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.

Hero, Part 3: A Closer Look At Tara Rihtwis

This is part of my continuing exploration on the nature of heroism in literature, and of the role of the hero in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. Here are links to parts one and two, and a link to the post that started this overall series about the various roles characters play in literature.

Today I am going into more detail on Tara Rihtwis, daughter of More Rihtwis. Tara’s history is unique in my story in that She is the one major character who did not exist in my mind even as a concept when I first started writing Gods Among Men.

In the beginning I knew I wanted a wizard, who rather quickly became my protagonist Damon Roth; a knight/prince, who became one of my heroes, Morel; an archer/tracker/ranger, who became the antihero, Artemis Arrowsmith; an undead wizard, who became my antagonist, Demiurge; the evil warrior, who became my villain, Maelgar; and so on. I had defined roles that needed to be filled, and developed characters that met that need.

Tara was developed in a series of fits and starts. First I realized I needed someone innocent and inexperienced, someone who needed things explained to them. All of my initial major characters were worldly with many experiences involving dangerous and magical situations. As I wrote their scenes I often had times when something happened that would be obvious to them, but not to the reader. I needed someone the experienced characters had to explain things to so I, the writer, would have a reason to explain what was happening to the reader.

With that thought in mind, I created Morel’s son, Tomas, and began developing his character. This brought my story to a screeching halt. Try as I might, I could not make Tomas into a character that worked as Morel’s son. He was pedantic, two-dimensional, and wholly unbelievable. Worse yet, his interactions with Morel and others was boring to write and worse to read.

As I was struggling with this, and many other issues, I asked my girlfriend at the time to read over what I had written. After doing so, she had various good comments including, “You don’t have any female characters.”

This is an example of the blindness that can afflict a writer. I had thought of the characters before then just as what role they filled in the plot, not as to how their gender might affect their development. I had made all the characters male because I was a man and it made them easier for me to relate to.

Armed now with the knowledge that I was being stupid and sexist, I began looking for which major characters I could change from male to female.

I first changed Artemis Arrowsmith, my archer/tracker/ranger character, into a woman. She immediately became much more interesting and a slew of story lines opened up for her. I will detail those changes in a later post.

Casting about for another character to change, I spied dull, boring Tomas. I tried switching his sex like I had on Artemis. This did not work. The personal qualities I had given him were too deeply flawed for a gender change alone to salvage the situation. Tomas had to go.

Feeling sorry for Tomas, as writers will do for characters they have put a fair amount of time and effort into, I gave him some minor ability with magic and shuttled him off to become one of Damon’s assistants. There, much to my surprise, surrounded by magic and books and all things arcana, he blossomed. The poor kid was never cut out to be a hero, he was a nerd. Who’d have thunk.

I was still stuck with needing an inexperienced character, and having one as a child of Morel still made sense, so I began crafting a daughter for him from scratch. I called her Tara as a shorthand note to myself.

Tara was the name of Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation in Gone With The Wind. Scarlett was a willful, spoiled, debutante. The daughter of a rich, powerful, landowner who will do anything to keep her land and get what she wants. Whenever I read the name Tara I thought of Scarlett, which kept reminding me of some of the characteristics I wanted my new character to have when the reader first meets her.

Tara’s impact on the other characters was felt almost at once. Morel developed a sense of humor and loved to tease her. Artemis became Tara’s surrogate big sister, protector, and trainer. Maelgar, when he discovers who she is, see her as a way to trap or hurt Morel. Damon sees her as the hope of the future and tries to guide her toward the knowledge and experience she will need to succeed.

Tara became a character unlike the others in that she is not prepared for what is about to happen, but thinks she is. She boldly charges into dangerous situations that are far above her abilities to handle. Situations where she should die, but somehow survives through luck and skill and the intervention of those more powerful than herself. She discovers what it means to feel fear, and how to control it. She suffers, but does not falter. She learns the difference between being foolhardy and courageous.

In short, Tara starts out as an innocent and becomes a hero, though of a different mold than her father. Morel is a classical hero, but Tara is a more modern style of hero. As such she represents the changes that are happening in the world around her better than Morel, or anyone else, does.

In a later post I will delve more into the differences between her heroic model and Morel’s. Until then, have fun.

Hero, Part 2: A Closer Look At Morel Rihtwis, Part 2

This is both a continuation of my last post, and of a series of posts about the roles of the protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain in a story, as well as my exploration on the nature of the hero. I have previously talked about the protagonist in Gods Among Men, Damon Roth, and the antagonist, Demiurge, and why both fail to be either a hero or villain. Today I will focus again upon Morel Rihtwis, an archetypal hero patterned upon classical mythological heroes.

When I started writing Gods Among Men I was heavily influenced by medieval imagery. This grew out of my love of the game Dungeons & Dragons, which itself was influences by medieval stories such as Le Morte d’Arthur, Beowulf, tales of Robin Hood, faerie tales, and even more modern works with a medieval flavor such as The Lord of The Rings.

Given this bias, I decided early that my hero would be a knight. I was young at the time, in college, and sought for a literary or historical figure I could pattern my knight upon. I considered Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain and other knights of the Round Table, but those thoughts led nowhere interesting. They worked against the emerging plot, and made the character hackneyed.

Then I thought of Charlemagne, Charles the Great, King of the Franks. He helped bring about the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture. Through foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define both Western Europe and the Middle Ages. He is counted as of the Nine Worthies; nine historical, scriptural, mythological or semi-legendary figures who came to personify the ideals of chivalry.

In Charlemagne I had a foundation for a character with a history as broad and deep as any of the Arthurian knights, and was as symbolically important as Arthur himself. In fact, Charlemagne formed a group of paladins who were analogous to the knights of the Round Table and form the basis for the French chansons de geste, “songs of heroic deeds”. Charlemagne as a historical or literary character is directly associated with spiritual and cultural rebirth and renewal.

Charlemagne gave me a touchstone for the character that would eventually become Morel Rihtwis. Whenever I felt the need to give Morel more depth or expand his character, I could search though information about Charlemagne and find something useful.

Charlemagne had a brother, Carloman, who died, so I gave Morel a brother name Carloman who died.

Charlemagne had a group of loyal paladins, so Morel now had a group of loyal paladins. One of Charlemagne’s paladins was Roland, who the Song of Roland is based upon. This inspired a subplot centered around Morel’s battle with a dragon.

One of Charlemagne ‘s chief opponents was the Saxon leader Widukind, who Charlemagne converted to Christianity. This inspired a character of my own creation called Widukind, with whom Morel will argue morality and religion in order to convince Widukind to break his allegiance to the villain, Maelgar.

Morel is not Charlemagne. I made Morel into his own character with a unique history and story to tell. But Charlemagne is the point from which I began creating Morel; it is Charlemagne that I return to for inspiration on how I should further develop Morel’s character. The history and legends surrounding Charlemagne helped me build Morel into a character that will be associated with spiritual and cultural rebirth and renewal.