Monday, May 10, 2010

Making Villains Realistic Can Strengthen Your Fiction

Every reader of fiction has their favorite villains. For some it's a Sith Lord from the Star Warsnovels. Others remember with glee the devious ways of Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. Still others are chomping at the bit to read more about Hannibal Lector, the cannibalistic serial killer with charm, in a series of novels by Thomas Harris.

Regardless of whom a particular villain might be, sometimes we love them. Sometimes we love to hate them. And yes, we have to admit, sometimes we even love it when they're being out-and-out bad. It's not that we don't want the hero to succeed, it's just that sometimes the villain is so awesome, so cool, that we want them to succeed, too.

But normally you can't have it both ways. In most instances, the villain will eventually be thwarted or defeated or outright destroyed altogether.

Though sometimes they come back.

That's why it's fiction. The writers can make anything happen they want to happen. Though they have to work within realistic parameters or else they risk losing their audience. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but readers need their fiction to sound like truth.

Sometimes villains are seemingly faceless. Not literally faceless. No, no. Zombies have faces, but you usually can't tell much of a difference from one to the other. Sure, physically they might look different on a movie screen or be described differently from one another in a novel, but they're still just zombies. Mobs of the shambling dead.

In fantasy fiction, faceless villains often come in the teeming hordes of bad-guy monsters that serve as some sort of army for an evil overlord. Orcs and goblins commonly are used in such a fashion.

But do we, as readers, care about such villains? Usually not. Taking the zombies as an example, in most stories featuring the walking dead, the focus tends to be on those trying to survive the walking dead. That's not too big a problem, though, because most zombie tales are, at their heart, about survival.

Using the orcs from fantasy as an example, we run into a bit more of a problem. Yes, they're monsters. But they're also sentient beings with brains and a level of intelligence. If one were to look at the world in black and white, good versus evil, then orcs usually are represented on the side of evil. So it's alright to slay swaths of them, right? Perhaps. It depends upon the story and how it is told.

But orcs and such featureless villains often deserve more, a better treatment by the author.


To make the story more believable. To draw the reader's interest more into the tale.

Sure, we all love rooting for the hero, but if you can also get us rooting for the bad guy, you're going to have pulled your readers in all that much stronger. Which could mean more story sales.

And that's never a bad thing for a fiction writer.

How does one go about making such monsters more realistic? You don't have to make them likable. Don't make that mistake. You can make them likable, but it's not necessary. After all, many of us want our villains to be villains.

As a writer, you have to ask yourself why is a certain villain a villain. Here you're getting into philosophical and psychological questions concerning evil. The best thing to keep in mind is that most evil people, real and fictitious, don't think of themselves as evil. They generally believe they are the hero of their own tale, that they are justified for one reason or another in doing all the awful things they do.

I'm not suggesting you have to bring up a villain's entire past, going all the way back to their diaper days. Bringing up all kinds of seemingly whiny reasons why a villain is evil becomes maudlin. It becomes boring. Which is death to a fiction writer.

I am, however, suggesting to flesh out your villains a little more than usual. No, you don't have to spend a thousand pages to give the background of every individual bad guy in an army of bad guys, but you should at least focus on at least one major villain, maybe even the main villain, and a handful of underlings. Why are they villains? Why are they evil? What do they hope to accomplish by their evil acts?

This stuff will bring your readers all that much closer to the fictional world you've carved out with your words. And readers like to feel closer to the fictional worlds they discover. It makes them feel part of something. It makes them enjoy the tale all that much more. And again, it'll keep them coming back to you as an author

Another thing to keep in mind is that being evil just to be evil is boring. And not very realistic. Even the most sadistic serial killers of all time had reasons for committing their atrocious acts. Maybe their reasonings don't make sense to the rest of us, but they had them.

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