Story from the Start: Villains

This isn’t really an appropriate topic for Easter Sunday (Western church calendar), or maybe it is. It is about evil that leads to justice.

At last, we get to the guy in the suit, top-hat, and cape, twirling his black mustache and gloating over the . . . Oops.

Some bad guys get to do that. Alas, the rest of the doers of evil deeds tend to be a little less obvious about who they are, and have more complicated motives than getting Pretty Polly to marry them for [insert nefarious reason here]. Nor do they tend to gloat the way Auric [Corrected] Goldfinger did. Unless you are writing a true melodrama, in which having characters chew the scenery is part of the fun, and you should go for it with gusto and humor.

There are a few times when you can have a villain without a motive (sort of like a Rebel Without a Cause [or Clue. Ed.]), especially if you are writing horror. That’s part of the definition of horror, the enormous weight of the unknown that surrounds the story. For other genres, readers tend to get impatient with, “Because she’s evil, that’s why” unless you set it up really, really well. I’m not that good. My villains need a motive, be it bureaucratic, or personal, or magical, or the desire for revenge (sometimes personal, sometimes not.)

In Wall of the Fifth River, we have a villain. His motives are quite reasonable. He is a priest of the river gods, or of gods he thinks are the real gods of the river, and he wants to keep them happy and contented. His predecessors found a way to do this, a two-part way, by giving the gods a percentage of the most valuable thing the people have. OK, this sounds like something many religions do, so you’re not breaking reader belief (pun intended.)

So, here’s the first encounter between Foy (chief scout) Vashon (smart warrior) and the eventually bad guy.

Excerpt One:

At the cross-road, the two riders hesitated, then continued up toward the building on the mound. It gleamed white under the noon sun, with scarlet and deep green bands around the edge of the roof. As they drew closer, the people around them gave the pair curious looks, and they saw more children, mostly two years and older. One boy played with a clay ox on wheels, pulling it with a string. Two girls chased a rolling hoop, steering it with slender sticks. All the children wore good clothes, clean and pale. Well, the stone streets did not stain the way grass and dirt did, and the children looked too young to help their parents with the animals. Vashlo nodded to himself as he and Foy passed through a gateway without gates.

Foy hesitated, then moved to the side, away from the city folk coming and going. “I do not like it,” he whispered. “Too cold. Something chills me, something worse than what we left behind the mountains.”

“Can you tell where it comes from?” Vashlo wanted to untie his knife, but what good was even the strongest bronze against a spirit?

“No.” Foy shook all over, like a horse with flies. “But I don’t want to stay here longer than we need to.”

No one with all their wits and senses stayed in any city longer than they had to. Vashlo nodded his agreement, and they resumed their walk, following the others on a way that circled around a large pool of water. Someone had lined the hole with stone or something else black and hard, and steps led down to the water and out again. Two men wearing only loin-cloths folded their hands and bowed, then entered the pool. They swam across the length, ducking under the water three times, then emerged at the end. Women waiting there handed the men clothing, which they put on after turning and bowing three times more to the water. Foy and Vashlo shared a shrug. Perhaps it was the local version of a sweat tent?

Everyone around them stopped at once as a wooden rattle clattered and bells chimed. The people turned toward the building on the mound, bowing. Foy and Vashlo copied them. A man appeared on the platform under the building. He wore a white waist-wrap that extended down to his shins, with an extra piece draped over his shoulder. His bald head gleamed a little in the noon sun, and he carried a staff. A smile appeared on his round face. He had a beard that had been trimmed into a curve just below his chin, but that did not seem to have been oiled or curled. The people straightened up and resumed their walking. The stranger descended the steps and strode towards the two strangers, little metal tassels on his shoulder-piece chiming as he moved. Foy and Vashlo bowed again.

The stranger studied them. He spoke slowly, his voice smooth and almost melodic. “Greetings, travelers.”

“Greetings, honored elder,” Vashlo replied.

“Do you seek the blessing of the gods?”

“No more than all men, honored elder. We are strangers and came to pay our respects to the gods of the city and the land.” That was the custom among all civilized people, after all.

The elder started to frown, then smiled once more. “Indeed. It is wise to please the gods, wherever one passes.” He blinked dark eyes. “Do any children among your people need healing or blessings?”

Vashlo hid his surprise. What a strange question? “I do not know sir. At present all are well, but that will change as the gods will it.”

“A wise and good answer. Should a need arise, bring them here. Children are special favorites of our city god, and my fellow priests and I are always willing to offer sacrifices and prayers on the behalf of the very young.”

Foy inclined his head in a bow. ‘Thank you, honored elder. We will so tell our elders, that they might remember if there is need.”

The priest raised his left hand. “Go with the blessings of the city gods, and may your people find rest and ease.”

The two men bowed, waiting until the priest walked away to stand upright once more. They finished walking around the temple, then returned the way they had come.

End Scene.

So, Foy, who is sensitive to magic, senses something badly wrong in the temple complex. [Foreshadowing]. They meet a nice man, who we will see later giving children blessings and acting like everyone’s really kind uncle who has little treats for the younger kids and who makes time for them. Except the people act a little odd around him, even if the children don’t. Oh, and there are no children younger than two or so. [Cue dissonant, minor music] Later on, the local priests and some other city people express further interest in the tribe’s young children, and some of the nomads wonder about all the strange river beasts hanging around the bridge. [Scary music builds in the background]. Remember, you need to foreshadow three times at least for readers to start to get suspicious.

We jump to the reveal. It takes place at night, as the tribal seer and the chief are discussing what to do next:

Scene Two:

Foy dropped to his knees, bowing to Dravane and Mahon. “Honored chief and seer, we must have nothing to do with the men of the city.” He shook and dripped as if he’d raced leagues on foot in the midday summer sun. His face seemed pure white despite the reddish light of the fire. “They consort with evil.”

Dravane leaned forward from where he sat on the other side of the fire. “What did you do and see?”

Foy swallowed hard. “Honored seer, I followed the tracks of the missing mare and foal down to the meadow near the river. I found them, and Endria caught them and started back to camp. But I sensed something wrong, and heard voices from upstream. I tied my horse to a post and crept upstream, hiding in the reeds. Honored seer, may the gods save me from ever seeing such things again.”

“What?” Mahon demanded.

Foy began shaking. “They feed children – babies – to demons! I heard crying, and watched as the priest Vashon and I met took a yearling child out of a basket, held it over his head, and threw it into the river. As he did, something moved, and grunted, snapping at the baby as it entered the water. In the moonlight and torchlight I saw eyes glowing red, and a beast like the one Ani saw, but glowing.” He gulped. “The priests chanted, and threw four more babies into the water, all of them devoured by the demon creatures. Power came to the priests, and the priests sent it somewhere, I think the city.” Foy’s face had shifted from white to green. “As the beasts tore apart a child, it screamed in pain. The priests laughed and smiled. Honored seer and chief, I threw up. Had I had my bow with me, I would have killed all the men for such evil.”

End Scene.

OK, these guys are Bad News. They are breaking the law of the gods, as well as violating the laws of hospitality (as has already transpired earlier in the story). Later on we see that the priests are doing something even more sadistic, all for the good of the city with the knowledge of the people of the city.* This the nomads cannot stand.

This scene is based on archaeological evidence, and reports from British Colonial Administrators from the area that’s now in Pakistan. It took them until the 1830s to get women to stop sacrificing children to the gods of fertility by feeding babies to local alligators.

The villains have the best of intentions – protecting their people and keeping them safe. It is a sad thing to give up some children, but so the gods demand. Right now readers are probably begging for the SMOD** or something to hit the city. It’s going to come, trust me. Now the chief priest, the one we met in the first scene? Oh, he’s not what he seems, and he enjoys what he does. So we have “misguided evil” and “pure evil kill-it-with-fire.” Or in this case, water.

We have our protagonists, our villain, and our motives. What next?

In two weeks, I will jump to the final confrontation.


*Those of you who are thinking, “Um, you know, this reminds me of a famous short story/ thought experiment that Alma really does not like” are on the right track.

**Sweet Meteor of Doom.


  1. butbutbut my villains are nameless and faceless

    (in the story i am presently working on, this is literal)

    1. And that can work very well! “Evil Force of Evil” can be very effective. For the book I’m working on? Not so much.

      1. yeah, i just need someone with a background in quantum mechanics to tell me my stuff doesnt sound too ridiculous….

    2. Yes. If the point-of-view characters never figure out why the villains do it, it’s legitimate to not show it.

    3. Or if the antagonists are orthogonal to human motivations. This is very common in cosmic horror, where the sanity-shattering insignificance of humanity is often a big part of the horror. Lovecraft’s the obvious one, but there’s also the alien litterbugs in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic.

    4. Mine too. For the most part we don’t see the villain or his/her/its depredations except after the fact. We see the Good Guys kicking ass to find and beat the villain.

      That there -is- a villain (or idiot who is not listening, that works too) is sufficient to provide lots of tension and danger.

      Also I love shooting Lovecraftian monsters in the head with some kind of hugely overpowered weapon. Eldritch evil who’s power we know naught of… meets star-ship fusion drive. Ka-pow.

        1. Absolutely. I don’t need to know their motivations and reasons if Humans are getting hurt. All I need is a big enough gun.

          If they’re intelligent they’ll learn not to mess with the Earth after the first dozen or so drop out of communication from being too dead.

  2. My WIP is a horrific mess. It has big bads, who other characters deal with, and a villain, who fits with the main character.

    I was shocked to realize that the behind the scenes manipulation to set the stage for a conventional PRC invasion of Japan was not enough to establish the character of my villain.

    This is the first real project that I’ve designed using Swain’s techniques.

    I revisited my notes, and Swain defines a villain by ruthlessness. It isn’t ruthless to discard what one hates.

    “What can this villain sacrifice that he cares about?” And then I had the climax. The supreme act of ruthlessness to inspire the MC’s sacrifice.

    Now I have some things to calculate from this, that I was not able to calculate when I first noticed it.

    1. Huh.

      In my current work in progress, I don’t know if the villainess cares enough about anything but herself to call it a sacrifice to give it up.

      Hmm. . . maybe. . . her crown. . . .

      1. Well, I’ve just worked out that part of what the MC picked up on is that the villain pre-injured himself to make sure that the incident he hoped to blame the Japanese government for would be plausible as something that he was not ultimately behind. Might’ve even killed himself, if he didn’t need someone he could trust to pass as a survivor and wave the bloody shirt correctly.

        I’m not quite sure if it would be better for him to be that grade of fanatic, or better for him to be planning to come out of things alive.

        Either way, he killed a guy making it credible that he had some trust and affection for.

        1. Yeah, my villainess has neither trust in nor affection for her allies — and certainly neither her daughter nor her husband. Hence the question.

    1. Or India, where they used to burn the wife on the husband’s funeral pyre… and usually they didn’t have much wood… so it took quite a while…

      Anti-colonialists have -really- no idea what the English did for India and Pakistan. Not a single clue.

        1. I just learned about the Indus Valley practices from a relatively new book on the culture. The Indo-Europeans were not saints (they sacrificed adults on occasion), but wow, that the Indus Valley practice likely continued for 3500 years? That’s amazing continuity, and not in a good way.

            1. The book is _The Roots of Hindusim_ by Askio Parpola. It is 80% historical linguistics plus archaeology, 20% other stuff. If you are not familiar with the basic story of the development of the Indo-European language families, and the archaeology of the Indus-Oxus River corridor, it’s heavy going. I’m not entirely convinced by the author’s hypothesis, but I found the book a useful counterpoint to _The Civilized Demons_.

      1. In fairness, it is also quite some number of societies beyond pre-colonial India and Pakistan.

        Something about it seems to just make sense where the magical thinking of humans is concerned.

    2. For what little it’s worth, it seems to be a reoccurring theme across cultures– for a timely example, it wasn’t unusual to Abraham that Himself would ask for Issac (a bit old for the norm, but not that far out there for a big-time sacrifice), it was unusual that Himself would actively forbid the sacrifice, and all like it.

        1. I believe RES recently summarized a complaint about Himself’s favoring the cluebat at times with something like “have you read the history of His interaction with us?”

    3. I’ve always loved Lord Charles Napier’s response when he encountered suttee:

      “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

      I’ve considered Napier’s approach the dividing line between benign multiculturalism, when you just want to eat naan and butter chicken, and maladaptive multiculturalism, where Napier is the bad guy for not understanding that burning women alive is “just their way.” That’s how you end up with Rotherham. I don’t want immigration policies made by anti-Napiers.

      Also thought it wasn’t an accident that the people God asked the Israelites to get rid of tended to practice human sacrifice as a component of their cultures.

        1. One of the reasons Rome was so offended by Carthage killing babies, or the worship of Atargatis and the druids, was that human sacrifice wasn’t that far back in the past for Rome or Greece. It scared the willies out of them.

          (And you weren’t supposed to point out that gladiatorial combats to the death, when in honor of the dead or god holidays, were awfully close to human sacrifice.)

            1. And the Carthaginians were the Phoenicians, who were also called Canaanites. So I just figured that “Carthago delenda est” was God’s back up plan for the Israelites failing to do the job the first time around.

              1. I think that way can lead to some really bad mixtures of theology and politics.

                Lots of societies suck hugely. Sometimes they wipe each other out. Describing that as God’s plan can point in the direction of prescription. No human society is Good. If one of them is suited to be destroyed by human’s hand and God’s will, why not others? What is the limit?

                I think it is better to strictly divide. God’s will for evil societies is for us to try to convert individuals. Slaughter is the part of the business that is Caesar’s.

                And there were secular political reasons why Carthage had to be destroyed. They were a peer competitor, and they had fought two wars with them already. The Romans were already culturally strange, militarily speaking, before they got into the Punic wars. The last human sacrifice, IIRC, was during a disaster of the second Punic war. Latin owes that phrase to Cato’s constant lobbying for the truth that Carthage ought to be erased. It is not impossible that part of his influence in that activism was in changing Roman sensibilities on formal human sacrifice.

                Anyhow, if you have the choice, it is immoral, from a secular political perspective, to tolerate the existence of an enemy that you have previously fought, and will fight again in the future. Push harder this war, and avoid the next! Much of my foreign policy thinking and feeling is rooted in this essential truth. Further, I am profoundly pessimistic when it comes to possibilities of peace with foreign populations, and profoundly optimistic about other possibilities.

                I hope this helps you understand why I can so strongly see that this distinction is necessary for me.

          1. And throwing the babies out in the trash with the knowledge that they could be eaten by feral dogs is not much better than throwing them into a furnace.

  3. Great minds think alike:

    Giant spiders of chrome and graphene roamed the ancient city. They abandoned stealth in favor of arrogant cheek. The sleek machines strode boldly down the middle of the streets and stuck their heads inside houses. The smaller flying drones flitted about, pestering bystanders with impertinent and pointed questions. What they found was disturbing, to say the least.

    Where several streets met, there was usually an open area. What the Italians would term a palazzo. In the center of each one, there was a round, open structure. They looked like a well, or a fountain, from the air. Exactly what one would expect in a pre-industrial city. Communal water supply for the surrounding buildings.

    On closer examination, the spiders discovered several were not wells at all. They were pits with a stone or mud brick wall around them. Some had demons bound to a stone pillar in the center. There were bones scattered in the pits. Generally small ones.

    “Okay. Now I’m mad,” said the spider poking at a very small human skull. The demon that was chained there raged and shrieked at the spider, lunging against its bonds, trying to get a claw into the smooth metal. The spider shot it with a plasma gun, vaporizing most of its guts.

    “Heal from that!” said the spider angrily, as the demon hung slack in the chains.


    We really do need to do “Those Who Return To Omelas” as a Mad Genius e-anthology. Maybe one of you Geniuses can talk Larry into contributing, and I want to see what Sarah and Dave do to Omelas. Fire and the sword are too good for them.

    1. That would be an interesting one to keep on theme. Actual Omelas might be a bit lacking in variety for plots.

      1. Mine isn’t actually Omelas, just a town of demon worshipers who get on the wrong side of Alice Haddison and her Mobile Infantry mecha suit. Its more the theme of human sacrifice of any kind, and the well-deserved ass kicking that follows in so satisfying a manner.

        This is supposed to be fun reading. What’s more fun than demons getting curb-stomped by Big Damn Heroes? ~:D

  4. Those of you who are thinking, “Um, you know, this reminds me of a famous short story/ thought experiment that Alma really does not like” are on the right track.

    Good, that one’s high on my “everything is flammable” response list.

  5. the desire for revenge

    I’ll just say as a reader that this is one villain motive that the writer needs to handle carefully. If the reason for revenge is too trivial, it can be almost like there being no motive at all, while if it’s too good, then the reader starts rooting for the villain and is upset when they’re foiled.

    1. And it has to fit the character. I collided with a short story where the villain wanted to avenger her honor, except the writer made it clear that she did not come from an honor/shame culture. I almost wondered if the character had been pulled from a different setting or story and jammed in at the last minute.

    2. Yep. I backed out of an Anne McCaffrey & Jody-Lyn Nye story for exactly this reason; their villain’s motive was so childish and silly that I couldn’t believe he was over the age of 10. I think the motive was revealed in the first 10 pages, which was convenient, so I never went further.

      Then there’s the moment years ago when someone told me that Lex Luthor’s original motivation for hating Superman was that Superman somehow caused him to go bald. No, I thought. That can’t be for real. Especially since I think the guy playing Luthor had a full head of hair in “Lois and Clark,” so I figured the person who told me had to be joking. Smallville later showed Lex losing his hair as a child when Superman crash lands on Earth, but I’m guessing they didn’t go with that as a motive, so much as a nod to canon (I didn’t watch the whole series).

      Perhaps baldness was a good motive pre-Yul Brynner, but post Brynner and Picard and Michael Jordan — and Mr. Clean! — it was hard to take seriously.

      1. Well, originally Lex hated Superman because he was a criminal and Superman kept stopping his crimes.

        Then DC started the “Adventures of Superboy” where Lex and Clark both lived in Smallville. That’s where Lex started to “hate” Superboy/Superman for causing him to go bald. IE Superboy accidently interrupted a science experiment of Lex’s (Superboy thought Lex was in danger) and Lex lost his hair.

        But yes, it was a stupid reason. On the other hand, there was an element of Lex wanting to “control the world” but Superman kept stopping him.

        Later when DC changed Lex into a Major Businessman (instead of a mad-scientist criminal), Lex was the Big Man In Metropolis until Superman arrived.

        It was still petty but there was also an element of Lex (who wasn’t a nice man but pretended to be one) not trusting this god-like being to be as good as he appeared. After all Lex could imagine “what he would do with that power” and couldn’t believe Superman was a better person than him.

        1. I always rather liked the “you’re in my way” motive for Lex.

          It’s human, it’s universal, and you don’t have to be obviously evil and/or stupid to do it.

          1. Nod.

            In one novelization, Superman believes he has to join forces with mad-scientist criminal Lex to investigate a theft by an alien.

            There’s a conversation between them after they learn that the alien has plans for Earth.

            Basically Lex tells Superman of all the advantages of taking over Earth for somebody wanting to create an interstellar Empire and the alien is going to take over Earth in spite of Superman living there.

            Superman asks why haven’t you tried to do this and Lex basically responses “I have attempted to do this but you’ve always stopped me”. 😈

  6. The main villain in my story…is a sixteen year old girl that pretty much never grew up, got extremely pissed when she learned that her metaphysical credit card was going to have a credit limit, and that Daddy was going to make sure she was supported-but she wasn’t going to be in charge of the family firm when Dad retired.

    Oh, and she managed to make sure she had enough power to completely destroy things by scamming (and genuinely scamming, no tricks here!) Nyarlathotep. Yes, that Nyarlathotep. And the rest of the Elder Gods.

    And, when she got so very close to succeeding, she learned that an heir had successfully escaped. So, she kept trying to find and kill the heir, because as long as there’s a heir out there, she can’t inherit.

    For nearly six thousand years, she’s been a very busy and angry little beaver.

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