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 a Writer

As I read Brant’s latest post, I couldn’t help but think about my own writing. Brant’s story has so many layers, it is like a big, tasty parfait. Knowing Brant as well as I do, I think that is a comment on him as well. He is a very complex but interesting person, and it shows clearly in his writing. The nature of the writer lends itself to the color of a story, no matter how hard that writer may try to keep it out. Think of the great satirical stories, like Gulliver’s Travels. I highly doubt that could have been written by someone who loved the British. Or even V, which is a thinly veiled (at least to some people) look at Nationalist Socialism and how easily people are brainwashed by it.

I never thought my stories had that much subtext, but I did notice something about my own writing. Almost instictively, I like to attach some sort of moral to my stories. My first work in progress, Battle for Ondar, is a story about familial relationships, and how easily a country can collapse if its politicians don’t keep it together. My current work-in-progress, Moonlit, shows how people with an infectious, incurable disease are still people, and what happens when society forgets that. I think these two examples say a lot about me as a writer and a person.

In reality, I like to think of myself as an environmentalist. I love nature, especially water-related nature, and keeping wild things wild. I also have – as my Dad calls it – a bleeding heart. I don’t do very well in debates because I can see the other person’s point-of-view. I almost always prefer the underdog or the sidekick in movies and television, not the main character. And I stand up for anyone who isn’t there in an arguement. I love bad movies, romantic comedies, and sarcastic comedians. I have an impressive collection of shark movies alone, and every Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode I could get my hands on. I also am intensely interested in how people cope with major stress. A great example of this is how peasants in Europe coped during the Great Schism, when people actually thought that no one could get into heaven because there was no clear Pope (Catholics should know what I am referring to).

These things make up my character, and whether I like it or not, are going to show up in my work. I want to flesh out the characters to represent a single thought or ideal, and watch it play out in the plot of the story. So in Moonlit, I put a little of myself in Lyka, the heroine. She is a wildlife biologist who has lived a pretty sheltered life among her books and labwork and animals that don’t talk. At the very beginning of the story, her life is thrown into the unknown. How will she deal with that? We don’t know how she will deal with that yet, as I have only written about two chapters. I daresay that she will manage much the same way I might if I were thrown into a similar situation. Hopefully, that doesn’t spell doom for too many of the book’s characters…

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.

Pantzer versus Plotter

There are two basic schools of writing: Pantzing and Plotting.

Most of the writers I’ve talked to have been pantzers, meaning they write from the seat of their pants. They have no idea where the story is going until they have written it. At best, they have a few general moments they know they want to work towards, often they know how they want begin and end the story, but little more than that.

Pantzer’s don’t know who is going to live or die in their story at the beginning, or even who the central characters are, until the words are on the page. They don’t know who will live and who will die. They often don’t know who the heroes or villains are, or what they are fighting over, or why they care. Pantzers write sentence after sentence to discover the story they want to tell, then edit what they wrote so it reads well.

This, to me, is a bizarre way to write.

I am a plotter. That is, I need an outline before I can write. I need to know who the central characters are, what their goals are, what they will do to achieve those goals, and what they won’t do. I need to know who lives and who dies, how they die, and who would be better off dead. I need to know what the conflict is over, how the characters break down into sides over the conflict, why it is important for each side to win, and what the result of any particular side’s victory means to them and others. I need all of this and much more information; not in a vaguely defined way, but hard specifics I can write towards.

Pantzers have the advantage of speed. A pantzer can crank out a good size story in a year or two. I spent decades fleshing out the story for my epic, Gods Among Men, before I felt like I could really write much of it. I wrote a lot in those decades, but whenever I ran into a question I didn’t already know the answer too I had to stop and spend days, weeks, and even months finding answers that satisfied me and worked with my central plot.

I think the result is worth the extra time it took. I can give detailed answers to almost any question about the world or the characters or the plot. More importantly; I like, really like, my plot, my characters, the story arc, the settings, and so on. I love the world I have created in my mind, with all of its flaws and including the parts of it that run against my personal ideology.

Currently, I am editing At The Lady’s Behest Comes…, the first book in Gods Among Men. I hope to have it up to submission quality by late this year, though I fear that is optimistic. Looking forward, I believe I can create first drafts for the remainder of the story as fast as any pantzer could, maybe faster. Editing each book to make them publishable will take longer, of course, but I know where I am going and I have an outline to get there. That’s a nice place for a plotter to be.