What is a villain in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction?
The villain always partakes of myth. He is the Enemy, the reason why we need a Hero, the Challenge that causes the Hero to rise above his limitations and self-doubt and reach his potential. Depending on how the story is crafted, the Villain (time to capitalize that word, I think) may also be a human being with limitations and flaws of his own. But that isn’t always so, particularly in fantasy, where the Villain may be a myth in the conventional sense. There’s nothing human about Sauron or Emperor Palpatine. (There is, of course, about Darth Vader, who is the central character of the whole Star Wars series.)
Whether to make your Villain a human being and show his or her point of view is a literary decision and there are benefits either way. I usually do. Some writers don’t. But it is always necessary to introduce into your villains a mythic element. That is what makes a villain into a Villain.
So let’s consider some of the implications of Villainy in terms of myth.
The Villain is that which stands in the way of Good. Whatever we want or believe in, it’s the antithesis. We can (or anyway I can) identify three levels of villainy, each a higher octave (so to speak) of the one before.
The most basic level of Villainy is Selfishness. This involves base human motivations: greed, power-lust, anger and violence. A lot of Villains are motivated by one or more of these, with the first two being the most common. These are points where individual human desires are in conflict with the enterprise of civilization. Greed puts individual selfishness above the common good. Power-lust elevates one person’s will above the commonalty. Anger and violence strike out to destroy the peace on which civilized life depends.
You can do a lot with just these human motivations. Most bad guys outside the genres of fantasy and science fiction are motivated by nothing more than these. But the Villain potentially becomes more interesting when he rises above these ordinary failings and exhibits something even more sinister.
The next step up in Villainy is Twisted Virtue. It consists of a warped dedication to the Good: a Robespierre, a Cromwell, even a Hitler. These three men acted in pursuit not primarily of their own personal gain, ambition, or rage, but out of what they saw as the good of society. Their evil came about because they pursued the good through dubious means (Robespierre), too inflexibly and autocratically (Cromwell), or with a warped idea of the good that authorized actions most would call evil (Hitler). This sort of person makes a much darker Villain, capable of far greater evil, than a mere greedy businessman, crooked politician, or thug. Corrupted virtue accomplishes greater evil than mere vice. A person will seldom make sacrifices for his own gain, especially not ones that outweigh the gain anticipated. There’s a cost-benefit analysis involved in selfish evil that applies a certain amount of restraint. But in pursuit of something conceived of as the greater good, something that is greater and nobler than one’s own selfish desire, a person will go to greater efforts and make greater sacrifices and risk greater dangers. If that conception is flawed, greater evil can result.
The third and highest octave of wickedness in a Villain is what might be called Demonic Evil. Here we have the Villain who commits evil deeds, not out of base selfish motivations nor out of a warped desire to serve the Good, but out of a clear, no-bones-about-it dedication to Evil itself. The corruption of virtue, the shattering of innocence, the destruction of society, the spreading of fear, pain, poverty, and ruin, are sought by the Demonic Villain not because they are means to some desired end (whether selfish or noble), but as ends in themselves. It’s difficult to make this level of evil believable in a human Villain, although not impossible.
Now here’s the challenge for a fiction writer, especially a fantasy writer: incorporate the most challenging level of Villainy you can, without losing the belief of your reader. This is especially a challenge for the fantasy writer because in fantasy the normal stops are pulled and you can introduce Demonic Evil completely unrestrained, by having your Villains be actual demons or the equivalent. Cosmic principles of annihilation. Ancient gods of darkness that have slept for thousands of years and are about to return. The Dark Lord and his mind-warped priests who have left all humanity behind them. A great mind consumed by the Dark Side of the Force. You can do this sort of thing in fantasy and get away with it, but if you do, it becomes much, much harder to have your Villain be a sympathetic character.
Sometimes it becomes impossible to do that and the goal is abandoned. The Villain is simply an Enemy and all sympathy lies with the Hero, whose human struggle against inhuman evil makes up the main plot line.
On the other end (and this tends to be closer to my own failing), it’s possible to seek humanity on the part of the Villain so much that his villainy becomes watered down. It’s easier to do it the other way, with a Villain who is just a Villain, but it seems to me that you lose the opportunity for some interesting character development that way. The balancing act can be delicate. But the great thing is that it can work no matter where you come down, as long as there are sufficient challenges posed by your Villains, internal, external, or a combination of the two.
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