Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Why I Hate the Bad Guys

By Marianne Eady
2003 Marianne Eady

knew I wanted to write fantasy from quite a young age. As a child with the usual dose of over-active imagination, I played make-believe in school at break times, running around waving a 'sword' and pretending to be a hero or flapping my wings as a magical dragon. The boundaries of my imagination and story-telling abilities were limitless. Or so I thought.

My best friend humoured me, but after the ninety-seventh time I'd emerged victorious, she announced that it was time we swapped roles. After all, why should she be the villain all the time?

There was a very good reason, I found. For all my enthusiasm, you see, I have always made a very poor bad guy.

Perhaps in explaining some of the pot-holes I fell into on that playing field as a child, I might explain how to avoid them, and if you too are a villainously-deficient writer, you can avoid skinning your knees.

1. The scheming villain

It seemed such a good idea at the time. I would plot and scheme in my ivory tower, devising the perfect plan to lure the hero to his doom. Muahahahaha! This would show off my highly devious villainous mind. Brain versus brawn!

Of course, what actually happened in the playing field? I was merrily plotting and cackling to myself, and in the meantime the hero had battled the dragon, defeated the door-guardian's riddle, and strolled off with my gold! While it did occasionally make for a good scene of cursing and vowing revenge, as often as not I'd complain it wasn't fair. My friend the hero laughed at me. As well she should have.

You see, I'd missed the first rule entirely: Villains must act.

No, I'm not espousing that your villain should suddenly take up practising Shakespearean speeches. No, what I mean is, the villain cannot merely plot and scheme. He must step down from his tower and actively get involved in doing things. Until he's engaged in nefarious activities, he's nothing but a talking head, for all the depth and tenor of his evil laugh.

2. The super villain

Once I'd realised my problem with the first few villains, I immediately set to with villain type two. This guy was great. Right from the start he was on to the hero, zapped him with the obligatory magical laser beam, threw him in a cage and very carefully outlined all the ways he certainly could not escape. Muahahahaha! What a good villain I was! I'd won!

Until, of course, my friend deftly pointed out that this technique didn't exactly make for the longest or most exciting story.

I didn't know rule no. 2: Villains must be flawed.

The flaw does not need to be large, nor glaringly obvious. In fact, most flaws in good quality fiction are quietly understated, and it only becomes clear late in the game how the villain's childhood nightmare of imprisonment in a sheep pen will prove his undoing.

3. The plastic villain

So I'd sorted out my actions in the Grand Master Plan to Take Over the World, and I'd established my deep-seated fear of farmyard animals, what was left? Surely even my pernickety friend couldn't object to the towering impressive villain that stood before her now?

We were young, so, actually, she didn't. Or at least, if she laughed, she kept the reason to herself.

It's only now that I've read more widely than the superhero comics I so favoured at the time that I realise I was still lacking the most important feature of a really good bad guy.

Tell me--when was the last time you met Ming the Merciless on the street? What about Darth Vader?

Okay, so excluding the people who attend SF cons -- I'm sure not one of you has ever met even an approximation to either. You see, villains don't usually walk round with swirling capes and silly sound effects. Real villains aren't Mattel action figures. In fact, they're not plastic at all. They're real. Flesh and blood.

This is rule no .3: Villains are as complex and human as each of us.

Real villains have lives outside being bad all day long. Your hero plays the bugle and is fascinated by 18th Century art, so why is your villain a plastic figure with a swirling cape and a great line in evil laughter? Development of your bad guy is just as important as your hero if you want your readers to believe the danger he poses is real. Plastic villains are as fake as a polystyrene monster in a cheap B-movie.

4. The evil villain

What? You think villains should be evil?

You're not wrong. You're also opening yourself up to missing a chunk of the picture. You see, in between all of those Muahahaha!s and the swirling cape fiasco, I really did believe that villains were all evil as a child. Hearts blacker than night or death, they glorified in their darkness, awaiting only a stern thwack with my hero's sword to send them right back to the cave they crawled out from. Haha!

Now, as grown-up writers, though, we have to realise that the real world doesn't run in black and white.

This is the basis for rule no. 4: Villains should think they are the hero

Empires of Evil don't exist in the real world, and very few bad guys ever see themselves as bad when they commit their crimes. Go to a criminal court one day. The bad guy who shot his wife justified it because he thought she was cheating on him. The bad guy who deals drugs and gave that teenager the trip that resulted in brain damage was trying to feed his kids with the proceeds. I'm not saying people can't be bad guys. I'm saying they are shades of grey, and that your villains can grow stronger from the added depth their conscious reasoning will give them. They don't have to make sense to anyone but themselves, but they need to have those thoughts to make them truly real. That's what makes us human.

I still struggle with my bad guys. As soon as I've quashed their plotting and planning, they're sitting there cackling maniacally and thinking about fun things to do with a branding iron. But my bad guys, with all their faults, are the real core of every story I write. What use is a hero without a villain?

Getting it right is important, and most important things are difficult. That's why I hate the bad guys, you see, and why, with a bit of forethought, you can love to hate them too.

(Oh, and avoid the skinned knees, of course.)