Humanizing Evil?

Disney-VillainsI cannot seem to write a purely evil villain. All the villains in my stories have distinct human qualities.

There is the corrupt Emperor who drinks away his obsessive paranoia. The only person he truly trusts is a lone childhood friend, who he jealously monopolizes.

Or the evil religious leader who is terrified of his own prophetic visions. Though the first born son of a great leader, his father deemed him not leadership material. He is determined to prove his father wrong but even after his father dies, he’s not ever satisfied that he’s succeeded.

A power-hungry bully who beat his own son until the boy turned against him. Yet in private, the father wearies his henchmen with boastings of his son’s strength. Torn by regret but too proud to admit it, let alone change.

I could list far more. They all have their own dark, pitiful stories. But how much might be too much? At least one of my reviewers commented about how one of my villains didn’t seem so big and bad after I showed one of their weaknesses. I mentioned my own struggle over the concern in the podcast we did at the start of this month.

When I got the critique, it made me stop and realize that my stories are as much about battling against cultures and societies as much as the people. Forger of Dreams for instance is really about the struggle of a few honest people in a corrupt culture rotting away from the inside. It has antagonists in the form of individuals but they are figureheads. The Emperor represent the government. Sla’strones shows the dark religious side of the society. Galdron is another key opponent, but is the commoner stealing from his employer and resenting the rich.

These three do evil things and have very clear agendas, but evil is what they do, not who they are. Call them “wicked” if you must, but they were not born that way.

I remember when I was a teenager and just starting to write books. My ultimate bad guy was this psychotic madman who wanted to rule the world. He had an evil laugh and a bad temper. Back then I never questioned why. I didn’t know anything about where he came from really, his childhood or private daydreams. They didn’t seem to matter. He was just evil and he did whatever seemed most sinister to me at the time.

Then someone challenged me to write from his perspective, to explore what actually happened to him. That totally changed my view of him. He became real to me. I found logic in his “madness” and ambitions. I came to understand his fears, his pain, his wants and dreams. For one thing, he literally believes that him as Supreme ruler is the best idea for the general population, the only way to end the destructive cycles. Those early drafts of the madman now seem like a comedy cartoon bad guy. I could never go back to that.

Yes, I believe that villains are to be feared. They must be capable of enough danger to put the reader at the edge of their seat. I’m a firm believer in stacking the odds against the hero. I’m also a firm believer that the fruit of evil is misery. It destroys the person inside just as the society in Forger dies from the inside. There is no peace for such.

I suppose that having learned that, it would naturally come out in my writing.

Besides, many of the great stories out there have tortured souls as their villains. Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera and nearly all of Shakespeare’s stories, just to name the first few that came to mind.

I may still have things to learn about portraying my villains. However I’ve found that those fears and weakness I’ve hidden in my villains have made them more dangerous. I know what they want. I know their greatest fears. These are the things that they will do anything for.

What about you? Are your villains/antagonists more human or evil incarnate?

About Ren Black

Part-time novelist. Weekend artist. Full-time Mother. Ex-poet. Perfectionist by training. Compulsive researcher sporadically. Prone to fits of linguistic commentary Unorthodox Renegade occasionally. Sarcastic by habit... Dreamer Always... Consider Yourself Warned

5 comments on “Humanizing Evil?

  1. Antagonists aren’t necessarily evil. They’re simply characters who have motives to pursue goals that conflict with the goals their stories main characters have motives to pursue and one has to lose for the other to win. The typical villain is evil, but they shouldn’t be pure evil if they’re human beings in most cases. Evil with a human face, that is believably human, can be scarier than the classic cartoon villain.

    If I have a human villain that is evil, I tend to want to redeem them at the story climax if at all possible or leave hope for it. Only times my villains are irredeemable is if they’re demonic or represent such symbolically.

    • Great points.

      I “redeem” some of them, but don’t think I could say I tend to do so. It’s sort of a toss up and probably not even 50% recovery rate. Good for you that you have that tendency. Especially in the Christian market, I know that it’s valued.

      I think I have lots of sorrow of the damned, but not to repentance. I do have a much of edgy characters that they could go either way and some of them I manage to nudge them in a good direction. None of the ones I mentioned are “redeemed”.

  2. The important, universal thing is the reader needs a clear reason to root for the main character to achieve their goals at the expense of the antagonistic character achieving their goals, and the antagonist has to be a worthy opponent who has a reasonable chance of winning. Beyond that depends on what kind of emotional experience the author wants to give the reader. Like the tragic hero, the opposition character often has a fatal flaw that contributes to his/her downfall, which still occurs when the downfall is nonfatal and the character repents and gets reborn.

  3. I think human villains are a must — even if they’re not literally human. 😉

    Will is one of my critique partners, and he noted of one of the villains in Alara’s Call: “Now that isn’t nice – You’ve humanized him. I don’t want to feel bad for him.”

    Ha! Mission accomplished.

    I like that you cited Les Mis. I’ve long felt Javert is one of the best villains ever because he thinks he’s the good guy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: