Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hate and Fear in Fiction - What makes a compelling villain?

I've been bouncing some crazy ideas around about fiction and how we use it to process our darker emotions. First, a question for you...

What is the nature of evil?

I feel like most people would probably answer "hatred," right? (If you disagree, or have something else to offer, please let me know in the comments!)

The question of how to create a really good villain is something of an enigma. There's no one right way to create a compelling villain, but there are a few commonalities...

1) They should be someone you love to hate. Perhaps most important, they need to offend, insult, piss off, and/or enrage the reader sufficiently that you want to destroy them by the end, you yearn with a visceral hatred to just rip them to pieces, see them and everything they love destroyed. The best villains evoke this kind of reaction--but you can't try too hard for it or the villain just ends up seeming silly and melodramatic. Game of Thrones is full of these characters: Joffrey and Cersei, for my money.

2) You should be able to empathize with the villain. Right or wrong, even as they hurt you and anger you enough to make you hate them, at the same time you should /understand/ them at least a little bit. It may make you sad, but you should be able to see how they came to be where they are and--chillingly--recognize that it could have been you in the right (wrong?) circumstances. The villain of Watchman, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandius, is an excellent example of this kind of character. Even as you loathe him in the end... you can't help but wonder if you agree...

3) They should be fascinating in some sense. The Magnificent Bastard, for example, makes an excellent villain: bold, charismatic, independent, audacious and genius. Something mysterious and exciting about them. They should be as evil as they are charismatic. They make you want to follow them, even as you know you shouldn't. And when you eventually come to hate them, the feeling is all the stronger because of how much you could have loved them. The Phantom of the Opera is a good example of this kind of character.

But here's the magnificent irony of it all. While hatred is at the heart of true evil, the most successful villain is the one who elicits hatred in the audience.

By exploring evil, we tap into the evil parts of ourselves. By observing what we hate on-screen, we ourselves become creatures possessed by hate, by the desire to rend and destroy.

But it's okay, right? Because we hate something evil? But is hate still evil even if it points at something evil? Many of the most heinous crimes in the history of the world have been committed with hatred--genocide, murder, torture. But it's always a reaction to the villainy we see in the other; we are okay with hating and hurting because what we hate and hurt is evil... but in so doing, we ourselves become filled with hate and the desire to hurt.

It's a lot to wrap your head around... I'm just glad to get this stuff out in fiction rather than in real life. I'd much rather cathartically destroy a villain on-screen, rather than actually destroy another human being in real life under the hate-filled guise of some noble cause.

If you define evil as 'driven by hatred,' then it's beautifully ironic that the best villain is the one who turns the audience themselves into villains...

(If you like this, back the Kickstarter for my book: "The Good, the Bad, and the Undead" today, and see some of my explorations of the nature of good and evil in practice--with zombies!)

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