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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

GUEST POST: Writing A Good Villain by Gerrard Cowan


Fantasy novels need proper villains. Or do they? What is a villain these days, and does every story need one central, unifying enemy?

Villains in science fiction and fantasy come in many shapes and sizes, but one thing is certain: these days, they are rarely black and white characters. It’s pretty unusual now to find a totally evil warlord or dark wizard or whatever pitted against a band of merry good guys, at least among the big names in the genre.

The enemy in today’s fantasy books tends to fall into one of three broad categories: an interesting, perhaps conflicted, representative of dark forces; a misguided person, who sees his or her actions as part of a greater good; or a terrible, irreconcilable evil, but one who is just one dark force among many greyer elements.

The first category is perhaps the most common, and refers to those villains who know they are villains, want to be villains, are cool with being villains, and yet have been built into interesting and well-rounded characters. They don’t simply sit in a dark tower, chewing over their machinations. I think the Falconer in Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard sequence is a case in point. He’s not the most likeable wizard ever created, but he has great depth.


The second category covers those who come to evildoing along a kind of crooked path: they see their actions as part of a greater good, at least initially. Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader might slot into this group.

Finally, there are the irredeemable, straight-up bad guys, who nevertheless form just one thread in an intricate tapestry of badness. The Others in A Song of Ice and Fire are always hovering in the background, threatening general destruction on Westeros, yet there are so many other brilliantly twisted and dark characters in the foreground that it’s difficult to know who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’.

These categories are pretty broad-brush, and I’m sure I’m missing out on other excellent examples, but that’s not really the point. What matters is this: it just isn’t enough to have a simplistic Big Bad. People want their villains to have broad personalities and varied motivations, because that’s what it’s like in the real world.

This makes the process of creating villains that much more challenging. You want them to be interesting, with maybe a bit of light mixed in with the dark. In fact, you have to take exactly the same approach you adopt when forming your ‘good’ characters. People should be able to imagine them existing in the real world (within reason). You might want to base aspects of them on people you’ve met – erm, on second thoughts, that might not be such a good idea. But they need to feel real.

Besides, this makes things more fun for the writer. If all the reader expected was a two-dimensional, scenery-chewing, dark-hearted villain, you could more or less use the same one in every novel. But your enemy is unique to your book, allowing you an infinite range of possibilities. OK, it’s harder work to flesh them out, but it’s so much more satisfying when you’re done.

In many ways, creating a solid villain is much easier than the opposite task: creating a believable hero or heroine. It’s very easy to end up with a simpering, angelic central character, who in no way behaves like a real person. In fact, it can be more difficult to inject a little badness into a good character than to do the opposite. Again, though, it’s an enjoyable process.

I think what really matters is tension. There should be tension within all your characters, but there should also be a fundamental tension at the heart of the novel, which drives the narrative. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a tension between ‘good’ characters and ‘bad’ characters: it could be between a society in decline and one on the rise, or a world of rules and a world of magic, etc. At any rate, today’s fantasy readers want – and expect – their characters to have depth.


Official Author Website
Order The Machinery HERE
Read chapter one of The Machinery HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Gerrard Cowan is a writer and editor from Derry, in the North West of Ireland. His debut fantasy novel, The Machinery, is out now from HarperVoyager UK. It is the first in a trilogy.

His first known work was a collection of poems on monsters, written for Halloween when he was eight; it is sadly lost to civilisation. He can be found at his website, on FaceBook and is @GerrardCowan on Twitter. Gerrard lives in South East London with his wife Sarah and their two children.

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