The Villain’s Journey
Hi. This was pre-written. I’m off the ‘Net at the moment, so please be patient if it takes a while for comments to be released from moderation. One of the other Mad Geneii has to do it for me. Thanks!
So, everyone and their literature teacher talks about the hero’s journey, and Joseph Campbell, and nods to Karl Jung in passing and then reaches for the checklist.
What about the villain? Why does he or she do that? And how did she end up like that, anyway? She was such a sweet kid.
I’m a bit of a mis-match for this topic, because I don’t do villains well or often. I do antagonists. A spoiled brat who enjoys beating up on smaller students, the Traders’ Elders’ Council intent on enforcing their rules and ensuring species purity, a force unseen that is killing mages and ruining trade, the society mother from H-ll… all of those are more antagonists than villains. The closest I may come to an out-and-out typical villain is the head of security in Language of the Land.
What makes people become the bad guy? “He had a bad childhood and grew up underprivileged. Society has failed him, so it is no wonder that—” Screeeeeeech! Crash! That was your reader colliding with the all-too-beloved trope that gets trotted out in the courtroom and on the page a little too often these days. Let’s try again. Why did Bob the Baddie decide that being a mean, nasty SoB was the optimal life path for himself?
There are probably as many answers as there are people, and with a few exceptions, most villains have absolutely rational self-justifications for turning cute animals into sausage just to make their neighbors squirm. That’s what is important to keep in mind: the villain has a good reason for his actions.
He could desire revenge on an individual or a system, or to his way of thinking, he’s looking for justice. It could be for a slight, it could be for the deaths of his family or his lover, but he wants to even the score and possibly get ahead as well. If the system destroyed his world, then the system has to go and he’ll replace it with his own version.
Desire is another very strong motivator. Bob the Baddie wants recognition of his brilliance, but no one will elect him to office and those-who-think-they-know refuse to pay attention to his ideas. Or he wants power in order to make the world better because he knows the secret to an orderly, peaceful, and happy society. He wants to marry the woman who just happens to be engaged to the leading general of the king’s armies. She doesn’t want him, or doesn’t even know that he exists.
What motivates a hero? Flip that over. In Western Christian theology, there are Seven Deadly (or Mortal) Sins that are the really, really bad ones. They have changed over time, but generally the list includes: pride, acedia/sloth, lust, greed, wrath, envy, gluttony. Their inverses are the seven cardinal virtues: humility, faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. The sins are the virtues gone to an extreme in many cases. Humility taken too far (see the humble-brag, or when I was in college, one-downing each other over who had more financial aid) becomes pride. Of all the sins, pride is often considered the worst, with the others drawing from pride. Even despair, which was on very early lists, could be seen as being so prideful that the person was certain that her sins were so bad that even G-d couldn’t help her.
So if a hero is motivated by a love for Mankind, your villain is either the most selfish bastage on the known planets, or also loves Mankind and wants what he is absolutely sure is best for them. It’s just that his idea of best is rather different from the rest of the population’s desires. Your hero loves a wonderful woman. The villain loves an idol of the woman, and when the real woman fails to live up to his idealized version or tries to leave him, he kills her to preserve his perfect love.
What struggles and growth does the bad guy go through? What forms him? What are his reasons? How does he struggle, where does he shine? Think of the hero’s journey and try that for the bad guy. In Language of the Land, the villain struggles to preserve the society that she is certain the gods ordained and that is the best for the people of the queendom. She’s a loving mother and a faithful wife, she cares deeply for her family and takes care of her subordinates so long as they do what they are supposed to. She has no tolerance for misuse of power, but she also has no qualms about torturing the innocent or destroying individuals and families if she thinks they are a threat to the system. In her mind, all men are inferior and borderline incompetent because of their excessive emotional and hormonal responses to things. There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule like her husband and sons, and her assistant, but the rule is the rule for very good reasons.
I mentioned an exception to the general rule. That exception is someone who is criminally insane. Not “crazy like a fox, more cunning than ten ordinary men” but “bugnuts, out-beyond-the-Oort-Cloud” crazy. Think your chaos evil antagonist, someone who kills and tortures because the voices in her head tell her to, or because she’s absolutely certain that MI-6 is out to get her because she knows that King William the Eighth is an android replacement for the true king. But even the Joker has reasons for what he does, albeit warped and twisted and seriously sick. I’ve only seen that kind of character done well once, and it creeped me out so much that I can’t remember the short story’s author or title.
I personally find antagonists easier than villains. I’m more interested in the protagonists growth and struggles than in the mustache-twirling bad guy. That might change. Or it might not.