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 http://bit.ly/yPB6uF 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!
“The banality of evil”? Villains are much more interesting when there is ambiguity! It sounds as though Halsham is one of those.
Without issuing spoilers, Fitzg… the thought about Halsham may well be. It crossed my mind as I wrote the post. The funny thing is that like other times in the writing of Gisborne, a mere throwaway line gives potential for a whole new direction. I ‘jot’ all these ideas down and when comes the time, maybe I should drop them in a hat and see which one emerges.
I think what makes some villains cliched is the Fallacy of the Talking Killer (“Shall I tell you my whole plan, Mr. Bond? Surely it cannot matter now”) Gloating over evil deeds is something I think few people really do. Uncertainty rather than ambiguity is more realistic.
But not all antagonists have doubts. Some people will turn their minds from evil, and just do it. And evil isn’t an end in itself, it’s a by-product. Antagonists have strong motives, but Being Evil isn’t one of them.
I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that psychotic killers gloat very much over past misdeeds. Going over and over something that they have ‘achieved’ gives them the high they constantly crave and the drive to achieve it again.
Doubts? Maybe in an ambiguous evildoer, but a deranged psychopath would surley have no doubts at all. However I don’t write thrillers and have absolutely no idea of the convoluted emotions of the seriously dangerous recidivist, so I may be wrong.
“So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost.
Evil, be thou my good.”..
To embrace that, whole-heartedly, and with no way back. That is what makes a villain for me. .Either that or your standard sociopath for whom other people do not truly exist as sentient beings..
Is Hailsham or Gisborne your villain? I am biased, I’m afraid 🙂
Perfect, perfect poetry. Fits like a glove.
Halsham? Gisborne? Maybe Ulric of Camden. Who knows?
I’ve always though it was amazing that our word for “evil person” comes from the French word for “villager”. Shows that the upper class were controlling language in those days.
I think a story is only as powerful as its antagonist, and good villains make great stories. That’s why I’m always disappointed in serial killer stories where the only motivation is that the guy is a sadist. (His motive is “he’s evil”? Please.)
Mysteries where the least likely suspect kills are more interesting to read. Figuring out the motive that would make an ordinary person do evil is so much more challenging.
I wish so much that Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood had followed the original script, which called for him to play the Sheriff of Nottingham–as a good guy–and Robin as a villain. Now that would be fresh. Like casting Gisborne as a hero. Love that.
My dilemma, Anne, is whether Gisborne should remain a hero or whether he should slip and slide… The motive? Perhaps ‘the play’s (story’s) the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’
I hadn’t realised that the original script for Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood (which I must gird my loins to see. Something about it sticks in my craw) reversed the status of the main characters. It would have been so much more interesting, although I suspect the purists might come out fighting!
I wrote about villains and baddies more than once on my blog since I’m fascinated by these characters more than by the heroes themselves in stories. They are always more complex and far more intriguing than the brave heroes.
Just for instance, I love Willoughby more than Edward Ferrars (you know, Austen is always the first to come to my mind), wicked Lovelace more than irreprehensible Clarissa, Gisborne more than Robin Hood (not in the ballad, of course), Bois-Gilbert more than Ivanhoe and so on.
Thanks for this interesting post, Prue. I’m so anxious waiting to discover how wicked your newly born heroic Gisborne will become!
Because that is what I get from what you say. Did I get it right?
i truly can’t say, Maria. Without making it a ‘spoiler’.
This is interesting stuff, Prue. Creating a villain who isn’t just a cardboard character or a carbon copy of others is certainly not easy. I have to do that in my next book. Re-reading what I’ve done to date, my villain is far too similar to others I’ve read about and enjoyed. Back to the drawing board – and thanks for making me think about it!
Writing about the ‘good’ or at least ‘sympathetic’ characters is so much easier and much more fun, for me!
i do think, Gerry, that writing the villain is hard. For one thing we must enter the mind of the villain and in most cases that can be upsetting and disturbing. But if we don’t do that, how can our villain be credible? We have to think in the way of the villain, act in the way of the villain and for most of us, it’s actually quite confronting…
The best I can do is imagine every individual I dislike, draw out their worst points and start emoting on paper from their POV… and hope for the best.
I’ve always been interested in motivation – for me a novel stands or falls on it’s ability to convince me that the characters (both hero and villain) would behave as they do. My degree/ profession is in psychology where i spend much of my day trying to understand my clients world views and values and it’s not a habit i can switch off.
As far as i can pin point it, my interest in the shades of human nature started when i picked up a Susan Howatch novel at the age of about 14. The way in which she wrote her characters – each one absolutely convinced they were justified in their behaviour – had a profound effect on me and it’s no exaggeration to say that those novels changed the course of my life. So, for me, bring on complex characters and ambiguity over good and evil!
It’s interesting you chose to borrow Damian Lewis’ face in your post. His ability to portray a conflicted soul is outstanding, imo. I was working in a school when The Forsytes was shown and walked in to the staff room one day to hear a teacher admitting she felt sorry for Soames when he raped Irene. As there is no more feminist, and politically correct, place on earth than a state school staff room, to elicit this sympathy was no mean feat. I’m still not comfortable with that reaction and i’m not sure at what point readers, writers, watchers and actors should draw the line in empathising with psychopaths but it makes for interesting reflection.
What I especially like is when one doesn’t actually find out the motivation for much of the novel. I prefer to find little suggestions, a trail of what might be evidence pointing to what might be motivation. It gives the writer the chance to create a mega volte-face and makes me the reader sit back and say, ‘Oh Woooow!’
Bollyknickers, as a psychologist you must surely know – is it human nature for everyone to feel justified in their behaviour and for the villain not to be able to rationalise and control his behaviour? Is it the lack of a villain’s ability to judge what is good and bad behaviour? something missing in the4 frontal lobe?
Complexity of character is terrific. Coming on from the previous discussion with M.M. Bennetts, one of the most jaw-dropping villains I have ever read was Graham Mallett in D. Dunnett’s Lymond Saga. When I say “the face of an angel and the soul of an Anti-Christ”, that is exactly the man I am talking about.
Damian Lewis … what an astonishing face and body language. When I began writing Halsham, I had a different idea entirely of what the character should be like. But then I saw Lewis in the Forsyte Saga and I remember thinking how much I hated his character and yet how much I wanted desperately to like him at the same time. I thought you would be interested in this quote off the net: from IMdB:
“Often plays mentally unstable or Violent characters.”
So one has to say, what is it about his facial expression or manner that suggests he plays these sort of roles?
He has cold eyes – often the warmth of a smile rarely reaches them. He has deep facial lines, lines around his mouth that could be caused by snarl, ridicule, brutality. He has what I class as a cold, often immobile face. And perhaps, in cliched form, the red hair can indicate a simmering anger that is strapped in tightly – until it is needed.
Poor blighter. I saw him interviewed and he seems the complete antithesis of the roles he portrays, very likeable.
“is it human nature for everyone to feel justified in their behaviour and for the villain not to be able to rationalise and control his behaviour? Is it the lack of a villain’s ability to judge what is good and bad behaviour? something missing in the4 frontal lobe?”
It sounds like you are describing a psychopath, Prue. Someone who is superficially charming, has a grandiose sense of self worth, is prone to boredom, lies, manipulates and shows a complete lack of remorse. Google ‘workplace psychopath’ for the argument most psychopaths inhabit boardrooms, not prison cells. Maybe today Halsham (or Gisborne) would be a CEO…
In answer to your question – yes, there are MH conditions in the DSM-IV that describe a lack of empathy, remorse and judgement. There are also brain injuries that could affect a person’s ability to empathise. However, most of my clients can and do acknowledge their mistakes, given the right environment. They arrive with their justifications and defence mechanisms but do gradually come to understand the inconsistencies and weaknesses of their stories. I work within a person centred model – non-judgemental and separating the person from the behaviour; respect for the person even if some aspects of their behaviour are abhorrent. However, because my clients come voluntarily (because their life is not working for them – or sometimes because it’s not working for their loved ones who give them a shove) they know they need to make changes. They aren’t psychopaths; i have a huge respect for the MH professionals who care for psychopaths because i’m certainly not up to that job.
So is your villain a psychopath or someone who does terrible things but is, in their quiet moments, plagued by guilt? I’ve preferred to think of Gisborne (the RA one) as the latter. I ruminated long and hard about your PTSD article and wondered (with no conclusion) whether we can possibly understand the worldview of someone born 900 years ago. I hear of practises common less than 50 years ago which horrify me – can we judge the perpetrators by today’s standards? I’m not sure we can.
As for Soames Forsyte – i’m convinced Damian Lewis played him as having Asbergers syndrome. I haven’t read the books so have no idea how Galsworthy wrote him – but like the teacher in the staff room, i felt more sorrow for Soames than dislike. But, yes, Lewis does seem destined to play the baddie!
*In the interests of full disclosure, i am not a psychologist. I have a psychology degree (and other bits and pieces) and work as a counsellor but haven’t done the psychologists registration program.