Writing the Villain: or learning to love your Inner Darth Vader

Here’s the second writing article I did for the Orbit workshop …

It’s generally a given that an actor will tell you how much he or she prefers to play the villain. And why wouldn’t they? Villains have all the fun! They get to do the things we good guys only wish we could do. Well, usually. Probably most of us don’t fantasise about torturing people or razing entire villages, but certainly there’s a thrill in the notion of a life unconstrained by pesky rules. Villains live their lives with the brakes off. Sure, that means they often end the story by going up in flames, but until then – yowza!

Leo Tolstoy once famously said: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think the same can be said about fictional characters. All good guys are alike; each bad guy is bad in his or her own way. And it’s all the different ways a villain becomes a villain, the twists and turns of their lives that turn them into the story’s antagonist, that makes them so rewarding to read – and write. Because the possibilities are endless, which is exactly what you want as a writer.

A hero is a hero is a hero – it’s really tough to make the purely good good guy a compelling character. They do the right thing. End of discussion. Without some darkness, light is pretty wishy washy. True, Marvel and Chris Evans have managed to make Captain America/Steve Rogers compelling, even though there appears not to be an even mildly villainous bone in his body. Leaving aside the question of just how Chris Evans fills out his uniform, I’m still trying to figure out the why and how of that. Possibly it’s the pathos of him that makes us invest in him so deeply.

Other than that example, however, the unrelenting good guy is, across the board, pretty bland. He or she is bland to read and boy howdy, bland to write. I mean, there’s a reason Han Solo ended up kind of ruling Star Wars. He was a naughty hero. He got his hands dirty. (He also shot first, but that’s a different discussion.) Han had nooks and crannies, he had hidden depths and secrets. He was the archetypal diamond in the rough. When he did good it was because he’d fought his demons and won, not because the idea of not doing good wouldn’t occur to him. And that is how a writer creates narrative tension. If there’s only one possible choice to make then the outcome is predictable and therefore dull. But if there are many choices and some of them are the wrong choices which will lead to terrible outcomes, the reader can’t help but be fraught with anxiety. Which is what a writer wants: readers dripping with sweat, fingers crossed to breaking point in the hope that the characters will do the right thing.

But that’s heroes. The next stop along this continuum is, of course, the villain. The unrepentant bad guy. The adversary our heroes – the goody good guys and the naughty ones – must defeat if there’s to be a happy ending. But having said that, there is a caveat. Because if an unrelenting goody good guy is bland and boring, so is an unrelentingly bad villain. I’m thinking Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger and Malekith in Thor: The Dark World. They were pretty much plot widgets. Insert Villain here bad guys. No depth, simply dastardly acts designed to prod the heroes into action. And no question, ever, that they might repent of their evilness or even have a momentary doubt or end up winning the fight. Like I said. Boring.

Compare them to, say, Loki in Thor, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World. Loki is a fully-rounded individual. He loves as well as hates. He has – at least by his reckoning – good reason for his villainy. And it’s because he’s capable of love, because we see him do good as well as evil, that we are compelled by his story. He’s an engaging character because he’s multi-dimensional. We see his pain as well as his wickedness. He’s jealous of Thor but he loves him, too. Who hasn’t felt that about a sibling or a friend? When we see his bewildered hurt and sense of betrayal as he learns of his true parentage, we feel his wounds. His destructive grief over the death of his mother wakes painful sympathy in us. And when he revels in his wrong-doing there’s a part of us that revels with him, because we’ve all been hurt and angry and dreamed of revenge.

And let’s not forget Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker, as was. Okay, to be fair, he wasn’t much more than a widget in the first Star Wars film – but he had class and style and come on, let’s face it: who hasn’t dreamed of smiting an inefficient government beaucracrat or two? Even if he was widgety, Vader made an impression. But it turns out he was more than just a tall asthmatic dude in a black helmet. He had a history. His own story. We got a hint of it in the first film, when Obi-Wan danced around his origins to keep the truth from Luke. But by the end of the first (or second, depending on how you look at it) trilogy, Darth Vader was a villain with deep regrets, a villain in pain, who desperately wanted to reconnect with his son. A villain who gave his own life so that son would live, and in doing so helped to kill the man who some think was the true villain – Emperor Palpatine.

The prequel trilogy gave us the man who would become Darth Vader. It’s the story of Anakin Skywalker, a three act journey from hero to villain. That story is a tragedy in the Shakespearian sense of the word. Anakin wasn’t born evil. He never dreamed of being a mass murderer when he grew up. But he was flawed, and in the end his flaws killed the angels of his better nature. Of course, you can argue that because we got the back story after the end story most of the narrative tension inherent in that journey was completely negated. Have to say you won’t get too much argument on that from me. Still, I don’t think that undoes the facts of the journey – and I’d have to guess that if you came to the Star Wars saga knowing nothing of the story and watched each film in chronological order instead of original release order then there would indeed be narrative tension surrounding the choices Anakin makes.

My point here is that as a villain, Vader/Anakin turns out to be anything but a widget. He has complexity of character. He has light and shade. And I believe it’s this kind of villain that actors really love to play, because they get to explore a range of human emotions, strengths and frailties. It’s not a one-note performance. Likewise, it’s this kind of villain that’s most fun to write, and who stirs up the strongest emotions in the reader. And that’s because this kind of villain is deeply human, and therefore someone to whom we can relate – even though we might not want to.

I’ve had a lot of fun playing with villains. Hekat in the Godspeaker trilogy is pretty appalling. She’s so single-minded, so unrepentantly focused on what she wants and believes in, to the exclusion of all other opinions. She’s fearless, insanely courageous, and there’s a giddy kind of freedom in writing that kind of character. You get to indulge your own dark side and it’s fun. Likewise with Balfre, one of the bad guys in The Falcon Throne. He does some wretched things, but he has his reasons and his pain isn’t imagined. He has legitimate grievances. But the way he chooses to seek remedy? Yes, well, that would be the problem. Even so I kind of like him, because I understand him. And that’s key.

I’ll let you into a secret: if you’re going to write a successful villain you must, like an actor, step into their shoes, into their hearts and their minds, and in a sense become them. You shouldn’t write any character objectively, you should always be subjective in your approach. If you aren’t, chances are you’ll never create them fully. All they’ll ever be is a plot widget and your stories will suffer accordingly.

When I was in high school, we studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the exercises our teacher had us do was sit in the front of the class and answer questions as though we were a character in that book. As it happens (maybe my teacher knew something I didn’t, back then) I was assigned the role of Napoleon: ‘Our Leader, Comrade Napoleon, Father of All Animals, Terror of Mankind, Protector of the Sheep-fold, Ducklings’ Friend.’ Yeah, he was the bad guy. And even though as a reader I hated that character, actually shook with loathing at the things he did, when I was asked to be him, when I was asked to answer for his crimes, I found myself getting angry and indignant. How dare these ignorant fools question my actions? In those moments I was Napoleon, and everything I did was correct and for the greater good. It was a salutary lesson I’ve never forgotten.

A writer is the star of a multi-cast one-person stage show. That means a plethora of costume changes, of mind-set changes, of leaping from one persona to another to another. And for the show to work, every persona must feel real and fully rounded and the star of his or her own story, no matter how large or small the part. A hero (who, I hasten to remind you, must also be created with as much complexity as possible if he or she is to be interesting) is only as good as the villain he or she confronts. And a villain without depth, without complexity, without humanity, is a cardboard cut-out, a widget, who – and this is a great crime – renders the hero null and void.

So, there you have it. Great villains are complex, multi-faceted people. And as a writer, when you bring them to life you get to experience villainy and all its dubious pleasures from the safety of your own home! So what are you waiting for? Get to your keyboard and start creating some chaos!

6 thoughts on “Writing the Villain: or learning to love your Inner Darth Vader

  1. “You shouldn’t write any character objectively, you must always be subjective in your approach. If you don’t, you’ll never create them fully.”

    That is an absolutely brilliant thing to say. 🙂

    When writing a character, you must take on their perspective, their way of viewing the world. The way I do that is by performing their scenes. Yes, I’m a terrible actor and that’s why I don’t perform publicly. But, privately, I can act out a character and get a better feel for how they react and respond to stimuli than if I was simply sitting and writing. And some of the things that ended up in my stories came from these performances in which I would say a line I’ve written, while acting out their mannerisms, and then expand on it and go further with what the character would say. It really does help to enrich the character and inject life into their being.

    And yeah, this is a wonderful write-up on villains. I totally agree with the idea that someone who sees Star Wars for the first time and sees it from Episode I to Episode VI gets a different experience than someone who saw the original Trilogy first. And of course I agree with everything else, I just don’t want to take up too much time pointing out all of the specifics and seem like I’m rambling.

    Am I rambling?

    I’ll stop typing now.

  2. What a great summary on why we love villains! And, somehow, reading through it has helped me identify different kinds of villains in my own book, too. Writing the bad guys is my favourite part (besides making my readers cry, I’ve always enjoyed that), and you’ve summarised everything good about it beautifully.

    I agree fully with the ‘in order to write a villain you have to be subjective or you will never write them fully’ part. Every now and again I ask myself what different characters I’m writing would do in different situations and it’s a big help in understanding them completely. If I can’t answer that question I don’t know enough about my character. And of course I agree with everything else, but you already know I’m a devoted follower like that 🙂

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