I Have Seen The Enemy

One of the flaws in fiction that annoys the living daylights out of me is a badly drawn antagonist – particularly when said antagonist is intended to be evil. The way antagonists get characterized has this interesting tendency to showcase how the author sees life, and when that view doesn’t meet up with the way people act, well… Let’s just say I don’t respond very well.

That said, it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem for a lot of authors. I can name quite a few that couldn’t write a convincing antagonist to save their souls, but those authors are making a damn sight more from writing than I am, so who am I to say they’re doing it wrong? (I will say that at least one of them is much more convincing about the antagonists when said antagonists remain shadowy malignances for almost the entire thing before being taken out in a major, often self-sacrificial act of Hero. As soon as this author tries to write antagonist point of view, they turn into puppy-kickers – no, not that sort of puppy kicker, the sort that does gratuitously evil things (like kicking puppies) on screen to demonstrate that they are evil.)

Me, I prefer a bit more than shadowy evil, gratuitous nastiness, or the outright cartoonish caricature of a villain that so many authors seem to fall into portraying. After all, a lot of the time the difference between the protagonist and the antagonist can be as simple as who is telling the story. Well, assuming you aren’t going for a man-against-nature or similar kind of plot, because then the antagonist isn’t exactly a person.

If I’m going to write an evil character, I prefer to write one whose world-view is such that it’s completely opposed to my protagonist and completely justified by the antagonist’s culture or upbringing. It’s more fun that way. I get to play with ideas like what kind of culture would actually produce the kind of person my “evil” character happens to be.

Yes, it shades into moral relativity, but then, so does history. An Aztec wouldn’t question the need for messy human sacrifice in batch lots. Europeans in the witch-hunting era considered themselves justified burning supposed witches alive. And there’s no telling how many cultures believed that rules against murder only applied to their own tribe/culture/band/whatever you want to call it (probably most of them, in all honesty. There’s a reason all those different versions of hospitality rules in history and mythology exist. They’re a kind of negotiated truce for travelers so the host and the guest could be reasonably sure that neither would try to kill the other for the duration of their stay).

You take someone from a culture that’s used to bloodthirsty rituals to placate their gods, and that person is going to look evil to a culture like ours – particularly if he decides you make a perfect sacrifice for the next scheduled ritual. He, on the other hand, could well be convinced that you are a danger to his entire existence, not least because your insistence on not performing the bloodthirsty rituals means his god is going to fry him in some way.

Yes, there is still the inexplicable distant evil to consider – but it’s a damn sight harder to characterize that. That’s actually something I’ve never been able to manage: characterizing or even effectively writing anything resembling the “evil god” so popular in role playing games and some subgenres of fantasy. It’s not something I particularly want to write, either, because people following beliefs are much more interesting than immensely powerful malign deific beings that can only be defeated by dropping a magical artifact into a convenient volcano.

I’d rather write the embittered fellow who resents that an old combat injury means he’s never going to rise above the second-bottom level of his very rigid caste-based society and wholeheartedly believes that those who injured him are nothing more than talking animals and should be exterminated at the first opportunity. He might not be terribly friendly, but he’s a person and his motives make sense.

Frankly, if real life had to follow rules like the enemy making sense, life would be ever so much easier.


  1. You remember the well written villains better then the poorly written hero.

    1. As it also works the other way around, I’d say it’s more accurate to say ‘People remember well written characters better than poorly written characters.’

    2. Everyone has reasons for what they’re doing. Reasons aren’t excuses, though people often confuse the two. A villain has to have a reason for what they’re doing. I’m sick of the simplified “evil=crazy” that gets a lot of play these days.

      As far as very very big bads go, I like my incomprehensible cosmic evils to have a more Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil” vibe than a Cthulhu one, myself.

      1. Yes, exactly. Evil is supposed to be seductive, with you not seeing the dangers until too late.

  2. I find the evil choices I might actually make more interesting. So because I’m a bit of a fanatic and a madman, I find fanatics and madmen more interesting to create. That’s the sort of evil that tries to seduce me.

    I wouldn’t write someone who is crazy and evil because of merely being outside of the dominant religion of the culture. I would understand their thinking, and the mental and character flaws that drive them to a specific means and end.

    If they follow the dominant religion of their culture, and it is an evil religion, it will not be because they are afraid of not having company if they don’t go along with the crowd. Even if that is realistic. It will be because they are sincerely zealous, or have a drive that they can satisfy by going along. But not the normal social drive, because I am fanatic enough that there are lines I wouldn’t cross for that, and weird enough that there are lines I can’t cross for that. I care about loneliness, but a drive for company that is paramount is too alien to really understand.

    And it is racist to enforce codes against murder that apply to every human, because it is insensitive to cultural differences. 🙂

  3. I like shadowy, off-screen villains in my writing. Mostly because that way I don’t have to have that guy inside my brain with me. I have enough to deal with in here.

    But also, in Real Life we never get to meet up with the Bad Guy, do we? So generally Our Hero is dealing with the effects of what the villain is doing, tracing his movements, figuring out how to get him. We see the depredations of the Evile Mastermind, but he’s off-screen someplace running for his worthless life because the Good Guy is coming for him.

    I also like Accidental Bad Guy. The last book, the Bad Guy is an all-powerful alien AI who has decided Earth needs to be cleaned up due to the messy infestation of sub-sapient biocreatures. That’s a favorite Lefty trope, the Advanced Civilization deciding that those fucked-up monkeys have to go. I had a lot of fun screwing that whole thing over, let me tell you. Alien minion meets Spike, the golden retriever as big as a polar bear. Did you know that polar-bear sized nanotech enhanced dogs can go zero to 100mph in two seconds? Oh. Hell. Yeah.

    No idea if it will sell, I guess we’ll see, but at least my brain is nice and clean inside. Or no more messed up than before, if I’m honest.

    Now, as to “blood-soaked Aztec rituals” type of thing. As a reader, me personally? I don’t need to know their motivations. I don’t want to be reading about -why- there’s a mountain of skulls. What I want to know is how Our Hero is going to nuke ’em from orbit. (Only way to be sure, y’know.) Bad Guy cred established, now tell me about the Neutronium Annihilator of Destruction priming sequence. ~:D

    1. in Real Life we never get to meet up with the Bad Guy, do we?

      Most of us don’t. That was one thing that made those Violence books so interesting. He meets up with the Bad Guys all the time.

    2. Are you saying you have the NADs to wipe out the Bad Guys all by your lonesome? 😉

  4. Good villains are hard for me to write. Antagonists are easier. Alas, I’m going to have to write a convincing villain pretty soon. He was a nasty, sadistic brat who just didn’t change as he got older. Given that his parents were his role models (and enabler in one case…) Ick.

  5. One of my (and my readers’) favorite characters from “The Book Of Lost Doors” is Agony Delapour, who is an alien intelligence confined in a human body. One of my other characters describes her by saying, “She’s not evil–evil is a human word. She’s a hole in the world. She needs to own everything–she wants to eat God and absorb His essence. And I’m not entirely sure that she can’t do it.”

    Nonetheless, she ends up saving the world and the human race through purely selfish motives–she can’t own the world is something else destroys it first.

    I really enjoyed writing Agony as a character, she’s pure ambition untroubled by any hint of morality. However, being completely void of any concept of right and wrong doesn’t mean she is wantonly destructive or cruel. She’ll use whatever method will give her the result she wants most efficiently. Usually, negotiation or bribery is the easiest, only in intractable cases does she find it necessary to call out the Pale Surgeon and vivisect people.

    1. Any look at wonderfully characterized villains must include E. E. Smith’s Skylark’s Marc C. Duquesne. Aside from his initial ambition to rule the world, and his willingness to use ruthless methods to achieve it (his ambition gets bigger as the series proceeds), he’s brilliant, honorable, trustworthy, devoted to his true love — all the things you’d expect from a hero. Which leads to him to repeatedly save the hero, etc. But that “Aside from” is always there, and it shows up often enough to remind you that he *is* the villain, despite all the good things he does.

      I’ve never read a better villain.

  6. Villains tend to bore me in general… and as a result I’m pretty bad at them. (Which is weird, because as a teenager I was *all about* the Villain Protagonist.) Looking forward to see what everyone else has to say, though.

    I guess I should mention… I do have a soft spot for the unrepentant narcissist, particularly ones who don’t understand why on earth they’d want to repent. I wanted it, I took it, you’d do the same, and I don’t understand why we’re making such a big *deal* about the whole thing. Those can be fun to me. No justification or twisted-up motivations or poorly-considered dreams squished into a nightmare outcome… just, “And?” >.>

    1. *snicker* I have to admit they’re occasionally entertaining. There was a writing prompt I saw some time back, about a chaotic good angel and the lawful evil demon (think the kind that sit on your shoulders). The latter has more headaches from the former.

    2. I recommend Theodore Dalrymple’s Life At The Bottom for a view at that sort — though they generally leave off “You’d do the same” because there is simply no connection in their thoughts between their own conduct and anyone else’s, so that which they excuse in themselves does not get considered by the same rule as everyone else’s.

  7. I prefer the villains where, no it’s not just a matter of whose point of view the story is in. And no, no moral relativism.

    Also upbringing gets a lot more blame that it merits. The same upbringing can bring about all sorts of characters; the suffering that takes the blame for the villain’s villainy could have produced a saintly hero out to protect the innocent from that fate.

    1. One of my students last year expressed disappointment that we did not talk more about Stalin’s early years, because obviously (to her) his “problems” must have been caused by an abusive father or something similar.

      No, you don’t have to have an abusive father to turn bad. Chairman Mao had a rather nice childhood and early teen years, and . . .

      1. There’s a work — still in progress — where the heroine is told by a number of women that what had happened to the heroine’s mother had a deep influence on their lives.

        Not one attributes the same effect to it.

      2. Per Chung and Halliday, IIRC, Zedong did have a grudge against his father. But that doesn’t make the father abusive, Zedong already had a warped self image by that point, and his mother was much more inclined to spoil him.

  8. Bother, I thought I replied, not showing…..

    Historically, the Roman attitude about Jews and Christians started making sense when I found out they viewed not sacrificing to local gods as standing next to an idiot deliberately pissing off the biggest drunk in the bar, who has a bazooka and no self control.

    Likewise, the idea of executing witches makes sense if you imagine it was real. (Yeah, much harder with rules of evidence and such…which is part of why those investigative tools were developed.)

    I still can’t figure out the “child witches” thing in Africa, though. (They are abandoned, you’ve probably seen pictures.)


    They are, of course, //wrong.// Just not crowing “yay, I can be evil!”

      1. There are, I believe, tribes in New Guinea (not sure if the PNG side or the western side) that will tell visitors they don’t eat people. Only witches. Make of that what you will.

  9. I often struggle with making my “bad guys” something more than cardboard… AND being how I usually just let my characters run wild and tell ME what they do, it really causes a problem finishing the story. I need to get better at it. 🙂

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