Why are villains so much fun?

Protagonists are all very well. You pick a central character, you get into their head, you understand his or her point of view. That protagonist is by very definition the Knight of Virtue. There are protagonists with shades of gray, of course, and they are complex and lovely. But mostly, mostly, they ride on the side of light.

And then there are the people who will rise to stand in that protagonist’s way. The Bad Guys. The Black Hats. The forces of evil. And your reader remembers them. Often better than your protagonist.

Who did you remember?

When you walked out of Star Wars, whom did you carry out with you? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Yes, you might have recognized a few quoted lines from the protagonist, years down the line. But as soon as someone started doing that breathing you did more than that. You were back there, in Vader’s shadow, touched by the billowing black cloak. If you hadn’t been… well, he might have found your lack of faith disturbing.

What of other famous villains? What of Saruman? What of Voldemort? What of deliberately half-shadowed characters who took on the mantle of protagonist even while potentially being a creature of the darker realms of morality and ethics – characters like Elric of Melnibone?

Humans may admire virtue, but they do not necessarily like it all that much. Characters whose every facet is bright, shiny and pure tend to annoy after a while. Everyone needs their flaws because without them they cease to be something that any reader will be able to identify with at all.

Writing a villain frees you from certain constraints.

You can have these people do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, and they don’t have to answer to anyone except themselves. And they come in different shapes and sizes and darknesses.

A few of my own examples… In the Changer of Days books, there are two characters who might qualify for this particular badge.

One of them is Sif, the older and illegitimate half-brother of the true queen. He rose to power in the midst of a war, when his army decided that they needed a leader who was a grown man instead of the nine-year-old girl waiting in the royal throne room, far away from the battles. Sif had been disqualified from taking the crown, by virtue of his bastard birth, but also by virtue of the fact that his mother had not been wedded because she lacked a valued attribute – that of Sight (to learn more about that you really WILL have to read the books…) But Sight, or the lack of it, has always been a chip on Sif’s shoulder, and it drives him to do ugly and evil things in its name. And it is those things that have forged his reputation – that of being ruthless, pitiless, and able to kill without hesitation or regret.

It is that reputation which sends my second villain, Ansen, the traitor, straight to him. Ansen, the foster-brother of the young hidden queen, races to Sif’s side with news of the girl so he can destroy her in order to assure his grip on his throne. Ansen is certain of his welcome as the bearer of such news – the betrayal is nothing, in the face of the reward he thinks he can reap – that such tidings will gain him.

But he has the misfortune of arriving at the wrong place and the wrong time, and Sif is closed to him. Sif barely acknowledges his existence before he snuffs him out carelessly. There is a scene where Ansen, about to die on Sif’s orders, is still hoping that his hero will save him will intercede for him. But when Sif, casting a desultory eye on the execution that he had ordered, is asked who the hapless person about to die had been.

“Nobody,” Sif replies, turning away. “He was nobody.”

Already forgotten. Insignificant.

And yet he was a terrific villain, and he was remembered by others. Readers who had forgotten the names of many other characters remembered Ansen’s. Because his actions had stabbed deep into their own sense of justice and fairness and the meaning of glory. Everyone hated him, with the fire of a thousand suns. That was partly because I sketched him with such passion, with such gusto. I was unconstrained by what he SHOULD do, who he OUGHT to have been, and so neither was he – and, freed, he did unconscionable things and became instantly memorable because of them.

In a different book. I painted a different villain. His name was Lihui and he was a courtier at the Imperial court in The Secrets of Jin-shei. The man never raised his voice, was always unfailingly courteous and polite, would reach out to help a crippled girl stand when he came upon her fallen… and yet this is the character of whom one of the book’s readers would write, “…and I just wanted to put both Lihui’s eyes out with my thumbs.”

That’s when I knew that my job there was done. I had effectively gone behind the screen and showed the real soul of a dark and twisted character – and after that no amount of window dressing and surface politeness and general outward good behavior would have been enough. The reader had seen, and could never unsee. It was fascinating to write a character like that, free to follow every shady impulse, and to make the reader go with him, recoiling and swearing and disgusted but nevertheless unable to look away.

In my recent series, The Were Chronicles, there is a man called Barbican Bain. Another of the quiet, almost oily, ones. But because he held so fast to his convictions – his terrifying and terrible and wrong convictions – he was a train wreck you couldn’t forget. His presence was very Vader-like – you could almost hear his breathing in the background when you stopped to listen, wherever you were in that book. He was omnipresent, a shadow in everyone’s life, the cause of great sorrow that was and great troubles to come. He was an incredible character to write.

That’s why you’ll find that so many villains in literature are utterly memorable. Because you cannot believe that you are there with them – the only real way to disavow them completely and declare that no, you are SO NOT on their side is to stop reading the story they are in, and you can’t, because they’ve got you held fast and you can’t help but look at the things they’re showing you.

A good writer will use a good villain to shine a black light into the darkest recesses of the human spirit and human condition. It’s in that darkness when the writer and the reader reach out and find each other’s hand, and hold fast – because the only other person there in the shadows is someone whose breathing you will hear loud in the silence that surrounds you, and whose presence is going to haunt the dreams of anyone whose path that specter has crossed.

And that is why writing those villains is so absolutely rewarding, in the end.

With every word, with every brush stroke, the writer is painting the story that is being told into the reader’s memory. It is the shadows we remember best.

~~~~

HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE
~~~~~
About me      My books      Email me

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.

Cats and books

Cat friendsAhh, friend cats reading about friend humans!

Ever wonder what your cat does while you are away?

At Bustle, Caitlin White explains and illustrates.

No matter how great your book club is, it does not compare to the newest book club, and that’s because it is not entirely composed of cats. Yes, cats have started their own book club. What else did you think they did while you were gone working all day?

Read the rest HERE

~~~~~
BookstoreDo you always have a book with you, even at the movies? begins the About section of the blog – Books, the Universe and Everything.

In this blog post, Emily Wilson tells reports on her visits to a lot of spectacular libraries and bookshops. I spent last year traveling around the world and the US, and along the way I visited as many beautiful libraries and fantastic independent bookshops as I could fit in. Some of them were planned, places that were on my itinerary from the beginning. Some of them I stumbled upon serendipitously. All of them were treasures.

Read the rest HERE

~~~~~
aw-poohImage credit: E.H. Shepard [poo]

January 18 marked not only the birthday of celebrated English author A.A. Milne, Kristy Puchko writes at Mental Floss, but also—by no coincidence—Winnie The Pooh Day, a holiday intended to celebrate the eponymous bear and his creator. To pay tribute to both Milne and his lovable bear, she has compiled a collection of incredible facts that even the most dedicated visitor to the Hundred Acre Wood might not know.
Real WinnieWikimedia Commons

1. The silly old bear was based on a real, young one.
During World War I, a Canadian soldier named Harry Colebourn made a pet of a black bear cub he bought from a hunter for $20. Named Winnipeg—or “Winnie” for short—the bear became his troop’s mascot and later a resident of the London Zoological Gardens. There, she was an adored attraction, especially to a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne, son of author A.A. Milne. In fact, the boy loved Winnie so much that he named his own teddy after her.

Read the rest HERE

~~~~~
8 Books with Disappearing Protagonists

Why is it that the things just out of reach are the things we want the most? Off the Shelf  asks.

Here at Off the Shelf, we love a book with a good old fashioned disappearance. Perhaps you’ve heard of a  little book called Gone Girl? Or maybe you saw our reviews last month for Last Night in Montreal and Where’d You Go Bernadette? But we’re not just talking murder mysteries here. Here are 8 more excellent books in which the protagonists just…disappear.

100-year-old manThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
by Jonas Jonasson

Technically, this protagonist only disappears for everyone else, but it’s nonetheless a wonderful read. After a long and eventful life, Allan Karlsson ends up in a nursing home, sure that he’s in his final days. The only problem is that he’s still in good health, and in one day, he turns 100. A big celebration is in the works, but Allan really isn’t interested, so he decides to escape. He climbs out the window in his slippers and embarks on a hilarious and entirely unexpected journey. It would be the adventure of a lifetime for anyone else, but Allan has a larger-than-life backstory. Not only has he witnessed some of the most important events of the twentieth century, but he has actually played a key role in them, meeting figures like Chairman Mao and Charles De Gaulle. It’s a great story that will make anyone feel young again.

See the other books HERE

~~~~~
THIS ‘n THAT

Robert Stone, 1937-2015: Robert Stone, who won the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers in 1975, died on January 10.

~~~
What age did the greatest authors publish their most famous works? (e.g. Douglas Adams 28, Jack Kerouac 26…)

Explore the careers of some of the world’s most successful authors – by first published book, age at breakthrough book, and number of books published.

See the chart HERE

~~~
TS Eliot 50 years on – quiz

How much do you know?

~~~
Underwater Sculpture Among Coral Gardens
Reef artBali’s underwater sculpture of a mermaid is one among several “Living Sculptures in the Sea” created by local fishing communities in hopes to help restore local coral reefs
(Photo the Marine Foundation)

Read the rest HERE

~~~~~
Quote of the Day
QUOTE Lewis~~~~~
Alma Alexander      My books      Email me 

If you found this blog post interesting, amusing or helpful, then please use the icons below to share it with other writers, readers or the guy next to you on the subway.