Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): One Man’s Villain Is Another Man’s Hero

This is the fifth in my series of blogs on panels at Ravencon I’m NOT doing.  For further explanation, see my earlier blog here.  (I noted last week I had apparently been cut from several of the panels I was originally scheduled for; well, the program guide has been… well, not quite finalized, because these sorts of things tend to change at the last minute, but close enough — they’ve made a PDF of the schedule public here. In the end I was put back on some of those I originally feared I had been cut from, and should now be on listed on six panels, which (assuming nothing changes) I’ll mention next week.

One Man’s Villain is Another Man’s Hero

Here is the Ravencon write-up for this panel:

Twirling mustaches and obvious evil plans are a thing of the past. Today’s villains and heroes are as complicated as the world we live in. Discuss with our panelists what makes the difference between villain and hero, and how thin that line can be.

Once again, we’ve got an interesting topic.  Now, I’m not sure you’ll find many complex villains in my own novels (I try to focus on developing the heroes at the start of a series, with the villain getting more development later in the series.  Unfortunately, it’s still very early in all of the series I’ve released, so my best villains haven’t shown up yet.  That’s partly why I didn’t sign up for this panel), but I do know something about the topic nonetheless.

It’s actually fairly easy to advise people on how to make a complex villain.  “Give your villain a sympathetic back story,” and “everyone is a hero in their own story; your villain must think he’s doing the right thing” are things I’ve repeatedly heard.  That seems to just be common sense… although (a) common sense is not common and (b) sometimes the story you’re writing doesn’t make it easy to show your villain’s point of view.

There’s also the matter that, well, there have been plenty of popular stories with popular villains who aren’t exactly complex.  While a powerful force of nature and a great danger to all of the people of Middle Earth, Sauron is a fairly straight-forward villain who didn’t need a sympathetic back story to become the main villain of Lord of the Rings (now, he did GET an interesting backstory when the Silmarillion was released, but that wasn’t published until almost twenty years after Sauron was introduced to the reading public).  While the now-non-canon expanded universe did eventually fill out his story, Boba Fett was a villain who became a cultural icon from his physical appearance alone.  His past was a mystery (some people actually think his character was weakened when it was filled in), his motivations were unclear, he had a tiny role, and yet he developed a fan following as big as many of the major villains of the series. (In fact, much of the backstory for him was created BECAUSE he became so popular, if I understand things correctly)

And the villain doesn’t have to be a person.  A “villain” can be a natural disaster, for example, or simply surviving alone in the wilderness.  While not typical of fantasy or science fiction (my main genre), there have been a number of stories where the big struggle is surviving against the odds, and those odds aren’t someone else at all. It can, though — one of the biggest hits in recent years is The Martian, which features a struggle to survive in an alien landscape.  Mars itself is the villain of the story… well, sort of.  “The elements of Mars,” perhaps?

But this topic is specifically about creating a complex villain, and saying (effectively) “give them a sympathetic back story” might not be enough help. It’s a great piece of advice; if you’ve ever seen Batman: The Animated Series, their sympathetic treatment of Mr. Freeze took a Batman villain often considered a comic laughingstock and made him into a major villain that many people could hope succeeded some day.  In fact, I’d argue that series is a virtual blueprint for creating sympathetic villains.  But just that line itself — “Give them a sympathetic back story” — is, well, not enough.

It’s too generic of a piece of advice, and honestly it isn’t always true.  I’ve read many an amateur effort at writing (thanks to my background in fanfiction) where the writer tries too hard at giving the villain a sympathetic back story, and while the villain may be “sympathetic” (or not; if the ‘excuse’ for becoming a villain is too weak, it feels like “Really? That’s it?  That’s why this guy is trying to take over the world?”), but if you make things go too far your villain can appear… well, pathetic, not sympathetic.  So perhaps just “try and give them a sympathetic backstory” isn’t the best piece of advice.

So, what else can you use to make your villain seem complex? Well, how about using other techniques for making a villain compelling and complex.

In the Lord of the Rings, we know next to nothing about Saruman’s back story… except that he was supposed to be a good guy, in fact a leader of good guys, who turned traitor when he thought he was going to lose.  As a villain, he is more complex and compelling than Sauron.  It’s a common technique for the creation of a villain; TV Tropes refers to it (using wrestling parlance, of all things) a “Face-Heel Turn.”

One of the best-known villains in the world of mystery novels has almost no backstory, sympathetic or not, but he is thought to be complex and compelling because, well, he’s basically a villainous version of Sherlock Holmes (I am, of course, referring to Moriarty).

If your villain has a complex, intricate plan, and your reader can follow along with it (even if they may not know the villain’s true end goal), that can make them seem complex and compelling. It’s a method a lot of television shows with a-plot\b-plot formats (the episode has a specific “a” plot that is the focus of that episode’s story, but there’s also elements from an overall seasonal “b” plot) use.

So, there are many ways to create a complex and compelling villain… if you need one.