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.

Protagonist, Antagonist, Hero, Villian, Antihero, and AntiVillian

Protagonist, antagonist, hero, villain, antihero, and antivillain are crucial elements of storytelling. At least some of these roles must be filled by one or more central characters or there is no story to tell. One character may fulfill several of these roles, or one role may be filled by several characters. For example, it is common for the protagonist to also be either the hero or the villain, and the antagonist to fill the opposite role.

Identifying which role particular characters play is crucial to how you define them, how you write them. When a character approaches a crucial decision, what they do is largely defined by the role they play. In Gods Among Men, I found it useful to deconstruct these elements into separate individuals.

My protagonist, Damon Roth, drives the plot, but is neither hero nor villain. He is opposed by the antagonist, Demiurge, who also is neither hero nor villain. They both are larger than life and pursue goals that cannot be labeled as good or evil. They will not hesitate to do good when it does not affect their plans, and they hesitate to do evil even when their plans demand it of them. People are pawns in a game they play, and the world’s fate depends on which one wins.

The hero role is filled first by Morel Rihtwis, a prince whose name literally means moral, right, and wise. Morel embodies nobility, and struggles with every decision to always make the morally right choice. Later his daughter Tara grows into the hero role.

My villain is Maelgar Tregadie, also called the Y’fel. He is filled with hate and a desire to see the world burn. His desire for power is inextricably tied to his lust to harm others, especially his father, Integras Tregadie. He believes Demiurge is the key to his success.

Artemis Arrowsmith is my antihero. She has been raised to be a soldier, a killer, and she is very good at it. She is driven by desires for vengeance, a bloodlust that leads her to commit atrocities against those who wronged her. But she is willing to sacrifice herself and those desires to save others. She is ruthless when she must be, but tries to walk away when she can. She aligns her fortune to Damon Roth.

The antivillain is Widukind. He is driven by honor above all else. He will not lie, nor cheat, nor steal, nor shy from danger. His word is sacrosanct and he would rather die than break it. He is deeply religious, and remains true to his faith throughout the story. He has no problem with sacking villages, killing the helpless, and committing atrocities for no reason other than he is following orders. His conscience bothers him, but not enough to make him stop. He follows Maelgar, believing him to be a prophet of his god, Demiurge.

There are many more characters in this large, complex tale, but this collection of people form a crucial core to Gods Among Men. Without them, there is no story to tell.