As you read this, I’m working toward being on the road again. We’re absconding for parts south, the littles and I. Just a few days, and eating turkey (I think we’ll be eating turkey. I’m not actually sure. I know I’ll be roasting brussels sprouts with bacon, and then mulling cranberries, for my contribution to The Meal.) So I’m writing yesterday, on some thoughts I had the night before, while listening to Matt Colville’s excellent Running The Game series of youtube videos on Dungeon Mastery. Specifically the video on playing evil player characters.
There are a few basic things I need to touch on before we really get into this. Basic thing, the first: bad guys think they’re the hero of their own story. Everybody does (though I’m starting to think I’m at most a supporting character.) So when a villain of any stripe reacts, they should doing so through the lens of that form of egoism in which we all indulge, to one extent or another. Following from that, villains — at least in the peculiar form of action- or plot-driven narrative of pulp fiction (and, indeed, much of the SF world) — are more likely than not to be the protagonists of a work. That is, they have a goal toward which they are working, and our heroes are usually the ones working to prevent the villain’s efforts from succeeding. Unbinding a Dark God is common, as is conquering an unoffending star nation. See also: mad engineering and World Domination(TM), necromancy (raising a family made easy!), and dark apotheosis (hi, Non-Canon Palpatine!). Finally, and this is super-duper important, people with goals are more interesting to read about than people who aren’t.
Minor tangent: this is one of the Writing Canon pieces with which I still wrestle. Basically, people without initiative (roll lots of saving throws) aren’t as interesting, but often are the focus of writing. The villains of a piece, while undeniably the Bad Guys (be they male, female, or other), are more innately interesting. I think part of the reason we spend so much time with Our Heroes is to round them out and make them sufficiently interesting for our readers to appreciate. Whether or not they’re sympathetic.
Okay, back to the main thrust of this article. A good villain is like a good project: it has measurable goals, broken down into obvious milestones. Sacrificing the maiden princess (or prince: leave us not be sexisss, after all) in order to raise power to unlock the Dark One’s tomb is a concrete event, where something nebulous like “raising an army” is a process. “Finding the Evil Tome of Evil (written and narrated by Mad Wulm the Redundant)” is okay, but if it’s the Lost Evil Tome of Evil, you have a problem. You know where the LEToE is hidden, and you know more or less when the Bad Guy is going to find it so he can tear a hole in the fabric of reality and usher in the return of the Outer Gods who will reign in terror and blood. But your readers don’t.
On the upside, this isn’t insurmountable. David Eddings did this in the Elenium. The heroes spend most of the first two books floundering around their world, trying to answer a mess of questions. Why? Who? How? At pretty much every turn, however, they managed to run into something that made their lives more interesting. So dust off your random encounter tables, and then tweak everything so it isn’t random, but actually funnels your heroes toward their eventual confrontation with their nemesis. Nemeses. Nemesiseseseses…
Speaking of nemeses, your villains don’t have to be Eeeeeeeee-ville(TM). You can always set up an anti-villain. Which isn’t the same as a hero. Not at all. Your basic anti-villain does heinous things out of desire to do good. It’s just that their good — while it may even be objectively good: returning a loved one to life, or protecting a people or nation — is ultimately going to bring about great suffering. Returning a loved one to life involves stealing and killing in order to bring about. Protecting a nation or people requires starting a brutal war with a heretofore peaceful neighbor, or between two staunch allies of great military might. Their goal is understandable, even laudable, but the means are most definitely not. In this, I echo Granny Weatherwax: villainy is treating people as things.
And that’s really what it comes down to. Your villain needs to be willing to treat people as things, as objects to be manipulated, used and then cast aside when no longer useful. They can be incredibly sympathetic (in fact, that’s a worthwhile writing goal) but at the end of the day, they’ll do *anything* to accomplish their goal. Regardless of who gets hurt.
Post script: Incidentally, that’s a great opening for a Heel-Face Turn, whether or not it comes to actual redemption. Have your previously ruthless villain/anti-hero/anti-villain face a test of commitment to their end goal. And fail. Set it up so it’s no longer just business. Make it personal. Force them to realize they’ve actually got something more important to them than their ultimate objective. Not easy to make really believable, but great fun if you can manage it.