Villains & Conflict

In the spirit of recycling posts I wrote for the Fantasy Fiction Tour ’08 website, here’s another from a few weeks ago.

I believe it was Edith Hamilton in her classic work on mythology that suggested the purpose of the monsters in Greek myths was to give the heroes opportunities to demonstrate their greatness. Ie, the more powerful, terrifying and evil the creature, the more courageous, resourceful and wonderful the hero who delivered the world from that monster by slaying it. So, Perseus faces the gorgon and Theseus the minotaur and Hercules, the greatest of them all, faces twelve labors of “herculean” proportions.

For the gamers out there who don’t read Greek myths, perhaps you could think of this as the “bigger boss” theory of villains. When you finish a level in the video game you’re playing, you expect to have to defeat a ‘boss’ to move on to the next level. Generally, as the levels get more challenging and the game goes on, you expect the bosses to get more challenging, until you finally get to the end and have to fight the “biggest boss” of all.

Applying “big boss” theory to LOTR, we could say the Balrog, Saruman (while still in Orthanc), the Witch King of Angmar (lord of the Nazgul) and Shelob are all big bosses on the road to Mount Doom where the biggest boss of them all, Sauron is defeated. In my own series, The Binding of the Blade, the giant Ulutyr is the “boss” in book one, while in the rest of the story, the Grendolai Cheimontyr (the bringer of storms), the Kumatin and Farimaal all serve as bosses and Malek is of course, the “big boss.”

OK, now quickly to the point. This is a lighthearted way of saying all books need conflict & tension and fantasy is no exception. Creating cool villains for your heroes to overcome is one of the great challenges and pleasures of writing a fantasy story. It really is fun to design and then write about a good villain (if you will forgive the paradox of ‘good villain’). However, and this is the big however, for all of you working on fantasy stories of your own, don’t let the important and essential work of creating great villains for your story so occupy you that you forget or omit to give your protagonist internal conflict as well as external. Whether it is a moral dilemma or struggle like a temptation of some kind or a psychological struggle with something like self-doubt or whatever, internal conflict when written well adds extra layers of depth to your story. I think, personally, the best fantasy stories do both really well, where the characters face not only large obstacles without but challenges and turmoil within. This is a big part of why fantasy stories can be about other worlds yet connect with us so powerfully anyway.

I would be curious to hear from some of you who are working on your own stories, about either or both of these tasks – creating internal and external conflict for your characters. How do you do it? Do you try to keep outdoing yourself by making bigger, meaner villains as you go along? What suggestions or tips would you offer?

10 thoughts on “Villains & Conflict

  • If I look at real life and base it from that, internal conflict is the most important and the most difficult to overcome. Satan himself, for all his incredible power, can be felled by a “single word” as Martin Luther puts it. Our own sins are another matter. We never win the war against flesh, however many skirmishes. Constantly trying to overcome our weaknesses can become monotonous, even for us who are experiencing it. That is one reason why internal conflict can get boring if written too deeply and too much into a story. External conflict, when it symbolises our personal internal conflict, seems to be the most meaningful. And every great villain does this—that’s mostly why they are great. Out of the several novels I have finished, my favourite villain was a man so evil he has been likened to Satan by some of my readers. He did things for seemingly no reason—only because they were evil. Fantasy villains often seem to fit a very narrow criteria, which can be good or bad. I think it is a waste of time to try to come up with something new and unique for a villain—after all, there is “nothing new under the sun.” What we should probably strive for more, then, is to take from people we know, the villains in our own world. We are all great villains in our own way. Try to recall thoughts you have had when angry, and decide if that fits the character you are creating. And as villains compliment heroes, heroes compliment villains as well. As odd as it sounds, they are an inseparable team in literature.

  • My first book, Corruption of Nine, is essentially a history of the Ringwraiths in LOTR before and after they recieve the rings that make them that way. It is really quite an odd book, since the vast majority of major characters (the wraiths) are indeed villains. It was a major task to keep them from all sliding together into one stereotype. I think I did a fairly good job keeping them seperate. Some are reluctant villains. One actually only takes the ring because he needs its power to save a friend, but then he gets possessed by it. Others, such as the one who becomes the Witch-King, are pure evil, through and through.
    At first, some of the wraiths entertain thoughts of breaking free from the rings, and leaving Sauron, but they slowly succumb, first betraying their minions, then attempting to betray Sauron, then, at last, each other.

    It’s different again in my Historical Fiction book. The villains are real people, with fears and hopes and dreams and grudges. One of my favorite scenes I’ve planned out is where the hero (who is captured) hears some of them (the villains) telling a story, and he realizes “Oh my word, these are real people.”

    As for making bigger, badder villains, I think there should be a variety of villains in any book. Some should be “lesser”, in strength/abilities, while others must be “greater”, beings of great power. Therefore, each of my books has a variety of villains.

    The best characters in my mind are: One, the traitor. What led him to betray his side, whether good or evil? Was it an awakening of conscience? Was it a deadening of conscience? Was it a bribe? A threat? A death of someone dear? The other is the character who struggles between good and evil, the “undecided”, if you will. He seems that much more human than the heroes, who all too often seem perfect, always doing right, or the villains who are all too often the personification of evil.

    Heroes should get angry, lash out at their friends. Villains should show sudden and unexpected mercy. Each hero should have a little darkness in him, and each villain a chink of light.

  • I agree with the inner and outer turmoil that makes a good fantasy story because, for one, it makes the story more believable and more realistic because everyone has their own inner demons and problems that impact their lives in various ways. When I write my story and write my main character and protagonist, I just think of my own thoughts and feelings during my own situations, and I give them to my protagonist for his own thoughts.

    For my main bad guys, because they are half-demons, I try to think of a person with no personal grace in their lives, someone who will never turn to God in repentance and submission because of his great wickedness, but someone who also recognizes that his rebellion against God cannot and will not succeed. Because of this, I don’t directly write about them except for only one or two chapters total, leaving them as a looming black cloud in the background. But it’s not enough to have just a big, bad character; you have to give them a personality that is not a villain sterotype. For me, I have one villain who is belligerent, one who is a fool, and another who is a schemer and blackmailer. These are all working against each other but, for me, demonstrate their wicknedness by their refusal to work together like Christians normally would.

  • I read this first on the Motiv8 site and think you make a good point. A “good villian” can only do so much if the protagonist has no internal conflict as well. I think its hard to balance the innner and outer conflict well. In the midst of a battle, its easy to forget that a character might be struggling with the fact that he is fighting–and killing–real people who have homes and families of their own. I think that if unless the protagonist has a good reason for his fight, he’s going to be flat or even villainous himself because his figith is only self gratification.

    I have trouble writing true villains because I’ve never really encountered someone who was just plain bad. Most of the bad guys so far in my story have been fairly ordinary people serving the wrong god and fighting for the wrong cause. I have to work on that to keep the villians bad. Good post, good thoughts.

  • In my opinion, the best kinds of villains are the complicated ones. Sometimes they may not turn out to be villains at all. Jaime Lannister, of A Song of Ice and Fire, is one of my favorite “villains” in fantasy literature. Due to the POV characters that appear in book one of the series, you see Jaime from his enemies, the Starks, point of view. Later in Book 3, you find out what Jaime’s motivations were and many readers start to root for him even though he did some horrible things (Slaying the king who he swore an oath to, committing incest with his sister, and throwing a young boy from a tower window).
    Gregor Clegane is another example from that series who is purely evil.
    In Binding of the Blade, Rulalin was my favorite villain because he was complicated and therefore more real. I do not think that anyone has a purely evil nature, sinful yes, but common grace extends to all.
    Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel (of His Dark Materials) are also great “villains”. Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter do many morally questionable things, including the murders of many young children, in an attempt to gain power and to rebel against the authority. However, at the end of the books, their love for their daughter unites them and together they sacrifice themselves to kill the evil angel.
    Some might call these anti-heroes, but I still consider them as villains. I’m huge fan of anti-heroes though, namely Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Covenant, and the members of the Black Company.

    Basically, I enjoy a villain who is more of a gray character. I think a good villain should have a clear motivation for what they do. I hate flat, boring villains like Sauron. Not much of a personality there. He only wants to dominate all life. He’s a servant of Melkor. We don’t really know where he comes from. Gollum is a good villain, in my opinion. He’s flawed and he is not entirely evil either.

  • Perhaps there is a difference between a villain like Sauron, who basically isn’t even “on stage” in LOTR at all and in some senses is really a “force” in the book rather than “character,” who serves as a “devil” in the trilogy, wholly devoted to evil and destruction, and a character like Gollum who is mortal and has given himself over self but not so entirely that there isn’t a part buried within that can’t respond to mercy when he encounters it.

  • I think there is a definite place for villains like Sauron (or, as another example, the Joker) who do not have a back story or apparent motivation – they are simply forces of evil cutting through the story and providing opportunities for the hero to face that internal conflict within himself. I also think it is good to have stories especially for younger folks where good and evil are clearly defined and there is not too much moral ambiguity.

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