One year, just before Halloween, as darkness fell, a secretive group (Athens Writers Association writers; the group I founded) met in a large, intimidating building (the local library) to discuss a gallery of murderers, psychopaths, and all-around bad eggs. A great time was had by all, and we came away with some new perspectives on one of the most important characters in any novel.
Below is a short handout I made for the class — hopefully it will inspire some deviant thinking of your own.
The Villain’s Viewpoint
First, some terms —
- VILLAIN — a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot
- NEMESIS — a long-standing rival; an archenemy. A function of the Nemesis character (in the Hero’s Journey) is to embody the Hero’s inner conflict
- ANTI-HERO — a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes
- THRESHOLD GUARDIAN — A figure or event that tests the resolve of a Hero as he pursues his destiny and/or his goal
- ANTAGONIST — a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary
When thinking about viewpoints, it’s important to remember some villains don’t have them — the aliens from the Alien series, tornadoes and other disasters, dangerous animals, and even total personifications of evil like Sauron (from The Lord of the Rings) — they don’t get human personalities and weaknesses (though characters like Saruman and Sméagol do). They may still be a character in your novel though, just in a way in which their unfathomable, unstoppable nature is their forefront characteristic.
To explore why our villains do what they do, you must have empathy for them, or at least sympathy. Who were they as children? Even if someone was ‘born evil’ would that not arouse your sympathy and make you wonder how they grew up, who they loved, who could never love them back? Even an evil you can never understand still can arouse a feeling of compassion — their lives (if only their internal landscape) must be a terrible place to live.
Also remember that the villain’s journey is the reverse image of the hero’s (one’s victory is the other’s defeat). Who are they when no one’s looking?
Here’s some examples —
- GlaDOS (Portal) is a killer robot but she believes she’s just ‘testing’ out hero through a series of life-and-death trials. GlaDOS represents a ‘lawful evil’ (an alignment from Dungeons & Dragons) who believes she’s following the rules and being a good employee. She’s also very funny, which is good since the hero doesn’t talk.
- Professor Moriarty (Sherlock) is of superior intelligence and illuminates the path Sherlock could have taken (shadow self) if his beliefs in the ‘moral law’ had not prevented him. These types often see themselves as above society (Magneto’s homosuperiors from The X-Men) — they believe that they have either freed themselves or been born exempt from the rules others must follow. If everyone is trying to achieve money, safety, and happiness they reason, shouldn’t the smartest (strongest etc.) win the biggest piece of the pie?
- Harvey Dent (Batman) represents chaos (as Batman does order) but he also shows a good man transformed by loss into a villain. Chance turned Dent evil and chance is what he gives his victims via the coin toss. The overprotective father who limits his younger son’s actions while mourning his elder son’s death could have the same reasoning. The sense that retribution is necessary can create villains where heroes once stood.
- Ursula (The Little Mermaid) is a pretty simple villain and yet she also stands in for an important archetype — the villain as guardian. Changing from a mermaid to a person is not something people should take lightly. Any time your hero seeks out magic, money, or power they don’t understand, they may be striking a ‘Faustian bargain’. Even though Ursula wants revenge on the sea king, her role is an important one: she is the holder of great magic. Cerberus, guardian of the underworld and many other Threshold Guardians also challenge the hero, temping them to make a choice that will change their lives forever. The villain may feel the hero deserves the price they pay for their foolishness.
- Loki (Thor) is the brother of Thor, God of Thunder. Loki seeks the approval of their father Odin and to protect his homeland of Asgard. He and his brother are alike in their desires. But Thor is a strong, brave warrior in a culture that honors those traits, whereas Loki is sly, smart and good at magic. One could argue that ‘chance’ turned Loki into a villain, but unlike Harvey Dent, cruelty and neglect (from Odin and Thor) were what changed Loki, not an accident. Loki truly believes that Thor is the wrong man to lead Asgard and so acts from a hero’s POV — he’s trying to prove himself while saving his people. His actions are more interesting because what he is doing is so wrong while he believes that he’s doing right. Some antagonists will also work against our hero while believing they are doing it for the greater good. Agent Sadusky (National Treasure) knows our hero wants to steal the Declaration of Independence and so is pursuing our hero, not knowing that the hero is trying to keep the Declaration from a group of thieves who will destroy it. Sudusky’s limited POV makes him work against our hero — much as Loki’s inability to imagine Thor growing into a great leader limits his perspective.
- The Joker (The Dark Knight) also represents chaos in Batman’s life, but he has no sympathetic back story — in fact he tells many versions of ‘how I these scars’. One may be true, or none. The Joker just wants to watch the world burn. He is ourselves turned loose — instead of using his unmooring from society to achieve power or money — he just does what brings him glee at the given moment. There is something very appealing in letting ourselves go — this kind of character is enjoying every minute of the ride — and even the end may not bother him. For this type of character just remember to dig deep into their happiness — they may be doing the most appalling things but loving it.
- Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal) is smart, cultured, polite — and he eats people. He also is interested in our hero Will Graham and honestly believes that he can help Will break out of his shell as a ‘good person’ and become more — more like Hannibal — and self actualized. While Hannibal makes some choices just ‘to see what would happen’, he seems to sincerely want to help Will transform. That Will neither wants nor may survive such attention is of little matter — Hannibal sees himself as giving Will a chance to better himself — the rest is up to Will. The tough drill sergeant who tries to ‘break’ our hero, or Annie Wilkes’ (Misery) desire to improve her favorite author (and his writing) are other example of mentor/villains ‘helping’ our heroes, even to the edge of death.
In the end, villains are some of the most colorful, exciting characters to write. They don’t have to play by the rules and they give us writers a chance to explore the shadowy underside of the human psyche.
But remember to make them human first and foremost. If a motivation wouldn’t be good enough for your hero (‘he likes money’) then it’s not good enough for your villain. They may act crazy, but a good villain is using logic — no matter how skewed — to try to achieve his aims, be it for order, respect, illumination, teaching others a lesson, protecting what he loves, having a good time, or changing our hero into a better person.
That the villain should fail will be your story, to know that his failure is a tragedy shall be your goal.