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Robert's Rules of Writing #36: Perfect Your Villain

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

And, on the flip side of not having a perfect hero, you also don't want to have a character who is a complete villain.

A villain is usually the antagonist of the story, the bad guy, the person who doesn't want to let the hero achieve the hero's goal. But a character who is villainous throughout borders on melodrama. When writing about villains, we have to remember that they often have the same desires and motivations as the good guys

As Masello notes, and many other writers have said, true villains don't think of themselves as evil. Instead, they think of themselves as doing good. Very few people (other than sociopaths) wake up in the morning and declare that they will do evil today. Instead, they try to do what they think is right, even if they know that general morality might disagree. Some of these people even consider themselves above regular morality, assuming that the ends justify the means.

I could look to the real world for examples, but I'm reluctant to do such a thing. Instead, I'll present the example of Raskolnikov from the Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment, who early on in the novel has convinced himself that he has the right to commit murder for the greater good. And looking to the world of comic books, the current incarnation of Lex Luthor may be power-hungry, but it's his distrust of alien influences on humanity that most motivates him to fight against Superman.

In one of the stories I worked on recently, my hero, a young woman, faced off against the villain, a middle-aged man, at the very end. Although it's slightly cliched, he explained to her the motivations behind his actions, and for a moment there my hero's resolve wavered. The villain did in fact have excellent reasons for his actions, actions that he truly believed would bring about a better world, even if it meant killing a few people -- such as my hero -- along the way. Fortunately, she stuck to her resolve and defeated the villain rather than joining him in his evil ways.

One other final thought. When I took his course on comic book writing, Dennis O'Neil advised us to give the villain an advantage of some sort over the hero in every story, so that it would always look more hopeless for the hero until the end. I think that also falls under Masello's rule #36; after all, the more advantages you give your villain, the more perfect your villain becomes.


I think this one is actually a YMMV. I'm all for making the villain understandable at times, or even sympathetic when called for. I wrote a story recently where the 'villain' was a mother who wanted to get her child away from a foster parent she felt was endangering her son, and nearly convinced the foster parent that he was in the wrong. But I think it limits you if every villain has to be the hero of his own tale, just like every spear carrier and every piece of furniture. You just have to turn on the news for five minutes to know that some people are just in it for the money. Some people think killing children stops a new generation of their enemies from growing up to be soldiers. Some honestly don't care about anything but their own comfort and convenience. Some act out of brief, intense passion or anger, or go on a bender. And some people just like to watch things blow up.

It's sort of like the "price of magic," by my lights: Magic needs limits and ways of working, sure, but if all magic/technology has a price, that becomes all the story is about. It limits the stories you can tell.
But I think it limits you if every villain has to be the hero of his own tale...

Hm. Personally, I don't know that the author always needs to give us the full backstory for every villain, but I do think the author needs to understand that backstory and have a motivation for the villain besides, "I think I'll be evil today, 'cause I just like wearing black cloaks and twirling my mustache."

I'm not sure I understand your second point. Do you think it's possible for magic to have a price without the story being all about the price of magic?


Well, no, I'm not a fan of the twirling mustache type, but sometimes it's not about whether someone's motivations are understandable or sympathetic. Sometimes what's at stake matters far more or far less to them than to the hero, or their view of the world is far askew from ours.

As for the second point, if you think about it long and hard, you'll find that a toaster has a price (it costs money and uses bread, electricity and space) or a car (pollution, oil wars, precautions against carjackers, etc.) But On the Road didn't deal with "What price internal combustion?" and most people will look at you funny if you get all angsty about the terrible cost of driving a car every time you pick the kids up from school. Even if something does have a price, you can tell a whole story about that thing without the price being mentioned or impacting the story at all.

But it's also possible to have LIMITS for magic without dealing with a PRICE one way or the other. For one, Mercedes Lackey generally has it that only certain people can do magic, or that you can only have the inborn talent for one type of magic, or that people with magic have to answer to a legal or mystical authority for their actions. All of those limit magic, keep it from being a deus ex machina device, but none of them could really be classified as a cost.

Does that make more sense to you?
I think we're colliding on the distinction between something being important to a story, and the story being about that something.

Sure, toasters and cars and such have a price, and a story that bemoans that price would be fairly odd. (Though with the price of gas, I'm actually hearing a fair amount of griping about having to pick up the kids and similar errands these days). Anyway, that price still has to exist for the stories to work. Even if it's never mentioned, and simply assumed to exist by a common, unspoken agreement between writer and author, a story in which cars didn't have a price would be a drastically different story indeed. Like you said, you can tell the whole story without mentioning the price ... but that price still has to exist.

It's been a while since I read Lackey, but I seem to recall her protagonists paying a price for their magic. Sometimes it's an indirect price, a social consequence of being different or special or chosen or whatever, but there's still a cost. But I'm starting to pick nits there.

Mostly, I just disagree with the original statement that if all magic/technology has a cost, that's all the story is about. All guns have costs, but I've yet to read a murder mystery that's all about the cost of the gun....
...a story in which cars didn't have a price would be a drastically different story indeed.

I'm not sure that it would, necessarily. The clothes you wear have a cost, but unless you're a character in Sex in the City, that cost is not unusually high and is so taken for granted that it is invisible in stories unless explicitly used by the author as a plot point.

I guess I'm trying to say that everything in life has some cost or consequence, to the point where most of it becomes white noise. Since a story is a created reality where everything the author says is lifted out of the white noise, when the cost of something, anything, is mentioned, it becomes important.
I think we're still missing each other. My point is mostly a worldbuilding perspective on this. There is a lot the author has to know about the world that doesn't necessarily make it onto the page. But to run with the cars example, imagine that cars didn't have a price. Suddenly the availability of cars changes. Cars would practically be disposable. Everyone would have one, which means more roads, more crowding, and more accidents. You could probably pull all sorts of fun implications from it. You don't have to start your story by saying the price of a new car is $20K, but that cost has to be an implicit assumption about the world of the story.

It's like you said with your clothes example. The cost is taken for granted. That's not the same as saying it doesn't exist.

But like I said before, I mostly took issue with the statement that if all magic/technology has a cost, that's all the story is about. For me, as a general rule, if magic and technology don't have a cost, I'm going to have a much harder time believing the story. You don't have to bludgeon me with the cost, but genereally, it has to exist. And yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but I believe they're going to be exceptions.

Hm ... how did we start with developing villains and end up on the price of magic?
The thing is, people who are "in it for the money," as you say, still strongly believe in their own motivations.

I really liked the way this thread went, BTW. Lots for me to think about.
Posting these rules has certainly sparked a lot of lively discussions!
Yes!!! I can't stand cardboard villains, but I love stories that actually humanize the antagonist. Even if I don't agree with the motivations, they have to exist! If I read one more story about a bad guy who kicks puppies and kills babies because "Hey, I'm evil!" I think I'll lose my mind.
On the other hand I did like Flannery O'Connor's story about the Bible Salesman that seduced a girl only to steal her false leg. Of course we don't know that he's anything but a countrified religious fanatic hick until he is running away with the leg.

The second to last paragraph reminded me of that Arnold Schwarzennegger movie where he's fighting Satan played by Gabriel Byrne. Awful movie, but toward the middle of the movie Satan comes along and Ah-nold asks him what he wants and he won't give an answer that's not a temptation. And that kept making me think "WHAT doesG-D NEED withaspaceship?" Becasue really the devil's got a pretty good gig in the underworld; why would he want all the extra paperwork?

Of course I was also thinking "Say YES Ah-Nold! YEs! Give in to temptation! Make this movie half-way interesting." Sadly, Ah-nold said no and I suffered.
You should provide a link.

December 2016

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