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What to do about villains?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Jan 4, 2020.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Conventional wisdom is that fantast stories have a big villain. Very often the villain is actually much more interesting than the protagonist. But I'm not really feeling the love for villains as a plot device.

    I don't like when stories revolve around the heroes going to the villain and killing him to make everything right. Both on moral grounds and because it just isn't believable. In self-congratulating feel-good stories that tell us that killing bad guys is cool and heroic, they are a useful tool. But I am simply not feeling it. It's one of the things that makes the difference between an intelectually valuable story and mindless spectacle.

    While I have plenty of ideas for interesting characters, I don't really have any villains I want to use one day. Do we really need villains? What important functions do they actually serve, other than being the reason why the hero has to gett off his but and go fight something? If we don't have a conventional villain, what holes does he leave that need filling?
     
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  2. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    You need antagonists, not necessarily villains.

    I did something kind of odd with my antagonist: he’s the first character I created that I would really call evil but my challenge to myself was to make him both pure evil/totally unsympathetic but also three dimensional. That might not sound like much but it’s easier said than done.

    Plus, he and my main hero never actually physically fight and they last encounter each other halfway through the story and they both live until the end (sort of).
    I didn’t plan for that to happen but when you challenge yourself a bit with your characters, interesting things tend to happen.
     
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  3. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    The actual goal in almost any war is not to wipe out the enemy, but to make him unable or unwilling to continue fighting.

    I guess an antagonist could also be defeated by making his plan impossible to complete or his goal redundant. I am also eternally curious about the idea of letting the antagonist do what he wants, but changing your own strategy so that this is no longer a major problem for you. If the opposition is hopelessly overwhelming, I think even that could be turned into a positive outcome.
     
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  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    The thing that I did was that the villain created a problem as part of his big evil plan and the hero’s goal is to fix the problem but he doesn’t care about the villain’s plan going forward. In fixing the problem, however, he ruined the villain’s plan. The villain still continues his scheme but he doesn’t win 100%. He gets more of a 75% win.
    So, at the end of the day: they both win some (kind of), they both lose some and they both continue with their lives (sort of).

    The key here is that I’m calling the villain a “villain”, not an antagonist. The antagonist in my story is the problem the villain created - that’s what the hero is fighting against. He wants as little to do with the villain as he can get away with.
    I’ve always found “problem as antagonists” a lot more interesting than “villains as antagonists”.
     
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  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    You don't need a villain. You just need your protagonist to have a goal, or something to overcome.
    Technically, you may not even need that, but then you might be outside the realm of genre fiction.

    So far, my stories don't really include villains as a big element. There are a few bad guys here and there throughout the Lost Dogs series, but defeating them isn't part of the main story.
    The two main characters in the series don't have goals that are defined by villains or antagonists. Roy wants to get home to be reunited with Toini. Alene wants to find somewhere she belongs - but she hasn't really figured that out yet.

    Alene's inner beast is probably the closest thing to a villain, but it's not something that can be defeated, just something that she always need to watch out for and be vigilant against.
     
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  6. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

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    Here is a work in progress for a villain. You have a protagonist that is a trained assassin. The action of this person want you as the reader to hate them as their actions cause local misery, but long-term benefits. Got the antagonist (hero) that tries to stop the local misery, but ends up causing long-term suffering as a result.

    The villain is all dependent on point of view. One culture sees another as an evil and vice versa. Not everything is black and white. Sometimes it white and black. Villains have to make a living too and struggle against heroes.
     
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Two powerful characters want the same thing, but they have different methods for achieving it and are willing to go to different lengths. Which one is the villain? Neither. Which one is the antagonist? Both.

    That's my WIP, except there are three. Each wants to unify the empire in order to fight a powerful external enemy (a genuine villain), but each is driven by their own desires and demons (metaphorical). I suppose one could array them along some sort of good-evil spectrum, but doing so would lose half the interesting things about each.

    I'm not interested in presenting morality as shades of gray. It feels too easy. I like to think of them as Red-Green-Blue.
     
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  8. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I really disagree with this moral relativist business. A villain, by definition, needs to be evil (to some degree). If it's a point-of-view thing, there is no villain. And thus, there's no hero.
    You make a salient point that a hero can be an antagonist and a villain can be an protagonist and both can have shades of grey though. I avoided pointing that out because, frankly, I assume someone else would have the sense to bring it up in this thread.
    I really would like to see more (anti-)hero vs. (anti-)hero stories. That could be a really interesting way to do it.

    This is some good stuff. I disagree with the "red-green-blue" assertion. I think that does, ultimately, boil down to shades of grey. Nothing wrong with that though.
    Also, you make a very good point about understanding your characters' morality beyond categorizing them as good or evil.
     
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  9. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Sage

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    As others have said, you need an antagonist (or forces of antagonism) otherwise there's nothing for the protagonist to react against. The story would be static. The forces of antagonism can be internal too, but in fantasy they're usually external (both internal and external antagonism is usually more interesting for me).
     
  10. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

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    You need some kind of opposition for the character otherwise it could make their goal far too easy. There's less conflict. The antagonist could be mother nature and even then there is usually a human opposition as well. Think of movies like "Twister" and Stephen King's story "The Mist". In the Mist they are all trapped in a supermarket that is surrounded by mist with strange creatures hiding in it looking to kill them if they tried to leave. Then you had Mrs Carmody. The antagonist inside with them. If you removed her from the story there would still be conflict but no where near as much. It heightened the dangers and the stakes because inside the supermarket was no longer safe either, because she was starting a mob mentality. She really believed it was Judgement Day, she truly believed that in sacrificing the sinful everyone else would be saved. She believed that. (I highly recommend you reading the book but the movie was better, the ending was a OMG moment. Equally to The Sixth Sense)

    You don't always need a villain. I was once told that if you reversed the story, and had your antagonist as the main character people should still be able to root for them.

    Try it for yourself. Try writing a book without an antagonist of any kind. It's doable but you'll end up with a book lacking conflict, stakes and depth.
     
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  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Very often the villain is actually much more interesting than the protagonist.
    I'd argue that if this is the case, the author needs to do a better job. Or that they have the story backward. The protagonist needs to be the most interesting person in the room. That's part of what makes them the protagonist. And it's not so much that the protagonist is intrinsically the most interesting; rather, it's that the author makes them so.
     
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