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Monday, March 4, 2019

Villains (or the lack thereof)

We tend to hold a pretty simplistic view of how a story is supposed to go.

There's a bad guy that becomes, or already is, the antagonist of the world, and the hero from humble beginnings must rise up and defeat them (or die trying, if it's a tragedy).

There's a lot that can be said as to what makes a good villain; and believe me when I say that creating a convincing and well-thought-out villain is extremely difficult. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that creating a good villain could often be more difficult than creating the protagonist. Luckily for us, there is no shortage of advice on how to create a good villain. Lots of experienced writers have come forward and shared their methods of craft with us.
Vicious by V.E. Schwab. Best. Villains. Ever.

Some common things I've heard are:

1. Avoid making them cheesy; i.e., no one is bad just for the sake of being bad. No one just sits around twisting their devilish mustache while laughing robustly. Like the rest of your characters, the villain needs to be a completely fleshed out and complicated person.

2. Give them a rationale. It doesn't have to actually justify their misdeeds, but there has to be some motivation for their actions. A lot of villains have a tragic backstory, but it doesn't always have to be tragic. It could simply be a resentment to prior circumstances or to a cultural trend.

3. Don't undermine them. This isn't the advice you might usually hear when thinking about creating the villain of a story, but I can't stress this enough. If your villain is genuinely terrifying, you can't have your protagonist making snide and snarky remarks at them and getting away with it. Likewise, you can't just have all the characters of your story fear the villain for no clear reason. Give them a reason. Make your villain truly terrifying if that's the kind of villain you're going for. When someone or something gets in their way, your villain needs to utterly crush them and be a true force to be reckoned with. That makes the prospect of your protagonist beating them that much more daunting. If there's no real threat for the protagonist, then there's no tension whatsoever.

"See, I'm going to lure him here, then I'm going to kill everybody, then I'm going to dig up Scarn's dead wife and I'm going to hump her real good! Hahahaha!"

(More on the incredibly complex character of Goldenface here)

In my current story, the villain isn't even revealed until the end of the book. Rather, the protagonist Cerres only sees the aftermath of what the main villain- Haamon- has done. And he spends the entire book trying to track him down. Another good example of this is in the first book of the Dark Tower series, Gunslinger. The book also features the greatest opening line I've ever seen:

"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed."

Holy crap, what a line. Basically summarizes the entire book.

For the whole duration of the book, we don't actually see or meet the villain, but we catch wisps of him as the Gunslinger closes in. We get to see what the Gunslinger recalls of the man, and the trail of destruction he leaves behind him for the Gunslinger to follow.

That's the route I took.

However, as per the caption above, Vicious is a great example of a story that has villains present throughout the entirety of the story, and boy did V.E. Schwab do a fantastic job.

But we aren't here to talk about villains, nosireee. We're here to talk about ignoring them completely.

You see, I would never deny that stories like Vicious and The Gunslinger are awesome, but recently I've noticed something.

Most of my favorite stories don't even have villains.

One excellent example of a lovable story with no villains whatsoever is the 2008 animated movie Wall-E.

I know I don't have a villain, but please love me.
I watched a couple of different videos on the topic and found a really interesting article on it, but for the most part very few people have realized this, or talked about the idea of a story not having a villain at all.

For lack of a better term, Wall-E is a sociological movie.

Now there's something I need to clarify first before I proceed any further.

I know a lot of people will disagree but Auto is not a villain. He's an obstacle for the protagonists, but not a villain. AUTO is but a program that keeps the space ship on course, that's it. He's just a steering module whose sole purpose is to keep the ship from going the wrong direction. The difference between an obstacle and villain is important to note here. An obstacle is something that prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal, while a villain is malicious and deliberate in their intent. Auto is neither good nor bad. He's lawful neutral, and Wall-E is chaotic good.

Now back to the super serious discussion about why Wall-E is a perfect reflection of sociological norms.

There exists several different types of conflict within a story-telling milieu.

The first is inner conflict. Example: You're trimming your nails and accidentally peel a little too far, and now a little bit of skin is ripping off and you have to make a critical decision. Do you try to sever off the rest of the nail, leaving you with a little piece of jagged nail on your appendage, or do you proceed to keep pulling, knowing you're going to rip a little bit of skin off and inflict unbearable pain on yourself? It's the classic hard decision.

Insert "thumbnail" joke here.
Okay fine, you caught me. I'm describing myself from 5 minutes ago. I chose pain.

The next type is environmental conflict. Example: You're on Naked and Afraid, and everything is trying to eat you.

The most commonly discussed conflict is outer or "struggle" conflict, i.e., one person or group wants to do one thing, and another person or group wants to do another. This is the type that villains are mostly responsible for. Example: You want to go outside and go for a stroll, but you live in Poland and it's September 1st, 1939.

Example two:

You want a candy bar, but the dystopian government has made being fat illegal and you're already toeing the line on chubby.

Now that's a YA Dystopian I'd like to read!

But the one conflict that Wall-E is focusing on is sociological or "societal" conflict. Example: Wall-E.

Wait... what's that noise in the distance??

Now this is usually my problem with most Dystopian YA novels (besides the fact that most of the popular ones are just Hunger Games rip-offs or were written by Cassandra Clare). I'm sure there good ones out there, but the reason why a lot of readers are turned off by this category is the simple fact that a lot of writers don't know how to write a good societal conflict. Just like how you can't make your villain two-dimensional and phony, or evil just for the sake of evil, you can't make a society or social structure that is bad just because it is.

Although Wall-E did a fantastic job capturing a society that generates conflict with the main characters.

This is simply because there's nothing malicious about it whatsoever.

In fact, I don't think there's a single bad character in Wall-E.*

*Bad as in malicious, evil, etc., not the quality of how they're written, but that would also apply.

What the writers of Wall-E accomplished is they made it so that everyone on the ship was simply a passive consumer, following the path of least resistance. They aren't bad people, they just grew up in an environment where consumerism and mediocrity was shoved down their throat all the time. And as soon as Wall-E comes in contact with them they almost immediately see things from his point of view.

Can we take a moment to appreciate how adorable this is?
And of course, as others have pointed out, Auto is sort of like the robotic personification of the ship's sociological environment. He isn't literally the ship in every way, but he comes pretty damned close. Just as the ship has been floating aimlessly for 700 years, Auto has been at the meridian of the operation from the very start, faithfully abiding by each captain [even though none of them actually did a bloody thing since the ship was just on Auto-pilot (pun intended)].

But the thing is that there isn't some guy with a devilish mustache coming up with an evil plot to keep everyone lazy and fat as he rubs his hands together and laughs maniacally. It's just the way the surroundings evolved over time as each generation became more and more detached from the point of the original mission started by the earthlings who fled the planet. 
When someone kills your Minecraft dog so you kill their dog irl

The idea of a story without a villain isn't limited to any one medium either.

For example, shows like The Office are beloved and remarkably popular despite a lack of villainy, and books like Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames use the lack of a villain to drive the plot forward. In other stories where the conflict between the hero / heroine and the villain or antagonist is the main driving force for the plot, the conflict in these shows, movies and books is purely internal or social. In fact I'd go so far as to say The Office is a master of social conflicts while Wake Up, Sir! is the master of internal conflict, i.e., the main character overthinking in the extreme with hilarious results.

When the waiter says "Enjoy your food" and you say "You too!" and keep replaying the encounter in your head for hours:
If we're being honest here, we can probably rattle off a long list of amazing and renowned works that have no villain whatsoever. Don Quixote doesn't have a villain, and next to Wake Up, Sir! that's one of my favorite books of all time.

I'm not saying villains are bad (well, a good one should be. But then he wouldn't be good- I meant to say well-written, not good as in morally- okay I'll shut up now). But your story doesn't have to have them, and I think the choice to purposefully exclude one can be very beneficial to some stories.

For example in my recent post about charm it hadn't even occurred to me that the most whimsical stories often don't have a villain, rather they explore slice-of-life or conflicts that stem from social and internal problems. This goes double for anime, for some reason. I don't actually know why, but the funniest anime shows are always the ones about random day-to-day stuff, like Shirobako and Love is War.
I lost my shit at Diesel's "research."
Come to think of it, that's almost the defining quality of a comedy.

That's not to say that a comedy can't have a villain, but they usually don't. The only big, popular comedy I can think of that has a villain would be Spaceballs, which doesn't even really count because it's Rick Moranis.

This ties into what I said earlier about undermining your villain. A lot of villains are done poorly because they're undermined either by the other characters or by their own circumstances, or sometimes both. But of course in spoofs like Spaceballs they're going to use the Bad Guy™ for shits and giggles at his own expense.
What? You went over my helmet?

Okay, I maybe need to chill with the pictures and gifs. I may or may not have included so many to make this post seem longer.

Well, at any rate I'm getting sleepy and wouldn't want to risk falling asleep at my keyboard and having the rest of the post just say  


endlessly, so this is probably a good place to stop. I hope some of my messy ramblings made sense to you.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.


  1. Why did the chicken cross the road? YOU decide!

  2. Wow, I've never considered the difference between an obstacle and villain or seen it defined with such clarity. This makes a lot of sense.

    "You want a candy bar but the dystopian government has made being fat illegal and you're already toeing the line on chubby. Now that's a YA Dystopian I'd like to read!" Bahahaha! (Me too me too!)

    Seriously, great post D. I'm actually rewriting one of my characters in Apathetics because of this discussion, deciding he's way too 'bad for the sake of being bad.' He's a sadist of sorts, but I'm realizing I need to give him motive for being the way he is. On some level I knew this already, but needed a reminder.

    One of my favorite villain-tropes (which I'm using in Book 3 of Chasing Echoes) is where the protagonist must team up with the villain to defeat an even greater villain. Talk about unveiling layers of villain #1!

    1. I LOVE that trope. The whole "lesser of two evils" thing is something that I don't see very often but can instantly enhance a story. It's also fun seeing the minor bad guy bump heads with the not-so-bad guy and comparing them to the arch villain is always fun.