On Villainy

I’ve written here before about the necessity — in my opinion — of making one’s villains well-rounded characters and not merely evil mustache-twirling sockpuppets. By which I mean granting them their virtues as well as their vices, and giving them friends as well as enemies, and generally treating them with a certain amount of respect even as they go forth to meet their richly deserved ends at the hands of the protagonist of the tale.

I don’t know if what I’m encountering a lot of lately is the start of a disturbing new trend, or just the result of seeing a lot of plain old-fashioned bad writing and worse criticism . . . but readers and writers both seem to be getting more into villains who are evil all the way through, from the flaky top crust of their characterization down to the soggy underbaked bottom. Anything in the line of subtlety or multidimensionality or (dare I use the word?) empathy is decried as normalizing or valorizing their badness.

This is, in my opinion, wrong. We as writers humanize our monsters in order to drive home the idea that not only are they people just like us . . . we are, if we’re not careful, people just like them.

And yeah, there are always going to be some readers who simply don’t get it, in the same way that there’s always some genius in the English Lit survey class who thinks that Jonathan Swift was speaking literally when he wrote A Modest Proposal.†

But we shouldn’t have to be in the business of writing for those people.

Spoiler: He wasn’t.

My Theory on Villainy

All good stories need a villain, or, more properly, an antagonist.  (“Villain” is so judgmental, really — not to mention classist, since its origins lie in the Anglo-French and Old French vilain “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand,” from Latin villa “country house, farm.” As always, the city folks write the books.)

An antagonist is simply one who opposes the main character, also known as the protagonist.  They’re often “the bad guy,” because readers like to identify with the main character, and prefer in most cases to identify with someone they can think of as “the good guy.”  It doesn’t necessarily need to follow that the antagonist, in their role as “bad guy”, also has to be a bad person; all that’s required is that they present a strong and believable opponent for the protagonist to, in most cases, overcome.

What’s primarily required in an antagonist, then, is competence — or, barring that, the kind of sheer unpredictability that makes them hard for an orderly protagonist to comprehend.  They can’t be insane, or at least not the kind of insanity that precludes an ability to function in the real world, and they can’t be stupid.  Otherwise, they become pushovers, and pushovers are boring.

On the other hand, an antagonist shouldn’t be endowed with the kind of supernatural intelligence that lets them make elaborate plans with lots of interlocking parts that somehow never fall prey to sheer bad luck, unforeseen acts by random bystanders, or the incompetence of minions.  (I see more of these than I’d like, especially in the visual media but also in books, so it’s possible that a lot of people disagree with me on this.  But I’m right and they’re wrong, so there.)

And finally, an antagonist should be a fully-developed character, with virtues as well as flaws, because nobody in the real world is ever all of a piece.  This means that as a writer, we have to inhabit our villains — empathize with them, if you will — as much as we do our heroes.  We have to know what it is they dread when the lights go out; we have to know their petty vices and their secret good deeds; we have to know the source of their greatest sorrow and their greatest happiness; in short, we have to love them even as we bring our protagonist in to destroy them.

If we don’t do this, we risk turning our antagonists into mere mustache-twirling marionettes, when they should be human beings.

(Or aliens, or elves, or self-aware computers, as the genre requires.  In short, people.)

So We Saw the New Ghostbusters Today

Short verdict: Haters to the rear. It’s a good movie.

It’s not just a good movie, it’s a good genderflip AU, in that it doesn’t just paste the guys’ names and roles onto some female bodies actors and call it a day, it actually asks itself things like, “If this basic character type had been born, raised, and socialized female, what would she be like?” and “What sort of public reception would these people doing these things get if they were four women and not four men?”

So the Venkman character as played by Melissa McCarthy is not the at-least-50%-charlatan that Bill Murray’s version was; and the four ghostbusters, instead of getting citywide acclaim after their initial successes, are treated in the media (with the connivance of City Hall and Homeland Security) as being either frauds or delusional or both.

An all-male remake would have just been putting a new coat of paint onto the chassis of an old classic; by going with a true genderflipped version, the creative minds involved managed to take their inspiration from the old classic and use it to say some new things. And the haters were right to be scared of it, because – in its lightshow-with-explosions kind of way – it’s pointing a mocking finger at the very sort of male privilege that they’re so obnoxiously, and anxiously, defending.

So yeah, go see it. And stay through the credits.

I Think I’ve Finally Figured it Out

I’ve always been a sucker for a well-done redemption arc in my fictions of choice, in both written and visual media. And I’ve always been puzzled by the vocal commentary that always arises on such occasions, to the effect that so-and-so doesn’t deserve redemption. Because – in my cultural tradition, at least – the whole point of redemption is that it isn’t something you get because you deserve it, it’s something you get because you’ve done something bad enough that you need it.

But if the naysayers are operating out of a definition of “redemption” that has no theological or philosophical dimension to it, but is instead merely a shorter way of saying “rehabilitation in the court of public opinion” . . . well, I may still think that a lot of them are full of it, but at least I can understand how they got there.

(Also – if you’re going to write a redemption arc, don’t cheat by making your character-to-be-redeemed guilty of something that they/their culture think is a Big Wrong Thing but that we, enlightened souls that we are, consider to be Not Really That Big a Deal.  They need to be really and truthfully guilty of something really and truthfully bad, or there’s no point to the exercise.)

Zombies, Pandemics, and Other Disasters

The Walking Dead is, of course, the standout show of the current televised post-apocalyptic lineup. What makes it good is that the showrunners have discovered how to convince the American viewing public to sit still for an extended meditation on the various approaches to living a moral life – or at least surviving – in an imperfect world: For every so-many minutes of debate by the characters on morality and philosophy, throw in an equal or greater number of minutes of zombie-smashing and gunfire. The genius lies in the show’s ability to determine just how long viewers will sit still for philosophy before a zombie needs to shamble up out of nowhere and go rarrrgh! (Also, they have figured out that philosophy is a lot more palatable when coming from bikers with biceps. Which is probably a sentiment that Plato could have understood.)

Fear the Walking Dead is a limp noodle by comparison, mostly because all of the characters are operating on a stupidity level that makes me wonder how they survived before Southern California started sliding downhill into chaos. You know that things are bad when the junkie older son of the viewpoint family is one of the few people exhibiting sporadic flashes of intelligence and common sense. (Oh, and Ruben Blades is doing a thankless job of portraying the only other character with more depth than a wading pool. I hope it leads to better roles for him in better shows.)

But the show that I have a sneaking fondness for is the post-pandemic-apocalypse drama The Last Ship. It doesn’t have the groundbreaking quality of The Walking Dead, nor the trainwreck-in-progress morbid fascination of Fear the Walking Dead. What it does have, though, is a refreshing change from the usual Hobbesian post-apocalyptic universe, where all it takes is a couple of weeks without hot water and electricity for the world to collapse into a war of all against all that’s fit to warm a social Darwinist’s heart. In The Last Ship, people aren’t just taking the breakdown of civilization-as-we-know-it passively. They’re all working, in their different ways, to restore order and government and the social contract. Hell, even the bad guys on the show are trying to do that thing — they’re just doing it wrong.

And frankly, I think that for all the tempting darkness of the Walking Dead future, the idea of people banding together and striving for the restoration of order is the more realistic vision.

The Problem with Nice

If writing effective villains is hard, writing effective nice characters is even harder.  Villains do things; they are proactive in pursuit of their evil goals.  They are objects in motion, and objects in motion draw and keep interest.

Nice characters, on the other hand, are all too often defined by the things they don’t do:  they don’t start fights; they don’t break their own marriage vows or go after the significant others of their friends; they don’t nurture long-term obsessive plans for gaining revenge or accumulating wealth or attaining positions of power.  They may not even smoke, drink, or listen to rock-and-roll (and the strongest drug they take is probably aspirin.)  If you make your readers spend too much time around a character like that, they’re going to start cheering for the villain.

Something to keep in mind, then:  If you want characters to generate plot and conflict, they need to have shadows in them to hide stuff and angular bits to catch on things.

The Inverse of Robert Burns

The Scots poet Robert Burns wrote, famously, of being able to look at oneself as an outside observer:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae
mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion…

For writers seeking to create believable and well-rounded characters, however, another important question to ask is, how does a character see him-or-herself? 

This question has more than one side to it.  The more obvious side, perhaps, deals with a character’s secret self-doubts and hidden shames:  the heroic leader who is inwardly convinced that he’s making a bombastic fool of himself every time he has to make an inspirational speech; the charitable volunteer who secretly hates the good works they do out of a sense of duty.

On beyond that, however, is another question:  what is the character’s heroic self-image?  That is, when they’re thinking of themselves in the best possible light, the one that they’d want to have shining on them in their most flattering biography, what do they see?  This is especially helpful when creating good antagonists (since as I’ve probably said before, very few people actually think of themselves as deliberate, conscious villains.)  The rapacious industrial robber baron may see himself as a captain of industry, risking his personal fortune on daring projects that will add to the wealth of the nation and an increase in the public weal; the usurper of the throne may see himself or herself as the only person bold enough to take decisive action before the current ruler drives the whole country off a cliff (and in some versions of the story, he or she might actually be right, and not be a villain at all.)  And the world is  chock-full of CEOs, generals, heads of state, and more petty tinpot bosses than you could shake a stick at, who look at themselves in the mirror every morning and see, not a heartless jerk and a menace to society, but the man (or woman) who can make the hard but necessary decisions.

If there’s a danger to this two-pronged approach to creating well-rounded and believable antagonists, it’s that you may well end up with an antagonist who’s sufficiently well-rounded and believable that some of your readers will end up liking them.  Please don’t consider this a failure on your part; be flattered, instead.

After all, in the real world, even bad guys have friends.  So if your fictional baddie garners a friend or two among your readers, then you’ve come just that little bit closer to creating an effective secondary reality in your story.

Scum and Villainy

Writing effective bad guys can be tricky.  You want them to be three-dimensional, not flat, and you want them to be worthy opponents for your protagonist, but you don’t want to go overboard and give them so many extra coolness points that they end up stealing the show.  If that happens, you might as well give up and give them the novel.  Relabel them as a “rogue” or “antihero” and pretend that you meant to do it that way all along.  The only thing harder than adding coolness points to a character who doesn’t have enough of them is removing them from a character who has too many.

But here are a few things you can try if (as is more common) your problem is a villain who’s not interesting enough:

Give them virtues to go along with their vices.  If they’re ruthless and ambitious, make them brave and capable.  If they’re dishonest, make them intelligent, or amusing, or kind to homeless people and stray animals.  Real people are never only one thing, and your characters shouldn’t be, either.

Give them actual goals that they’re striving to achieve – not just “I want to rule the world/make lots of money,” but specific stuff like, “I want to rule the world because once I’m in charge of all of it there won’t be any reason for countries to fight each other any more” or “I want to make enough money to go back home to West Nowheresville and buy up the whole town and ruin all the people who made my high school years a living hell.”

Grant them the valid points in their arguments.  Even in debates where one side is clearly Right and the other is clearly Wrong, the party of Wrong is still likely to have a couple of good arguments in their favor.  Let your bad guys score those one or two measly points before your good guy brings out the steamroller of righteousness and flattens them like smashed pennies.

(Science fiction, I’m looking at you.  As a genre, you have a long history of making all your conservatives sound like wild-eyed militaristic loons, or all your liberals sound like fuzzy-minded ineffectual do-gooders, depending upon the bias of the author.  Please stop.)

Resist the urge to make your bad guys even more villainous by sticking extra and unrelated bad qualities onto them like artificial warts.  Especially resist the urge to do this with whatever the criminal or moral bad thing of the moment happens to be.  If your bad guys are attempting to take over a perfectly adequate and functioning government, for example, don’t give them a sideline in clubbing baby seals just because everybody knows that clubbing baby seals is bad.

And, finally, remember that – with the memorable exception of Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III – most villains don’t think of themselves as villains, and don’t wake up in the morning saying, “Now, what villainous thing am I going to do today?”

Unexpected Ingredients

When you’re constructing a piece of fiction, sometimes what you need to make an old standby memorable again is an unexpected ingredient, a theme or a place or a character that the reader isn’t expecting to find in combination with the other, more familiar elements in the story.  Time was, something as simple as switching in a female character for a male one in a particular role was enough to add the requisite element of strange; these days (and if we’re not all grateful for it, then we damned well should be), the entry into the narrative of a person of the female-presenting kind is not remarkable enough by itself to push the story off of center.

(Actually, these days it’s inadvisable to rely on the mere presence of any character type to provide your story with a hint of strange.  Well-drawn characters are going to have better things to do with their personal narratives than spending them being decoration for other characters’ plots – and if you aren’t going to create well-drawn characters, what are you doing in this game?)

But doing something unexpected like, say, using the story of a zombie apocalypse in order to examine philosophical issues such as the relationship of the individual to the larger group, and how to live a moral life in an imperfect world . . . that’ll provide you with more than enough strange to keep you going.

And as an extra, a recipe, also with an unexpected ingredient:

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Coca-Cola


  • At least 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs (if what you’ve got is bone-in ribs, make that at least 3 pounds)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced (I also throw in some dried minced garlic partway through the cooking time, because we like our garlic around here)
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 1 can of Coca-Cola
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • fresh-ground black pepper, to taste (we also like our pepper around here, so I’m generous with it)



  • Put your short ribs into your crockpot.
  • Season with the salt and pepper.
  • Add the onions, garlic, and scallions.
  • Pour in the Coca-Cola.
  • Cook for 5-6 hours on high or 7-8 hours on low.
  • Serve over egg noodles.  (Actually, over whatever starch you prefer, but we like our short ribs with egg noodles around here.)

The amazing thing, once you’re done, is that this dish tastes nothing whatsoever like Coca-Cola.  But it doesn’t taste like short ribs braised in the usual red wine or beer or beef stock, either.


Fully Rounded

That’s what we all want our characters to be, right?

Well, yes and no.

We want our primary characters to be well-rounded, the sort of free-standing personality that, if one of them were done in marble instead of words, the reader could walk around it and view it from all sides.  And we want our secondary characters to at least stand out from the background in high relief.  But when it comes to the great mass of minor characters who populate our fictional worlds – the assorted spear carriers and exposition delivery persons – we don’t necessarily need that at all.

One reason we don’t need it is that readers are trained to expect significant things from characters or other story elements that are described in detail. (The cinematic equivalent to this is the Elevator Operator Rule, which states that if the camera’s eye returns to an unnamed walk-on character three or more times, he or she is going to be important later.)  If you take the time to let your reader know that the postal delivery person had dry toast and scrambled egg whites for breakfast, and that she’s three days from retirement to a mobile home park in Florida, your reader is going to assume that he or she needs to remember that postal delivery person because she has a role to play in the story beyond simply slipping the actual plot-important letter into the mail slot of the protagonist’s house.

You can play with this a little, if you’re aware of what you’re doing.  Maybe your spear carrier or exposition delivery person is going to have a brief page or so of interesting action before leaving the story for good – the equivalent of a walk-on part with a couple of really good lines in it, the sort of scene that later has casting directors saying, “What about So-and-So for the role?  She was really good in that scene in Another Person’s Story, the bit where she tries to deliver the letter and finds the body instead – who’s her agent?”  If you’ve got a scene like that, you can bring your spear carrier out into higher relief with a few details like the scrambled egg whites or the mobile home park in Florida.  Not a lot of detail, mind you – the light touch is best here.

(And be careful about those characters on the verge of retirement.  Readers have been trained on what to expect from them, too . . . and it’s almost never fun for the character.  Finding a body on the front porch is probably the nicest of the possibilities for our example above; she’ll be lucky if the envelope she’s trying to deliver isn’t rigged to explode.)