Here's my summary of last week's discussion of Villains! We had a great time, and talked about a lot of great stuff, so I hope you'll think of this summary as a way to get ideas and possibly follow up by checking out the parts of the video you may be interested in.
We felt that villains were distinguished by their motivations. Good villains have motivations that make sense to them, and are grounded in them as people. You can answer the question, "What makes them bad?"
One of our participants said Stephen King had felt that even bad guys have friends across the street. We all agreed that it was better to make villains complex rather than simple.
They stand in opposition to the hero, which means that their goals, and/or the means to accomplish those goals, are socially unacceptable. Note that this will mean different things depending on the cultural and social context.
Generally we felt that villains were destructive and chaotic rather than creative. However, we do see some pretty destructive heroes like Superman leveling Metropolis in his last battle. It's a good thing if a hero has concern for bystanders; generally a villain does not.
We talked about the question of killing in fiction. Are characters being killed off too often and too easily? It's a big problem if a character dies and we don't see the effects of loss, or other effects such as legal ones. Game of Thrones provides a cultural environment where there is no concept of a modern police force that's not supposed to be in the rulers' pocket. However, being in different social circles can change the expectations for accountability for deaths. Soldiers of a regime are different from police (even if those police are somewhat corrupt).
How do we create villains? One participant immediately said "they're really hot." Certainly there is a recent trend toward attractive villains. The much older style of villain typically had the evil within expressed in their physical form, and thus were marked with "unattractive" qualities, whether that be deformity, overweight, underweight, etc. These days we're more inclined to treat villains as human beings and separate things like body form from the quality of the spirit. (There's a pretty horrid beauty standard/ableism problem in using the old way, too.) Villains often get to wear the coolest outfits!
Raj noted that there was a time when the unspoken rule was that you couldn't kill heroes, and that killed the tension in stories. There was a time when such deaths were very powerful because they were unusual, but now we are becoming more desensitized. If we know that "everybody's safe" there is less tension, but too much killing can cause people to detach themselves from caring about the story.
There are fates worse than death. Also, there are consequences for the living when someone dies.
Saving the world is not enough. Killing the villain is similarly not enough. The stakes have to be personal. It's best if both the hero and the villain have personal stakes in their own victories. Revenge motives are tried-and-true, but old.
All-powerful villains are boring without limitations and character. Tolkien, in The Silmarillion, ended up creating backstory for his villains because he was seeking reasons for their evil. Moral restrictions create more interesting situations, because they put systematic restrictions and expectations on what your villains are willing to do. Without these, they can seem too random and unmotivated, or motivated simply by the author. Examples came from Alphas, X-men, and the 4400.
We talked about insanity in Bad Guys. Just saying "he/she is insane" is sloppy (and insulting to people who deal with mental health issues in their daily lives). Go into the research and figure out exactly what these people struggle with, and how it affects their behavior and decision-making.
Raj noted that it's good to ask if the ends justify the means, and whether the villain believes this. Are they willing to do horrible things?
Sometimes we see stories where a single event breaks a bad guy's soul, but it's more interesting if they have a complex and developing psychology. It's good to have the villain change over the course of the story, not just the hero. Look at the social and power dynamics surrounding the villain as motivations for their behavior. A villain can change to be much more evil, or much more good, as the story goes on.
Villains are often given a personal agenda that is more important than "justice" as it's defined by the larger society.
Villains can also just be people who are acting within the confines of an evil system. The evil system can be designed to break people down (it's always good to read about the Stanford Prison Experiment in this context). In my own Varin world, I have villains, but in fact the larger system is where the true problem lies; the villains are, in part, explorations of how people would develop within that system.
Zero-sum games, where one person OR another person can win, but not both, can cause characters to do villainous things. If you want to protect yourself or another, then someone else has to suffer.
It's good for villains to have plans and a worldview. Also, it's good to know where villains get their money to do all their nefarious things, hire their clones or build their high-tech hideouts.
Thanks to everyone who attended this discussion.
Next week (9/25): Naming Characters! You are welcome to "bring" examples of names you have developed or changed or love from your own work.