circle in which he leaves home, saves the world, and then returns to his/her home changed, the villain’s journey is an ever-tightening, ever-descending spiral of actions that begin noble and end up selfish and petty. It is this narcissistic selfishness which ultimately causes their undoing. The villain starts on the path of the Hero, but somewhere along the way, (s)he ends up on a by road.

Around the same time, Tom Hiddleston of Loki fame has remarked in an interview about his stardom-defining role, that “a villain never thinks he’s the villain.”

And that’s when I hit upon the idea for my short story: Maddening Science. A disappointed villain, later in life, unhappy with his lot but unable to change the past. Like Hollis Mason (Watchmen: Under the Hood), I wanted a has-been that wasn’t entirely understanding that he was a has-been. I loved the Watchmen graphic novel for its groundbreaking new view of superheroism, and I love the film (only partially because I occasionally have opportunity to take pints with the screenwriter), but one thing I had wanted to see in that world which was absent was the point of view of a villain.

Yes, I know Ozymandius is the bad guy of the piece but his intentions were just so darn… noble. Even though he was the villain, he would never have called himself that. What I wanted was someone whose nobility had been twisted, a hero who had become a villain, and knowingly. On purpose, even. A villain who calls himself a villain.

Whether I succeeded in that or not, I’ll leave in judgment of you readers.

Confession time: I am a villain girl.

I always have been. Probably because the hero is always so easy to parse. The hero-protagonist’s motivation is on the page for you to read – you’re in their head, you know their thoughts, their motivations, their desires. You see their hard work and frustration, and while I do love me a great protagonist, I always find the villain more appealing simply because they’re the ones shrouded in mystery.

I remember being quite young and watching a film with my parents. I don’t recall the film, but I do remember asking later: “But why did the bad guy do that?” Because he’s the bad guy, I was told. “But why is he the bad guy?” He just is. “But why was he written like that?” He just was, stop asking. It doesn’t matter, it’s just a story.

It’s just a story?

Just a story?

That answer wasn’t good enough for me. I was already doing after school acting and in-school drama classes, and one thing that we were told was to know why you’re doing a thing before you do it. Later, when I was older, I was told that this knowing is called motivation. When an actor portrays a character, they need to know why the character is choosing to say what they do when they do, why they behave the way they do, and why they make the facial expressions, gestures, or outbursts they do. For me, the greatest part of a film was watching an actor with motivation work their way through a villainous role.

They clearly knew why a villain was doing the things he did, but the medium of film never let me know why. I believe this desire to know is part of what fuels fanfiction, and revisionist literature. I recall quite vividly holding “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” in my hand for the first time and thinking, “You can do that?” When I heard about Gregory Maguire’s oeuvre, I’ll admit to being a bit peeved because I hadn’t thought of it first.

Retelling famous fairy stories from the point of view of the antagonist? Brilliant.

There is no story, literally none that I love better than a long, plotty character piece where the reader follows a villain down that spiral, watching him or her make the small, seemingly mundane choices that eventually lead them to more and more horrible deeds. The Hero’s journey can be fascinating and engaging, but ultimately they save the day and are hailed as the good guy. To me, the more compelling tale is the story of the person who failed to do good; the person who either tried and couldn’t, or never bothered trying in the first place.

All of us want to save the world. We all want world peace. We all want safety and security and happiness for our loved ones. If a literary Tiresius called us to action, we all think that we’d be brave enough, and smart enough, and willing to take up the call.

But what about those of us who fail? Or refuse the call? Or deliberately twist that calling? That is where the story lies.

As Jim Butcher puts it in his Cold Days:

            No one just starts giggling and wearing black and signs up to become a villainous monster. How the hell do you think it happens? It happens to people. Just people. They make questionable choices, for what might be very good reasons. They make choice after choice, and none of them is slaughtering roomfuls of saints, or murdering hundreds of baby seals, or rubber-room irrational. But it adds up. And then one day they look around and realized that they’re so far over the line that they can’t remember where it was.

With the advent of my first anthology (mini though it is!), I’ve been asked a lot lately why I write ambiguous heroes and villains so much. Desire to understand bad-guy motivation (and lack of satisfaction with a media text if it wasn’t believable enough) and the understanding that there is a place in the world for stories told from the antagonists’ point of view, and a desire for them as well.

I am also asked, often, how to write ambiguous heroes and villains.

My process, unfortunately, is less connect-the-dots and follow-the-rules as I wish I could provide.

Mostly I keep in mind the two quotes that I cited at the beginning of this post – from Hiddleston and Wilson – and make a point of crafting a villain with as much care, follow-through, and pay <a href=” http://jmfrey.net/2012/09/words-for-writers-world-building-culture-building-character-building-and-finding-the-story/ “>as much attention to home culture and childhood of the antagonist as I would the protagonist. </a>

A villain, you see, is only as well written as the world and people he is fighting against. And the hero is only as important as the world and the villain deems him.

Your protagonist and your antagonist must build, support, and feed one another. A weakly fleshed-out villain fails to hold up to both a complicated  hero, and a well-made plot just as a poorly realized hero is out of place in a great book with a great villain.

In her “A Short Defense of Villains”, Agnes Repplier says:

        A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barboursly nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.

To me, the villain, the bad guy, the black hat, is the heart, the soul of the story. They are the reason a hero is called to action, they are the reason a king quails behind castle walls, or a city calls in the national guard, or the superhero must don the tights. The villain acts, the hero reacts.

So while you’re building a fantastic world, and constructing a fantastic plot  for a fantastic hero or protagonist with a fantastic backstory, … don’t forget a fantastic villain.

 

Comments (6)

  1. Juliana - Reply

    September 24, 2013 at 6:43 am

    This is such a fantastic post! Thanks so much for writing it. I love villains too. Somehow, they always end up being the most interesting part of the story :)

  2. J.M. Frey - Reply

    September 24, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Juliana; Thanks! They really are one of the most fun parts of a book to figure out and put together, I will admit that!

  3. Tricia Skinner - Reply

    September 24, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Villains are the true tortured hero. They destroy themselves and I just eat that up. Oh, and HELLO. LOKI!

  4. Meredith - Reply

    September 24, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Wonderful piece, and I fully agree! I did more research and background writing for my trilogy’s villain than for all my other characters combined, because I needed him to be charming and charismatic enough to last three books. A one-dimensional, moustache-twirling, shifty-eyed cliche would just not have worked.

  5. Meredith - Reply

    September 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Wonderful piece, and I fully agree! I did more research and background writing for my trilogy’s villain than for all my other characters combined, because I needed him to be charming and charismatic enough to last three books. A one-dimensional, moustache-twirling, shifty-eyed cliche would just not have worked.

  6. Zrinka - Reply

    September 29, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I think often times a really great villain make the book more than the hero himself. I love the redeeming villains, the ones that turn out to be protagonists in the end. Like the character of the Doc Hudson in Disney’s Cars. They are there to teach the pompous heroes a life lessons they need to learn in order to move on in life.

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