On Villains: In Which I Don’t Ask Much

The alternate title of this post is: Don’t Be Lex Luthor.

This is a little unfair to Lex, I believe, at least if you take in the scope of comics canon in which he has issues with aliens and is the President and, um, something about Kryptonian steroids? (Have to admit I couldn’t really follow that bit of Final Crisis.) And, I guess, the canon where he’s really vengeful about being bald. No, I’m talking about the Silver Age/Superfriends era Luthor. The guy who would invent working giant robots and orbital mind control rays and use them to rob a bank. Because not only could he, as per the trope, make a lot of money just selling this stuff, but I’m given to understand that there’s a substantial layout involved with making giant robots in the first place, not to mention having a secret underground base.

If you had a secret underground base, would you really need to create giant bank-robbing robots? I wouldn’t. It’s an underground base! I could just hang out in my underground base all day! If I needed money, I could rent rooms. In my underground base.

I think I got a little bit sidetracked there.

Right. So I was reading a pretty decent urban fantasy series, and liking it okay, until they started spending a lot of time on the villains’ point of view. No problem there, in theory, since I do that myself a bit, except that the villains were kind of Luthoring it up. Right, okay, you’re all sinister and powerful conspiracy people with private helicopters, and you’re doing black magic to get you artifacts of sinister power so that you can…do more black magic? Maybe? I don’t understand! You already have occult power and private helicopters! What do you want? (This sort of gets resolved in a later book, but in my mind, you can’t wait too long for these things.)

Okay, then. Things The Reader Needs to Know About Your Villain, Because I’m So Good at This:

1) What do they want right now? This is pretty easy; this is, in fact, giant bank-robbing robots or armies of mind-controlled lemurs or the Gem of Amarra. Pretty much everyone gets this right. Moving on.

2) Why should the reader care?

Sometimes this is really easy. It’s hard to be neutral regarding the Crimson King or Freddy Kreuger; I don’t think most people would argue LeChuck’s case.

In more ambiguous cases, though, it’s tougher. The secret cabal of secretness is trying to run the world from behind the scenes? Well, what are they trying to do with it? Frankly, in the modern world, having large parts of my life controlled by monolithic forces is a basic day: does it really make a difference if it’s the Illuminati and not my day job and the public transit system? Will our alien puppet-masters give me a good dental plan and maybe some more options re: telecommuting?

If you want me to unquestioningly cheer for the hero against the conquerors or the conspiracy or whatever, you probably need to show them doing unpleasant things. Not necessarily wantonly unpleasant–hey, someone has to go down the beryllium mines if Count Vordax is going to have a new set of wineglasses this year–but, you know, tell me why I should give a damn who’s ruling. National identity doesn’t do much for me in general, and certainly not if it’s a nation that doesn’t actually exist.

ETA: If I’m not supposed to be cheering for one side or another, that’s fine too. That’s a thing where you are Guy Gavriel Kay and you’re writing The Lions of Al-Rassan and making me cry on the goddamn bus, and that’s fine. I mean, I kind of hate you for the bus-crying thing, but well done.

3) What can it get them that they can’t get by being a normal person? You’re a billionaire: what do dark powers get you that a billion dollars won’t? Why do you want to rule the world? Don’t you know how much work it is? Why don’t you just channel your energy, as a thousand guidance counselors have put it, into more productive outlets?

Here’s where the title of my post comes in. I’m a simple, undemanding sort of girl. I don’t ask for deep motives and labyrinthine plots. I mean, they’re great if you can get them, but if your guy’s deal is that he drowned because camp counselors were having sex and now he wreaks his bloody vengeance on all horny teenagers? I can get behind that too. We live in a world, sadly, where people go on killing sprees basically because they don’t have prom dates: Evil Guy Flips Out, Tries to End World or At Least Kill a Lot of People doesn’t shatter my suspension of disbelief. Likewise, the old Horde of Alien Locusts thing is just fine. Sometimes you eat suns because suns taste great and are less filling. I’m on board.

And yeah, there are plenty of people in history or great literature who got power and just kept wanting more, or got wealth and then went after power, or whatever. Macbeth makes sense, in a horrible way. Dude succumbed to a little temptation, once, got in over his head, and…there we are with Birnam Wood and MacDuff and severed heads getting carried around. It can happen.

Just show how it happened. Show why it happened–at least a little. Or don’t spend much time from the villain’s POV. You have a lot of alternatives, ’cause I’m relatively easy to please. Just…don’t be Lex Luthor.

I mean, purple and green? Together?


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I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam Romance novels from Sourcebooks: No Proper Lady Lessons After Dark Legend of the Highland Dragon The Highland Dragon's Lady Night of the Highland Dragon Highland Dragon Warrior Highland Dragon Rebel Highland Dragon Master I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.

11 thoughts on “On Villains: In Which I Don’t Ask Much”

  1. Lampshaded, if you will, in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy, in which the villains are doing all sorts of stuff in order to get more magical power than they already have. Why? They haven’t thought that far. They don’t have a specific goal in mind…

    1. I haven’t read that one, I think, despite my general fondness for Jones: I’ll have to pick it up!

      Lampshading is actually a really good tactic if you have that kind of villain, particularly if there’s a smart-ass hero who can point it out.

  2. Very much agreed.

    I also think – closely related to and perhaps implicit in your point – the Monday Morning Question is important. Like with your sinister powerful conspiracy and their private helicopters up the page there: and then what? Where are you going with this evil plan of yours, exactly, and what is it getting you that’s cooler than what you already have? Especially when what you already have includes an underground base and private helicopters.

    1. Precisely.

      Especially the “cooler than what you already have” thing. It’s one of the reasons I’m hard to sell on Illuminati books or games or whatever: you’re already controlling the world, basically, what more do you want? (Admittedly, I’m averse to responsibility in any and all forms, so it’s a hard thing for me to empathize with aspiring world-rulers in the first place. I’d rather be a figurehead and get fed peeled grapes all day.)

      Most of my villains do what they do for small, petty reasons: getting girls they couldn’t get otherwise, scoring minor triumphs on people in their social circle, etc. Or start to do that and then get in over their head and end up invoking Cthulhu. I guess I’ll see how well that works. šŸ™‚

      1. As awful as the episode was on so many levels, that was the one thing that made the Cthulhu episode of South Park so hilarious. Cartman got on board with Cthulhu for the dumbest, most petty reasons and it totally made sense for the character. That and the 80s cartoon parody.

  3. This was my problem with the Manchurian Candidate remake: I could see why the Communist Bloc in the original would want a puppet in the White House, but what would a multinational corporation gain that they couldn’t get by a few highly-paid lobbyists? Which could have been worked around … but the movie never did.

    1. Heh, yeah. That’s where my cynicism trips me up with conspiracy novels, especially those involving the corporate world: multinational corporations *already* control about ninety percent of politics.

      Sort of my problem with Tomorrow Never Dies, too. Carver already has a ginormous media outlet and more money than God. Why exactly is he trying to start WWIII? Especially when society has proven it’ll pay more for naked pictures of Paris Hilton?

      1. That’s actually the start of a good idea for a conspiracy. You use your media influence to make famous people you (and only you) possess naked photos of, then when they’re famous you sell those photos for millions of dollars (or blackmail them for the same)

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