I'm a little bit (ok fine, a LOT) behind on Camp NaNoWriMo, but since I'm dying from my self-imposed Google Reader ban, I thought writing a post would help take the edge off blogosphere-withdrawal. At least I'm producing words, right? Can't wait until the weekend when I'll let myself catch up on blog posts (all several hundred of them — yes, I peeked a few times) regardless of word count!
I'm always on the lookout for great articles about villains and antagonists since I have such a hard time with them. I really liked the amazing Jodi Meadows' post about Villains You Like because it resonated with me and got me thinking more about the different types of villains out there. Here are some of my thoughts:
Generic Villainous Overlords
When I was in elementary/middle school, this was the kind of villain I thought up with my friend and sister. We'd play pretend and spin stories where we were magical princesses rebelling against an evil stepmother (so original, I know). I think she also had an evil sorcerer ally.
I've since discovered that evil villains out to take over the world for no good reason tend to fall flat and be utterly boring, so I'm glad I know better now. Imagine my surprise when I came across one in a recent debut! The one-dimensional villain actually claimed "I'm evil" as sole motivation for world domination, dashing all my hopes for an interesting and nuanced antagonist. It was hard not to groan or roll my eyes. (Oh well, the book pretty much nosedived into terribleness halfway through, anyway.) So yeah. No cliché, boring evil villains, please!
I guess it was so shocking to encounter such a lackluster villain because it seems that sympathetic antagonists are all the rage these days. And for good reason — characters that the reader can relate to are so much more engaging than cardboard cut-outs, no matter where they fall on the good/evil spectrum.
One way to add complexity to a villain is to give him or her a redeeming quality, vulnerability, or troubled past. A villain with motives that are understandable, or even almost noble, would make the protagonist's inner struggle that much more difficult (and who can say no to more conflict?). And who knows, maybe the villain actually thinks he or she is doing the right thing, even if the protagonist strongly disagrees. Jodi's example was Magneto from X-men: First Class; he's a likable character with an understandable motivation, but he's a villain because he wants to exterminate normal people (something I imagine most people would frown upon).
We (as in magical princesses) did later try to do this for our evil stepmother character. We decided she was our late mother's adopted sibling (heaven forbid we're related to her by blood!), jealous of our mother all her life, in love with our father, and basically out to take for herself everything her gorgeous, saintly sister ever had. Oh fine, I guess our attempts to bump her up to "sympathetic" wasn't all that successful, but we did try to give her some personality and motivation. (I think evil sorcerer remained irredeemably evil, though.)
Villains You Love to Hate
I think this might be where our poor evil stepmother ended up. These sorts of villains are dastardly, selfish characters who, through some twist of fortune, ended up with more power than is good for them to have, and then proceeded to annoy the heck out of everyone else. And you can't wait until this villain is defeated because he or she is just so despicable and pathetic. Not to mention rather useless once stripped of power. (I think they tend to be pretty wormy. You know, like Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings and Wormtail from Harry Potter. What is it about worms?)
These villains are probably best as irritants in the path of the hero and not as the Big Bad. I think I'd get pretty frustrated if the protagonist is fighting someone like that for an entire book. But maybe it's all in the execution?
Villains with Flair
These characters are not-very-nice people who become fascinating on the strength of their personality. Not a literary example, but I adored Regina George in Mean Girls. She's a lying, cheating, manipulative b— ah, witch who insulted and played everyone around her. But her confidence, charm, and determination to get what she wanted made her a lot more fascinating than Cady, the actual protagonist. (Plus, Rachel McAdams is gorgeous!)
Or take Artemis Fowl. He's a kidnapper who exploits the fairies for money and amusement. But because he's so brilliant, we can't wait to see what he has up his sleeves, even kind of hoping he'll succeed despite the fact that what he's doing is so wrong. It also helps that he's the main protagonist.
[*EDIT: Thanks to lovely comments from Mike and CanaryTheFirst, I think I'd put Artemis and their examples in a new category: Villains as Protagonist. What do you think?]
Villains can become attractive despite their moral flaws if they have personality traits the reader can admire. The danger with these villains is that they may steal the spotlight and become more interesting than the protagonist, so you'd have to make sure your protagonist is up to the challenge! I think it'd be a lot of fun to write such a character. :)
Villains that Give You Nightmares
These are the sadistic, genius serial killers of pure unadulterated evil. The crazed monster from the underworld who delights in bloodlust. The creepy clown, or alien predator, or that girl with the long hair crawling out of the TV... ok, I seriously need to stop before I scare myself witless.
Why? Because I am a total wimp. (I assure you, it pains me to admit it.) I avoid horror flicks and books as much as possible; even thrillers might be too much for me. I have an overactive imagination and do not appreciate having images of menacing evilness roaming my mind at night. So while others might love reading or writing about this sort of villain and enjoy the thrill of being thoroughly scared, I'm afraid (har, har) they're not for me.
Of course, not every book has to have a villain. Some stories have antagonists that are made of sunshine and loveliness, and so sweet you want to gag — except their goals happen to conflict with that of the protagonist. Or maybe the antagonist isn't quite that innocent, but more morally ambiguous than outright evil. A lot of antagonists fall into this category, but it's fun to think about evil characters once in a while and consider how to make them interesting to the reader.
What other types of villains can you think of, and which ones are your favorite?