I’ve just read a blog post about villains and how important they are to a story. If your hero is up against a villain, better make sure that villain’s powerful. And while I agreed with the overall premise, it’s left me thinking; hence this post. Sure, you need conflict to make a story. Or should I say, an interesting story. But the writer of the post in question used Voldemort and Sauron as her two examples of good villains.
Now at this point I should rush in and say that I love the Harry Potter books and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is one of those books on that shelf up there, battered and much loved. The point, however, is that both are fantasy. Sauron, in particular, is an archetype. We never meet him; he is just a flame-ringed eye on the top of a fantastically powerful tower. To be sure he evokes the ultimate evil – for that is what he is; the Devil, if you will. His only purpose is to subjugate and destroy. Voldemort isn’t much different. His only purpose seems to be to destroy Muggles and live forever. Neither has any redeeming features. Not one.
If you want a believable villain in ‘Lord of the Rings’ you could look at Saruman who started off as the wisest of the wise and was inveigled, seduced by the power of Sauron and the lure of the One Ring. As is often mentioned – by Gandalf and Galadriel, for example, the power of the ring is such that people would use it for good; at first, before it consumed their will. I could probably make a convincing case that the REAL villain in LOTR is the Ring.
Those of us who don’t write fantasy, who can’t rely on a faceless, motiveless ‘evil’ need believable villains. Villains don’t seem themselves as villains. They have their own motives and they are often couched in the language of ‘the greater good’. If you want your villain to be believable you have to be able to convey to the reader what his/her motives are. And he/she cannot be wholly evil. Hitler loved his dogs and presumably Eva Braun; Napoleon had Josephine.
In my historical fiction novel ‘To Die a Dry Death’ the villain is a psychopath named Jeronimus Cornelisz. The novel is based on a true story, a shipwreck off the coast of Australia in 1629. Nobody knows what Cornelisz looked like. Pelsaert’s journals, the only source of what happened out there, don’t give descriptions of physical characteristics. Research has revealed something of Cornelisz’s background but the history books need to be read carefully, since more than once an albeit plausible story is built on a few facts and a lot of conjecture. But Pelsaert’s journals provide us with enough information to deduce a great deal about Cornelisz’s character.
I’ve written elsewhere about describing a psychopath. But even psychopaths must have motives and they cannot be totally evil. I guess we’ll never know at what point Lucretia consented to a physical relationship with Jeronimus. It has been said that some of the stories about her ‘holding out’ for quite some time after Jeronimus took over were written subsequently, to salve her reputation. I hardly think it matters. Easy enough to sit in retrospective judgement. Although for him, winning the alpha female was part of status, I’m quite prepared to believe he actually did care for her. And that’s how I’ve written him. Even the worst human monster was once an innocent child.