Today at Erindor Press, I’m happy to bring you a guest post by J.M. Robison. It’s a great take on how to bring more depth to your villain’s personality and how to avoid some of the pitfalls well-known authors have fallen into.
The inspiration for this blog post comes from The Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. It came about at the part where character X is kidnapped by Mistress A. Mistress A declares she will “train” X by inflicting massive pain upon him. Like any logical person, X asks her,“And what is the purpose of my training, Mistress A?”
To which she replies: “To teach you the meaning of pain. To teach you that your life is no longer yours, that it is mine, and I can do anything I want with it. Anything. I can hurt you in any way I want, for as long as I want, and no one is going to help you but me. I’m going to teach you that every moment you have without pain is a moment only I can grant you. You are going to learn to do as I say without question, without hesitation, no matter what it is. You are going to learn to beg for anything you get.” To which she also says, “I enjoy it when a man makes it hard.”
Why does Mistress A have this desire to inflict pain on others? What is her goal for doing so?
It’s not enough for the character to say, “I enjoy it when a man makes it hard.” You need to address the REASON why she enjoys it, otherwise she’s a rebel without a cause, an antagonist with no GOAL. To be a realistic antagonist, a goal and the reason for wanting that goal need to be addressed.
See these examples. Read them all or just a few.
1) Take real life villains. I choose ISIS – the Islamic terrorist group infiltrating every country. Their GOAL is to kill everyone who does not follow their religion. The REASON is because their religion tells them to kill everyone who does not follow their religion. There is a clear goal and a clear why. Thus, our real life antagonists.
2) My sister-in-law, JJ. JJ is an attention hog, to the point she will intentionally create massive drama so she can be in the center of it, because everyone will see her. What’s her GOAL? To be the center of attention. What is the REASON for that goal? Because she’s a narcissist.
3) Hitler killed Jews due to claims they had turned against Germany during the First War. Also that they were behind the downfall of Germany in WWI. His GOAL was to kill the Jews. The REASON was because he believed they had turned against Germany during the First War. (Note that a villain’s claims don’t have to be true, only that the villain believes them to be true.)
4) In a fantasy book of mine, the villain wants to kill every race of people that are non-human. That’s his GOAL. The REASON is because he has the deep subconscious belief that he’s a fallen god and those non-humans he wants to kill were a mistake he created.
5) In another fantasy book of mine, the villain keeps a wizard imprisoned so my villain can harvest the wizard’s magic. The GOAL for doing this is to harvest the wizard’s magic. The REASON the villain wants to harvest the wizard’s magic is so my villain can use the magic to create money and make himself rich.
They all have the same elements in these examples, even the real-life villains: they all have a GOAL and a REASON for wanting that goal.
Below are the excuses – disguised as reasons – villains may use to justify their goal:
EXCUSE FOR BEHAVIOR: They want power (such as “taking over the world”)
GOAL: Kill everyone who opposes them
EXCUSE FOR BEHAVIOR: They love to inflict pain on others
GOAL: to inflict pain on others
I call them excuses – instead of reasons – because those still open up questions as to WHY. WHY do they want to take over the world? WHY do they love to inflict pain on others?
See these excuses changed into reasons:
REASON FOR WANTING POWER: He was beholden to his captors for 20 years and, finally freed, wants to reclaim his dignity and prove to himself he will never be beholden to anyone again.
GOAL: Make as many people as he can conquer be beholden to him.
REASON FOR LOVING TO INFLICT PAIN ON OTHERS: Someone hurt her. Badly, and for so long that the pain became an additional sensation she could feel, and she forced that sensation to thrill her so began craving it instead. She did that because it’s much easier to handle a thrilling sensation than a painful one. She wanted to show other people what this amazing sensation was, so she kidnapped them and inflicted pain on them because that is how she learned how amazing the sensation of pain can feel.
GOAL: Share with others the thrilling sensation of pain
We shy away from giving villains reasons for their goal because – at the very core of it – that villain likely suffered as a victim at some point in their life, and that suffering was a direct cause for them growing into a villain. Human nature doesn’t like seeing suffering, and to see the villain suffering before they were a villain makes us want to pity them instead of hate them, and we are supposed to hate the villain, aren’t we? I saw a quote that said, “Evil queens are the princesses who were never rescued.” A villain is never born. A villain is made by outside forces. You noticed my picture of Walter White from Breaking Bad. He didn’t start out as a villain. He was dying of cancer and his wife nagged at him to pay for treatment. Cancer treatment is expensive. So Walter White produced meth and sold it to pay for it. And the villainy began.
As you go about your year, find the villain in books and movies and find their REASON and their GOAL. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Darth Vadar
- The Joker
- Captain Hook
You might be surprised that there are a lot of villains who have a goal but lack the reason for it. For further advice on making realistic villains, see this BLOG.
Right. Back to reading The Wizard’s First Rule and enduring an insufferable villain while she tortures character X without a reason.
Born in small town Bennington, Idaho, J.M. wanted to be just like her big, story writer sister. Big sister paints now, but that initial role model was all the springboard J.M. needed to fearlessly leap into writing the novels of her heart. Getting around the world as a soldier has helped broaden J.M.’s views on cultures and personalities, and settling down as a Deputy Sheriff in Nevada for a time has helped her maintain all the fine intricacies humans are capable of which has helped define her characters into something realistic and believable. Without any prior claims to fame, J.M. is proud to showcase that hard work, even from rock bottom, DOES pay off.
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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Narcissist, sociopaths, and psychotics aside, great article!