Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Villains Part Two:
Sympathy for the Devil
Looking through the Villain's Eyes

By Tina Sikorski
© 2003, Tina Sikorski

antasy, dark fantasy, and horror have several things in common, and unfortunately they are all prone to the clichéd villain. Take a look through your own work and see which of these categories you fall into:

a) Serial killer (of children or adults), b) dark force after the destruction of the world, c) aliens (dimensional or planetary) bent on death and destruction, d) vampires or similar legendary creatures on killing streaks, e) greedy, self-serving people whose venality is mistaken for true evil, f) some combination of the above. 

If you didn't find your villain in the above list, I applaud you. The rest   -- including me, I'm afraid -- might want to rethink things. There's a good chance that your villain is not only a cliché but outright one-dimensional. It's very easy to make up your antagonist, put a black hat on him, and call it done.

Shift your perceptions a bit, and take a look at that grey area. Somewhere in there, you may find the villain's point of view. Oh, in some stories, the villain knows he's the "bad guy" and doesn't care... but what if the villain thinks he's the hero? Even if you're still sure the guy deserves to be in the black hat, don't you think you owe him his five minutes on the soapbox?

Maybe the spirits from another world who are causing people's deaths actually have come to our world to do good things -- spread knowledge, help save us from someone else, or even just establish contact -- but something inherent in their very existence causes harm to humans. Do your heroes just destroy them anyhow?

In a traditional story, the heroes might never even discover the reasons behind the deaths, and do just that -- a tragedy if they ever do learn the truth, and a sub-plot worthy of a good chunk of a book right there. Or maybe the heroes take a "them or us" stance, and now from the alien point of view the humans have become the villains, who must be hunted down and stopped.

How about that child-killing madman? Perhaps he was once a hero himself, but after so many years of trying to think like villains -- and possibly a personal tragedy or two -- he finds himself suddenly unable to overcome his urges to kill. That's actually been done, but it's at least less often used than some of the other options, and often it's more a case of  "possessed by ancient evil" sort of thing --  a good way to mislead the characters as they start to find reasons to suspect the hero of being the culprit, I might add.

Maybe the villain really is as straight-forward as he looks: he's bent on personal power at any cost. But what about the villain's henchmen and slaves? Many heroes will happily slaughter the entire host of the villain without stopping to wonder how those people got there. If the villain is particularly charismatic and the henchmen particularly uninformed, will the heroes come to grips with the fact that they're killing people who might come over to their side or that they themselves are risking being the true villains when all is said and done?

One of the role-playing games I used to spend time with had an entire race of supernatural creatures who once nearly wiped out humanity in an effort to stop them from polluting their world. From the point of view of that race, they were doing the right thing -- they had to save the earth, and if that meant wiping out its potential destroyers, so be it. But from the point of view of humanity, these ravening slobbering beasts were hell-bent on genocide, and they had every right to fight back with all their might. You could write a story with either group as the heroes of the piece. How do you know that in your story the villain really is one?

Ultimately, of course, you have to make a decision about which side "should" win. It may be true that the space aliens who cause death simply by being in the same room as a human have the best of motivations, but they still need to be chased off the planet for the good of humanity. Maybe they don't understand that, but if so, their own blindness is what puts them solidly into the antagonist role. And while a villain's henchman may have been fed lies about what she's ultimately doing, sooner or later she has to discover what's really going on. Maybe the tactics of the villain will scare her enough that she leaves... but maybe she'll decide she doesn't care, and move herself from a figure to be pitied to one to be defeated.

In the end, understanding both points of view will, with any luck, lead you to a richer story.