Who Doesn’t Enjoy a Great Villain, After All?
A few thoughts on Good Bad Guys:
Not many people know that the Alterra books actually sprang from the desire to develop and explore the villain. Yes…the villain. Gorgon has always been my favorite character to write, and he is also the most difficult. It’s not so hard to put myself in the place of a “good” character. I can usually understand what motivates a protagonist, but it’s a lot bigger stretch to imagine what goes on in the mind of a creature driven by hate, consumed by dark emotions, who derives pleasure from causing suffering to others. Despite what some of my students may tell you, that’s NOT my usual m.o.
I get to know my characters very well in the course of a novel or two, and I want them all to be compelling, but I wanted Gorgon to be outstanding. I wanted my readers to be thinking about him long after they closed the cover on the last book in the trilogy. So, how does one create a particularly effective villain? At the risk of “spoiling” the experience for those who have yet to read Elfhunter, Fire-heart, and Ravenshade, I’ll share a few thoughts on my favorite bad guy.
Everyone here who has had the pleasure of a good read knows the value of a multi-dimensional antagonist. We remember the villains who have delighted us–Richard III, Randall Flagg, Lord Voldemort–and try to discern what it is that makes them memorable. The mindless, evil “Dark Lord” bores me. I want my villains to be complex, I want to understand what drives them, and I want them to be relatable, if not sympathetic. Thoroughly nasty, but with glimmers of humanity.
At first, Gorgon Elfhunter appears to be a mindless monstrosity–we don’t even know what kind of being he is. But as the story progresses, we peel him like an onion. We learn of his origins, and speculate on what drives him to be as he is. We try, at least on some level, to understand him. Once in a while we almost feel empathy–usually right before he does something really nasty and we change our minds. (Jeez! I can’t believe I almost LIKED you for a second!) A good villain should make you mad. Really mad.
The best villains are full of surprises. They’re unpredictable, adding to our suspense as we wonder what they’re up to. And they threaten our favorite heroes/heroines effectively enough that some of us will turn to the last page to find out which side prevails. (I would not suggest doing that unless there’s a dog–I always have to know if the dog makes it.)
A great villain is heartless, but may have a soft spot for something–some Achilles’ heel. If the protagonists are lucky, they’ll figure this out and exploit it. Meanwhile, we readers can keep turning pages hoping the secret will be discovered. (Princess! You need peanut butter! Peanut butter is his Kryptonite! He’ll fold like a cheap suit! Oh, my gosh! Dude! That guy has a soft spot for kittens…and your sister!)
Some of the best and most memorable villains are petty–they don’t threaten world domination, they just torture small animals and helpless children. Stephen King is especially good at those. They’re effective, in my opinion, because we’ve all met at least one heartless, bullying snake-in-the-grass, maybe in fifth grade. They are the ones whose eventual downfall and comeuppance I can’t WAIT to witness. I don’t even care about the heroes any more–I just want to see that slimy b**tard get his!
Gollum is a wonderful villain–he’s SO annoying that I wanted him to vanish in a cloud of sulfurous vapor, never to return. I have often wondered what the inspiration was for that particular character. Brilliant.
In case anyone is wondering what inspired Gorgon, I wanted to explore a character who had been born into a world with very few choices. Utterly rejected, driven by hatred, convinced that love is a weakness, Gorgon has always reminded me of the doomed souls in our own world who believe that the act of killing gives purpose to their lives. I wanted to try to understand such motivations. At times it was difficult. Gorgon is an odd mixture of personalities–at times vulnerable, insecure, and filled with doubt, and at times utterly vicious, inexorable, unstoppable. There is a kind of wistfulness in him at times, countered by a profound stubbornness and an undeniably perverted fascination with pain.
An interesting villain should be pitted against an interesting heroine. Gaelen fills the bill–she’s like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. It’s fun to see how Gorgon’s attitude toward her changes as the story unfolds. The relationship that develops between them may be unholy, but it’s a grand device for revealing their inmost thoughts and emotions–what drives them to be as they are. Both characters evolve as they tumble through the story together–each trying to put an end to the other. Who will prevail? Can either succeed in defeating the other without losing his/her very nature? Will that b**tard ever get his comeuppance?
If you decide to purchase Elfhunter, I hope you’ll stay through the entire trilogy. That’s the only way you’ll know for sure.