Creating a Moral Villain

From Writers Helping Writers, this: Creating a Moral Villain

I really appreciate situations where the hero protagonist is opposed by a someone who is also a hero, but has different and conflicting objectives. That’s why this post caught my eye.

That kind of antagonist is not a villain, but maybe the linked post is conflating the terms. That would be all right, although I prefer to distinguish antagonists from villains because they are different in important ways. I mean different in story terms, in writing terms. The shape of the story changes dramatically depending on whether you have an antagonist or a villain.

Let me see what this post says — maybe they are using the word villain, but really mean antagonist.

As readers, what inspires empathy for the hero and makes us root for him? Their flaws? Admirable qualities? Hopeless circumstances? Yes, to all of the above. But none of these elements would be effective without a worthy villain to complicate matters. … This is the real purpose of the antagonist: to make things unlivable for the hero and ramp up reader empathy. … It is fear of this antagonist that inspires empathy in readers, putting them firmly in the hero’s cheering section and ensuring they will keep turning pages. So it’s crucial you create a villain who is just as unique, interesting, and believable as the main character. [Bold in original]

And of course this is not actually true because the admirable qualities of the hero and the hopelessness of the circumstances can and often do make the reader root for the hero in the total absence of a villain, as will be obvious with half a minute of thought.

I mean: The Martian. Who is the villain? Right, there’s no villain. Mars itself is the antagonist, the only antagonist, there’s not a villain in sight, moral or otherwise. That’s quite common, even in novels where the antagonist is not a depersonalized natural force. Let me see. All right, for example, in The Good Shepherd, the antagonist(s) are Nazi submarines, but we know nothing about the crews of those submarines. They are treated exactly like a depersonalized natural force, except with an unseen evil hand behind the whole conflict because they’re Nazi subs.

The Good Shepherd is a very intense novel, by the way, a thriller by CS Forester (of Horatio Hornblower fame, of course!) where all the action is … non-active? I mean, we see almost nothing but the bridge of the American submarine, so that’s the opposite of a flashy swordfight at the edge of a cliff, but it’s extraordinarily tense. And the tension is unbroken. It just goes on and on and on until you’re practically begging the author to let the protagonist take a nap, for heaven’s sake.

But my point is, there isn’t a villain, not an actual personalized villain, far less a moral villain who is “just as unique, interesting and believable as the main character.”

Even in novels where there is a villain, it’s not necessary for that villain to be “just as unique, interesting, and believable as the main character” in order to be a great antagonist. This too is completely obvious with two seconds to think about it. I’m inclined to point once again to my own novels here because it’s hard to be less unique and believable than Lorellan in Tuyo, for example, and I think we generally agree that this is fine, that the protagonists carry the story without needing Lorellan to be complex and unique and have a sympathetic backstory that is explained in detail.

This linked post asks, Who were their caregivers? What were they like in the past? What happened that changed them? Who was kind to them? Who was cruel? Every villain has a backstory that should explain why they are the way they are today. [bold in original] I say, who cares? If the reader’s focus is on the protagonists, which is where it should be, then details of the villain’s backstory are of highly limited interest or importance.

Granted, I’m biased because I don’t like villain point-of-view chapters or scenes, don’t like villain-centered prequels, and really think that important backstory about the villain can and should generally be restricted to about two sentences here and there.

The linked post says:

We don’t tend to think of villains as moral individuals, but they usually are. They just live according to a different set of values than the rest of society. 

Yeah, and sometimes they kidnap girls and torture them to death because they want to and they are able to. I really don’t think that kind of villain thinks of himself as a moral individual. I think that kind of villain thinks of himself as a predator, which is not the same thing. Personally, I think it’s an oxymoron to say “moral villain.” Once you twist the moral code that far, it’s stopped being a moral code. Of course I am still distinguishing here between opponents and antagonists vs villains.

Once more:

While a twenty-five foot shark might keep me out of the water, it won’t keep me up at night. The villains who accomplish this are the ones who feel real. They have morals—albeit skewed—and live by them. Although a nightmare now, they weren’t born that way; life, past events, and the evil of others have made them the villains they are today. They’re terrifying because they were once normal—just like me. … It is this kind of antagonist we should strive to create: moral villain who strictly adhere to their twisted moral codes. [Bold in original]

I do dislike phrases like “we should strive to create,” as though that’s just naturally what we should all try to do all of the time. Please. Superior phrases for this sort of advice might include: Your story may benefit from … Some of the most compelling and memorable antagonists … To balance a committed, selfless hero, an equally committed, selfless opponent … and so on.

It doesn’t have to be a twisted moral code. It can be a perfectly fine and sympathetic moral code, but opposed. We both need This Thing to save others, but only one of us can get it. Either your world will be destroyed or mine will. Of course you want your people to be free, but my people can’t let yours go because we’d be destroyed. Oh, I can think of a good example of that last: That’s the setup in the Medair duology by AKH. That’s definitely a compelling way to set up the protagonist / antagonist conflict. I really love novels with this kind of setup, especially if the author manages to make both the protagonist and the antagonist objectively right.

I will add, the antagonist can have an iffy moral code, or a step-too-far moral code. We get that in, for example, Sharon Shinn’s latest, The Shuddering City. The antagonist, the high priest, is not wrong. As far as he can tell, he’s pursuing a necessary solution to a dire problem. In fact, if there hadn’t been an alternative, he could have turned out to be objectively correct. His aim was very much a good-of-the-many aim, and sometimes those decisions are correct and necessary. We could call that a Cold Equations scenario. It’s not necessary to twist the moral code out of all possible sympathy before it can work for the antagonist.

All right, the linked post finishes this way.

No one’s going to cheer for a hero whose adversary is superficial or unrealistic. Turn your villain into a truly horrific creature by giving them a moral code to live by. Unearth their backstory and show readers that, at one point, they were human. It’s a good reminder that we’re all just one bad experience away from becoming monsters ourselves. [Bold is mine]

Again, this is way too dogmatic. Of course the reader is going to cheer for the hero, if the hero is well drawn and the plot is well designed and the story is well written. Unless the author has screwed up the story somehow, the reader will always cheer for the hero regardless of whether there is a villain at all or how the villain is drawn.

Also, giving the antagonist a moral code doesn’t make the antagonist a “horrific creature.” You have to really viciously deform the moral code before that happens.

Also, creating a detailed backstory for the villain is likely to backfire if the author feels compelled to share much of it with the reader. That way lies the temptation to turn a third of the book into villain pov and boom, you lose half your readers because lots of readers, like me, loathe villain pov chapters.


That is ridiculous. That assertion is worse than silly, it’s pernicious. Once again, thirty seconds of thought should make that totally obvious. Zillions of people have had bad experiences, including really horrific experiences, without becoming monsters. Treating people as though we’re all on the edge of a precipice and one little nudge will send us into the abyss of twisted morality and monsterhood is … … … words fail me.

It also reminds me of The Killing Joke, because this is the EXACT mistake the Joker makes in this story and that this is totally wrongheaded is the EXACT point the graphic novel makes.

I hardly thought it was necessary to make that point in real life. But here we are.

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17 thoughts on “Creating a Moral Villain”

  1. The original article would have been so much better if it presented itself as the way to make certain kinds of stories work, rather than trying to trade in absolutes. Do people like the OP really think that everyone needs to write like them, or just that if they’re more sweeping in their generalizations then they’ll get more engagement? It seems so patently obvious that there are many types of stories and many types of writers, but it seems like people are always forgetting that in writing advice columns.

  2. Sarah, yes, and I honestly don’t understand it. To me, it seems patently obvious that sweeping generalizations are going to turn off (a) everyone who disagrees with you, plus (b) everyone who has noticed that writers are not all the same and stories are not all the same. So … why write like that? “We must, we should, it’s crucial to, a story must, a story can’t,” are all phrases to avoid, AND that whole absolutist mindset is also just something to avoid.

  3. I like books where there are two groups of people who are adversarial, but there is one true enemy. Eg, House of Shadows, The Floating City, the Griffin Mage Series- countries are at war but all sides are honorable , there’s just one crazy villain. Tuyo: Ungaro and Lau are antagonistic but both honorable, but there’s one crazy. Or- Island of Ghosts. Rome and the Sarmatians have been at war but they find common ground. I just reread Sharon Shinn’s Heart of Gold- and it’s the same. I don’t care for villains, really, but I guess you need them to drive the story. And I really don’t care for villainous backstory.

  4. That’s certainly a setup I like, Alison. I guess that’s obvious! It’s definitely one element I especially liked in Island of Ghosts — the way the originally antagonist Roman turns out to be a good guy and an ally. Really well handled!

    Another in the same mold is The Death of the Necromancer. Nicholas Valiarde and Inspector Ronsard are antagonists … and then allies, brought together by the actual villain.

  5. The Death of the Necromancer is an example of a pattern I like, where an opponent would say of himself that he is certainly a villain, but he’s not *that* much of a villain. And sets aside his pursuit of his own ends, at least temporarily, to make common cause with the white-hat hero for the common good.

    I agree that the article’s description of a complex villain is not the only way to write a story. I hate chapters in the villain’s pov because they often make me feel I need brain bleach. But a chapter in the pov of a complex antagonist is different and in fact it can be enjoyable to see an alternate view of the hero and/or the central problem.

  6. Yes, absolutely. I may be perfectly fine with antagonist points of view. I just do not want AT ALL to be dragged into the pov of a sadistic, vicious person who is torturing kittens for fun. Or, for that matter, the pov of someone who is letting himself become that kind of person over the course of the book. Bad guy in this book here, I am thinking of you. This was a low-level bad guy who starts off trying to protect himself by behaving viciously, but then truly becomes vicious. And we get to watch it happen! Yeah, no thanks.

  7. In Ken Follet’s WW2 novels the German agents are kind of moral villains; absolutely ruthless, but not because they take pleasure in cruelty, or for personal gain. They do it for their country, because they consider it their duty. As far as I can remember they usually aren’t fans of the Nazi ideology either, or not knowing everything living abroad.

    Their British counterparts are somewhat nicer, but also pretty ruthless. So it’s almost the same types on both sides.

  8. Completely agree with your critique. There is a place for antagonists of the “there but for the grace of God go I” type, but in my opinion those work much better when, as you say, we are dealing with an antagonist rather than a villain. If I were born on World B instead of World A, yeah, I might be fighting just as hard for that world. But as you say, the idea we are all one bad experience away from being serial killers is just ridiculous – the world is filled with bad experiences, and serial killers are extremely rare. (And thank goodness for that.) The author of the post seems to derive some pleasure from dancing with the idea that they might have turned into a dark nightmare if their life had gone a little differently, but that is just not a worry that keeps me up at night.

  9. I haven’t read the original article, but from the description of its prescriptions it sounds like the author might be one of those who only reads and appreciates literary fiction in a world close to present (or historical) reality, so that is what the article is talking about – ignoring the much wider variety that occurs in all the different kinds of genre fiction.

  10. ” Every villain has a backstory that should explain why they are the way they are today. ” I read that aloud incredulously, and the Teen, who was in the room, remarked “that’s how the author wrecked Naruto.” Anyone here know Naruto and think it’s worth expanding on? I could, but it’s second hand.

    Does Christopher Chant’s uncle have a backstory that explains how he got to be the nasty person he is? Do we readers care? Darth Vader? (original trilogy only). Not really. We eventually learn he failed the test. Would the Emperor be worse if we knew more about him, except that he holds Vader’s leash?

    It really depends on the story being told.

  11. Villain origin stories are so common/popular; I just don’t understand the appeal. Is it “x bad guy was super popular, but the hero killed him, so the only way to get more of him is to go to his origins”? But, like Rachel said, usually those stories are about someone normal turning into a monster – ew.

  12. Many criminals think not in terms of heroes and villains but of suckers and those who avoid being suckers. Also of themselves as victims — a prison doctor noted he could tell who would come back by asking whether he would see them again. If they said, “No,” he would not. If they, as they usually did, said, “It depends,” it would, because what it depended on, to them, was what other people did.

    Also some stories require your point of view characters and your reading audience to be in the dark about the villain’s motives.

  13. Mary Catelli, YES, and what is remarkable is that some authors — including some who should know better — do not seem to realize that being told all about the villain’s plans through extensive pov sections reduces, rather than raises, tension. Any reader will know some disaster is probably going to occur if there are 200 pages left before the end; knowing exactly what and when is not nearly as tense as just knowing something will happen sometime. The book by Anne Bishop linked from the post illustrates that.

  14. It’s possible that the absolutism and the sweeping generalizations spring from a desire to make it the rule. Some people have odd agendas.

  15. I was thinking of this post as I read TANO yesterday.

    (Trying to avoid spoilers)

    We don’t know why Yaro inTasiyo became the way he is, and we don’t NEED to know it—the story is about dealing with and healing from the trauma that an abusive person wreaks, without space or sympathy for why he is abusive. And while we do see other people become monstrous following that influence, the message could not be more clear that we are NOT all one step away from becoming monsters ourselves!! We can ALL choose to do better!!

    Anyway Rachel I think it’s very clever of you to write a whole book refuting this blog post. ;)

  16. You made me laugh, Mary Beth!

    You could probably declare that the whole TUYO series refutes this blog post!

  17. OTOH, the way to hide the villain’s motives is to stay out of his point of view. . . .

    I read a book recently where the villainess was frequently a point of view character and thinking of her plans, but not her purpose. It was finally revealed at the end and I was thinking, “For THAT sort of juvenile pettiness she caused so much death and misery?”

    It might have helped if the author had the skill to depict the level of depravity with the horror it required. He didn’t. What was worse was that the issue was resolved in a few paragraphs by basically giving her what she wanted without so much as a regret that so evil a woman had to get it to resolve the evil she was continuing to cause.

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