Fix 12: Villain Sue

See, I go away for a few weeks and suddenly I come back super productive.

 

So, let’s talk about the Villian Sue…

 

I’m not gonna lie to you, I don’t really get these. Maybe it’s that I border too close to the line with my characters (as I tend to like writing anti-heroes as much as I like writing heroes), or maybe that I just really love a good serial killer. I’ve been known to have loud discussions about different serial killers, whether historical or not and what constitutes a serial killer. To give you an example of my love for serial killers: I wrote a short play called Joel, which is about a Serial Killer who thinks that God speaks to him and tells him to kill people who are too far gone to be saved.  Joel, if he weren’t insane, would be too damn perfect… no really, he’s too damn perfect. But it makes him interesting and sympathetic is some ways.

 

I like villains. I love a good villain. Talk to me about Iago from Othello. I travelled to London by myself on train just so I could see Iago be the most amazing villain in the history of villains. The closest modern villains is Heath Ledger’s Joker… I mean seriously! So I really, really, really love a good villain. They’re more interesting, need less description (especially for background), and work better when they’re more mysterious. Think about it: why does Iago do what he does? I bet you can name at least three reasons or more from the text, but what’s the real answer? How about the Joker? How did he get those scars? How many different stories did he tell?

 

So, a Villain Sue… again I don’t really get this. The same way I don’t get Ghost World and Luciferians. I just can’t wrap my head around people like these things. I keep having to look what exactly a villain sue is. So why am I talking about them? I don’t know, maybe just so I can talk about villains and how to make good ones.

 

First off the villain depends a lot on what context they’re in. For one Fanfic I’m working on a have an antagonist/villain who isn’t evil. He’s trying to overthrow the current monarch because he believes that she won’t be able to take care of the country. It’s not because she’s female, or even because she’s been kidnapped, it’s because she doesn’t have the education a monarch should have. He loves his country very much, and he’s been raised to be the monarch, to do anything for the country. He loves the King and Queen, and he loves his cousin (the soon to be Queen), but he’s willing to kill them if it means the safety of his country. He’s not evil, he’s just wrong. His reasons are explored as much as the heroes motivations, but it works in the case of the story. He’s not a villain, really he’s the protagonist because he’s driving the story, yet he’s not the hero. The cannon characters are the heroes.

 

This is a perfectly acceptable (and sadly, rarely done) type of ‘villain’. A lot of times people try to write the villain as sympathetic (or at least understandable). The problem is that in doing so they often make the villain angsty, and therefore not interesting. Sometimes the villain takes over the story… which his fine if the author meant to do that. If they didn’t then there’s just a problem. Villains can be sympathetic. I have a story that I’ve been working on for years which is just terribly depressing. There were two kids who grew up together and got separated (thinking the other was dead), then the boy grew up and murdered the new village of the girl. The problem is that the girl’s village was of assassins, and she’s a very well trained hunter. She eventually tracks him down, and when they discover that they’re the one person both loves most in the world, and hates the most in the world bad things happen. The girl ends up (slowly) torturing the boy to death, and is left alone. Really the boy is the villain of the story as he helped to destroy a village for profit, but you like him (in many ways more) than the woman because he takes the suffering as a way of repentance. He ends up dead, she ends up alone. It’s not a happy story.

 

Now, I just talked about villains I have were I explore their back story and at least make their motivation understandable. These can work as long as you don’t push them too far. In the second example the ‘hero’s’ back story is actually much more depressing than the villain, which makes her even more understandable, but also gives her greater focus. She’s the ‘hero’ because it’s her story… and because she drives the plot. She’s the protagonist at least. The thing is that these villains aren’t scary. They won’t keep you up at night or make you wonder about them. If anything they’re just people, just another character in a plot.

 

Villain Sues seem like they both want to be understandable and yet amazingly scary/thought provoking. You really can’t have both. I mentioned Iago and the Joker, two characters in the pantheon of villains, so amazing that you can’t get them out of your mind, and they take over the whole damn work that they’re in. But you don’t know a lot about them. Okay, the writer probably knows their motivation, but the audience doesn’t and it drives the audience crazy. The not knowing sets people on edge in a way that explanation never will.

 

Villains often fall under the case of ‘less is more’, and I mean this is really important.

 

So, for the fix: First off, I suggest you write out a list of things about your villain. Include personality traits, back ground information, powers, whatever. Then look at those things in relation to the plot. Think about what has to come out to drive the plot. Yes your villains fear of heights may help drive the plot (or at least end the villain), but we don’t necessarily need to know it’s because his older brother dangled him outside a window when he was a kid. It makes the villain far less impressive, while a fear of heights will simply humanize a bit and give the hero a way to beat the villain.

 

The problem with the side of work on the villain is that you need to know the plot beforehand. If you decide to take the “No Plot, No Problem” approach then you can’t figure out what’s important and what’s not until you get to editing (in which case you can use the above method). What you can do is remember ‘less is more’, or focus more on the hero’s journey, and how to make the villain scary and not at all attainable to them.  For my book the villain amounts to a satanic nun, and is modeled after something I saw in an experimental film… and then I went above and beyond on the nightmare fuel (again, this character scares me). The reason why she’s so terrifying is that I don’t even know anything about her. No really, I have no idea. She just freaks me out, and even though she’s ‘beaten’, she continues to exist and is a threat. The heroes don’t have to vanquish the demon, only escape. It means that all the threats they faced continue to be threats, and can be frightening even after the stories over. No one ever sees the metaphorical zipper on the metaphorical monster costume.

 

To sum up: you can write out a villain to be as well known as the hero, but you need to know going in that the hero and villain need to share similar amounts screen time without the villain over taking the hero’s role. But when you do that the villain simply becomes another character. Yes the villain can still be threatening or else there’s no point to the hero’s journey, but they will never reach the pantheon. They will never be and Iago. Conversely, when writing an Iago-like villain you need to strike a balance between what is known and what is not known. You need to make sure enough is known that the plot and character’s actions make sense, but leave out enough that the audience is desperately wanting to know more. And it can’t be in the “what the hell just happened?” way, but in the “shit, the play’s over and Iago never told us why he did it… I have to go see this play again and see if I can glean more information!” way.

 

Anyway, happy villaining!