When villains aren’t evil

by Autumn Birt

Here on the Guild of Dreams, we’ve written about common fantasy tropes quite a few times. But I think one trope we haven’t covered yet is villains. Specifically, that villains are always evil, especially in the fantasy.

It is simply a fact of life. There are the heroes who must struggle against evil. Why?

Sure, I could get philosophical that we as a species are constantly searching for a way to simplify the problems faced every day. And nothing is simpler, or more validating, than good versus evil. So of course, stories are crafted to follow this formula. And it is a formula. One of the oldest.evil character

But there is so much more…

What makes a villain evil? That she/he will stop at nothing to achieve a goal? What if that goal is necessary to save the lives of friends or family? That is a lot less evil to me. The same could be argued with the idea of a villain that is willing to send people to their death to reach a goal. But what if the villain believes in the goal so much they are willing to risk and potentially sacrifice her/his life?

Honestly, what is so wrong about a villain that earnestly believes what they are doing is right, that it is necessary to save lives, and is willing to sacrifice everything including their lives to meet their goal? Oh wait, are we infringing on the role and story of the heroes?

Isn’t history written by the victor? Whose point of view do you think the villain has? They are the hero that doesn’t win.

evil_is_a_point_of_view____by_savagewolf93-d4mi7tbThis is the concept I’ve found myself writing in my most recent work in progress, titled Friends of my Enemy. There are no ‘bad guys,’ just a lot of people trying to solve some massive problems, each with a unique view on how that can be done. Who is the villain depends on events, reactions, and ultimately whose POV controls the story arc.

Every choice has consequences and are made with purpose, even regretfully at times. People die if they do nothing. The character might die if she/he choose to save others. It is complicated, entangling, and quite addictive to write. Even though I have favorite characters, there are no evil ones. And no perfect ones. Which brings us to the other side of this ancient trope’s coin.

Why are the heroes always good?

Okay, this one has been touched on a lot more. Flawed heroes are found more frequently, though most fiction is peppered with pretty perfect ones… at least once they find their heroic niche. But I like the idea that someone with very good intentions can make a wrong decision, one where the consequences aren’t so nice.

I used this a bit in my recently completed epic fantasy trilogy the Rise of the Fifth Order. The first person to die in book 1 is at the hands of one of the heroes. Sure, maybe heroes are supposed to slay the foe. But in the story they don’t check to see if there are other options. In the heat of a battle, they go for death. I was a little shocked!

640x828_20572_Glory_Glory_2d_fantasy_knight_girl_woman_hero_picture_image_digital_artOther heroes make bad choices too. The Water Priestess Nirine traps her foe in a sunken Temple, leaving him to his fate. And he was a Fire Priest, of course. Trapped underground in a flooded temple with little air… no wonder he is a little grouchy for the next two books… It was a cruel decision though Nirine didn’t realize the consequences when she made it. Just like the choice of another character later who restrains an enemy with vines, ones that he doesn’t’ realize will grow roots into the prisoner’s skin, the heroes make mistakes resulting in unintended pain. Maybe that is why they are still the heroes. They don’t mean harm.

Do you like your heroes perfect and villains beyond redemption? Or are your favorite books a little more in between?

– Autumn has finally recovered from the release of the final book in her epic fantasy trilogy and is on a writing binge involving two WIP, a bit of editing, and some reading thrown in just to mix things up. Her husband misses her. Find out more about Autumn and her writing at her website www.AutumnWriting.com or find her online on Twitter at @weifarer or on her Facebook page.

9 comments on “When villains aren’t evil

  1. I love delving into the villain’s side of the story, from the Mists of Avalon to Disney’s Maleficent (which I thought was brilliant). As you know, I have my own set of very flawed heroes and an antagonist who, you find out in Book 2 of The Woern Chronicles, really has the world’s best interests at heart. As the tagline for season 2 of House of Cards says, “Sometimes you have to be bad to do good.”

    • That is a great line, A.M.! I do think there is a trend toward a more nuanced villain in modern times. At least a backstory is given explaining the ‘descent’ into evil (the Incredibles even had this!) or the villain has a motivation that isn’t so very horrible. Writing in the POV of my ‘villain’ in my epic fantasy trilogy was one of my favorites. He is immensely clever, but blind to his own motivations and able to put a lid on emotions… for a bit!

      I’ve got to read your second book… You’re telling me he has a good heart?!?

      • *He* is a sociopath and narcissist, but he is very concerned with his public legacy, so a lot of what he does is actually for the “greater good.”

        I have to read your books too! Summer vacation is coming…

  2. Pingback: The font of knowledge: a rarely examined trope | Guild Of Dreams

  3. Funny, I have almost an identical line in the novel I just released. “Villains are the heroes of their own story.” It is very true, and I love villains who are not just evil for evils sake, but rather have their own goals and their own struggles.

    • Very true! I love a villain with motivation as much as I love a hero that isn’t so perfect you get a tooth ache (or are bored because they are SO GOOD!).

  4. This is a great blog. I had a great editor who used to say “you don’t have to love your villains, but you do have to empathize with them.” I think every villain needs a motivation – like you say above. If they are just plain evil, they could be too one-dimensional – we need to know what makes them tick and WHY they are doing what they do – good post.

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