Writing Excuses 15.28: Small Evils
Key points: Small evils are easy to relate to, we all have felt them. Small antagonisms turn into small evils, which make nuanced villains. Motivation separates the antagonist and protagonist. Contrasting philosophies. villains are interesting because they can move upward, while heroes can only fall from grace. Redemptive villains can become heroes. Team sports stories often have small evils villains. We like villains with small evils because they let us see someone who feels things we have felt, and acts out on them. We see ourselves in the negatives of a character, rarely in the positives. We like to watch people be bad. We, the writer, chooses who is the protagonist and who is the antagonits. Consider what would happen if you flip the narrative, shift the perspective. It’s important to know why the villain, the antagonist, feels the way they do about the protagonist. When you shrug off external costs, you become a evil. Use escalation, and remember the process that takes a person from human to villain or vice-versa.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 28.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Small Evils.
[Victoria] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Victoria] I’m Victoria.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m trying to be bigger.
[Brandon] Victoria, you pitched this idea to us. Will you explain what you mean by small evils?
[Victoria] I do. I will, I will. I am fascinated by villainy and antagonism. It’s one of the guiding principles in all of my stories. The thing that I’m really interested in is the idea of, as I said, small evils as compared to big ones. The way… The example I always give is it’s Voldemort compared to Umbridge. Dolores Umbridge, one of the prime villains in chapter 5 of the Harry Potter series. The reason is that world domination is not a very grounded concept. It’s not something that the vast majority of people can relate to. But almost all of us, I’m pretty sure, have felt a small evil inside of us. We’ve either been jealous or covetous, we’ve felt slighted, we’ve felt as though somebody hasn’t given us the attention or the spotlight. I am fascinated by the way in which these small antagonisms can become small evils, that can make very grounded nuanced villains.
[Dan] I love the way that you told us about this earlier, that none of us have met a Voldemort, but we’ve all met an Umbridge. Right? Some domineering or tyrannical person that we’ve had to deal with at school or at work or in our own home. So we can relate to that, instinctively.
[Victoria] Yeah. I love it. I was writing a series I called the villain series, Vicious and Vengeful, which genuinely explored this on the most grounded level possible. I wanted to see if I could write a book without heroes and still make you root for one of them. So it became an exploration of small evils, it became an exploration not of the things that people do, but of the things that motivate them to do those things. It becomes about the relatability of the motive. I have a character who basically had a God complex. That was not relatable. So people had a very easy time casting him in the role of the villain. I had another character do the exact same evils in terms of the what, but his why was very different. The why was simply that he wanted revenge on this other character because of the massive falling out that they had. What I found was that people could absolutely relate to the sociopathic character who was bitter about his falling out, and nobody could relate to the sociopathic character who had a God complex. So it became an exploration of motive, and of really cre… Motive turning antagonists into protagonists.
[Brandon] We’ve often talked about how a lot of times the stories with the strongest villains tend to be the best stories. Strength of the protagonist is directly related to how difficult it is to overcome the villain and how interesting that villain is. It’s not all one-to-one, but…
[Victoria] It’s not, but… So I’m very anti the concept, like, when you’re talking about love stories, that two halves make a whole. When we’re talking about hero and villain, or protagonist and antagonist, I absolutely believe that two halves make a whole. That our hero and our villain, our protagonist and our antagonist, for a less dramatic turn of phrase, are in constant conversation. Really. One of the examples I always give of this is Batman and the Joker. Because if you look at what kind of character Joker is, he is formed directly to fit all of Batman’s fears. Like, Batman is a complete control freak who wants to have power over his environment, control over his city, who wants to set things right. Joker is an avatar of anarchy. An avatar of chaos, and of everything that Batman fears and can’t control. I absolutely believe in writing your heroes and villains not only with the same amount of thought in the same amount of humanity, but also of thinking about them as things which are foils, in constant conversation with each other.
[Brandon] Right. The best hero villain pairs are the ones that espouse contrasting philosophies about life, or have the same goal but very different philosophies getting there. Magneto tends to be my favorite…
[Victoria] Yeah. Mine too.
[Brandon] Villain from comic books. Because they have, over the years, built this contrasting philosophies between him and Prof. X that you can see they both are aligned on trying to achieve the same thing and approach it in very different methods.
[Victoria] Yeah. Talk about a philosophical divide. But one of my favorite things that I heard recently from another writer was that the thing that makes villains so much more interesting is that they don’t have a fall from grace that can happen, they can move upward. So they tend to actually protect certain people, or have caveats to their villainy. Whereas the hero can justify almost anything they do for the right cause. So there’s a fascinating space between the hero and the villain where one has the ability to rise and the other one has the constant tension of falling.
[Brandon] So, some of my best… My favorite moments in books are when the villain has a chance to… You see, and you bring it, and you’re like, “Wow.” They could, at this point, make the decision to go… Good… Good is kind of difficult to talk… They could make the decision we want them to make and they don’t and we totally see why they don’t, and it breaks your heart. Right?
[Brandon] Like, a villain breaking my heart is one of the things that I just… I love when a story is able to do that.
[Dan] Well, connected to that, I love redemptive villains. I love that moment where you get there and then they do the thing and you’re like, “Wait. You’ve been the antagonist for two whole books. Now in the third one…” Zuko does this in the Avatar series. He becomes one of the heroes by the end. It’s handled so well.
[Howard] In terms of genre, in terms of story type, I think that the small evils villain sees a lot of play in the team sports stories. Because ultimately the triumph of these stories is team comes together and wins. It’s not team comes together and overthrows the Dark Lord. That story can work just fine if there is no villain at all. But they really become grounded for us when we have minor antagonists who may be on the same team. People were not getting along with who are preventing us from coming together, or a rival on the other team who is doing things they shouldn’t be doing in order to undermine us. But that’s still not super villainy. It’s small and we can relate.
[Victoria] I’m going to make an argument for why we love villains with small evils as compared to large evils. It is the slight, almost like virtual, sadism of the reader, a little bit, but basically they allow us to look at avatars of people who feel the things that we have felt in our lives, and who act out on those things in ways that we cannot. I think there’s an immense satisfaction in reading like a villain lowercase V or a villain with small evils because we do see ourselves in them. We always see ourselves in the negatives of a character, very rarely in the positives. Very rarely do we go in the adventure, and be like, “I can relate to that hero, I feel just as brave.” Usually, it’s like, “I can relate to that antagonist, I have felt this way before.” So I think… I don’t know, when I write my villain series, I get a lot of messages from people who are like, “This woman got to act out in a way that I obviously can’t because society dictates that I don’t go burn my ex-husband into ash, but it was very satisfying to read.”
[Victoria] I think we get some satisfaction from getting to watch people be bad. It’s sometimes why we enjoy watching a hero have a fall and descend. I remember growing up on Smallville and loving when Clark Kent got his hands on red kryptonite, because we got to see that let loose. That letting loose, which is the thing that villains do so much more readily than heroes, is a very enjoyable reading process.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is a book called King of Liars by the author Nick Martel. This is an arc that I was given by my agent for a new epic fantasy. I honestly don’t know if it will be out yet, by the time this episode goes live. It should be around this time. I really enjoyed this. Debut authors are always fun to read. I like to see what the new writers are doing. Often, they make me try to level up my own writing, because I’m like, “Man, if the kids are doing stuff like this these days, I gotta get better.” This story is very fun, because it’s about a family, they’re called the Kingmen, not the King’s Men…
[Brandon] The Kingmen. This family, whose job was to kind of help protect the throne. The protagonist’s father, instead betrayed the throne. He lives under the shadow of his father having been the Kingmen who went against the rules they have. They have a very stratified society. It’s got all sorts of interesting politics and things to it. It’s got a very cool worldbuilding, with a shattered moon that is constantly dropping debris on the planet, which is a very science-fiction concept taken into fantasy, which is the sort of stuff I like. It’s kind of about his story of deciding is he a villain, is his father… Was his father a villain, what is… Where is the evil? And there are small evils all over this story. It’s less about superpowered characters fighting other superpowered characters and more about the sticky messiness that comes from family expectations and societal expectations, in an epic fantasy package. So. Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martel.
[Victoria] Also, you hit on something in that pitch that I want to talk about.
[Brandon] Yeah, let’s go for it.
[Victoria] [It’s about] perspective. It’s about… We obviously… It’s a very trite phrase, like, that the villain tends to be the hero of their own journey. But we really didn’t think about the fact that we choose when we’re writing who is our protagonist and who is our antagonist. It’s fascinating to analyze a little bit why we choose these things, understanding that if we flip the narrative or we shifted the narrative, one scene to the left, or one person over, we could end up with a completely different dynamic here. So I often challenge myself when I’m writing protagonist and antagonist to make sure that I write the antagonist as someone who doesn’t necessarily feel like they’re right, but could, through a different lens… I would say it’s the… Like the Gryffindors and the Slytherins. There’s like the Gryffindors are written as the heroes in that story from a perspectival sense. So they get centered in the narrative. But I’m always interested in what happens when you shift the narrative one over. There’s a book for younger readers out right now called Nevermore that essentially follows like a girl who is kind of set up to become like a super-villain, like a Voldemort, magic villain, and it’s about like what happens if she didn’t choose this, but the world is so afraid of the kind of power that she has that they have essentially vilified her in advance. I’m fascinated by the idea that we choose the perspective, and in so choosing, we do choose who our heroes are.
[Dan] One of the… One of my favorite villain kind of series to look at is actually the Oceans series, Oceans 11 through 13. Partly because they do what you’re talking about. Like, there is this small evil. The first movie is this big heist and it’s all very stylized and all very cute. But, at the core of it, is you ruined my life and you stole my wife. So now I’m going to steal her back. Which, not only is it that very relatable thing and a very small evil, but you could totally flip the story around, like you’re talking. If the casino owner was the protagonist, here’s this old ex-con who’s coming to wreck my home and steal my wife from me. I think that that’s amazing.
[Victoria] Yeah, it’s the comprehension of both sides. You don’t have to root for both sides equally, but it’s really important that you understand why the villain or the antagonist feels the way they do about the protagonist.
[Dan] To follow that on, you look at Oceans 12, which is the least loved and least successful of the series. It does not have a strong villain at all. The villain that it has, has no personal connection to the characters. So that’s why when they got to the third in the series, they’re like, “Nope. We have to bring this back to basics. We have to have a villain that there’s a reason to dislike them.” Because the hole that not having a strong villain leaves ruins every other part of the movie.
[Brandon] That movie in particular, that series… Like, there are series you can get away with your villain being a little bit weak. It works for certain situations. But in that series, you have to root for the bad guys.
[Brandon] To do that, that series puts you against someone worse. That’s the whole framing device of why you can root for these people doing pretty terrible things. Those movies absolutely need a strong villain for that reason.
[Victoria] I… Oh.
[Howard] I want to bring up a principle here. The principle of external costs. The idea that you profit on something because there is a cost that you didn’t need to pay, but that someone else did. For me, one of the easiest definitions of evil is once you know about the external costs, you shrug it off and say, “Eh. Somebody else will pay it.” A horrifying example of this which doesn’t actually end in horror, this morning as we were picking grapes to bring to the craft services table, Sandra found actual ripe deadly nightshade in and among the grape plants. Okay? A handful of these berries will kill a child. The neighbor child, the toddler, loves wandering over to our yard and eating grapes off the vine. Deciding not to weed when we don’t know about the deadly nightshade is just deciding not to weed and there’s a tragedy. But once you’ve seen that plant, deciding not to immediately drop everything and rip them all up and tell the neighbor… Well, now I’ve become evil. It’s just a little thing. Maybe nothing will happen. But that’s evil.
[Dan] You should get to that at some point, Howard.
[Victoria] Yeah. This has to be the last point that I want to…
[Howard] I made my son do it. By which I mean, I asked Sandra to make my son do it. Then I checked before I left.
[Victoria] This has to be the last point that I want to make, which is one of escalation. One of my favorite examples to give from recent pop-culture is Vulture, in Spiderman Homecoming. Michael Keaton’s character. What’s so amazing about that character is it starts from such a grounded place. It is an escalation of minute choices. It is an escalation of a man trying to care for his family, who ends up having his job taken away from him, who then decides he’ll just have to sell the products that he has on the black market. Who then escalates into a much larger business, who then escalates into obviously a villain and murderer and terrifying human. I think that is probably my favorite thing is to remember whether you’re rewinding from villain back into human or fast forwarding from human, like your standard human character, into villain, that there is a process that happens there. Nobody just starts out and is like, “I’m going to take over the world.” There is something that happens to displace them or set them at odds with the norms of society or with the good guys, whoever’s on the other side, that makes them feel not only self-othering but as though they belong in the place that they’re in.
[Brandon] So, we’re out of time for this episode. Let’s go to our homework, which you are very excited about.
[Victoria] I am, because it’s a direct extrapolation of the thing that I was just talking about. So, often you’ll be told, if you were the hero of the story, what would it look like? But I essentially want the listener to become the villains of the story. I want them to take their own petty grievances, I want them to take their own perceived weaknesses, their own cracks in their armor of life, the things that they know get to them. I want you to start asking yourself what steps stand between you as you are now and you as a villain in a narrative. What would it take, and what would it look like? I think this is important, because it is that reminder that all villains started normal at some point. So, like, just start extrapolating it out and see what kind of villain you would be.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go create some evil.
[Howard] And do the weeding. Please.