Ask Correia 5: Writing villains that rock.

I’ve been having a lot of fun doing these Q&A posts about writing topics.  I’m no expert, just a guy who likes to tell stories, and who’s gotten lucky enough to find a fan base and a publisher, but I do love talking about this stuff, so keep them coming. I just got this one.

Hi Larry.  Here is another writing question for you; what qualities make for a good villain and how do you create/craft quality villains in your novels? Regards, Scott

Oooh.  That’s a good one.  

The hardest part about answering this one using examples from my own work will be the spoilers.  That’s the worst thing about being a published writer, by the time you guys get to read something, I’ve had it written for a year, and my favorite bad guys are from books that aren’t published yet, so some of my favorite examples would have to be spoilers… I figure I can be pretty vague though, so here goes.

A good protagonist with a weak antagonist can often lead to a boring book, so as a writer we’ve often got to put as much effort into our antagonistic characters as our heroes.  This isn’t always true obviously. Depending on the nature of your story, your bad guys could all be faceless mooks and your book could be amazing, but interesting villains are just another tool in a writer’s tool box.

Personally, my villain(s) usually start to form during my early idea making process. Sometimes I’ll even have the character created before, and just floating around in my head, waiting for a story to appear in. Usually I have a basic plot first, and then I ask myself who would make the most interesting antagonist? 

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’ve probably read Monster Hunter International. Lord Machado existed in my head for many years before the idea for MHI ever started. Why? Because he looked like earthworms. Seriously. The visual of moving, slimy earthworms in a bucket of dirt has always stuck with me as an interesting/gross visual since I was a little kid.  Then when I was a teenager I had a bad dream about a suit of armor filled with worms. Stylistically, conquistador armor is cooler looking to me, (probably that whole couple-hundred-of-my-ancestors-conquering-whole-nations thing) so the visual for that particular monster has been in my head for a long time.

But I can’t just have my antagonist there because he looks cool. He needs a story too.  Cool visuals and incomprehensible characters leads to pretty, yet stupid movies, like I think it was called the Fountain.  (and now Hugh Jackman is growing flowers out of his chest. Now he is Buddha. Look a magic tree. WTF?) One of the best bits of advice I ever heard on villains came from author Paul Genesse. I don’t know if he originally came up with this, or got it from somebody else, but he once said on a panel “Remember that your villain thinks he’s the hero of his own story.” 

Nobody likes bad guys who are bad for the sake of being bad. So your villain built a giant laser to blow up the moon… why? What’s the master plan behind that? He kicks puppies, but nobody gives a crap. What’s in it for him? (maybe he just really hates puppies?).  Now you can have a character that is just evil, just because. That may work for your story. You can say he’s crazy, but I’m willing to bet it will be a better read if you do some research first into what kind of crazy, and even if you don’t spell it out in the book, at least you as the writer will understand that character better, and therefore write them better.

Lord Machado’s motivations clicked for me while reading Sluggy Freelance many years ago (remember that time I said that ideas come from everywhere?)  There was a line that read “The dead flirt ugly” and everything clicked for me. (and I put that line in the book as a hat tip, as well as Emergency Pants).  

Machado had motivations. Yes, they were totally bug nuts insane motivations,  but this was a utterly ruthless dude who thought that he was right, he was better, and everybody else was wrong, and that was before getting tortured for several hundred years.  He’s got a chip on his shoulder. This was a seriously messed up guy, but at least you could understand why he’s doing the things he’s doing.

Bad guys have motivations too, but you don’t need to go too far the opposite direction, to the point that you’re excusing their actions. I’ve read a few things where they explain the bad guy to the point that they are no longer villains. They were “tragic” and “misunderstood”. That may work for you, once again, depends on the story you’re trying to tell. Villains can be sympathetic, but if you go too far, then people might like your protagonist less, so be careful.

In Monster Hunter Vendetta, my main antagonist is the Shadow Man. SPOILER ALERT!!!!!  No seriously, skip this and the next paragraph if you haven’t read the eARC yet.   I put a lot of effort into explaining his motivations. I needed somebody to lead an evil death cult… But if you really think about it, there are usually only a few motivations for leading an evil death cult, and most of them have been done a million times.  I wanted to make this guy more interesting.

-SPOILER-

Martin Hood’s parents were killed because they screwed around with Old One’s magic while he was a child. He went on to become a Hunter, with the belief that the Old Ones could be controlled. Instead, the more he learned about them, the more the thought that man’s defeat was inevitable. Hood didn’t start out as a bad guy. He had good motivations. Basically, the Old Ones are kind of petulant. They want everything, and they’ll destroy that which they can’t have. So Hood’s goal is to take over the world on their behalf, and spare humanity the horror of the Old Ones themselves invading. Over time he’s corrupted by evil until he’s a shadow of a man.

-End Spoiler-

I had a lot of fun with this. Once again, you’ve got somebody who thinks they are the protagonist.

There are many different villain tropes, and these show up again and again, because they work. The Shadow Man was a chess-master. This is a guy who is always thinking a few moves in advance. He can kick your hero’s ass, but he can also out-think them, and that’s what makes them more interesting.  

In Hard Magic, I’ve got several bad guys, but two that I particularly enjoyed writing.  One is the Chairman, Okubo Tokugawa.  He is possibly the single most bad ass villain I’ve ever written. Let me give you an example:

We have tried everything. Bullets bounce off. Bombs thrown under his carriage have turned it to splinters and killed the horses, but don’t so much as muss the Chairman’s hair.  He does not sleep so we can’t sneak up on him. He does not eat so we can’t poison him. We’ve tried fire, ice, lightning, death magic, crushing gravity, bone shards, blood curses, all without effect. Decapitation might work, if you could come up with a blade sharp enough, but the finest steel simply dulls against his skin.  Even if you were to wield this modern Excalibur the problem then would be that you can only touch Tokugawa if he lets you. He is all knowing, all seeing, moves faster than the wind, and can Travel in the blink of an eye. You don’t touch the Chairman. The Chairman touches you, and as far as we’ve observed, that only happens when he’s ripping the very soul from your body.

So basically, the Chairman can totally kick your ass.

But that isn’t what made him fun to write. He’s intelligent and articulate. He is polite. He writes poetry. (also the first and probably only time you guys will ever see me write poetry).  He isn’t evil in the cackling, twirl your mustache, leave maidens tied to railroad tracks kind of way, but he’s the de facto leader of an empire that has turned wholesale magical eugenics into an industrial threshing machine of world domination.  He’s trying to force man to evolve, and not because he’s a jerk or an idealist, but because he knows that there is something worse coming soon, and it’s hungry.   

The Chairman is one of my favorite antagonists because he doesn’t just represent an individual evil. He represents an evil idea.  The Grimnoir universe takes place in an alternative history, but that time frame in our own history was the greatest time for the most evil philosophy ever—That individuals are property of the state– And if you’ve read this blog, you know how much that bugs me.

On the other hand, also from Hard Magic, I’ve got Madi.  The trope name for this type character is the Dragon. This is the tough guy the hero has to fight at the end of the movie, but I like to subvert tropes. So I made Madi more interesting.  Since he’s also one of the PoV characters, I’d have to say that he is my single favorite villain I’ve ever written.  He started out as a pulp novel, gunman-style Raymond Chandler villain.

I didn’t just want to make a tough guy to square off against my protagonists.  I also wanted to explore this guy, and in the process, I found a fascinating character. I’ll avoid the spoilers, since this one doesn’t come out until Spring, but you will hate Madi. You’ll hate his guts, and root for the Grimnoir to kill the hell out of him, but at the same time, you’ll totally understand why he’s made the choices he’s made.  One of my alpha readers got done with his chapter and called me up, saying “Holy crap, if that had happened to me, I’d be pissed too!” and when I got that call, I knew I’d succeeded.

You’ve got to make your bad guys challenging. Nobody likes a pushover. Your protagonists need to work, they need to lose, but they also need to win, because nobody wants to read about somebody just losing and running away the entire book.  This is where the legions of faceless mooks come in. These guys don’t need much character development, and as your characters mow them down, you can reward your readers with satisfying violence.  Yay violence!  Personally, if I’ve written forty pages and nothing has exploded, I’m probably not doing my job.

You can have some fun with villains. Don’t be afraid to break the mold.  We just finished up the 1st draft for Dead Six.  My villain in that one is an international crime lord called Big Eddie. He’s ruthless, secretive, terrifying, and my protagonist actually think he’s a group of people,  because no one person is that evil. And then when you meet the guy… well…

–SPOILER—

Have you ever seen Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? Think Carson, only with Flock of Seagulls hair and a pet poodle.

–END SPOILER—

And despite that, he’s even more scary.

Don’t be afraid to show your villains being bad. It is the old show vs. tell. It is one thing to say that your evil overlord is really mean, but if you show his legions raping and pillaging, it drives the point home. Be careful, as this is a fine line to walk. Too over the top and you’ve got cartoonish super villainy, too realistic (depending on what type book you’re writing) and it might be too much for your target audience.  If you’re writing a darker book, then you can really show your bad guys as Bad.  If you’re writing YA fluffy puppy emo-vampire for twelve year olds, you may have to tell more than show.  If you’re writing to George R.R. Martin’s or Joe Abercrombie’s audience, then your villains can be dark dark dark.

Villains can be more interesting than the heroes and that can be perfectly appropriate for the story. For example, Heath Ledger made Christian Bale look pretty wooden in Dark Knight, and it was a better movie because of it.  I highly recommend the novel Servant of a Dark God by John Brown.  He’s got one antagonist called Hunger. Hunger is a monster, but he’s such an interesting case that when you’re reading the scenes from his PoV, you find yourself rooting for him, and when it goes back to the hero’s PoV, you’re scared of Hunger because you know how dangerous he is. That’s damn good writing there. (and it comes out in paperback soon, so you really should buy it).

Writing bad guys is one of the things that keeps me inspired. In my current project, Monster Hunter Alpha, I’ve got the guy that inspired the quote that “Badass Russians only have three emotions, Revenge, Depression, and Vodka.” Only he’s also a werewolf with multiple personalities. Then I’ve got my untitled-overthrowing-a-small-country-for-a-reality-TV-show-project where the bad guy is a brutal African warlord, who also happens to be a huge movie geek, who styles his persona after Robert DeNiro characters.   In another book, that I can’t even name because the identity of the villain would be too much of a spoiler; you know that one totally psycho girl you dated in college (and if you didn’t, somebody you know did.) Yeah, that girl. Now imagine her twenty years later… and give her a nuclear weapon. Then in the second Grimnoir book, one of the bad guys is FDR.  Yes, I go there.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Remember, if it is cool, and your readers like it, then it works.

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