Sunday, November 12, 2006

Evil Dimensions


The "Villain" - or the antagonist, as some prefer with more accuracy - has been getting a fair amount of air time lately.
By the cult of definition and stereotypes of execution, we must have, they claim, a "sympathetic" villain.
I beg to differ.
Or to put it another way: Oh bullshit.
The basis of villainy is conflict - when the aims, interests, ambitions of different characters are not compatible. Not ever.
Take my terrorist, for example. He belives his intentions are holy and pure. He will sacrifice his life to accomplish the deaths of those he considers evil. Those not of his belief are abominations to be destroyed. He is admirably devoted to this aim - the ultimate Shiva power trip.
Somehow my protagonists do not feel sympathy towards this character, and the story is told from their POVs.
Their internal conflicts when faced with an absolute concern me more.
My villain will probably be dismissed by those who demand an assassin worry about his laundry, his landlord or his lumbago ( as if this makes him more sympathetic) as a flat and grossly under-developed character. They desire formation, not the finished product, which is where his part of the story begins.
Ambiguity is largely realistic and so very seductive, but one cannot always find equivalency between the fireman and the fire.
Most of humanity is indeed gray, but we need the poles of black and white in people and actions to give that gray definition.
Your thoughts?

Gigglers: (from the Washington Post)
Decafalon: A grueling event of getting through the day consuming only drinks that are good for you.
Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
Reintarnation: Re-birth as a hillbilly

23 comments:

Carla said...

Depends what exactly is meant by 'sympathetic', maybe? If it means recognising that the villain has a point of view of his own, even though it's incompatible with the rest of the characters', then you seem to have got that already, especially as you can describe him as 'admirably devoted' to his cause.
If it means bolting on concerns that have nothing to do with the story in hand - "worrying about her mother's cancer every 50 pages in an attempt to make herself seem less two-dimensional" as a Guardian reviewer recently said - then I don't care for it much.

Carla said...

By the way, if you've been over to Gabriele's lately, the poem she has translated there and the battle it's based on form a classic illustration. Each side no doubt saw itself as the hero and the other as the villain. 'Sympathetic'? Either, both or neither. Depends where one is standing.

Erik Ivan James said...

Carla said it very well indeed.

In one of my own WIP's, the main character will be seen as either a hero or a villain. It will depend on the reader's own references as to what's good or bad/right or wrong. I'll be walking a fine line in that regard. Intentional, though.

Bernita said...

As usual, Carla, you put your finger on the crux of the matter.
I probably should ramp up the other character's analysis of his actions and position though - just to try to evade the claim that he is a "stereotype."

Yes, I check my favourites every day.
I've no doubt that each side did.One of the most difficult things for people to understand is that there are different points of reference.

An interesting situation, Erik. I may be doing the same thing, especially for those who are convinced that all killing is bad/evil.

Ric said...

Wow! Popped up your blog this morning and, for a brief moment, thought you had put James Goodman's picture up. Pure evil!

I like the concept of making the villian human, giving him traits, perhaps some insight into why he is the way he is, or what circumstances brought him there. Gray and various shades thereof are the shadows where the evil lurks - in all of us.

MissWrite said...

Ah but see, you have 'met the criteria'. It's not that they need to be sympathetic to the other characters, lol, that would be a tad insane--what most people mean by sympathetic (and that's probably not the best word for it) is driven by an understandable force (to the reader). Your villian believes 'his intentions are holy'... score! That's it. He's got his own motive. A reason for being an ass. Of course no one is going to agree with him, that's why he's the villian. LOL

Oh, and reintarnation--too funny.

Bernita said...

It's a picture of the Crowleyite revivalist Anton LaVey, Ric.
Not sure James would be pleased...

Thank you, Tami. You relieve me considerably. Have felt that my villain(s) would be arbitrarily dismissed because I don't delve into their "angst" ( which assumes that everyone suffers from it.)
I suppose I have been caught up with the word "sympathetic." Your explanation is much more to my taste.

Carla said...

One reason I like omniscient/multiple point of view storytelling is that it's admirably suited to recognising that there are two (or more) sides to every conflict and right and wrong on all of them. If everything is refracted through one or a few characters' points of view, then it gets harder to avoid the opposite side looking like a stereotype. So if your story is told from the main characters' viewpoints and never from the villain's side, I probably would consider having one or other of them reflect on his motivation. Assuming the main characters in question are Damie and John, both of them seem reflective enough to be able to do that, judging from the snippets you've posted. I'd argue that being able to see the villain's point of view would be near-essential for a successful intelligence officer/investigator/police detective, as that would help in predicting the villain's likely behaviour and thereby working out how to thwart it. So it might be second nature for John to try to think himself into the villain's perspective.

Bernita said...

Excellent advice, Carla, thank you.
Perhaps I should expand those introspective passages ( and you're right, they do consider motives) somewhat - if I can manage without wielding a 2x4.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Yes, what Tami said. :-) I tend to think of a stereotyped and unsympathetic villain as one of those moustache-twirling, tie-you-to-the-railroad-track types: Oh-ho, I'm evil! I'm so evil! I know I'm bad, so... *gasp* I seem to have accidentally stabbed myself through the heart with my own knife!

Also, I want to be reintarnated. :-)

Bernita said...

Very few people deliberately think "evil, be thou my good," Sonya.
Or if they do, they usually grow up.
Don't think either that all novels must include flashbacks of a villain's tipping points to establish him as more than a stereotype.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla,
not only the ballad I translated. My novels are all set in such times. Who's right, the German Arminius who wants the Romans out of his county, the Roman Germanicus who wants a province Germania and thinks what worked for Gallia should work here as well? The villain here is rather Segestes, who sacrifies his children for his ambition.

Or have a look at some fictive characters. Talorcen is a protag, not an antag, yet he whips his people into a frenzy of revenge that will cost them dearly, he is not above torturing a Roman officer. What distinguishes him from a terrorist is a) the fact he comes to realise his extreme ways lead to nothing, and b) he fights for his people and their freedom, not to spread his religion all over the world. He may torture Horatius Ravilla (the other protag - not antag) but he won't fly planes into the Coliseum.

People who do the latter are evil. People who rape and kill a dozen women are evil. You can show the reader how their brains work and make him understand the villains, but you can't let the villains win in the end. :)

I think that's the point. If it's a villain, not an antag, most readers would feel bad if he didn't get it back in some way at the end. There's something about a sense of final justice we want to see in books because we don't always see it in life.

In A Land Unconquered, Arminius gets the Romans to withdraw to the Rhine border, and Germanicus gets his triumph, a political victory. And end that works.

Arminius is killed by Segestes' relatives some years later, and Germanicus died under mysterious circumstances (I suspect Tiberius was involved there).

anna said...

POV is everything.

Reintarnation: Re-birth as a hillbilly (howling!)

kmfrontain said...

I like creating a villain whose viewpoint makes sense. The viewpoint doesn't have to be right, just make sense. Ideologial values forward villain building, because the hero is up against an idea that, when he or she wraps their mind around it, can be understood. There can be as much conflict from struggling with one's own sense of right as there can be struggling in a physical sense.

But I also like villains that are so off the wall there's no making sense of them, at least, not ultimately. Superficially, they might make sense within the boundaries of their own actions, but don't to the rest of the world. Serial killers come in mind as this type.

If I were to include a scene that appears sympathetic about a serial killer, it would only be to make him or her seem all the more weird. If I were to include one for a villain who is one through ideology, I'd use it to forward the conflicting ideology.

Steve G said...

All of our wet weather has finally taken its toll on me. My head is stuffy and I'm no fun at blogging today, but had to stop by.

Bernita said...

That's a good point, Gabriele, there are some actions and/or intentions that are beyond the pale ( or should be) and the reader does experience satisfaction when they are thwarted or avenged.
There's the moral compass of the period to be considered as well.

Thought that one was cute, Anna.

Excellent points, Karen.

Steve, thank you. Hope you feel better soon. Just got my bug-begone 'flu shot.

EA Monroe said...

Hi, Bernita.
Your post reminds me of Spielberg's movie Munich -- the sympathetic, anguished character, hero or villain?, and the consequences of killing that are bound to try one's soul... maybe, depending. Everyone has excellent points!

Ric, I explore those gray areas, too (sometimes they're in technicolor though).

So, that brings up the question, how much autobiography do you write into your villains? ;-0 Just kidding!

Robyn said...

I can appreciate the gray area misunderstood anti-hero view at times, but I personally love the villain who revels in his villainy. Think Alan Rickman as Nottingham in Robin Hood- he was Snidely Whiplash on acid. When asked why he wanted to cut out Robin's heart with a spoon instead of a knife, he replies, "Because it's dull, you twit! It'll hurt more!"

I didn't want to know why he did what he did. I didn't care that he was abused as a child or someone stepped on his birthday cake or whatever other crippling childhood episode made him bad. I was having too much fun watching him yell, "Cancel Christmas!!"

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yanno...between you and Miss Snark, ya'll are going to give me a heart attack! LOL...I had looked away to the TV while the page was loading...then...yikes!

Bernita said...

EA, autobiography?
I tend to apply any personal backstory to the protagonists.
Not so much what one has done, but what one might do in certain circumstances.

At times, Robyn, one gets very tired of the equivocal "depraved because he's deprived" sort of thing.

My poor dear Bonnie!
LaVey certainly worked hard on his devil image.

Buffy said...

I grew to love Samuel L Jackson as an actor because he was absolutely despisable as a villain. I hated his character (thinking of two movies in particular here) in every way, and thought 'this guy is good'.

I always think it's easier to do the sympathetic villain. Much more difficult to pull off a completely hate-worthy one....but when it happens...it's oh so good.

M.E Ellis said...

Yes, sympathy for the baddie is the order of the day. I like creating works with that in mind, then upsetting the reader by making my MC do something terrible right at the end.

:o)

Bernita said...

"easier to write a sympathetic villain" - that is an excellent point, Buffy!

That's...truly wicked, Michelle - to remind the reader that evil is as evil does!