Villains, From the Villain’s Point of View

What is a villain?

As writers, we know the answer to this (or we should, anyway):  a ‘villain’ is an antagonist. They’re the person standing between your protagonist and what they want. Almost every genre has them.

The question is, are those antagonists really villains? How do you think the poor Wicked Witch of the West felt to have some strange, rude girl crossing her lands and killing her pet flying monkeys?! How did she get to be the Wicked Witch of the West, anyway? Who made up that rule? What if she wanted to be a shoe designer instead? Well, sadly, I’m not the first to consider those questions – Gregory Maguire beat me to it by several years, and the result was Wicked:  The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

It is, as author Anna-Marie McLemore points out, all about the point of view.

Yesterday, I attended the Nimrod Writers’ Conference at the University of Tulsa. One of the sessions I attended was by McLemore’s “Unpossessed:  Reconsidering the Demonized in YA and Speculative Fiction.”

This was one of those great sessions that makes you think about things in a new way, that makes you reconsider tropes and villains. Even if you already subscribe to the notion that ‘every villain is the hero of their own story’ (and you SHOULD subscribe to this notion, because it’s true!), a lot of what McLemore said made me look at this in a slightly new way.

First, she said, we need to consider who is a villain? Who decides that? In history, villains are your opposition. The Brutus to your Caesar. The Jefferson to your Hamilton. The Al Capone to your Elliot Ness. The Donald Trump to your Constitution. Need I go on?

McLemore writes stories based in fairy tales, and in fairy tales, who is always the villain? Well, think about it this way:  who is the villain not? The villain, in a fairy tale, is never the young pretty princess, is it? It’s never Snow White, or Cinderella. Nope. Why? Because the villain is always the old ugly woman. But when that young pretty princess is no long young, or pretty, she disappears from the story . . . or maybe, just maybe, ends up the villain, the Wicked Queen, in someone else’s fairy tale.

Let’s take the example of Snow White. Imagine if Snow White got old. Imagine if some other young, pretty princess – let’s call her Silly Sally – came along and decided to ruin Snow White’s quiet existence with Prince Charming. Snow White might go all rogue on Silly Sally’s ass, right? Right. But is she the villain? Well, for Sally she is. IF it’s Sally’s story. Which brings me to my next point:

So not only do you need to ask yourself who is the villain, but you also need to ask, whose story is this? McLemore used the example of Jane Eyre to discuss this idea. Obviously, the heroine of Jane Eyre is Jane Eyre. No mystery there. She gets her happy ending; she marries Rochester, so Rochester gets his happy ending, too. Who doesn’t get a happy ending? Poor Mrs. Rochester, locked away in that attic for years and years before committing suicide. But. Does Rochester deserve that happy ending? Do we know – do we really know – what happened after that? How did Mrs. Rochester end up in that attic? Did Rochester drive her insane? Will he do the same to Jane? What if that ending is just the prelude to a horror novel? (Obviously, Mrs. Rochester did get her own novel, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which makes that her novel. And in her point of view, wouldn’t Jane be the interloper, trying to steal her man?)

The last point may be the most important:  The villain of a story is often an inconvenient character. Not inconvenient for the author – though sometimes that is the case – but for the culture and society of the book, and for the other characters. They tend to challenge the world and its norms and laws. They tend to revel in rebelling against society. At the very least, they are standing in the way of what someone else wants. Their rebellion might be about race, ethnicity, gender, or anything else they find important. They might be engaged in illegal activities that, for whatever reason, society has driven them into. (Or it could literally be almost all of the above, like my rumrunner, Nicky.) They might be gay in a world where that is illegal. They might be an outspoken woman, fighting for feminism in 18th century America (the heroine of my new work-in-progress, Sarah, does precisely this; her argument is that if we’re going to be asked to fight for liberty from Britain, what are the women going to get out of it? She is incredibly inconvenient!).

Truthfully? The worlds wants this character to be convenient. The world wants them to slot into their rightful little place. The world wants them, really wants them, to do what they’re supposed to do, without complaint. But this character simply cannot do it. It might be just who they are (Alex in Red, White, and Royal Blue – he can’t help that he’s bi and in love with the Prince of England, but that is sure inconvenient!). It might be that they’re fighting against injustice in the world (Harriet Tubman), or fighting for a Great Cause that isn’t popular at the moment.

But this is where point of view comes in . . . and villains are all about point of view.

As readers and writers, we have to ask ourselves:  when a character is demonized, who is making that choice? Is it society? The hero? Who finds the villain inconvenient? Does the villain find the hero equally inconvenient? If so, why? You’re writing about this person, after all. You should know them as well as you know the hero. Why does your villain – your antagonist – do the things he does? What drives him or her? Remember, in a good story, your protagonist is just as much a villain to your antagonist, as your antagonist is to your protagonist.

You may have heard the saying ‘history is written by the winners.’ That, to an extent, is true. When you win, you get to tell the story however you want. You get to demonize the enemy. You get to make it all up. So . . . when it comes to the villain, who tells their story?

Or . . . is this the villain’s story?

Are they not the villain after all? Are they, in fact, the hero of their own story? Are you sure you’re telling the right story, with the right hero?

It’s all about the point of view.





Outlander: Monsters, Villains, and Redemption

(A note:  I drafted this some time ago, when the second season of Outlander was wrapping up on Starz. But as the new season has started filming  … I thought I’d go ahead and publish it, as it contains what I think are some Rather Important Points.)


Tobias Menzies – 

A few weeks ago, I made an impassioned plea to the writers of the series Outlander to get to know the characters a bit better before they started to write about them willy-nilly. But this week’s episode left me particularly disappointed and dismayed.

Outlander, to recap, is the first book in a series by Diana Gabaldon. The series focuses on the story of Claire Beauchamp, thrown back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. There, she’s forced to wed young Jamie Fraser for protection, and quite against her intentions, falls in love with him. She chooses to remain in 1743, forsaking her 20th century husband Frank Randall, and she and Jamie start a quest to stop the Battle of Culloden Field, the last gasp of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 – and the event that destroys the Highlands and the clans.

As I’ve said before – YES. I know that adaptations have to be slightly different from the books for various reasons, including time constraints, money, etc. But the characters? They have to remain the same. HAVE TO. Otherwise, why are you bothering to even try to create a television series from the book? Millions of people love these characters, and are expecting the writers to Get It Right.

Nowhere is that more important than in the main antagonists, though. Take away their characters, and what do you have? No one for the protagonists to go up against, to react to.

Such was the case this week with Captain Jonathan Wolverton Randall, of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.

Masterfully played by Tobias Menzies, Randall is the one character – as Diana Gabaldon has often said – that people simply cannot quite grasp. They constantly ask how did this awful, evil person come out of YOU?! How could you write him like this? What was your inspiration? And as she’s also often said – a writer has all their characters inside them already. Randall is as much a part of her as Claire and Jamie are. What makes him so awful, you ask? Well . . . for starters, he’s a sadist. The very first time he meets with Claire, he attempts to rape her; the second time, fed up with Claire’s inability to answer his questions, he hits her hard in the stomach (“I trust you are not with child, Madam,” he said in a conversational tone, “because if you are, you won’t be for long.”). The third time, he tries to rape her in front of her new husband. The fourth time . . . well.

And yet. Gabaldon takes pains to paint him as a full, nuanced man. Take for instance this scene from Outlander (which also highlights Claire’s sarcasm, notably absent in the TV series, too):

“Don’t tell me,” I said finally. “Let me guess. It’s a new form of persuasion you’ve invented – torture by bladder. You ply me with drinkables until I promise to tell you anything in exchange for five minutes with a chamber pot.”

He was so taken by surprise that he actually laughed. . . . Having let the facade crack, he didn’t stifle the laugh, but let it go. Finished, he stared at me again, a half-smile lingering on his mouth.

“Whatever else you may be, Madam, at least you’re a diversion.” He yanked a bellpull hanging by the door, and when the orderly reappeared, instructed him to convey me to the necessary facilities.

As readers, we need this three-dimensionality. We need to see Randall as more than a caricature, more than the ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Sure, he’s a sadist, but he’s a sadist with a sense of humor.

However, to understand how truly depraved he is, you have to know that in the end, he forces Jamie, already in prison, to trade his body for Claire’s – and Jamie has to prove the point by allowing Randall to nail his hand to a table. By the end of the first book, you know one thing about Randall:  he is evil, pure and simple. Even a demon can have a sense of humor.

Had Gabaldon left it there, that would be one thing. But she didn’t. No. Because she’s a better writer than that. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, we learn that Jack Randall has a younger brother, Alex, who is quite ill. When Alex loses his job, Randall steps in, paying for his room, his medicine, and in the end, tracking down Claire in Edinburgh to request her help. No, it’s not entirely without benefit to him:  part of their unholy deal is that he is able to relive Jamie’s rape at leisure with the one person on earth who knows him the way he does. “We are linked, you and I, through the body of one man – through him.” But Randall is willing to trade British Army secrets – turn traitor – in exchange for Claire’s medical skills. Because there is one thing in life he loves – his brother. So much that he even marries Alex’s pregnant sweetheart, at Alex’s request.

In the book, you understand that whatever else Randall is – and he’s quite a lot of Really Bad Things – he has one redemption:  his love for Alex. It is these final scenes, more than anything else, that ’round out’ Jack Randall, making him fully human. In real life, there are true monsters – but in fiction, unless you’re writing some Die Hard fanfic, even your antagonists have to have a redemption. Gabaldon made the difficult and correct decision to allow Randall this, so that we might see both sides to him.

But in the show . . . OMG.

I’ve been disappointed in a lot of episodes, but this one truly disgusted me on several levels, not the least of which was the utter lack of redemption Jack Randall was given. Throughout the show he’s been portrayed as nothing other than a sadistic, evil rapist. And in this episode, nothing changed. Alex made the request; Randall denied him and stormed out. We got one small glimpse – early in the episode, Randall found Claire and asked her to tend Alex, and she made the bargain:  she’ll care for Alex in exchange for intelligence on the British Army. Rightfully so, Randall was infuriated. So was I. This is a man willing to turn traitor if it will help his brother, and yet, the show’s writers can’t even give him that?

But wait, it gets worse! He refused to marry Alex’s sweetheart, Mary; when Claire tracked him down and demanded he reconsider, he basically said, “You know what I am and what I do. You’d turn a sweet, innocent girl like that over to me?” He is given no redemption. Ever. Not even in those final moments when Alex dies . . . rather than weep at his bedside, he jumps on the bed and punches Alex’s corpse. Not once, but several times. And makes no apology for it. (If it makes you feel better, he won’t be alive much longer anyway. At least, if the writers don’t screw that up, too. However, I have little hope of that at this moment.)

Let me be clear:  Diana Gabaldon doesn’t go too far with trying to redeem Randall. She remains true to his sadistic nature throughout. But.

Jack Randall is a complicated character, as all great antagonists should be.

At least, in the books, he is.

Your Baddies: Are they all they can be?

It feels like I’ve written about this before, but it’s still a topic that weighs on my mind – and, I think, should weigh on the minds of every writer, at least a little.

We spend so much time getting our protagonists just right. Their sidekicks, too. Hair and eye color, height and weight. What kinds of clothes they wear, where they live, what they do for a living. Background – education, parents and family, where they’ve lived. How they talk and walk. How they act. How they react to certain situations and certain people. Are they trusting? Outgoing? Happy? How do they get into the situation in which they find themselves, when your book opens? How do the secondary characters get involved? How long have they known your MC? How do they feel about him/her? On and on.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But how many of us truly spend a lot of time thinking about our antagonists in as much detail as we do our protagonists?

Think about it for a second. Think about some of the greatest antagonists in literature. Hannibal Lecter. The man eats people. But . . . he’s not a typical ‘villain’ who cackles maniacally as he sautees someone’s liver. He is a real person on the page. In fact, if you Google him, you’ll find he has an incredible, detailed backstory that explains how he came to be what he is. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re drawn to Silence of the Lambs.

In another post, I made the point that your ‘villain’ (antagonist) has to be evenly matched with your MC, so that the reader finds it believable. Are they in a cat-and-mouse game of espionage during the Cold War? Then they’d better be the top agents the CIA and KGB can send at each other. One reason Voldemort is so good is that we’re not sure, even up to that final page, whether Harry really can defeat him or not. And we’re afraid he can’t.

But there’s more to it. Your antagonist shouldn’t be a storybook villain. What’s the fun in that? And if you’re having trouble with your novel, maybe you should think about it from your antagonist’s POV. What do they want? Why are they trying to stop the MC from getting what they want? What’s their background? What’s their motivation? Remember:  your antagonist believes he’s the hero of his own story. Is yours? Really? The way you’ve written him? Or is he a caricature, a cardboard figure put there so your MC has something to go up against?

Rowling did a great job of this with Professor Snape. I know I wasn’t the only one blown away by his big revelation. He seemed like a caricature villain, didn’t he? Hating Harry because he hated Harry’s father James. It was believable because that’s precisely the sort of thing a middle-grader would think – and, let’s face it, because we all know people exactly like that. But wow. What she did with him in the last two books went beyond anything I expected.

Sure, there’s lots of best-selling novels that have caricature ‘villains.’ But where do those novels end up, eventually? On the remainder table, or lining the shelves at your local thrift shop. No one re-reads them.

Look to history. Look to all the great ‘villains’ of history. Hitler. Stalin. Genghis Khan. Caligula. Trump. Stalin believed he was absolutely doing the right thing for the Soviet Union; Hitler believed he was absolutely doing the right thing for Germany. Trump believes he’s absolutely doing the right thing for himself. Read biographies of these guys.You’ll find them far more complicated than your high school history class made them out to be. (Except Trump.)

OR . . . think about common historical heroes. Read their biographies. And find out how flawed they really were. Think Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator?” Think again. He was just as racist as anyone else; the Emancipation Proclamation was a last-ditch effort to undermine the South by taking away their slaves. (It was also illegal, and – since it applied to a foreign nation – was totally worthless. It also didn’t free all the slaves in America.) Love electricity? Think Thomas Edison is responsible for it? HAH! Edison made a career of hiring top minds, stealing their ideas, and then firing them. Nikola Tesla found that out the hard way. Edison also alienated his 16-year old daughter when he went off to Paris and returned with a 17-year old bride. He also murdered thousands of animals in his efforts to design and build one of the most controversial inventions ever – the electric chair. Why did he build it? So he could ‘prove’ that George Westinghouse’s alternating current was too dangerous, and his company would be given the right to bring electricity to New York City.

Yeah. Not so heroic now, are they? 🙂 Tell this story from Tesla’s POV, and who’s the baddie?

Your protagonist must be flawed. But your antagonist must have redeeming qualities to make them human, to make them believable. I struggle with this. I’m putting my 14-year old rumrunner up against a guy that is as cold as the day is long – or is he? Meanwhile, I’ve got my romance novel heroine struggling to protect herself and her farm from a kitten-drowning rapist – who also happens to be a proud patriot and leader of the Sons of Liberty. And my urban fantasy series? The two antagonists I have there are not only against my protagonists, but against each other. Once I sat down with one of them and started working on his – its? – story, I quickly fell in love with this urbane, witty, well-spoken, self-deprecating demon.Even though he’s trying to kill one of my MCs and . . . yeah. But I totally get where he’s coming from, now.

Bottom line:  Your reader should be almost as invested in your antagonist as they are in your protagonist. If that means you need to create as an elaborate a backstory for him as you do your MC, do it. If you’re not sure of their motivation, figure it out.

Studying history is a great way to figure out how to create characters that are real – because you see it from both sides. Next week, I’ll look at a couple of incidents in history where you’re not entirely sure who the baddie should be. Until then – happy writing. 🙂