Monday, July 15, 2013

Evolution of a Villain

When I first began to consciously write epic fantasy, in my mid-teens, the villain of my story, The Winter Legend, was the obvious type of Dark Lord, threatening to conquer and oppress the world for no very apparent reason.  That's part of the standard Dark Lord job description, after all.  He was a little different from most, since he was referred to as the Winter Lord, and his primary aim was to spread winter everywhere he conquered, though I imagine that wasn't entirely uninfluenced by the White Witch of Narnia.

At first, this Winter Lord, who eventually acquired the name Kargor, had little presence as a character.  Like Sauron, he was a distant menace, seen in occasional distant glimpses, but mostly by the effects of his oppression.  When he finally made a direct appearance, though, he pretty much ran the gamut of Standard Dark Lord Behaviour, insulting and abusing enemies and minions alike.  I think I resisted having him cackle, but little else.

Not that the character was entirely generic — I did put some thought into the psychology.  Kargor has a flame (now called the Tryst Flame, though it was unnamed back then) which ensures his invulnerability, and I did somewhat develop the duality of the confidence and the paranoia this gives him.

Nevertheless, there was little originality about him, even though the heroes (male and female) were evolving nicely from idealistic action junkies into vulnerable, reluctant heroes.  Fortunately, the version I wrote in the late 70s failed to interest publishers, and when I finally came back to The Winter Legend, ten years later, I'd evolved enough as a writer and a person to rethink my villain.

There were two main problems.  Well, three, counting the simple fact that the character was just plain clich├ęd.  The first was that I had another, more minor villain, a mortal king, who was almost exactly the same.  There was actually more justification with this character, Jekaini.  For one thing, he was very much in the tradition of rulers who are delicately balanced between insane and psychopathic — my original idea for him was a kind of mash-up of the Emperor Caligula, Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin.  For another, he only makes a couple of brief personal appearances, and the main point about him is the effects of his personal and political tyranny, especially on his children.  This worked well enough, but I didn't want two such similar villains.

The other problem was a more practical issue.  When we first meet Kargor, he's only recently been defeated and exiled, yet within a year he's established a kingdom and gathered a large, loyal following.  While minions might take abuse from a successful leader whose power they hope to share, why would anyone follow a powerless exile who clearly doesn't value them?

The revised character who emerged from my cogitations was very different: pleasant, charismatic, cultured and genuinely loyal to his friends and followers, yet still vacillating between confidence in his invulnerability and morbid terror of what might happen to him if he were to lose this.  Kargor's overwhelming concern is his own safety, and it's this obsession — treated very much as an addiction — that leads him conquer and commit atrocities.

As he develops through The Winter Legend (and as he'll be presented in the prequel I intend to start work on soon) Kargor shows every side of his character, from the personable man who adores his friends and is adored in return to the frightening image of someone who's willing to sacrifice anybody, however special they are to him, in order to ensure his own safety.

He also gives some hints of his earlier life, and the circumstances that led to the obsessions and grudges that drive him.  I've recently begun writing stories about that very young Kargor (then called Karaghr, or Kari) and his girlfriend Failiu.  Two largely clueless teenagers dabbling in sorcery they don't fully understand, they are charming, amoral and driven by insatiable curiosity as they wander through their world.  Nevertheless, in these stories (including The Temple of Taak-Resh) Kari and Fai are the people the reader's meant to root for, and I find it fascinating to explore this very different side of my villain.

It's been largely through this process that I've discovered a simple fact which, however many older and/or wiser people might tell us this, each author has to discover for themselves — that villains, like heroes, are nothing more or less than people.  They may be people we admire or people we hope we'll never encounter, but people.  It's when we let go of thinking about the creation of a Villain that we can finally start creating genuine villains.


  1. Villains are so much more interesting to write about than the good guys, aren't they? I love them so much my current WIP is split almost 50-50 between villains and the rest. Among the rest there are quite a few who could go either way, and they are the best of all to explore. There is something morbidly fascinating about watching a normal human being pushed into monsterdom, almost as fascinating as watching a monster struggling to claw back enough humanity to become a hero.

  2. Agreed, Nyki. Think about them as 'person' first, villain second.My key villain has been a viewpoint character across four novels, clutching grimly to his rationale for hatred. Now, we've got to the moment where I ask, What's the chink in your armour? Where and how can you be 'reached', and what could that possibly look like, after all you've done?
    It's a very enjoyable moment! :-)

  3. I agree that villains, even supervillains, are most interesting when they have realistic motives. Very few people ever think of themselves as evil, and the people who tend to be best at winning and keeping the kinds of followers that allow them to accomplish much are going to have a pretty convincing spiel, or interests that converge with theirs pretty closely.

    There is a point, of course, where a leader can degenerate into complete corruption, cynicism, or even insanity, and still have followers. By then, their empire or institution have taken on a life of their own, or people will just be to scared to speak out. But in the beginning? They need to be persuasive.