From Writers Helping Writers, this post: Five Commonalities Between Heroes and Villains
I am immediately suspicious, as you might imagine. Not that I think there aren’t commonalities. Both hero and villain are probably human. I mean, I can think of exceptions, but that seems likely. I expect both hero and villain have some sort of past that involves, probably, good days and bad days. Possibly both hero and villain might pause to pat a puppy, who can say?
But a post title like this means I suspect the post is going to say something like, “Villains are the heroes of their own stories! We should have sympathy for the villain. Poor guy has a tragic past! You should make your reader feel your villain is understandable. The best villains are just one step away from heroes!”
And so on. I do not agree, or at least I agree only around the edges of this kind of notion, so I’m prepared to be quite critical of this post. But I haven’t read it yet, so maybe I should do that. Here’s how it starts:
It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story.
Bold and link from the original, and yep, there we go, the villain is the hero of his own story. Well, I don’t care. I’m not interested in the ins and outs of the villain’s twisted moral code. I don’t care about the traumatic childhood that made the villain into the person he is today, and I most certainly do not want to be forced into the villain’s pov to explore any of that.
Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of.
The statement above draws on both the “villains should be sympathetic” and “the villain is just a step away from the hero” ideas, but actually depends primarily on a ridiculous strawman argument. I mean, you can write a villain who is sympathetic and pats puppies, I’m not saying that can’t work or is a bad thing to do. Like everything else, if you do it well, it’s fine. But there’s little excuse for the strawman above. Good guys aren’t all good, really! Wow, there’s a revelation! Unlike ALL THE BOOKS where the good guy is ALL GOOD, you should take care to write a sophisticated story where the good guys have FLAWS. That would be so different!
Look, there is no need to state a strawman premise like this. You can just say: Your villain will be most persuasive/engaging/complex/human/interesting if he has good traits as well as bad traits. I would still disagree with that — I mean, I would disagree that it’s necessary to strive to make the villain complex, though you can do that if you want to. But at least that kind of statement wouldn’t be based on an assumption that lots of authors haven’t noticed that heroes can have negative traits or villains can have positive traits.
Well, I did mention that the post title put me in critical mode. Maybe I’m being unfair. Let me see where this post is going …
Why are [villains] the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy?
Wow, this was a predictable post. That’s not me being hypercritical, it’s just true. I honestly did not read this post before predicting what points it would make, but there they all are.
Fine, you know what, let’s go in a different direction. Not Five Commonalities, but instead:
Five Types of Villains, Some Of Whom Are Not At All Like The Hero:
1) The villain who is the hero of his own story, because sure, sometimes that happens. His priorities are iffy. This would be … hmm. It would be like the villain in Sharon Shinn’s recent book, The Shuddering City. The villain is the sort who’s all about the greatest good for the greatest number, and a spot of human sacrifice here or there is a price he’s willing to pay. Or it would be like the King of Casmantium in The Griffin Mage trilogy, who’s decided that a small war that nets Casmantium a decent harbor is a fine idea if he can pull it off.
2) The villain who is all about getting rich or self-aggrandizement or whatever, and doesn’t care about the mayhem he commits on his way to his goal. The sociopathic type, I guess. This is a villain who won’t go out of his way to torture puppies, but doesn’t care if puppies are getting tortured. Let me think. Okay, I haven’t read these for years, but this is like Edward in the Anita Blake series by Laurel Hamilton. Who isn’t a villain, incidentally, but he’s definitely a sociopath. Who else? Oh, Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. Little kid sees you involved incestuously with your sister? Throw the child off a roof, problem solved. (Or it was supposed to be solved, I grant it didn’t work out that way.) Throwing that child off the roof was Jamie’s defining moment, though he certainly got worse from there.
3) The villain who has been forced into evil and has been too weak to prevent that from happening. This may be my very least favorite type of villain. We’re often supposed to sympathize with this villain. I don’t. Worst of all if this is the protagonist, or a protagonist. The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee offers a character like this: Jarrett, one of the two protagonists, begins the story passive, ineffectual, and callous; but at the end, he is evil. It’s a horrific character arc, a grimdark character arc, and I will never read a novel where this happens except by accident. Extreme Ugh.
4) The creepy villain you don’t understand at all. This is like Lilienne from The City in the Lake or the Wyvern King from The Keeper of the Mist. This kind of villain can work great! You get an uncanny valley feel from this villain, who is not sympathetic, not understandable, has no revealed backstory, and does not resemble the hero or, indeed, any normal person.
5) The sadistic, vicious villain who would torture puppies except he has human playthings instead. This is like Lorellan, obviously. It doesn’t matter that this is arguably not his fault. It doesn’t matter that the curse of sorcery flattened his personality and turned him into this kind of villain. He is not a bit sympathetic and he isn’t mean to be, his backstory is totally unimportant, and look at that, we have a bad guy with no good traits and does that ruin the story? No, it does not. This kind of flat villain is perfectly fine in some stories, and TUYO demonstrates that. In my admittedly biased opinion, but still.