Friday, July 26, 2013

In praise of the villain

God, I love villains! They add more than just conflict to a story; they shape and impact characters and plots. Yesterday, I stumbled on a post from Patricia Wrede about plots without villains. I'd have a very hard time with that concept. My antagonists always serve a purpose; they stand directly in the path of the protagonist. Where the villain is not wreaking havoc, he or she is at the very least opposed to everything the hero or heroine stands for and serves as the foil to prevent the ultimate goal from being achieved. 

Why do I enjoy villainy so much? As a writer, it's an incredibly challenging experience to get into the head of a person you would absolutely dislike or fear in real life, one who does things you would NEVER do. An individual with a peculiar form of tunnel vision, who never sees the big picture and concentrates on his or her intent, innocent casualties be damned, makes a great villain. Mine have been as mild as Robert de Beaumont in The Burning Candle, whose domineering personality overrules the wishes of his wife Isabel de Vermandois for an equal partnership in their marriage. Few are as ruthless as Muhammad III in Sultana and Sultana's Legacy, a man who murdered many to gain the throne of Granada, including his own father. These are horrible people, yet like a coin, each has another side where terrible fears, losses and pain dwell. Turned outward, these emotions motivate truly horrible acts. I call it giving my villain a soul, because I believe every baddie does have one. Perhaps every antagonist just needed a hug as a child? It's from deep inside that frailties cause them to strike out at others. Sort of a "I'll do unto you before you do unto me" mentality. My characters are never black and white because human nature isn't so clear cut; we all have shades of gray in our personalities.

There's another deeper component to having an antagonist in a story. At every stage of life, there is the goal and often there are things or people standing in the way of that goal. Whether that's the individual against an individual, group-think, or nature, the conflict is inherent to our existence. Where most protagonists would try to maneuver around obstacles, villains just ride roughshod over them. That sort of determination is frightening, but also intriguing and demonstrates facets of personality that can be admirable, if they weren't being used for a horrible purpose. My villains rarely win, but if they do, there's always some consequence to endure afterward. Sad fact of real life that sometimes the good guys lose, but I think more dedicated readers would be incredibly annoyed if there wasn't some justice served. We can right the wrongs of the world only on the page.

There are a few key elements for a great villain. He or she should pose an actual, dire threat to the protagonist. If the hero / heroine doesn't fear the adversary and can always find a way around the obstacles, that's not an interesting antagonist or the foundation of a good conflict. One of the best literary villains is Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. He strikes fear into the hearts of everyone, even his supporters. The hero Harry has to risk the lives of others and his own to achieve justice against this ruthless foe. The best characterization of a villain also involves details of their past, in particular the emotional states that motivate their actions. Sticking with Lord Voldemort, J.K. Rowling gives him an fantastic backstory. Essentially Voldemort hates himself ; the orphan, the frightened boy shunted off to school. So, he does everything possible to overcome that past, motivated largely by fear that he will never be in control of his own destiny. As he grows weaker in the final battle with Harry, everything is stripped away from him, reducing him to that frail, fragile person. In addition, the adversary and protagonist should have some kinship; commonalities between them, which allow for an innate understanding of each other, and ultimately leads each to think the other person is wrong. Consider Harry and Voldemort, one bent on world domination and the other opposed to him. Look at the similarities. Both come from parents where one had wizarding blood and the other was a Muggle. Both were orphaned at an early age. Both found their homes and destinies at Hogwarts. When Harry defeats Voldemort and holds the greatest wand in his hand, he has a choice; the path of self-destruction or to turn from it. In essence, there but for the grace of God (or Rowling in this case), Harry could have easily chosen the same route as Voldemort because of the similarities between them.

I enjoy villains so much that I usually have the most fun writing their scenes compared with others. This was especially true with my latest, Sultana: Two Sisters. My editor wrote several weeks ago and asked whether I wanted readers to be Team Heroine (Esperanza / Butayna) or Team Villain (Miriam / Maryam). Unequivocally I replied, Team Heroine. If readers of this novel don't recognize Maryam as the ultimate evil, then I haven't done my job as a writer. Maryam has horrible experiences at the start of the novel, which motivate her cruel acts toward Butayna, but Maryam doesn't win any sympathy points with me. In the end, she pays a high price for her plotting. Yet, I adored writing about this woman and fleshing out the inherent fears that drove her. She's my favorite villain to date.

Who's your favorite literary antagonist and what makes that character stand out among villains?               

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