Villains (part one) (15/3/2015)

About the author: Her Holiness the Dragon Queen Zafir, Speaker of the Nine Realms, has played both pro- and antagonist roles in her career as a fictional character. She is either the aloof fist of authority to be respected and feared, a liberator of the oppressed and enslaved, or a dragon-riding genocidal psychotic tyrant bitch-queen from hell, depending on your point of view.

splintered gods cover

The Villain with a Thousand Faces (Part One)

There’s been a lot of talk and discussion in these halls over the last months and years about the evolution of the fantasy hero, anti-hero, thing, whatever is the protagonist-du-jour. It’s all very interesting. There’s no doubt that a good story of any genre needs, almost without exception, a good central character or cast.

The protagonists, generally speaking, need to be characters the reader can cheer or boo for. They are, by definition, the champion or advocate of some cause which ought to be readily identifiable. Many protagonists are heroes, but not all. Some are out-and-out villains and gleefully so; but I’m not really here to talk about heroes and villains in some sort of moral sense, more to blow the trumpet for the oft-overlooked foil to the main character’s quest.

The thwarter of dreams, the denier of ambition, whether those dreams are of avarice or altruism. The antagonist. The one(s) who stand against. The obstacles to the hero getting the girl (yawn) or establishing her dominion over all she surveys (much better). It is true, I’m afraid, that most antagonists are also cast as villains, while most protagonists are cast as heroes; and I put it to you that this is the voice of history rearing its ugly head. Whoever she is, the protagonist is the hero of her own story, and the villains, frankly, are whoever get in the way. Write your motives as pure or base as you like, that’s still what it comes down to. In my story, I am the hero. In many others, I am the villain; and for the purposes of the rest of all of this, I’m going to talk about heroes and villains instead of pro- and antagonists, because “hero” and “villain” are much blunter words and I like them.

The Cardboard Cut-Out Shrub With No Soul

Villains, then. Let’s start with the easiest: The Cardboard Cut-Out Shrub With No Soul, also often referred to as the cartoon villain or sometimes the comic-book villain (a disservice to many comic books). The cartoon villain is easily recognisable. He has no personality, no discernible motivations or desires except the one that makes him the villain. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no particular effort at rationale or explanation. He is simply the villain, doing bad things, against which the heroine or heroines must pit themselves and overcome. At this point, some of you will no doubt be ready to laugh and scoff and point and jeer at the idea of an utterly shallow and two-dimensional villain. You couldn’t get away with writing a hero like that, after all.

But really? Bite back your shameful cackling and remember this: a villain serves a different purpose. A villain is there to provide obstacles to the heroine. To some extent, the depth of the heroine’s resolve is revealed only by the villainy of the villain, by his strength and power, not by how much backstory he has. Writers use these cookie-cutter villains all the time. Guardians of the Galaxy: Ronan the Accuser and Thanos. Cardboard Cut-Out Shrubs With No Soul, both of them. A lot of super-hero movies, in fact (the better villains get some personality, but we’ll come to that later). Many action stories, war stories, cardboard cut-out villains are used all over the place, all the time, by good competent writers, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. They can’t carry much weight in a story, but that’s sort of the point: if you want as much time and focus on the protagonists as possible, a complex villain only gets in the way. So don’t be afraid to use the cardboard cut-out shrub. I can even find one in Game of Thrones if you like (Gregor Clegane), so note that even the great Martin, antithesis of cardboard cut-out characters, still uses them now and then.

There’s a possibly apocryphal story of a convention panel where one of the panellists got a bit sniffy about the Lord of the Rings, pointing out that at least his/her villains had some sort of reason / motivation / backstory, only to be given a righteous smackdown by the rest of the panel. I don’t know if it’s true, but if anyone has any doubts as to the potential of the cardboard cut-out villain, I give you two of the most widely recognised fantasy villains: Smaug and Sauron. Free from personality and backstory [2], but do they work as villains? Hell yes. And are you going to tell me that the Terminator wasn’t a good villain? Are you going to tell me he was anything but one-dimensional? Being one-dimensional was his whole point, wasn’t it?

Yes, a story with a cardboard cut-out hero or heroine is likely to be pretty lame, but a cardboard cut-out villain can work just fine. It’s both a pitfall and a strength of this villain is that they’re black and white. Their opposition to the goals of the heroine needs to be direct and straightforward and instantly recognisable, something a reader can easily understand. The heroine must carry all the drama of the story through how she overcomes the challenges, internal, external, whatever, necessary to force a final confrontation of some sort and then either fail or prevail.

Cardboard cut-outs don’t leave much wriggle room for twists at the end – they can’t suddenly be persuaded or redeemed because things like that (to be done well, at least) require foreshadowing and some crack in their armour or beliefs into which the heroine can insert a lever, and to make that work they need to have a little more depth. Darth Vader is arguably a cardboard cut-out villain in Star Wars, but the story moves him well away from that long before the end of Return of the Jedi, and rightly so. Nevertheless, if you want a story heavily focussed on the character of the hero or heroine, you might do better to ask “why not?” than “why?” when it comes to the cardboard cut-out villain.

The Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of The Big Bad

I was a little cheaty with my examples before. Live with it. Villains cheat, lie, and twist the truth. So do heroes, but they try to pretend they’re better than us. None of my examples were actually human, and that leads me on to another kind of villain – the inexplicable thing that threatens the heroine (or her society, culture, beliefs, blah blah whatever, just as long as we’re all clear that threatening can be anything from poking a knife at me to refusing to accept my dominion of all I survey – and from the back of a dragon I can survey a long damn way). No one considers attempting to argue or debate or negotiate with Sauron because Sauron simply IS the Big Bad. I can’t think of a better example of this sort of villain than the Terminator: it’s here to kill you, it cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, and it absolutely will not stop until one of you is dead.

The Big Bad can be aliens, supernatural forces, you can go all the way with this to volcanoes, a virus or mutating neutrinos if you like, although some of these are more or less likely to have a some form of avatar as a focal point of their villain-ness. The point is that the Big Bad is coming from somewhere so different that effective communication, even if anyone wanted to, isn’t viable, and the avatar reflects exactly that (doubts or inner conflict push our villain out of the cardboard cut-out collection and into the more complex sort I’ll witter about some other time). To make this sort of villain work well it helps for the Big Bad to be integrated into the fabric of the setting.

Sauron is a distant implacable villain, but the history of his presence throughout the world is felt, deeply ingrained and permeates almost everything. He is a part of Middle Earth’s history. He belongs there, and that’s why he works. Further, even if the Big Bad is an implacable alien force, its avatar can still have a human face and the conflict can still be personal. Cthulhu’s priests might want to take over the world, but they can also kidnap and sacrifice the heroine’s boyfriend while they’re at it [3].

I come back to the Terminator, which executes this villain perfectly: the movie is quickly and unswervingly centred around the premise of a time-travelling killer; although the Big Bad is an AI that hasn’t even been built yet, it’s avatar Arnie is both a nigh unstoppable force that cannot be reasoned with and has a human [4] face; and best of all the conflict is made as simple and personal as a conflict can possibly be. Sarah Conner is battling for the fate of the world, true, but what makes the Terminator so visceral is that as far as she’s concerned she’s battling for her own survival. One of them has to die and there’s no other way.

Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of Some Other Ideology

There’s another variant that I don’t see much in fantasy, which is the Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of Some Other Ideology. Particularly in genre writing, ideological conflicts (and thus villains) are fairly well represented, but if the story is about ideological differences then its villains are unlikely to manage to stay properly two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and nor should they.

Elsewhere the story is different. Anything with Nazis, for example. Robert Redford in The Winter Soldier (and if that’s a spoiler, I don’t care. Psychotic bitch-queen from hell, remember?). I’ll come to more complex ideological villains some other time, but for the simple cardboard ones work The Ideology works much the same way as the Big Bad. You just need it to be an ideology that’s easily recognisable and be prepared to cast it as the Big Bad without much thought.

That’s it for this instalment; but before you go back to Twitter, carry this thought with you. Complex villains might sound great, but 95% [5] of story villains are cardboard cut-outs and FOR GOOD REASON: the stories in which they appear aren’t about them, they’re about the hero or the heroine, and every second of page-time spent turning your villain into something more is page-time you could have spent on the person your story is supposedly about.

This article first appeared on Fantasy Faction back in Autumn last year. The penultimate chapter in Zafir’s story, The Splintered Gods is out in paperback now. The last volume, The Silver Kings will be published by Gollancz in June/July.

Wait, what? I’m supposed to give a book away? I’m not giving away one of mine – you can damn well buy it because I’m worth it. You can have that loser Falkland and his silly civil war stuff if you like, but only if you promise to review it and say pretty things on Amazon and Goodreads and all that. About me, not about him.


Usual deal – comment on this post in some way before Sunday 23rd March and I’ll randomly select a lucky victim for a free copy of The Royalist. No one has complained (so far) about how long it takes me to get to the post office and post things, but it can take a while and if you live abroad then it can take even longer. Sorry about that, but they do get there eventually. Well, so far. Am currently up to date with posting things.

[1] or food, if your point of view is that of a dragon, but they think that about everyone.

[2] Dear pedants, yes, I realise there is more in what I shall call the secondary material. Writing a lengthy biography of your villain as supplementary material and sticking it on the internet doesn’t count.

[3] For the sake of the story, she’s pissed about this.

[4] ish…

[5] This is a guess but I have a dragon so it’s also right and shut up.

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11 Responses to “Villains (part one) (15/3/2015)”

  1. Ren Kuroya says:

    I try to stave away from cookie-cutter villains but I suppose all of us fall back onto what we know.

  2. Adam Selby-Martin says:

    What happens when the main character of a book *is* essentially also the villain, or at least a very-anti-hero. I’m thinking of Jorg in the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence.

  3. Stephen says:

    Adam, when Zafir says “villain” here, what she actually means is antagonist. Your “hero” can be as pure or vile as you like – the “villain” here just means whoever is the main face of whatever opposition stands in your character’s way. I’ve read Prince of Thorns and I don’t remember the antagonists at all, but in a way that makes Zafir’s point – it was Jorg’s story.

  4. Michael P says:

    I find it interesting, because Zafir, in my eyes, started out almost as a cookie-cutter copy of Cersei Lannister (from Song of Ice & Fire for those not in the know). The two of them could have been split at birth, for all that their desires, means to gain power, and thought processes were so similar. But the big, fantastic thing is that you took Zafir and gave her that strength and self-hating vulnerability that turned her from beautiful but boring into the viewpoint we see in Dragon Queen, and it is most certainly the best character growth I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

  5. Stephen says:

    Michael, thank you :-)

  6. Mango Heroics says:

    I agree with Michael about Zafir (and Cersei). I was lucky to read Dragon Queen before the earlier novels, so I met the stronger Zafir first. I might add that she was involved with 2 of my favorite secondary characters (who are not addressed in the essay). I think we should next discuss the roles of Bellepheros & Chay-Liang in the story arc of this heroine.

  7. Stephen says:

    Zafir realises that almost none of the above works for Dragon Queen… What about Bellepheros and Chay-Liang would you like to discuss? I suppose that to Zafir Chay-Liang is an antagonist.

  8. Mango Heroics says:

    I’m willing to discuss ANYTHING about those 2. Not having read The Splintered Gods yet, I’m still hoping for a hook up. But yes, the enchantress is an antagonist as well. Bellepheros is in some sense caught in the middle?

  9. KADbIK says:

    Well, I’m still waiting for the whole trilogy out to read all books in a row, but after all this praising comments it’s more and more difficult to be patient

  10. Stephen says:

    Despite the Gods of Random trying very hard to have me win a copy of my own book from the comments section here, they have eventually settled on Michael, so a copy of th Royalist will be coming soon.

    Mango… all I will say is that… stuff happens (ok, they’re both still around in The Silver Kings. Sort of). But without spoiling the second and third volumes of the story, I’m not sure what I can say without spoilers. Chay-Liang has a new friend in The Splintered Gods, Red Lin Feyn, whom I rather enjoyed.

    The Silver Kings comes out on 18th of June. I think it might actually be significatly the best of the three books, but then I always think that the last thing I did was my best work…

  11. Mango Heroics says:

    Thanks for the delicious teasing almost-spoilers. I’m in the middle of a very busy term at school, so I have far less time to read these days. Maybe it will come to pass that Splintered and Silver are read back to back. Not too bad an outcome.
    I think that every book gets better because you pay attention.
    I also think that Michael deserves to win for the Zafir-Cersei comment. The Gods of Random are just.

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