The Nature of the Villain

This post is part of an ongoing series about the central characters in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the role each character fills.  Here are links to the earlier posts in this series.

Protagonist, Antagonist, Hero, Villain, Antihero, and AntiVillain
Protagonist: A Closer Look at Damon Roth
Antagonist: A Closer Look At Demiurge
The Nature of the Hero
Hero, Part 1: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis
Hero, Part 2: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis, Part 2
Hero, Part 3: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis
Hero, Part 4: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis, Part 2
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 2
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 3

Today I will discuss the nature of villainy in general terms, much the same way I wrote about heroism in The Nature of the Hero.  In later posts I will go into specific examples using characters from my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men.


The word villain can be traced back through the Anglo-French and Old French vilein.  This word traces back to the  Latin word villanus, which means “farmhand.” Specifically someone who works the soil at a villa.  Thus it became associated with those of less than knightly status and, over time, came to represent someone who is not chivalrous. Unchivalrous acts, such as treachery, murder, rape, theft and so froth; became associated with being a vilein, and over time evolved into the modern sense of the word villain.


Ergo, to understand the root of villainy, you must first understand its defining opposite, chivalry.  A full exploration of chivalry is beyond the scope of this post, so I shall consign myself to the most common themes associated with the word, namely knightly virtues and honor.  Had I more space I would also delve into courtly love, another central element of chivalry.


The knightly virtues focus upon the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude; and the beatitudes: Humility, Compassion, Courtesy, Devotion, Mercy, Purity, Peace and Endurance.  A chivalrous hero would strive to uphold all of these ideals and never break from them on purpose.  Ergo an unchivalrous villain would actively, willingly, violate one or more of these ideals.  


I had these ideas in mind when I created the villain of Gods Among Men, Maelgar Tregadie, also called The Y’Fel. I saw him from the beginning as the moral opposite of my heroic knight, Morel Rihtwis.  I created Morel to be the example of chivalry, the embodiment of honor and the knightly virtues.  Maelgar, as his opposite, became the worst sort of villain; the type that violates the concepts of chivalry not because they are inconvenient, but because that is what he wants to do.


There is danger in this choice for a character.  It is easy for them to slide into a mustache twirling caricature.  Normal people do not seek to do evil just to do evil.  For Maelgar to be this type of villain meant he had to be abnormal, someone damaged mentally and/or emotionally that believes his heinous acts are justified.  I will explore Maelgar’s motives in more detail in a post focusing upon him specifically.  For now, I will summarize by saying that he is unconsciously seeking revenge, and that his shameful acts are ways of emotionally hurting his father, Integras Tregadie


When discussing the concept of heroism in The Nature of the Hero I wrote.

A hero in later works is often defined by the lines they will not cross, the acts they will not commit, even when everyone else says the acts are necessary or even required. A hero in later mythology is the person who risks all, including the safety of those closest to them, because their moral center demands it of them.

By this measure a villain first  needs to be the type of person capable of crossing those moral lines the hero won’t.  This is not sufficient in itself to establish someone as a villain, but it is a necessary condition.  An antihero, for example, might well have villainous characteristics, but will still “save the day” at the crucial moment.  The crucial element that defines a villain is this: The hero acts for others, the villain acts for themselves.


The hero and antihero commonly face a moment of decision when they can turn aside from their quest and still save themselves or those they love.  But because they are heroes they instead choose to persevere through the hardships in the hope of a broader victory that benefits more people.  The hero runs the risk of sacrifice to help the larger community.


The villain can always turn aside, but refuses to do so because they have not gotten what they wanted, have not achieved the goal that benefits them personally.  The villain is fundamentally selfish and feels their needs trumps all other concerns.  Their goal is more important than the welfare of those around them.


The antivillain is distinct from the villain in that they have some redeeming characteristic.  The antivillain, like the hero and antihero, have moral lines they will not cross, but they differ on the reasons why.  The hero and antihero don’t cross the moral lines because it is wrong, the antivillain refuses because of a personal code of behavior.  It is again an act of selfishness, only now rather than a goal it is their code that is of primary importance.  As long as this code is not violated, the antivillain is quite comfortable with committing the most heinous of acts.


In Gods Among Men  I created the character Widukind as an antivillain.  His personal honor is of paramount importance to him.  He will not lie, nor break his word, and his religious beliefs are deep and sincere.  He is courageous, and prefers to face opponents in fair combat.  Outside those restraints, he is cold-blooded and quite willing to commit terrible atrocities for many different reasons.  Heinous acts do not trouble his conscience, unless they touch upon his personal honor.  I will go into more detail upon Widukind in a later post.


Villains (and antivillains) are, in may respects, stock characters that can often border on being cliché.   In most works, they are sketchily drawn, given a few nasty characteristics, and then pitted against the hero in an ad hoc manner.  The conclusion is known before the story starts: the villain will try to destroy the hero for some reason, the hero will suffer, and in the end will defeat (i.e. kill) the villain.  


I do no intend to give away my full story, but I do wish to make it clear that I intend to break from that mold.   I do not like sketchily drawn characters, especially ones important to the plot, and so my villains have rich histories in their own right.  I do not like struggles where the outcome is predictable, and so I am trying to weave in twists that are, I believe, unique to my story.  I do not like heroes that kill with the same lack of conscience that a villain would, so I address that point in my own way.


These attempts on my part may well fail.  In the end it is the quality of the writing that will determine if the characters are memorable or forgettable, whether they seem real or more like melodramatic caricatures.   The best I can do is try to write the villains well, and assure people I did put a lot of thought into their creation.

Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 3

This post is part of an ongoing series about the central characters in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. Here are links to the earlier posts in this series.

Protagonist, Antagonist, Hero, Villain, Antihero, and AntiVillain
Protagonist: A Closer Look at Damon Roth
Antagonist: A Closer Look At Demiurge
The Nature of the Hero
Hero, Part 1: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis
Hero, Part 2: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis, Part 2
Hero, Part 3: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis
Hero, Part 4: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith
Antihero: A Closer Look At Artemis Arrowsmith, Part 2

Today I continue with reviewing the character of Artemis Arrowsmith, the woman who fills the role of antihero in Gods Among Men .

In my previous two posts on Artemis I established the journey she took from being a stock, male, character with no well defined role to a female character central to the story. Last time I focused upon the elements that would become seeds for her back story, about how on the surface she would appear to be completely different from the story’s protagonist, Damon Roth, but underneath would have a history and personality that made her his natural ally. I described how Artemis became the lens through which the reader sees Damon Roth.

Within that framework were details that had to be filled in. Details that took years for me to determine and which were inspired and influenced by a motley collection of sources including, but not limited to, Greek mythology, Dungeons & Dragons, Dances With Wolves, Babylon 5, cheesy science fiction heroines, and the seven deadly sins.

First came Dungeons & Dragons, which is where Artemis first began. She was inspired originally by the ranger character class. Rangers in D&D are fighters with specialized knowledge of certain types of creatures that heps them become experts at fighting and killing those creatures. I incorporated this feature of rangers into Artemis’s personality by making her exceptionally knowledgeable of, and focused upon killing, Gogs; humanoid creatures that have a wolf-like appearance along with some characteristics of wolves.

I couldn’t have Artemis intent upon killing Gogs unless she had a good reason for hating them. Killing for no reason is the act of a villain, and I was determined that Artemis would not be a villainous character. Finding a reason for her to hate Gogs drove me to flesh out these creatures as something more than big nasty wolf-like monster. At the same time, I also needed a way for Artemis to gain her special knowledge about them.

Around this time I watched the movie Dances With Wolves, in which Mary McDonnell plays the character Stands With A Fist. Her parents were killed by Indians when she was a young girl, and then she was raised by a different tribe of Indians.

There on the screen were answers for why Artemis hated Gogs and where her expertise of them came from. Artemis hates Gogs because they were responsible for someone she loved dying, and her knowledge came from a period where she was taken captive and lived among a Gog tribe.

This solution raised other problems. I had already decided that Artemis was an orphan raised by the Guild, a world-spanning empire. This part of her history was important because it paralleled Damon’s own childhood and was integral to using Artemis as a way to explain Damon to the reader. i.e. Artemis could not be raised by the Gogs, nor could it be her parents that were killed by the Gogs.

The solution to this quandary came from a merging of ideas from the science-fiction television series Babylon 5 and the story from Greek mythology of Artemis and Actaeon.

In an episode of Babylon 5 there was a tender, romantic moment in which the character Marcus Cole sacrifices his life to save the life of the woman he loves, military officer Susan Ivanova. This prompted me to add a love interest for Artemis, someone she grew up knowing and fell in love with. I named him Marcus, a homage to the character who inspired him. I decided that Marcus and Artemis would have served in the military together and that he died fighting Gogs.

In Greek mythology, the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, catches the mortal Actaeon spying upon her. As punishment she has him torn apart by his own hounds. I already thought of the Gogs as related to wolves, which in turn are related to hounds. Once I thought of Actaeon being torn apart by hounds because of Artemis, it was easy to conceive of Marcus being killed by Gogs because of something Artemis did.

I combined these ideas and decided that Marcus and Artemis were, at some point in the past, sent to a remote fort. Because of something Artemis did, Gogs overran the fort, Marcus died, and Artemis was taken prisoner. There she would learn about Gogs in great detail before she managed to escape and make her way back to civilization. As a plot twist, I decided the Gog who captures her and holds her prisoner would be Widukind, the Gog I created based on the work I did while developing Morel Rihtwis’s character arc. In developing his relationship with Artemis, Widukind in turn became an antivillain.

Over time, Artemis’s grief over what happened to Marcus became transformed into bitterness, which in turn became a wrathful need for vengeance against those she believes have wronged her. In particular Gogs suffer her wrath, but as Gods Among Men unfolds others become the focus of her burning rage.

Wrath, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins. Rage became the character flaw that made Artemis violent, even bloodthirsty where Gogs are concerned. Her excessively violent nature makes her cross the line between hero and antihero. It also means that at some point she must pay a heavy personal price for committing the sin of wrath.

There were other influences that drove Artemis towards the character she is now. Germanic and Celtic mythology offered ways to resolve problems with the timeline of events in her life. Movies such The Deer Hunter made me ponder the psychological effects the violent events in Artemis’s life would have upon her, which led me to consider the affects upon her relationships with those closest to her. Songs such as the Moody Blue’s Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time) and Bill Whelan’s Highstep inspired particular scenes that, in turn, made me tweak her character so I could eventually include those scenes.

In many respects, Artemis Arrowsmith has become my favorite character. Her flaws become entangled with her strengths, her failings color her successes. Her importance in Gods Among Men and her ever growing complexity as a character made me alter other characters, facts about the world, and even plot elements so that they better fit what I needed and wanted from her character. Without her I couldn’t begin to tell the story that I have worked on for so many years now.

The Nature of the Hero

Over the last few months I have come to realize that my story, Gods Among Men, has a subtext I did not originally intend. Implicit in the characters and their interactions is the question of what it means to be a hero or a villain. Given the parts of the story I have focused upon so far, I have written mostly about the characters I think of as heroes in one way or another.

I have always thought that some of my characters where “more pure” in their heroism than others. I am familiar with various mythic traditions and did weave ideas that appealed to me into various characters. Before now, however, I never tried to formally define the various types of heroism and how they applied to specific characters.

The formal concept of the hero can be traced to Greek mythology. The word hero originally meant the person was a demigod; the offspring of a mortal and a deity. At this point the word does not imply any moral virtue, merely parentage.

Looking back, I realize now that this idea influenced the development of my protagonist, Damon Roth, and his relationship to my antagonist, Demiurge.

An important step in Damon’s true quest is to become the God Among Men. To achieve this goal, Damon must form a bond with Demiurge, a god-like being. The relationship Damon seeks with Demiurge is not dissimilar to that of a grown child with an aged, ailing, parent. Symbolically, Damon becomes Demiurge’s child and in so doing become a demigod and hence a hero; at least by the criteria of classic Greek mythology. By becoming a hero, Damon steps closer to his true goal: redemption for his past sins and the salvation of his soul.

In later mythology, the concept of the hero became associated with other characteristics. Courage, self-sacrifice for the greater good, the willingness the face danger and almost certain death, and various moral qualities. The moral qualities become especially important. A hero in later works is often defined by the lines they will not cross, the acts they will not commit, even when everyone else says the acts are necessary or even required. A hero in later mythology is the person who risks all, including the safety of those closest to them, because their moral center demands it of them.

By this standard for heroism, Damon fails to become a modern hero. Yes, he has courage and will face danger and certain death. But he is also the ultimate pragmatist. If the surest way for him to achieve a goal is a dark deed, then he will cross that line with little hesitation. And, while he will ultimately sacrifice himself, it is not so much for the greater good but to complete his redemption. Mankind as a whole will benefit, but Damon’s reason is a selfish one designed to benefit himself. To be a modern hero the end result is not sufficient; the means you use and the reasons behind your actions matter.

Damon wants to be a hero, but never can be. He can become a demigod, he can be a protagonist that provides the story with a direction and a plot, but his own moral failings keep him from being more.

In Gods Among Men the role of classical hero falls upon Morel Rihtwis, a man willing to sacrifice the world rather than let innocents suffer. A man of destiny who wants power solely so he can help others. He actively pursues greatness and seizes his destiny. He regrets the personal sacrifices he must make, but never seriously considers not making those sacrifices.

A more modern version of the hero is embodied by his daughter, Tara. She wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, until she sees the cost she must bear to do so. At this point she would turn aside, except she comes to realize how many would suffer if she did so. She accepts her personal sacrifices for the betterment of all. Greatness is thrust upon her, her destiny is set by forces out of her control.

I will revisit this exploration of the concepts surrounding heroes and heroism in later posts. I plan on focusing more upon Morel and Tara and delving deeper into my motivations for how I have developed their characters. After that I will look also at other variants of heroes including Byronic heroes and antiheroes. After that I will turn my attention to the villains and antivillains in Gods Among Men and the mythic roots behind their characters.

Antagonist: A Closer Look At Demiurge

A while back I wrote abut the roles of protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain in my story, Gods Among Men. Today I will delve deeper into the role of antagonist and how my character, Demiurge, fills that role.

The antagonist is fundamentally a reactive character. It is the protagonist that initiates the action and drives the plot. The antagonist reacts to what the protagonist does. It is common for the antagonist to either be the hero or villain of the story, but Demiurge is neither.

Once, a very long time ago, Demiurge was a great hero. That was before he was killed in his war with The False Gods. In the final battle he was utterly destroyed, yet continued to exist. He is now a grotesque aberration, neither dead nor alive. He has no choice in this. The one thing he fundamentally cannot change is himself.

Demiurge’s current relationship to most people is similar to our relationship with insects. If an insect annoys us we either make it go away or kill it. If an insect is doing something interesting we might watch it for awhile, but likely not interfere. Otherwise, we ignore insects. Few insects occupy our thoughts for more than a moment and all are soon forgotten.

It is this attitude that keep Demiurge from being hero or villain, antihero or antivillain. The mundane world means too little for him to either save or destroy it. He has no interest in causing harm, and makes no effort to stop tragedy.

Damon Roth, my protagonist, is another matter. Damon Roth at one point has something Demiurge does care about, and proceeds to play a shell game with it so Demiurge can’t find it. What is it that Damon has that Demiurge wants? My MacGuffin, the satchel I wrote about in a previous post.

Damon Roth puts Demiurge in a unique position. Demiurge wants the satchel more than anything else in the whole of creation. He cannot ignore Damon like he does others. Nor can Demiurge kill him. Damon has arranged that if he dies Demiurge will never find the satchel. This allows Damon Roth to lure Demiurge into a battle of wits and wills, subtle manipulations and opaque strategies. A game of chess with everyone else as pawns to be used or discarded as the situation demands. A contest both know can only end in the destruction of one of them.

What does Damon Roth want from Demiurge? Demiurge is the God Among Men, and that is what Damon Roth needs to become if he is to save all life on the planet. The only way Damon can do this is to destroy Demiurge and steal his immense power, knowledge, and memories.

What Damon needs to accomplish this goal is in the satchel. He must have the satchel and be near a distracted Demiurge in order to succeed. He dare not let Demiurge near the satchel until he can guarantee these conditions.

The other character’s in the story revolve around these two figures and their cosmic conflict. They follow one or the other for a variety of reasons. Their individual fates depend on which one is ultimately triumphant.

Protagonist: A Closer Look at Damon Roth

In an earlier post I spoke about the various roles of protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain. In that post I spoke in general terms about how those roles are filled in my story, Gods Among Men. Today I will delve deeper into the role of protagonist and how my central character, Damon Roth, fills that role.

The protagonist is the central character around which all action revolves. He is the driver of the plot, he creates the situation that everyone else responds to. Often the protagonist is either the hero or the villain, but not in my story.

Damon Roth cannot be the hero because he does not embody heroic ideals. In his past he committed horrible acts for his own benefit. Acts which harmed many, including people he cared deeply about, though he was unable at that time to acknowledge those feelings even to himself. The important point of his character is that he is still doing this. He will again commit and cause atrocities that will harm many including those he cares for.

This makes him seem like the villain. However Damon is not a villain either, at least not now. In his past he was a villain. He committed evil acts to promote himself; to advance his power, wealth, and ambition. Now he is searching for redemption. The acts he commits in Gods Among Men, as terrible as they will be, are intended to save mankind, to save the world and everything on it. To avoid the death of every living thing on the planet he believes, truly believes, that he must follow a ruthless plan that leaves a path of death and destruction in his wake. Some must suffer so all may be saved.

Important in this distinction is the word, “believes”.

Just because Damon believes his actions are required does not make it true. His goals are clear, and the threat real. The path he chooses to address this threat and achieve his goals are dictated by the man he was as well as the man he wants to be. If he is successful then mankind and the planet have a hope for survival, not a guarantee. And his failure does not mean the death of hope. His solution is one possible answer out of many. It is the answer he believes in, the one he has the skills and personality to achieve. It is this ambiguity that also prevents him from being either antihero or antivillain.

If his plan were the only hope, with his failure resulting in the inevitable death of all life on earth, then he would be an antihero. A savior who lacks heroic qualities. If his plan were flawed, or the threat non-existent, then he would be an antivillain. A destroyer with at least some noble qualities. Since neither of these conditions are met, he cannot be either antihero or antivillain.

In the end, Damon must face the ultimate test. Successfully saving the planet is not enough for him to achieve the redemption he seeks. If it were, then his actions are tainted by the same self-serving motivations that made him a villain in his youth. To redeem himself Damon Roth must eventually sacrifice himself. His quest requires him to commit an act that harms himself terribly, but guarantees the world is safe.

Gods Among Men opens at the moment when Damon first realizes he must make such a sacrifice. Everything that happens from that point forward hangs on his acceptance of that fact.

Damon cannot be classified as either good or bad, hero or villain, antihero or antivillain. He is a flawed person of tremendous abilities dealing with an immense problem in the only way he knows how. In the end it is the reasons for his actions and how he adheres to those convictions that will determine his true worth.