I’ve been thinking about villains and what writers say about them.
Some writers say they never use villains. Often, this just means they avoid writing about people who are “only” evil. They do write about characters who actively impede the protagonist(s). However, those characters aren’t purely wicked; they just have goals that can’t co-exist with what the heroes want. Thus, the “non-heroes” try to stop the heroes from achieving their ends.
Some stories have characters who get in the hero’s way, but not out of any ill will. One example would be opponents competing for the same prize, such as people running a race. A villainous villain might cheat, or at least try to exploit an unfair advantage; a less villainous antagonist would play fair, but still try to beat the hero to the finish line.
And of course, the problems in some stories don’t come from characters at all. Sometimes the “villain” is a force of nature (like surviving a storm or the hardships of Mars). Sometimes the problems come from the protagonists themselves. People can be their own worst enemy, in which case the story arises when they try to overcome some inner weakness.
But one way or another, most stories need something that prevents a character from immediately getting what he/she/they want. If a character doesn’t want anything, the story has nowhere to go. And if nothing gets in the character’s way, the story ends quickly, without tension.
So villains are hellishly useful in stories. They make protagonists sweat. They make protagonists get up off their butts and take action. Often, a villain will embody what a protagonist lacks—villains are confident when heroes are conflicted, or passionate when heroes are just shuffling through life. Villains are often a wake-up call and they shake heroes out of a rut.
Which is why I love villains. They’re like weights that the hero has to lift in order to get stronger. And the ways in which they’re villainous can add immeasurably to a story.
But this post has gone long enough. I’ll write more about this tomorrow.