What is a villain?

If one looks up #904 ‘villain’ in Roget’s Thesaurus, it will list a plethora of alternate names ranging from ‘malefactor’ through ‘snake in the grass’ and ‘rogue’ to ‘knave’ and ‘cutthroat’ and many more besides.The word derives from the 1300’s from the term villein from the Anglo-French No doubt the upheavals of the peasantry during the Middle ages created a far more sinister meaning to the word.

These days a villain is the archetypal  individual who creates the balance in a novel of any genre and they have been depicted every which way. From the blackguard who is patently bad from the beginning to the far more frightening evildoer with the face of an angel and the soul of an Anti-Christ. Every conceivable villain has been done in literature. Name me any sort of villain that is philosophically, physically and psychologically unique because in my own reading and viewing I can think of none.

And therein lies a problem for a writer – any writer. When they endeavour to keep their work, and their characters fresh and engaging, their latest villain can be as cliched as the last villain and the villain before that.

A friend chatted with me about this recently, claiming that writers per se, needed to work harder to take their villains out of the ordinary. Easy to say, damned hard to do.

Take Sir Robert Halsham for example, the cunning, self-interested Macchiavellian cousin in Gisborne: Book of Pawns. I could have given him the face of a hero and the soul of the undead, but in truth I wanted him to be almost ordinary. The face you pass by in the crowd, the middling height man of no special colouring. The bland individual who has the faintest edge of darkness, whose sarcasm could be seen as truly cruel or maybe just the actions of a little man with great pretension. That his actions are carried out with a smirk or a smile is a choice I made as the author, even though he may be cliched.

He reminds me of someone I know … someone with a plan behind the facade, someone who second guesses every sharp comment he/she makes. Every barb has meaning, every action has purpose. The fundamental oddity is that this person, like Halsham, has a truly soft spot: someone he/she loves dearly.  Does that make this person a villain? Ah… if you could see the trail of destruction.

And so Halsham has set the scene for his future: he loved Gisborne’s mother like his own and has a perverse need to honour that love. He has great ambition; he will lie, scheme and maybe even kill to get what he wants and like all villains he believes he is infallible.  Is he cliched? Probably. Is he boring? That’s for the readers to decide. Is he fun to write? Yes! And in the end who is to say he will be the villain anyway?

Maybe, just maybe, Gisborne may turn out to be the villain and Halsham the hero!