Villain Decay

Ben Linus! FOR THE WIN!I’ve been hard at work writing the fifth Avery Cates novel, which is the last in this series, which means I’m wrapping things up and settling scores. Which also means I’m going to have significant page-time with the main villain. So I’m pondering villains in stories – especially SFnal stories – these days, exacerbated by the fact that the TV show Lost is also wrapping itself up, and also dealing with villain issues in the form of Ben Linus’ character. For those of you who watch the show, you know what I mean; the last episode “Dr. Linus” dealt with Ben and his descent from power on Craphole Island.

Villains are tricky. They’re like monsters in horror movies: Usually the less you see them, the less you know about them, the better it is. The more familiar we become with villains the less scary they are, either because their supposedly awesome powers are revealed to be not so awesome after all (because the hero usually defeats the villain, thus putting into question just how tough the villain was to begin with), or because we learn something about the villain that humanizes them (awww, they have a child! awww, they love kittens! awww, he could have let the hero die horribly but he saved him!).  Villains usually do have backstories, but it’s generally best to keep those backstories vague and mainly for the use of the Writer. I mean, if I’m writing a story, it’s good that I have some idea why my villain behaves the way he does. It’s usually not useful that the reader knows, however.

Part of this is the simple fact that your reader’s imagination will always have better special effects and more meaning to them than your own. If I give you a vague, menacing villain with some pithy dialog and dark hints about their abilities and backstory, you will come up with something on your own that is better – for you – than anything I’d come up with. Because your imagination is tailored precisely to your own likes and your own squicks. The moment I start filling in blanks, I’ll invariably select things you don’t think are so cool, and thus my villain decays.

Part of it, though, is simple familiarity. In a serial fiction, either a series of books or a TV show, or even a movie series if it goes on long enough, the villain has to have screen/page time, even if you put off the final encounter with the hero. Take Ben on Lost: This is season six, and Ben’s been around a lot, and he’s been one of the more popular characters. As a result he’s had a nice arc, and we’ve learned a lot about him, and recently he seems to be inching closer and closer to redemption, which kind of sucks. While I admire the way the show’s writers have maneuvered him into being a sympathetic character, I mourn the loss of the villain. He was much more fun as a character when he appeared to be a cold, ruthless manipulator rather than a tortured, unhappy soul.

The ultimate problem, though, is that readers/viewers want it both ways. They like their villains to be badass and unbeatable, they want the hero to beat the villain, and they want to know about the villain. The longer your series goes on, the more you have to reveal about the villain (otherwise you risk them becoming a humorous caricature of evilevilevil) and as a direct result the less impressive your villain becomes. If this goes on long enough, your villain often has to switch sides and go hero, like, transforming from Vader to Skywalker. This can be a dramatic moment, of course, but it does leave you with Villain Vacuum. You can then come up with a new villain, even More Awesoma than the previous one – but that trick only works once, maybe twice, and then you start to have a rather comical collection of ex-villains puddling about, looking less than impressive. This wears out your audience sooner rather than later, trust me.

The solution: Well, there is none. If you’re presenting a standalone story, of course, it’s not a problem at all, because your villain is going to get it in the end anyway; by the time your audience starts to get to know the villain, you destroy him. In a series, however, you will suffer Villain Decay, unless you’re okay with your protagonists being useless little pricks who always get beaten. Which you might be. The hero winning all the time is so predictable, after all.


  1. Elisabeth Black

    Definitely makes sense.

    Also makes me think of the best villain ever: Professor Moriarty.

  2. Nemo Pemo

    I am happy and sad to hear you are working on the end of this series. Things with a planned end always turn out better than if creators try to just push for the sake of pushing. As for villans, I personally root for them on a regular basis, and find it unfair that their superior intellect and / or power is often undermined by circumstance, or character flaw. In short, if you end the series with Dick Marin Digitizing everyone on the planet, including Avery, who is always on that line of destiny, I would probably stand up and applaud at the end of the book. I look forward to reading it either way.

  3. jsomers (Post author)

    Beth: I think the good professor was used juuuust enough in the Holmes stories. Which is to say, not very much at all, so very little time for decay to set in. Plus also too, Doyle killed him first and then gave us more of him, which is the genius way.

  4. jsomers (Post author)

    Nemo Pemo, well thanks! I’ve got what I think is a cool and appropriate ending to everything. Hopefully everyone will agree when the fifth book comes out in 2011. And I agree with you about planned vs. unplanned – I don’t plot much, but I do think you need an overarching concept of where you’re going, of how things will develop.

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