Writing Excuses Episode 7: Villains

Are flaws necessary for villains? What traits make for a really good (err… evil?) villain? What’s the difference between Sauron and Gollum? (“That’s the LAST time I send you out shopping for Gollums, son…”)

Liner Notes: The Evil Overlord List, a handy reference for tropes to avoid (or, as the case may be, exploit…)


34 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 7: Villains”

  1. 3,000! great work, Congratulations.

    Love the Pod Casts, I listen to every new one every Monday (and often a couple of times in between) and I think they have really been helping me to identify my own Heroes and Villains (as well as some of my own flawed writings)

    please keep these coming, I love to listen to the words of Wisdom passed on from such great writers!

  2. Love the podcast guys. It gives me motivation to write and gets the wheels turning. keep ’em coming.

  3. DK regular here

    Congratulations on your 3000 hits! this will definitely be a site i visit every week!

  4. Just a thought – and it may already be in your plans – but could you do an episode on bit players, spear carriers – the other people in the story? Sometimes I think people forget that there are people besides the heroes and villians, and they can (and should) be interesting, too.

  5. Were you guys still laughing over the bonus episode at the beginning of this one? I laughed heartly at both of them. Great job by the way, I love the information I’ve learned (and I’ve learned a lot!) Keep them coming!

    Also, a question for all of you – Do you think a story must have a villian? Not nessarily a “throw over the world” type person, but do you think that all stories must have a “bad guy”?

  6. Though I’m afraid to ask, I have a question about anti-heroes. I know for social workers and psychologist there is a risk of having too much sympathy for people who do horrible things. So do writers run to the risk of desensitizing some of their audience to horrible actions by having a sypathetic anti-hero?

    Writing and ethics is probably a can-of-worms.

  7. Yay for the Dexter mention! One more thing that makes him “heroic” in quotes is that part of the reason he kills the villains who fall through the cracks is to channel his own sociopathic behavior. So, in a sense, he’s saving others from himself by taking out his urges on specific targets.

    On the subject of heroes v. anti-heroes – I’ve heard and had discussions on this topic many times, and it keeps coming back to era.

    Lawful good paragons of justice are more popular when we have an enemy that we clearly see as evil. During WWI and WWII we’d depict Superman and Captain America triumphing over Nazis and politically incorrect caricatures of Japanese soldiers.

    Anti-heroes become more popular in more morally grey times. The example of Punisher’s been brought up and versions of him were both straight out of Vietnam and Iraq.

    Also – I must disagree with your takes on the anti-hero. I don’t necessarily think they have to be a villain forced into a heroic roll or even a hero who succumbs to his flaws. I think an anti-hero just does things differently.

    Where a hero is Lawful Good – an anti-hero might me neutral good or chaotic good.

    Batman’s an anti-hero, but he’s not despicable, he just isn’t your typical “boyscout” hero. He uses different methods, he’s darker, he sticks to the shadows, he’s anti-social.

    He does the right thing but doesn’t necessarily fit into society’s ideals.

    The Winchester Brothers on supernatural are other examples. I think of them as anti-heroes. They’re vigilantes of sorts – they go after the villains the cops can’t handle, but they break the law to do it. They’re still good guys, they’re redeemable… but they’re also wanted in several states for desecrating graves and other… technicalities.

  8. @M’ichelle: No, we were not laughing over the Bonus Episode at the beginning of this episode. The two were recorded four weeks apart. We were laughing over something that happened in between recording Episode 6 and Episode 7. I’m not sure what that was.

    @42: Yes, writers have the power to desensitize their readers. They can persuade, cajole, convince, connive, and outright trick readers into thinking in particular ways. It won’t work on every reader, and the more outright attempts will fail for their blatancy, but writers often write in order to produce social change, and many of them succeed.

    You’re right. It’s a can o’ worms.

    @ Speaker: You’re absolutely right — we color our perceptions of what we read based on current events, and the relative moral climate (whatever that is… somebody get me a moralometer, STAT!) The challenge lies in gauging that climate’s effect on the perceptions of the characters you create, which is why mostly I don’t bother. I write characters that I like, and that I dislike, and assume (optimistically) that a large percentage of my audience will feel the same way, since we’re all embedded in the same general culture.

  9. @ Howard: Oh I don’t bother with trying to fit the climate either. For the same reasons – we are all in the same general culture, as you said. I wasn’t necessarily mentioning the phenomenon as a tool to use to try to make a character popular in a certain time, I was more just explaining why I thought certain types were more popular at certain times and why we have a wealth of anti-heroes these days.

    Though, I WOULD love a Moralometer… I think there may be one embedded in my interociter… I’ll go check.

  10. Speaker:
    I think that calling Batman an anti-hero is stretching the definition of anti-hero, by which I mean that you are stretching MY definition of anti-hero. You’re absolutely welcome to yours.

    I do think, absolutely, that anti-heroes can desensitize audiences. When we see “bad” people cast in “good” roles we start to get confused, and then we end up praising or even rooting for people who are in fact quite despicable. Hannibal Lecter is a great example: in the early books he is a villain, through and through, but he does good things to help the hero. He was a fantastic character with fascinating motivations and he became very popular, to the point that the last two books in the series have been solely about him. Granted, one of the main things that interests us is his capacity for making “noble” decisions to help Clarice, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is a horrible person with evil goals and evil methods–and yet we cheer for him and always want him to win.

  11. @Dan: But it doesn’t stretch wiki’s definition ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-hero which even calls Bats an anti-hero ) – and that’s all that matters. ;)

    Kidding of course. We’re all definitely entitled to our opinions, especially on a concept that has changed over time as what we’ve considered “heroic” has changed.

  12. PS – of course, wiki considered Sider-Man an anti-hero… which I can see him having been one back in the day – but no longer.

  13. Speaker:
    The wiki article is interesting, but it’s using a very classical definition of anti-hero–in the sense that “classical” refers to greek literature. By that definition Spider-man is an anti-hero because he questions his role as a hero and has second thoughts about his abilities and actions. I would almost go so far as to say that these definitions have reversed themselves over time: consider Odysseus, the typical greek hero who was strong and brave and determined and single-minded (the qualities attributed to the classical definition of a hero), but also violent, unfaithful, arrogant, and misogynistic (qualities we would attribute to the modern definition of an anti-hero).

  14. Mi’chelle: ‘Mind if I take a stab at your question?

    Is a villain needed in stories? Yes. Personified in one being who opposes the hero, “a bad guy”? No. What kind of villain you have depends on your story. For instance, the villain in Bambi is the vague ‘Man’, meaning all those who are careless campers and hunters. Furthermore, if the main character of a story is an antihero, he (isn’t necessarily but) can be his own worst enemy. “Bad guys” will spice this villain-antihero’s story, but they aren’t the conflict’s main sustenance.

    So, yes, a villain is needed, but no, not as some archetypal “bad guy”. (Of course, those can be fun too.)

  15. Michelle and C:
    To paraphrase what C is saying, you don’t need a villain, per se, but you have to have conflict. Some good examples, off the top of my head, are the disaster genre (man vs. nature), the road movie genre (characters try to discover themselves), and the farce genre (several characters of equal morality all get in each other’s way, usually by accident). One of the first books to come to mind is Contact by Carl Sagan, which does have a couple of bad guys in it but only as minor characters–the main plot is driven by exploration and discovery, with the primary conflict being an internal “science vs. faith” thing in the mind of the protagonist.

  16. @Dan

    Thank you so much. That helps a lot. Right now I’m working on a book where as I think about it I realize I DON’T have a villain of any sort in it, and yet it seems to work just fine. But I do have conflicts in it, so I guess those work in place. So, thank you! (And thanks C for at least trying… even if I kind of got more confused.)

  17. Thanks not only to this podcast, but the hilarious list that was linked with it, I now have a rather interesting villain in my WI-P2 (nothing big, but a work in progress all the same) that, without a bit of intellgence and a bit more added information, would’ve turned out to be a simple force of nature.

    Also, I would like to comment that one of my favorite villains in literature (Acheron Hades from the Thursday Next series) had an entire family . . . They were all villains themselves, but it was a family none-the-less. In contrast, my all-time favorite villain, Hannibal Lecter, lost his family and that was one of his many motivations (though the family motivation made him a slightly less interesting character and made Thomas Harris seem to be a bit of a sellout in his most recent work).

    By the way, I ADORE hearing references to Dexter these days. But I must say that it’s not only a television show. It started out as a book series that is now including three novels and growing.

    And, this being my first comment at the actual site, I have to thank you guys for having not ONLY a writing pod cast, but one that isn’t boring, littered with rants about how unpublished you are, or filled with tons of ads (such as one that I really won’t mention because it’s not very polite).

    Thank you again.

  18. Anti-heroes, at least the ones I like to read about, blur the lines between your standard roguish hero (e.g. Han Solo) and villains. As morality is a scale with many possible values, you can find people of various shades-of-gray if you will rather than just black and white.

    I think many people are attracted to them for the simple reason that they don’t feel bound by the rules of society. Yes, they have noble intentions or effects ultimately, but instead of wading through all the red tape or waiting in line, they’ll just do what everybody wants to do at some time in their life and cut someone’s ear off or something similar to get what they want.

    It’s kind of a fantastical have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too thing.

  19. I love this podcast! Funny you say it’s 15 minutes because you’re not that smart. I think you guys are brilliant! Keep up the good work, please. Writing Excuses is informational, inspirational, and smart as hell. Best writing podcast out there. Thank you guys so much.

  20. I love the mention of Dexter. I just started watching it (season 1 in Canada) this year, and it really is a great exploration of heroism and villainy.

    But I have to say–so far, I feel you’re misreading the character. What makes Dexter most compelling (for me at least) are three things: (1) he consciously acknowledges himself to be a monster; (2) he channels his monstrosities into a very specific code of honor (only killing to save lives); and (3) his prime motivation is the struggle to be “normal.”

    In that sense, he is not a villain (or antihero) at all–especially going by the rule of thumb that a villain thinks himself to be right. The code of honor is, generically, perhaps the most significant feature: like Vash the Stampede or Edmond Dantes, the viewer’s sympathy for him is largely contingent on his ability to follow a specific code which separates him from the chaos of other “outsiders” or criminals. If he is ever to kill someone innocent/relatively innocent (and it’s quite likely at some point), then that would probably be closer to the low point of an everyman hero journey, where he has caused horrible things to happen and has no idea how he will “save the day.”

    Or he could (at that point) go darkside, in which case the viewer would perceive a tragic turn and the show would never be the same. Joss Wheedon is very good at such turns, especially in Angel.

    In any case, the Dexter of the midpoint of season 1 seems, to me, to be pretty clearly a dark hero rather than an antihero.

  21. I have really enjoyed these podcasts. It is the sort of intelligent discussion on writing I wish I could find in real life/online. About flaws in villains/heroes, Orson Scott Card brings up an interesting point in his Characters and Viewpoint: there are certain flaws that readers tend to tolerate in heroes and others that will make a reader hate a character- murder can be tolerated but bullying cannot, for example. It would be interesting to hear a podcast on playing with the readers’ emotions- make them feel a certain way about this character or that.

    One good example of this is in the Bartimaeus trilogy where we start out liking Nathaniel in the first book, really don’t like him much in the second, and then he is allowed to redeem himself in the third. If we didn’t feel the way Stroud wanted us to feel about the characters the story would not have been as effective.

  22. @L: I completely agree with your asessment of Hanibal Lecter. My favorite thing about REAL heavies is that they don’t need a reason; they want to, and that is all. I find that I love writing villains more than any other kind of character because they don’t apologize for what they are or what they want. (Which makes me think that after I finish with the four [or six, depending on how you count] villains currently in my sights, I should probably stretch myself with a villain who has qualms. Dang it.)

  23. As for actually causing the reader to temporarily accept a viewpoint whose contradiction with normative values is troubling to confront, that’s precisely how an antihero should work, by definition. However whether this “identification” is actually effective– as opposed to utterly trivial/cliche in some way or other– depends on the writer’s awareness of what are actually valid, meaningful contradictions to draw out and work in the present culture. And a big part of why some people dislike genre is its choice of contradiction– it tends to choose contradictions that have lost real complexity or immediacy for people living fully in the current culture, aware of modern issues but more concerned with figuring out new solutions and the new problems that might lead to new solutions than just digesting the same old solution/mantras over and over again.

  24. Lord of the Rings OST Evenstar helped me realize the conflict of a villan I am creating due to the peacefull music. Thank you for the advise. The villans deveopment was a key point in my book.

  25. I’m been listening to your archives to see if it answers some of my writing questions. Is it ok if I ask on here if I’m left with more question?

    What if I have the main character technically be the villain, but he’s up against greater evils?

  26. Two thoughts, five years later. First, I disagree with the claim that superman villains are uninteresting as characters. Using Sauron and all the clone villains out there, it is his abstraction that makes him uninteresting. He doesn’t directly act or communicate, and so forth. Meanwhile we have lots of great superman type villains – Khan, Moriarty, and one of my favorites Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn had limits certainly but no flaws. He was only defeated because one of the good guys happened to pierce a corner of his strategy and convince certain parties that she was right about it. Plus he made one mistake of assumption. But that isn’t a flaw or handicap, he’s just has a limit like every character ever written. (no limit = no conflict = no story) But Thrawn is one of the best villains ever.

    Second, I acknowledge all the nuances but I thought of a helpful definition to start from:
    Good means, good end – Hero
    Bad means, good end – Anti-hero
    Good means, bad end – Tragic hero (or anti-villain/unwitting or unwilling villain)
    Bad means, bad end – Villain

    It often makes things more interesting to vary a character’s means and ends across that spectrum throughout the story, but their default mode will define their role.

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