We’re halfway through November, and some writers participating in NaNoWriMo already know how their novels will end. But just because we might have an ending, the story isn’t finished. Work must be done to fill in the gaps and add depth.
One character archetype that is critical to any story is the villain. Yet the negative energy of a story is often less developed, two-dimensional.
In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler discusses how the villain of a piece represents the shadow. The villain provides the momentum of the dark side, and their influence on the protagonist must be fully explored.
The shadow character serves several purposes.
- He/she/it is usually the main antagonist and represents darkness (evil) against which light (good) is shown more clearly.
- The shadow, whether a person, place, or thing, provides the roadblocks, the reason the protagonist must struggle.
I believe the villains we write into our stories represent humanity’s darker side, whether they are a person, a dangerous animal, or a natural disaster. They bring ethical and moral dilemmas to the story, offering food for thought.
Through that struggle, heroes must recognize and confront the darkness within themselves. They must choose their own path—will they fight to uphold the light? Or will they take the easier way, following the shadow?
When the protagonist must face and overcome the shadow on a profoundly personal level, they are placed in true danger. If they stray from the light, they may have unknowingly offered up their souls.
The best shadow characters are multidimensional. They are charismatic because we can relate to their struggle.
Characters portrayed as evil for the sake of drama can be cartoonish. Layers must support their actions, or the villain is not believable.
I think of these two-dimensional villains as little “Skeletors.”
Skeletor is a cartoon villain with one of the least believable storylines in the history of cartoons. He has great passion and drive as a villain, but it’s all noise and show. His ostensible quest is to conquer Castle Grayskull and acquire its ancient secrets. Possession of these would make him unstoppable, allowing him to rule the world of Eternia.
But his character is hollow, and his storyline is simply one long declaration of his villainy. In reality, Skeletor’s sole purpose is to give He-Man a reason to draw his mighty sword and proclaim, “I have the power!”
It was a fun cartoon, but these characters were initially conceived as a means of selling toys.
What is your goal? Maybe a token villain serves the purpose. However, if you hope to write a memorable story, you need Evil With History.
Truly fearsome villains have deep stories. Sure, they may have begun life as unpleasant people and may even be sociopaths. But no one wakes up one morning and says, “I am evil. I will now go out, gather some minions, and do evil things. Muah-hah-hah!”
Look at one of the most talked-about villains of all time, a character who represents the worst humanity can offer: Hannibal Lector:
In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Frederick Chilton, claims that Lecter is a “pure sociopath” (“pure psychopath” in the film adaptation). In the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, protagonist Clarice Starling says of Lecter, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”
Lecter’s history is explored in greater detail in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. These books explain how, as a child in Lithuania in 1944, he witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his beloved sister, Mischa, by a group of deserting Lithuanian Hilfswillige. One of the killers claimed that Lecter unwittingly ate his sister as well.
Believable villains must have a back story that explains and supports their logical reasons for what we think of as villainy. If it’s a quest, the bad guy/girl must have a plausible explanation for going to the lengths they do to acquire the Golden McGuffin.
In my work, light and dark (good and evil) are represented through two different theologies. Both societies believe in the righteousness of their gods. Both have rituals they perform to appease their deities. The people of both worlds firmly believe that their way and their deity is the only true way.
When we write a story, we want the protagonist’s struggle to mean something to the reader. We put them through hell and make their lives miserable. But we must remember that the characters in our stories aren’t going through these horrible trials alone. The moment we begin writing the story, we are dragging the reader along for the ride.
We who write novels can’t offer the reader hollow, cartoonish characters. We have failed if we don’t give the shadow hints of depth, of history. We owe it to our readers to provide rounded, believable characters, whether they are heroes or villains.
Ask what made the villain turn to the darkness? What events gave them the strength and courage to rise above the past, twisted though they are? What drives their agenda? What do they hope to achieve?
We must make the hero’s ultimate victory evoke great relief in the reader and fill them with the sure knowledge that all is made right.
The reader has survived, and the victory belongs to them as much as it does the hero.
CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:
Image: Skeletor-spoo: Fair Use, for identification of and critical commentary on the television program and its contents. DVD screen capture from the She-Ra: Princess of Power episode “Gateway to Trouble,” where Skeletor is offered a bowl of Spoo. Wikipedia contributors, “He-Man,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=He-Man&oldid=916702029 (accessed November 12, 2022).
Image: Imogen by Herbert Gustav Schmalz PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons