The Shadows of Us

I have been thinking a lot about the craft aspects of writing recently. Earlier I posted about Social Setting.  Today I wanted to take a look at the villain or antagonist.

If you hunt around online, poking sticks at essays on writing, you’ll find a reasonable amount of advice on how to make your villains unique, or human, or something different from the cliches. The villain who is evil and knows it obviously strains credulity, but I wanted to do a little more careful thinking about this. Below the cut are some points of thought.

1. Villains define heroes. James Bond is only ever as interesting as his current villain. Bond is also good only in contrast to his villains. Without a villain, Bond is cynical, womanising and sort of a jerk. He needs the villain to struggle against.

2. Stories need an antagonistic force. They don’t necessarily need an antagonist, but it helps. The best example of antagonists clearly embodying an antagonistic force is in Le Guin’s recent Gifts, Voices, Powers series. In the first book the antagonistic force is the turning of peaceful good things into weapons. In the second book the antagonistic force is wilful ignorance and a mistrust of the written word. In the third book the antagonistic force is slavery. In each case there is a villain that embodies the antagonistic force and makes it much easier to understand the world’s assaults on the protagonist. However, the books could have been written without clear antagonists – slavery doesn’t need one antagonist. A faceless parade of disinterested slave owners would do just as well. Possibly, one defining feature of books for adults is that the antagonistic force does become more generalised and less tackable to a single character.

3. The monster is still a strong archetype. The inhuman, ravenous, emotionless, remorseless monster has been a part of storytelling for as long as people have told stories no doubt. The monster might once have been human, or might have always been apart from our mortal dealings. The serial killer is a modern manifestation of the monster.

4. The shadow is not evil, but it must not be allowed to run feral. There is a confusion where people seem to think that the shadow is the ‘evil’ aspect of a character. Whenever a book has multiple villains it becomes possible to look through it and try to work out who is who’s shadow – it is possible for instance to characterise Saruman as Gandalf’s shadow and Gollum as Smeagol’s shadow (and maybe Frodo’s too) and Sauron, as well, sort of the world’s shadow as Sauron is a force of nature and not a character in any usual sense. But this implies that the shadow is evil, and at least in a Jungian sense it is not. The shadow is emotional, ungoverned and without clear morals of its own, but it is also that part of a person that is creative and is the seat of desires that can lead to good as well as evil outcomes.

5. Stories are stronger with a villain or two. Say what you will about Walt Disney, the man knew how to write a story that gripped young audiences and all Disney animated films have clear villains. The Arthurian stories are stronger and more enduring for having Morgan le Fay and Modred. Robin Hood is more enduring for the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John. If you consider the really hyper-successful pop culture stories of our age, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games – they all have clear and strong villains. Counter examples can be found of course… Star Trek makes a point of humanising the enemy… but on balance a villain helps a reader identify the antagonistic force and rail against it.

6. Villainy can be a matter of perspective. In a romantic novel, the other woman is from her perspective the hero being cheated out of getting her love by the other woman. Everyone is the hero of their own story, and remembering that villains view themselves as the hero of their tale is important.

7. A villain should be as indispensable to the story as the protagonist. If a villain could simply be removed from a story without harming the progression of the story, then there is a good chance that the villain has not grown organically out of the theme of the story and needs to be reconsidered. As I mentioned above, not all stories require villains.

8. Villains tell us about ourselves. If the hero shows us how to act with compassion, bravery and quick wit, the villain shows us how not to act. They are the anti-lesson of the theme.

9. Complex stories switch the heroes and villains around sometimes. A character who starts out strongly dislikable, such as Jaime Lannister at the start of a Game of Thrones, can turn out to be sympathetic and hopeful, like Jaime Lannister towards the middle of the Game of Thrones. It is less common to see a hero fall from grace, but in the same work there Coldheart is probably going to fill that role. Explaining who Coldheart is could be considered spoilery, so I won’t do so, though you can go and find out if so inclined of course.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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