Kill This Character: Sadistically Evil Villain

| Friday, February 24, 2012
Today's Tune: Little Secrets

First, a note: I'll be taking a short blogging break for a week. No posts next week, but I'll be back the following week. Probably. If I get over my jet lag reasonably quickly.

I haven't done a post in this series in a REALLY LONG TIME. No time like the present, yes?

One of the more important ideas to remember in characterization is to avoid cardboard, stereotypical characters. The same old character we’ve seen a hundred times could become someone new and interesting with some artful tweaking. Here I’ll talk about a character that doesn’t work for me, why I wasn’t taken by them, and what would make them more appealing to me. By way of a disclaimer, let me add here that this is only my opinion, of course, and is colored by my own preference. But you should still listen to me because I'm VERY SMART. Onward!

Kill the Sadistically Evil Villain

Who this character is: They're the bad guy. The endgame villain. The one who's behind the scenes doing evil things because he or she is IN LOVE WITH BEING EVIL. There's no real reason for it. They're just bad. Really bad. They enjoy causing pain. They're sick, twisted, sadistic. For kicks. They just hate joy and want to destroy it at any possible opportunity.

Alternatively, they're "just crazy." This is problematic characterization for a number of reasons, but the most prominent is the implication that insanity or mental instability is an inherently bad thing that makes you violent and evil. One does not have to be "crazy" to be a bad person, and having mental health issues does not necessarily make someone dangerous or villainous. Mental illness that results in violence is a complicated, delicate issue.

Why this character doesn't work for me: In essence, this is a stock character created to fill the antagonist role without being fully fleshed out and given a real motivation. They're just baaaaaad. And that's boring.

Having a character who delights in being evil can be a lot of fun if they're fleshed out and appropriately portrayed. More often than not, though, it feels like the author just needed someone to get between the couple or stop the hero from achieving his goal too easily, so they created this character to basically step in and go "MWAHAHAHA LOOK AT ME I AM SO TERRIBLY EVIL AND I'LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY."

So basically they're like an unfunny Dr. Evil.

How to make this character work: For Pete's sake, give your villain some sort of motivation beyond badness for the sake of badness. Preferably avoid using the "they went mad and turned sadistic" trope, too. If they relish their evil, give them a little backstory to support that.

If people enjoy causing pain, there's a reason for that. Explore that reason. Even sociopathic serial killers often have some sort of external motivating factor, but why not push a little further? Why not attempt to make your villain likable, or even sympathetic? There's nothing like getting your audience to feel like they understand what makes the bad guy tick and maybe even feel for him, even if they don't approve of his actions. And hey, there's nothing wrong with writing a Glorious Asshole. Sometimes a character who delights in his asshole status is a lot of fun and makes readers laugh. But that at least involves humor.

There are an infinite number of motivating factors for a villain. Greed. Power. Revenge. Fear. Jealousy. Love. If you want to get really thematic, think about the choices your protagonist has to make, and what would have happened if they'd made the "wrong" choice. Maybe they'd turn out like the villain.


{ Old Kitty } at: February 24, 2012 at 6:54 AM said...

Have a lovely break Stephanie!!

Yay for well rounded four dimensional villains!!

Take care

{ Matthew MacNish } at: February 24, 2012 at 8:42 AM said...

I think it can depend on genre. For example, in LOTR, Sauron works just fine as the all mighty bad guy, because he's not even really a person, and is never "on-screen." Even Saruman has very little to be sympathetic toward until the very end.

{ We Heart YA } at: February 26, 2012 at 3:39 PM said...

Generally we agree with you on this: the best villains are as fleshed out as the best heroes/heroines.

BUT. What about Voldemort? He doesn't really have that much reason/motivation to be evil, does he?

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: February 27, 2012 at 8:05 AM said...

#1- i skimmed the post title and read "kill this character" and saw the pic of the baby and i was like!!! O.O but but but it's so cute??? eep!
then i went back and went, "oh." phew!

#2- great points.

#3- (preface by saying i'm no expert) i would argue that sauron, saruman, and voldemort all have a similar motivation. POWER. sauron wants to return to the extreme power he once had- probably even achieve coporeal form again somehow. same game for voldemort. they want to rule, they believe in their ultimate authority, they probably see themselves as being right... they are anakin/vader.
saruman is in a similar boat, but also motivated by fear. the ball thing... i can't remember what it's called... but the reason gandalf won't touch it is because the ability to see that way is dangerous... if you aren't pure enough to not manipulate the secrets of the universe to promote yourself, you shouldn't be told them. i would argue that the ball thingy being in sauron's possession is one of the things that enabled him to be so powerful, and selfishness and the love of power was what made him evil. the same theme is echoed (more verbally so maybe the ball thing is the echo) in the rings. the one ring to rule them all- gandalf never touches it either- because he doesn't trust himself with that kind of power... also galadriel is proud of herself when she is able to pass on the ring when frodo offers it to her. they both know how terrible such a thing would be within their possessions. to much power... absolute power corrupts absolutely is a theme used often in literature to explain villain motives...
at least that's how i see it. but i could be wrong. that happens a lot.

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