Villainous villainy


I’ve been thinking about villains.

The bad guy in a story. The Dr Evil character. The wicked witch.

It seems there are unwritten rules about what villains can and can’t do.

First and foremost, a villain must be 110% evil. They are not trying to do anything noble. Instead, they want to dominate, invade, take over, impose their own will. They are single minded and ruthless. And they certainly don’t flush a public loo once they’ve used it.

We are not allowed to feel a shred of sympathy for the bad guy.

A villain will usually demonstrate his villainy by choosing from the standard armoury of villainous things:

  • Shooting or stabbing one of his own men
  • Monologuing
  • Taking an unnecessarily long time to despatch a helpless victim
  • Being English
  • Being beastly to the general public
  • In the middle of a plan for world domination, deciding that he absolutely must marry the hero’s girlfriend

Then there are the minions. A minion’s main job is to be disposable. The hero must be able to mow down vast swathes of minionry without the reader feeling the slightest bit sorry for any of them.

That, I think, is why there is a vogue for zombies. The main appeal of a zombie is that it’s okay to kill one. They are already dead, so they shouldn’t be alive again, right?

Tolkien gave us orcs and goblins as disposable minions. It’s okay to kill them because they aren’t human.

Of course, hobbits, elves and dwarves aren’t human either. But Tolkien humanises them by showing us where and how they live. We see dwarves singing endless songs, drinking ale, singing more songs, drinking more ale. Elves go off and do druidy things in woods. Which these days would probably be called dogging.

But we never see orcs and goblins doing anything other than being evil. What do orcs and goblins eat when they can’t get hold of fresh hobbit? Does Middle Earth have orcy farms or goblin supermarkets? Do elves shop at Waitrose where goblins go to Lidl or Aldi?

There is also something weird that happens with minions. About half way through a film or a book they stop being scarily powerful and become incredibly weak.

This is what happens. In order to build up the tension, the writer starts by making the bad guys invincible at first. The original alien on board the Nostromo. Tolkien’s black riders. Any one of the Terminators. The agents in the Matrix. Storm troopers in Star Wars. The Borg in Star Trek.

But an invincible bad guy doesn’t make for much of a story. So about half way through the writer flips a switch and suddenly the bad guys are very killable. Our hero can beat dozens of them at once.

And for some reason, we as readers or viewers allow this to happen. Time and time again, we see an invincible bad guy become as weak as a kitten and we don’t blink.

Villains must also be both exceedingly clever and very stupid. They must be clever enough to devise a fiendishly complicated plan that implausibly includes allowing themselves to get captured. But when they capture the good guy, they must leave him or her in a locked room where they can easily escape.

It is not just in fiction. In real life, we also want to demonise our villains. If someone attacks us we don’t stop to think that they might have a legitimate reason – in their eyes at least. Instead we assume that they must be inhuman and evil. And that means that, just like our zombies, it’s okay to kill them.

There is a poem that I love by Thomas Hardy. I know, I know, it’s a poem. You don’t like poems. But it’s a short poem and an easy one to read. I promise. Here it is:

The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.

In other words, in war our enemies are not cartoon villains. They are just people, like us.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with villains.

In Love, Death and Tea my main character is a zombie – showing the reader the world through the villain’s eyes.

Global Domination for Beginners is a reversed James Bond story where the hero is the megalomaniac who wants to take over the world.

In Hero, we are never quite sure if the costumed super hero is a good guy or a bad guy.

In the book I am currently working on I don’t tell you who the villain is. It may be the main character. It may be the antagonist. The characters themselves don’t know what is right or wrong.

But here’s a conundrum. We can laugh about the cartoony clichés of bad guys in fiction and real life, but these clichés do work. People love a villain. Someone to boo and hiss.

So when I play with the concept of villainy, am I doing something interesting that people will want to read about? Or am I going too far from the story writing conventions, which could turn readers off?

And I have to say that I really don’t know. Maybe I will find out one day.


3 thoughts on “Villainous villainy

  1. A good post Will, and I think you’re right in your books. Villains should be deeper, more interesting. It’s something I’ve been trying in my SF. We never see things though the villain’s eyes, but from the perspective of the reader he appears ‘less villainous’ at times. I think we have a duty to keep the reader on their toes and not just serve up a dish of cliche that has just been rewarmed in the microwave.


    • Thanks. I’ll have to look out for your SF. Sounds like my sort of thing.

      It’s a tricky call. Some readers expect a clear baddie and can feel short changed if there isn’t one. FWIW, I think I’ll stick with my complicated baddies.


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