Writing villains is easy. Writing GOOD villains is substantially more difficult. As with any character, they need to have a reason to exist, and often a reason for their evil. They have to have motivations that are grounded in reality, motivations that make sense. Even if that sense is twisted, we still have to be able to following the reasoning behind it.
The idea for this blog post came from a Twitter Tweet about a work in progress by colleague Alex Bledsoe. Alex and I have had stories published in the same anthology twice — in Sidekicks! and in Haunted: Eleven Tales of Ghostly Horror — and his novels and short stories are well worth your time to buy and read. Here’s Alex’s tweet:
“All right, I’ve written up to the point that my vaguely superhero-ish hero and slightly supernatural villain are finally face to face. Now all I have to do is figure out what they would say to each other that isn’t trite, cliched, obvious or boring. No pressure.”
“They could have an actual conversation, as if they respected each other though they were enemies.”
That reminded me of something: an issue of a comic book I’ve long admired, and a concept I wanted to write about that deals with characters in writing. It’s about how the best villains have agency; they aren’t JUST homicidal lunatics: they have a plan, they have needs and wants, and while we might not agree with them, we can sympathize with them, and that makes them more real.
An excellent example of this can be found in Kurt Busiek’s marvelous Astro City comic book series. In a special issue, titled “The Eagle and the Mountain,” the story describes adversaries: the Samaritan, a Superman-esque hero, and his nemesis, an immortal super-genius who calls himself The Infidel. They have reached a state of stalemate, and so a sort of detente was agreed upon. They now meet once a year for dinner, exchanging pleasantries and subtly sizing each other up. They both still plot, each against the other, but realize that, absent remarkable circumstances, neither can truly defeat the other.
Make no mistake: The Infidel is monstrous. He destroys entire civilizations for peace and quiet. He views large segments of the human population — women in particular — as inferior, and that justifies his poor treatment of them. He learns the secrets of time travel, offering people who otherwise would die a chance to live — albeit a life of slavery under his command. He is only thwarted when Samaritan changes events such that the timeline is disrupted, and the Infidel’s world changes drastically in response to those disruptions. In the end, their detente is only reached when they end up destroying the world in one of their battles, and realize a truce is a necessary evil. The rebuild the world’s timeline together, and continue to look for weakness in each other.
Just as they hate each other, the Infidel and the Samaritan also clearly admire each other, and find pleasure in each other’s social company. Busiek does such a great job writing these characters that I admire them both too, and wonder what it would be like to meet them, to share an evening and dinner with them. He brings them to full, 4-color life, and I only wish people could say the same of my writing one day.