People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
Copyright 2000Christine Morgan
Part Seven -- The Art of Villainy
"It's my first real stab at cliched villainy" -- David Xanatos, "Cloud Fathers"
I've always liked the bad guys best.
And why not? The bad guys get the best lines, the best outfits, and seem to be having the most fun.
Villainy is the active role, heroism is the reactive one. Without an evil scheme to stop, a sinister overlord to overthrow, or wicked deeds to undo, the hero would be bored and useless.
These things came clear to me even as a child. The ultimate "cool villain" in my personal hierarchy would be Maleficent, from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. She had it all -- best lines ("And now you will face me, oh Prince, and all the powers of Hell!"), best outfit (that jazzy black and purple ensemble with the horned headdress, not to mention turning into one of the greatest dragons of all time), and the most fun (her taunting of Philip in the dungeons).
This liking for the active, fun, evil role is part of what makes me prefer being a GM over a player. It's also one of the things I love about writing. My favorite sorts of stories are ones in which there are not only bad guys vs. good guys, but bad guys vs. worse guys.
I also enjoy exploring the psyche and background of my villains, because finding out what makes them tick can also help make them more sympathetic. It's great to have a character that people love to hate, but making that character the object of unwilling sympathy is a delightful and rewarding challenge.
In my second MageLore book, Dark of the Elvenwood (order your signed copy today!), I get to do both -- Jarrell "the Brat of Thanis" Farleigh, vicious witchy Vondra of the Great Library, and Lord Marl are all bad guys, but one can't help feeling almost sorry for them as they find out the hard way that Solarrin is an even worse guy.
Best of the Worst:
Some of my all-time favorites would include:
Disney -- Maleficent ("Sleeping Beauty"), Ursula ("The Little Mermaid"), the Wicked Queen ("Snow White"), Scar ("The Lion King"), Frollo ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), Chernabog ("Fantasia").
Gargoyles (Disney sub-category) -- David Xanatos, Demona, Dr. Anton Sevarius.
Shakespeare -- Iago ("Othello"), Edmund ("King Lear"), Richard III.
Movies -- Darth Vader ("Star Wars"), Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber ("Die Hard") and the Sheriff of Nottingham ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), the Terminator, Wadsworth the Butler ("Clue"), Xenia Onatopp ("Goldeneye"), the Borg Queen ("Star Trek: First Contact").
Books -- Saruman ("Lord of the Rings"), Randall Flagg ("The Stand"), Roy Miro ("Dark Rivers of the Heart"), Roland Croninger ("Swan Song"), Pennywise the Dancing Clown ("It").
An antagonist isn't necessarily a villain, but is still in opposition to the heroes for some reason, still an obstacle. Their intent isn't particularly aimed at the heroes, they might have nothing personal against the heroes, but they just keep getting in each other's way.
Some examples of characters I consider antagonists would be MacBeth from "Gargoyles"; Q from "ST:TNG"; Autolycus, the King of Thieves from "Hercules" and "Xena"; and Catwoman of "Batman" fame.
Antagonists can be noble, likeable, even friends or lovers. They can work with the heroes, help them, save their lives. Their goals and the goals of the heroes just do not always line up.
Villains tend to get killed off at the end of the movie, book, or adventure; antagonists are more likely to survive and go their separate ways.
Making a Good Bad Guy
What does it take to create a great villain?
I would say that traits such as confidence, charisma, and style are important. Complexity. Determination bordering on unstoppableness. A quick and clever mind. Deviousness. Ruthlessness. Being "morality-impaired."
Villains think that the rules don't apply to them, or that they can make their own rules.
A villainy continuum could lie between these two points:
Psychopathic -- ruled by emotion, intensity, irrationality. These are the ones that cannot cope when things start to go wrong, and begin lashing out at those around them; they are easy to taunt but prone to violent fits of rage (Randall Flagg; Queen Bavmorda from "Willow").
Sociopathic -- cold, calculating, emotionless. These ones will simply not be able to accept that things might go wrong; they just cannot see it, imagine it, deal with it. They have the nerve to be surprised when the heroes show up to end their evil plans, or die still thinking that they cannot lose (Hans Gruber; the Terminator).
Most will fall somewhere between these two extremes, or have flavors of both. Some might even flip back and forth.
When I am designing a villain, I use the GMM system (first mentioned in the May column on secret socities). GMM stands for Goal, Motivation, and Method.
Goal -- what. What does the villain want? What is the evil plan?
Motivation -- why. Why does the villain want to reach the goal? What's the underlying reason behind it?
Method -- how. How is the villain going to reach the goal? How far will he or she go to do it?
By way of example, let's use David Xanatos from "Gargoyles." His Goal is immortality: he wants to live forever. His Motivation is part fear and part megalomania: he is terrified of growing old, and so full of himself that he thinks he deserves to live forever. His Method is "anything goes;" he will try science or sorcery, meddle in Things Man Was Not Meant to Know (TM), and sacrifice innocents if it'll help him get what he wants.
To the GMM, I also sometimes add E, for Explanation. This is the underlying cause of the villain's behavior, which explains (but does not necessarily excuse) it.
This is where the sob stories of rough childhoods, domineering parents, and society's callous disregard for (whatever) come in. Scar, from "The Lion King," would have the Explanation of spending all his life in his brother Mufasa's shadow, building up a bitter heartful of jealousy. My own MageLore villain, Solarrin, was a fat ugly crippled outcast, and it made him turn evil.
But as I said, this explains, it doesn't excuse. I have strong personal feelings about the responsibility of people to control their own behavior, and it irks me whenever people attempt to defend their actions by whining how badly the world has treated them. I don't believe that the world owes anybody anything, and so while I understand why Solarrin is such a snot, I'm not going to cut him any slack because of it.
Looking the Part
In the movie "Silverado" (the most fantastic Western flick of all time, IMO), when the time comes for the big final dramatic showdown, the hero's wearing the black hat and the villain's wearing the white one.
It doesn't usually go that way. Usually, cues such as that are what tells the viewer or reader who's who.
The villains will wear clothes in sinister shades -- black, blood red. They may be unattractive, scarred, maimed (Richard III, for example; playing into the conception that a twisted body must house a twisted mind and soul).
They might travel in the company of unwholesome-looking flunkies, or have negatively-viewed personal habits. They'll have evil-sounding names (we didn't even need to see Maleficent to know she was bad; a nice character wouldn't be called Demona). Or they'll just look mean.
I gave my necromantic Archmage a castle carved out of a mountain and made to look like a giant skull with glowing red pits for eyes; you know just looking at it that he wasn't a friendly fellow. Nobody was going to mistake Darth Vader for a good guy in his gleamingly cold black armor. Dick Tracey went up against one hideously deformed foe after another. It's an old trick, but it works.
These are all shortcuts that make your job easier. They also pre-set the expectations of your readers or players, which means it's easier to tweak them when things don't line up according to that tidy good-vs.-evil worldview.
So maybe you'll have a hero with a scar (a friend of mine is a huge fan of Mackenzie Calhoun, the face-scarred captain of Peter David's "Star Trek: New Frontier" series of novels). Or the cowboy in the black hat from Silverado.
A villain who looks and acts just like anybody else can be even scarier than someone postiviely radiating evil from every pore -- contrast Freddie Kruger with Hannibal Lecter; I don't know about you, but Hannibal the Cannibal gave me a lot more goosebumps).
Villains require more in the way of resources, planning time, and finances than the heroes do. It costs money and takes time and research to launch a diabolical plan. Hideouts, getaway cars, weapons, hired thugs, death traps, poisons, and other accessories don't just grow on trees. It's work, it's hard, gruelling work.
This makes their defeat all the more aggravating -- think of poor Hans, who spent all that time, effort, and money assembling and equipping his team, getting the details he needed ... he had a big investment there, and the whole thing was wrecked by one off-duty cop whose main expenditures were an airline ticket that his wife probably paid for, a tip for the chauffeur, and a new tank top and some bandages when it was all over.
Luckily, simply because they are villains and therefore less concerned about being decent law-abiding citizens, the bad guys will have greater access to the resources they'll need. Crime does pay, and pretty darn well, too.
The Fall of the Villain
I take umbrage at one consistent thing in the treatment of movie villains -- the frequency of Death-By-Falling.
Falling from a high place. Usually into fire (though sometimes into water which is a good way to end it because then they can claim that the villain survived to come back in the sequel).
I understand why this is done, especially in Disney flicks: it's to distance the death, to keep the hero from getting his hands dirty.
Sometimes they even make it the villain's own fault, or let some other force (the villain's own henchmen or secret weapon or magic powers gone awry) be the agent of destruction. ("The Lion King" does all three -- Simba knocks Scar off the cliff and into the fire, where he's torn apart by his own hyenas)
It makes sense from a certain standpoint, sure, I'll give you that. It's just getting awfully old ...
How many movies can you think of in which the villain dies by falling from a high place?
How many in which the hero actually personally kills the villain?
And then there's the middle ground, such as in "Star Wars Episode One," when Obi-Wan cleaves Darth Maul in twain and then he falls from the high place ... or when the good fairies in "Sleeping Beauty" magically speed the sword to skewer Maleficent rather than let Philip do it himself.
It's getting so every time I watch a movie, and things are building toward the big finish, I cringe whenever all of a sudden they have to be on the roof, on the edge of the cliff, over the shaft. It's "Oh, here's the high place ... bad guy's going to die now."
Not that this stops me from doing it myself occasionally; Jericho and Damien plunging into the pit to Hell at the end of one of my Gargoyles stories, and a certain firey demise that will come at the end of the third MageLore book both follow the example.
But I don't plan to make a habit of it, and I can't think of a single instance when I've done it in a game.
Fatal flaws. Death traps. Long-winded speeches that divulge the entire plan. Vulnerable spots in otherwise impenetrable battle stations.
The mistakes villains make are many and familiar. Rather than go through them all here, I refer you to the Evil Overlord list.
Just don't use the list unless you are purposefully trying to create an undefeatable villain. As fun as they are, eventually they have to lose if you want any sort of happy ending.
This can be disappointing for the writer or GM. Here you've had such a good time, and now you have to stand back and let the heroes triumph.
If you don't, especially if you're a GM, you will have some irate players on your hands. They've gone through a lot too (especially if this is a recurring villain that has been making their lives difficult for quite some time), and they'll be feeling entitled. You let the bad guy escape, and they might just start throwing dice at you.
Of course ... just because the villain dies doesn't mean the evil is over! There's always a henchman, apprentice, younger brother, or daughter around to pick up where things left off -- and this time they might have revenge in mind as well as world conquest!
Next month, for our "war and warlords" issue, the topic for this column will be combat and fight scenes, the common conclusion to dealing with villains.
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