Thursday 16 May 2019

In Search of Villainy, by Claire Fayers

I've been thinking a lot about villains this month.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel Leyshom, editor at Chicken House at the Cardiff Children's Literature Festival in May, and during our discussion for aspiring authors she said 'never underestimate the importance of your antagonist in driving the plot.'

Her words have returned to haunt me as I've struggled to put together an outline for what I hope will be my next book. I'm not a natural plotter, so outlines are my personal nemesis, and my villain (or lack of one) has become a big sticking point. Who is the villain? What do they want? Why?

Thanks to an extended bout of 'flu, I haven't seen Avengers: Endgame yet, but I already know I don't want a standard superhero film villain. I found Thanos a tad disappointing in his desire to destroy half of all life. All life? Even the animals? Even the insects? Even bacteria? What will Thanos do when the bacteria double in number again within a couple of seconds? Click his fingers again? And again?

No, generally I'm not a fan of superhero villains. I want to like them, but many seem to be the large, blustering types, who want to destroy or rule the world for no particular reason. Villains who can be defeated by hitting them very hard. There are some exceptions (Black Panther) but often I leave the cinema thinking the film could have been so much better if only the villain made better sense.

Stories begin with the villain. Many years ago, I was involved in a superhero role-playing campaign in which we decided that for a change we'd play the villains. This threw up an immediate storytelling problem. As heroes we'd generally wait for something bad to happen then jump in to stop it. As villains, we couldn't wait for something nice to happen and go and mess it up. We needed goals and a plan before the story even started. As the antagonists, we had to drive the story.

Possibly even more important that the plan is the villain's motivation. We can all imagine ourselves being brave and noble and doing the right thing so it's easy to understand the motivation of heroes, but why does someone turn to villainy?

But, as is often said, the villain is the hero of their own story, and so their motivation is not so different to the heroes'.

The Villain Who Fights For Right

Just like Iron Man, Captain America and all the rest, but on the opposite side. These villains are convinced they are in the right and no one is going to stop them. 

Take Javert from Les Miserables. His love of justice means he will pursue Valjean relentlessly, because he cannot bear to let a criminal go unpunished.

The Villain On a Quest

They might not even be a villain. They are pursuing a quest of their own and their goals just happen to conflict with the hero's.

This little one wants to play with paper balls then sleep on my chest. I want to write this blog post. Which of us is the villain here?

The Villain Who's Really a Sidekick

Darth Vader, Macbeth (at the start, at least), those weird disciples of the planet-eating demon in Dr Strange.

 I do wonder about them. It doesn't seem the brightest move to summon a demon whose goal is to destroy the world. It doesn't matter how much power your master gives you afterwards, you've still got nowhere to live.

At worst, these villains are glorified henchmen with little in the way of motive. At best, they have their own character arcs, act independently and make their own choices whilst serving the greater bad.

The Villain With a Secret Dark and Tormented Past

For every hero with a tragic past, there's a villain. Magneto from the X-Men, Killmonger from Black Panther, Sweeney Todd, Shakespeare's Prospero. They are driven by the same desires: revenge, justice, the desire to put things right.

These are my favourite villains because, of all the categories, they have the greatest capacity to change. They can take a step back, rethink, and become heroes instead. Sadly, they rarely do.

There are, I'm sure, many more categories, and villains are complex creatures and don't have to be confined to just one. Darth Vader is a sidekick villain with a tormented past who is on a quest to reclaim his son, because he thinks he's right.

I'm still not quite sure which way I'm going to go for my new book, but I have some ideas now.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates duo, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound, all published by Macmillan Children's Books. Her villains are all terribly nice people really.


Susan Price said...

Claire, my advice would be to read Bob Hare on psychopaths. Some people DO want to rule the world for no particular reason -- except that it makes them feel superior and puts them in charge so they can do whatever they want without having to answer to anyone. As Hare says, there are an awful lot of psychopaths in prison -- and an awful lot in board-rooms and government.

Claire Fayers said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Susan, I'll take a look at it. My first villain, and still my favourite, was a psychopath. He was great fun to write, and in my first draft he did want to rule the world just because. He'd have been good at it too. Then my editors got hold of him and made me write him properly. (All hail to my excellent editors!) For me, fiction is about examining why people do things, which is why I find the motiveless villains less interesting, I think.

Enid Richemont said...

The late Ruth Rendell was brilliant at this, putting the reader right inside the psyche of the baddies, and making him/her almost complicit in their crimes. Also the original House Of Cards where the camera makes us complicit in the career of the dodgy politician.