And Be a Villain by Nicole Kimberling

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Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved villains. And it’s not all that surprising. Villains are almost always the most interesting character in any story. Somewhere in my mid-teens, though, I began to sympathize with villains and then it all went wrong. Disappointed time and time again by the often rigged defeat of my favorite characters, I began to despise most books and films.

I became one of those people who sincerely hoped Snape would turn out to be the real hero of the Harry Potter series. And why not? Of them all, only Snape has made the choice to sacrifice anything of value to achieve his larger goal. But I digress…

Now right now, you might be tempted to say that heroism and villainy are all subjective. But you would be mistaking an argument about the qualities that comprise a character for a much more technical argument about the basic mechanics of a functioning story.

Because the fact is that a reader is not meant to sympathize with the antagonist. The reader is supposed to be hoping for the success of the POV character in accomplishing his goal, not gleefully rooting for the villain’s success in finally destroying that annoying goody-goody once and for all. If the protagonist of a story is so basically unlikable that the reader actively fantasizes about his demise then the story has gone wrong. The author has failed to make a protagonist journey appealing enough for a reader to get behind.

Oftentimes in these situations, the difficulty lies with massive passivity on the part of the protagonist combined with villains who at least have goals. In situations like these the reader is very excited to see the villain every time he appears because it means that something interesting will actually happen soon. After the reader starts wanting to see the villain, it doesn’t take long for the reader to like the villain best. It’s a basic Pavlovian response.

This basic principle is successfully put into play by slasher movies. The characters inserted so that they can be victims who are mowed down by chainsaw-wielding maniacs are generally the ones the audience is not meant to like. They are made deliberately flawed or ugly so that the audience won’t necessarily object when they are ingeniously bisected. The protagonist, though, is a person whom we never hope to see impaled on a pitchfork. She (slasher film heroes are almost always women) is the character we want to see turning that pitchfork back on her persecutor and winning.

To put it succinctly: as much as I enjoy sympathizing with villains, I like hating and fearing them more. I want to be worried for the protagonist when I see him, rather than filled with gleeful anticipation of the ensuing bloodbath.

But the mad slasher is a very simplistic sort of villain. He’s really more like a plot device that is almost always devoid of actual characterization. What about villains who appear in more complex stories?

I asked myself, why do some villains work for me as actual villains while others become de facto protagonists in my mind. And I discovered that more often than not the stories I like the most contained villains who I actively disliked, but whose motivation I understood. In other words, these villains appeared in stories that were working the way they were supposed to.

A good example here is Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. The villain, Syndrome’s, motivation is clear: he wants to be recognized as a Super. The benefits of being a Super are obvious: fame, admiration, going down in history. The motivation itself is neutral. Everybody dreams of being one of the important people in the world.

So, apart from the fact that he occupies the part of antagonist in the life of protagonist Bob Parr, what makes Syndrome a villain?

Well, his actions, of course.

Syndrome creates a robot that will attack the city, one that he controls, allowing him to swoop in and subdue the robot any time he chooses. This plan allows Syndrome to appear to save the city, and gain the love of its citizens and achieve his goal of being recognized as a Super without actually risking his life or fighting any real foe.

What’s the first character quality that makes Syndrome a villain? He is a coward.

So, back to the plot of The Incredibles: in order to test his machine Syndrome kidnaps and kills several other Supers.

Now what do we know about him? He’s an asshole who does not value the lives of others, certainly. But we also learn that he’s an intelligent and systematic asshole who cannot be beaten easily and will not stop on his own. Hence we feel tension about whether or not Bob & Family will be able to stop Syndrome.

Eventually, Syndrome tries (and rather hilariously fails) to take a baby hostage.

In the final scene we are shown that there is no low to which Syndrome will not sink in order to achieve his goal and also that he is not just myopic, but genuinely vindictive.

But what makes him an—dare I say it?—incredibly good villain is that almost everybody has met somebody like Syndrome. Everyone has, at one point or other, run afoul of some cowardly, back-stabbing self-absorbed weasel with delusions of grandeur. As fantastical as the character of Syndrome is, he is based on a real kind of person that we encounter (and dislike) in our everyday lives. He makes sense.

As with the rest of romantic literature, M/M contains room for a wide variety of villains and antagonists. After all, any book with a plot contains room for an antagonist—requires one, even. So here are my tips for creating a villain:

  1. Though he should make sense, a villain should not be more interesting or sympathetic than your protagonist. If he IS more interesting, you must accept the fact that he might BE your protagonist and go on to create an actual villain. Alternatively, this might be a clue that your protagonist needs some depth and complexity if he’s going to stand up to this much more interesting character.
  2. Though the villain can make the first move, in terms of drawing your protagonist into action, he cannot be the only person making moves in the game. Your protagonist must take some meaningful action that provokes your antagonist to retaliate. The villain’s retaliation must escalate the situation. Then the protagonist must take action again, and so on.
  3. Having a villain relentlessly persecute a hapless hero who takes no action does not create forward motion in a plot. It just further weakens the hero.
  4. An anti-hero is not the same thing as a villain. Anti-heroes run the gamut between cheerful rogues like Captain Jack Sparrow to Uma Thurman’s vengeful Bride in the Kill Bill movies. Anti-heroes are morally-challenged types who fight FOR something or someone pure, such as Han Solo fighting for the Rebels or against a villain so unbelievably evil, corrupt or chaotic that a purely moral person could not succeed—think Mad Max. Mafia stories, and stories dealing with other criminal underworlds often contain anti-heroes, for the same reason. Unless a situation calls for an anti-hero, the anti-hero and the villain come very close to being the same person. What separates them is that the anti-hero usually retains one inalienable moral, humane quality: he is loyal, he keeps his word, he does not kill women, something like that. Some kryptonite-like factor that keeps him from sliding into the self-centered depravity enjoyed by villains the world over.
  5. Others might disagree with me on this one, but for my money, the surest measure of the total incompetence of a villain is that he kills his own people. Why would any sensible villain destroy his own property? Sending some henchmen on suicide missions is one thing. Actually senselessly shooting your own guys just to prove (either to the hero or to the reader) how ruthless you are is absolutely wasteful. Minions, henchmen, operatives—none of these people are easy to come by. It’s not as though they can be acquired 2 for 1 at Walmart. When faced with a silly and capricious villain like this, a canny hero need not even mount an offensive since with only a little patience, the villain will irrationally kill all his own guys. This leaves the hero free to just waltz in and triumph all by himself, mano y mano. That is, provided that the villain’s cooks haven’t already wearied of his shenanigans and just poisoned the bastard, which eliminates the need for the hero entirely.

 

 

Got thoughts on villains and villainy? Let me know!

 

28 thoughts on “And Be a Villain by Nicole Kimberling

  1. Sirius

    HAHA, I hated Snape, even though I actually love his character type. I love your posts, even though I am not a writer, I can learn to analyse the story better, when you dissect its elements. Thank you. I completely agree that you start sympathicizing with the villain it is a sure sign that writer failed to write a very successful protagonist. Although I have a question actually. Could the story exist without villain? What I am trying to say is that could that be a purpose to elicit pity about villain’s motivations and still write an interesting protagonist? I have read a mm story recently enough where I felt so bad for the villain, because he was basically doing things because he was having mental problems and I still liked the main characters.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Hi Sirius!

      S: Could the story exist without villain? What I am trying to say is that could that be a purpose to elicit pity about villain’s motivations and still write an interesting protagonist?

      NK: Well, yes, there are plenty of stories without personified antagonists. Disaster stories, for example and Man vs Nature stories. But IMHO, most genre stories that do not contain an actual antagonist could benefit from the inclusion of one. The antagonist is the personification of what the hero is struggling against. He is a mechanism that helps the reader zero in on the conflict that the hero is facing. Good villains are really just foils that help the author demonstrate the heroic qualities of the hero.

      In the story you mention above, did the hero show compassion to the mentally ill villain? Did the hero show pity or mercy? Was that the crucial quality that made the hero heroic?

      1. Sirius

        Right, sorry of course I have read plenty of literary fiction without true villains, I mean genre fiction.

        In that story, hmmm, some compassion yes, but was not nearly enough as far as I was concerned if that makes sense, I mean they were not horrible to him (the heroes to villain), but I wanted more compassion. What I am trying to say is that despite that fact, I still liked the heroes, because it is not like they personally hurt the villain.

        1. Nicole Kimberling

          Yeah, it makes perfect sense that there was not enough compassion shown to the villain if the writer actually made him so sympathetic that you felt bad for him.

          Another choice would have been to have the hero show compassion and then have the villain be so venal and needy–like an endless pit of longing, that he must cut the villain loose or drown along with him. But that would require an escalation that might not be warranted by the plot (since I don’t know the rest of the story).

  2. Josephine Myles

    Perfect! I’d often wondered why I tend to love the villains in Hollywood movies, and I’m sure it’s can’t be purely because they all seem to be played by the delightful Alan Rickman!

    I’d never sat down and analysed just what it is that makes some villains so much more appealing than their heroic foes, but what you’ve said makes perfect sense. It’s not so much that the villain is too sympathetic, but just that some heroes are downright dull.

    And I LOVE anti-heroes too. Mickey Rourke’s character in Angel Heart is a classic example.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Hi Josephine!

      J: It’s not so much that the villain is too sympathetic, but just that some heroes are downright dull.

      NK: It’s probably the most common error in the storytelling world. I think it happens when writers are afraid to make their hero less than perfect and so he becomes totally bland.

      J: And I LOVE anti-heroes too. Mickey Rourke’s character in Angel Heart is a classic example.

      NK: Ha! I can’t think of any character Mickey Rourke has played who isn’t an antihero. I think he’s a specialist.

      …or maybe not acting at all… I can’t tell. :)

    2. Lasha

      Yes. I rooted for Alan Rickman in Die Hard, not Bruce Willis’ character. Hans was just so much more interesting to me, so I guess the writers of that movie failed, or I am just weird. It’s probably the latter. :grin:

      1. Nicole Kimberling

        Hey Lasha,

        Sometimes even though the hero has good characteristics the reader (or viewer in this case) just likes the villain more. See discussion of Wile E Coyote below. :grin:

  3. lisa s c

    Snape was a hero. A selfish hero but none the less a hero. His love for Lily through it all was his only redeeming trait. But that played a huge role in good winning in the end.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Hi Lisa, glad you could stop by.

      L: Snape was a hero. A selfish hero but none the less a hero. His love for Lily through it all was his only redeeming trait. But that played a huge role in good winning in the end.

      NK: But he wasn’t THE hero. He is not the protagonist of the book, just a side character of great interest. I would have been happy if he was the main POV character.

  4. eva

    I always figured my sympathizing and/or liking the villain (or the anti-hero) stemmed from too many cartoons where I always thought poor Tom and wanted the coyote to catch the road-runner :evil:
    Kidding aside this post has given me plenty to think about as a reader since I never connected liking or sympathizing with the villain to the hero being badly drawn and lacking in comparison. Thinking about it now I’m sure that’s sometimes the case. At the same times there were plenty of books where I liked both the good guy and the bad guy. Then I’d end up disappointed at the end when the villain is caught or killed.
    As for Snape, that man kept me on my toes throughout the seven books. I was constantly wondering where his loyalties were and after the revelations in the final book I couldn’t not like him. A lot. Such a great character.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Hello there Eva

      E: I always figured my sympathizing and/or liking the villain (or the anti-hero) stemmed from too many cartoons where I always thought poor Tom and wanted the coyote to catch the road-runner

      NK: I put forth to you the supposition that Wile E Coyote, Super Genius actually can be viewed as the protagonist of the Road Runner cartoons. He would be the protagonist who we sympathize with because we’ve all tried to win over some annoying, smug little snot. I think it’s possible that the animators knew this and made him sympathetic on purpose.

  5. Cleon

    Thank you so much for this post. Your comment, combined with this post, gives me idea about how to improve my current story. And The Incredibles, I absolute love that movie.

    One question: does every story have to have a tangible villain? How about circumstances or situation? Say, one is an alien forbidden to mate with a human, and their ship is departing from Earth, so they must find a way to be together.

    You’re right about sometimes wanting the “bad guys” win. Sometimes the heroes are simply so annoying or what I hate most, self righteous, just I want the villain to kill him/her.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      There you are Cleon! I just went over to Josh’s site and invited you, but you already beat me here!

      C: One question: does every story have to have a tangible villain? How about circumstances or situation? Say, one is an alien forbidden to mate with a human, and their ship is departing from Earth, so they must find a way to be together.

      NK: Every story about aliens forbidden to mate with humans on a space ship does. :) That is because if there is a taboo activity then it follows that there is an individual or set of individuals who are making sure that the taboo is not broken.

      In this case the villain would be the person who is personifying the conflict by enforcing the law. Whoever has been appointed (or appointed themselves) to be the bed cop of the spaceship and who is going to rat out our hero and prevent the lovers from being together is the villain.

  6. jax

    Very interesting analysis. I always enjoy your posts even though I’m not going to be using the info as a writer, just a reader. I can see why you’re a great editor! I find the Blind Eye books to really be the gold standard in this m/m publishing world and I’m really looking forward to The Irregulars in a few months. Do you have anything else coming up as a writer? The next Bellingham Mystery maybe?

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Thank you very much, Jax!

      J: Do you have anything else coming up as a writer? The next Bellingham Mystery maybe?

      NK: Right now I am writing the sequel to Ghost Star Night and then I’ll go straight into the fourth Bellingham Mystery, which should be released around Earth Day.

        1. Nicole Kimberling

          Thank you. It’s good to hear that there is at least one person who wants to read another story where a giant monster terrorizes some good looking guys. LOL

  7. Angelia Sparrow

    http://www.eviloverlord.com/lists/overlord.html

    When I’m working on villains, I always double-check them against this.

    (I recently blew rule one: plexiglas visors, not face-concealing ones. But my coauthor set me right. Of course, my coauthor falls under rule 12: One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation. )

    I love a good villain. Maleficent is a long-time favorite. I despised Snape because I knew too many teachers like him and could never get past that. And carrying a torch for someone for that many years is perversely creepy in my book.

    I’d like to see more villains in m/m romance. So far, I can’t think of any that made a huge impression, mainly because they are the B plot.

    I love your bit about killing underlings. I have an anti-hero who is slowly losing his mind, and his first clue is when he tries killing three of his four most loyal people. He does shoot one, non-fatally, and ends up getting help. What he really wants is to retire from being dictator or North America, but that won’t happen.

    I like a good anti-hero. Snake Plisskin is a favorite. I enjoyed the TV series Traveler. (Han Solo is a fallen/morally compromised sidekick-cum-hero, not an anti-hero)

    I like writing anti-heros. I’ve got one now who is just abrasive. He steals his son’s boyfriend, loots the vampires he kills and generally makes his kids and himself miserable. When he’s done, it’s back to Nick Boyd, rapist, murderer, politician and cannibal.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Nice to see you Angelina!

      A: He steals his son’s boyfriend, loots the vampires he kills and generally makes his kids and himself miserable.

      NK: I’m curious who the villain of this piece is when you’ve got an anti-hero this strong. :)

      1. Angelia Sparrow

        Would you settle for the leader of a fundamentalist Christian vampire church who thinks he can bring about the Second Coming by vamping the whole world?

        Brother Josiah is a man–well, vampire– on a mission. He wants to spread the gospel of the Risen Lord to everyone. And when all the world is vampires, Jesus will return.

        And all that stands between humanity and the night is a thin line of insane immortals.

        1. Nicole Kimberling

          Well that seems pretty evil, all right. I guess the trick would be to make sure the anti-hero doesn’t slide into being unlikable. There’s no law that says that just because the story has an evil bad guy, readers will automatically root for the anti-hero. Sometimes they just don’t root for anybody. :smile:

    2. Sirius

      I love antiheroes too, and yes, despised Snape with passion, even though I know how much loved he was and is lol ;). Myself was blissfully happy with how he ended. See, he is actually a great example of how antihero (because of course he was not intended to be a villain, Voldemort and Co were) for me slipped into villain category and stayed there. Why? Because I actively despise somebody who blames his miserable lack in life on the child, even in fiction :) Oy, sorry, years of HP fandom come back and fast, must stop, because I can talk about hating Snape for a very long time ;)

  8. Ginn Hale

    Great pointers on crafting villains! They can really make or break a story.

    You’re dead on about some villains being more interesting than the heros they oppose. Bland heroes, no matter how well meaning, can often become so annoying and dull that a reader can’t help but like the villain a little if only for stirring things up!

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Hey Ginn!

      Actually one of my favorite villains of all time is Dayyid from The Rifter. He’s a complicated man… :grin:

  9. Josh Lanyon

    Oftentimes in these situations, the difficulty lies with massive passivity on the part of the protagonist combined with villains who at least have goals. In situations like these the reader is very excited to see the villain every time he appears because it means that something interesting will actually happen soon. After the reader starts wanting to see the villain, it doesn’t take long for the reader to like the villain best. It’s a basic Pavlovian response.

    Such an enjoyable and insightful post! It makes me want to laugh my fiendish laugh and rub my pale, long hands together in glee.

    1. Nicole Kimberling

      Thanks so much! I try my best to state the obvious in a way that seems new and exciting. :grin:

  10. Pender Mackie

    A very interesting piece, Nicole. I’ve always loved villains and anti-heroes:
    Jack Reacher, Snape, Sylvester, Wile E Coyote, (but not Tom or Jerry, hmmm), Snake Pliskin, Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham (terrible movie, but worth watching just for his part). I could go on, but I won’t.

    I used to think there was something wrong with me, now I know there isn’t. :)

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