Defining Evil

by Chantal Boudreau

In honour of Halloween, I’m doing another blog spot on the importance of the presentation of evil in a tale and of the nature of villains. Writers face a difficult challenge with the initial conceptualization of the antagonist of their tale: how despicable should they make that villain – on a standalone basis as well as relative to their protagonist, who might be walking a blurry grey line – and how exactly do they plan on defining evil? After all, evil comes in a variety of forms and what might be considered evil by some might not seem so terrible to others. Do you show bias based on your own experiences and cultural background or do you aim for something more universally accepted? It’s an enigma with no clear answer.

I’ve dabbled with different levels of sympathy in my villains, a variety of perspectives and motivations and a wide array of power levels. A weaker villain can still be effective if they are properly insidious and the protagonist is both malleable and corruptible. Iago, for example, doesn’t wield that much power, but he seizes opportunity to exploit Othello’s weaknesses.

An abundantly powerful villain can appear far too overwhelming, and their defeat improbable, unless the protagonist has access to comparable power to counter their efforts. In my “Casualties of War,” the heroes face an avatar with magic and skills far beyond their own. However, the fact that there exists a lack of balance of power as far as Lady Finesse is concerned does not distort the story for a few reasons. The first, and most important, is the fact that she is not the primary evil. She is merely an offshoot of the main plot, someone who toys with the characters for her own sadistic pleasure, the greater evil being the wizards who initiate the trouble the heroes face and those who perpetuate it by refusing to help the victims of that trouble. Those villains are more human and comparable in power to the heroes.

As well, her interference is offset by the influence of divine beings working on the side of good. This returns the conflict to the hands of the mortals who have to fight it out on more down-to-earth terms.

In “Prisoners of Fate,” where the villain has gained access to the combined supernatural powers of their world as well as a demonic one, instead of reducing the villain’s incredible power level, I chose to escalate the protagonists’ power level by means of access to a divine artefact. This way I could leave the villain’s power as originally defined, but still provide balance, enough to allow the possibility that the battle could swing either way.

I think my preference lies with defining my evil as closer to human. A more alien evil is easier to hate, but is harder to relate to. The best struggles are the one that hit closest to home, where while the reader may not agree with what the villain is doing, they can identify with them to some degree and understand where their motivation is coming from – villains like the bullies in my Fervor series and my Snowy Barren Trilogy, or ones like the twins in my yet to be released fourth book in my Masters & Renegades series, “Victims of Circumstance,” as much victims as villains themselves.

I thought I’d close with a little excerpt to show what I mean, a glimpse at what makes that evil more tangible and real:

“We have received word that there is another heir. He or she doesn’t travel alone, and they are likely three days, or thereabouts, ahead of us,” Regina informed her mentor.

“That will alter your course of action, but only slightly. You must seek out this third heir, find a way to earn his or her trust, and then eliminate this other heir to make sure that their claim does not supersede your own. If they are of a noble mother, you will likely lose your bid to be monarch of Seaforest.”

“We understand, mistress.”

“Where is Stefano?” the dark lady inquired, her violet eyes glowing with supernatural light.

“He is indisposed at the moment,” the young woman replied, her cheeks flushing slightly.

“You remember what we discussed,” Finesse whispered. “If he becomes too much of a liability, you are to dispose of him. I don’t trust him to do what’s required of him. If he proves to be unreliable, as I suspect he will, he will not serve his purpose. He’ll just get in your way.”

“I know,” Regina replied in a hushed voice, struggling to hide her extreme distaste at this idea. As much as she despised his boorish behaviour and his hedonistic tendencies, he was her twin brother and she still loved him. If push came to shove, however, she would do whatever would be necessary to ensure that their plan was a successful one.

“Report back to me as soon as you have more information on the other heir, and it is safe to do so,” the avatar instructed.

“I will, Lady Finesse.” Regina allowed the image to fade. She glanced back at her brother who was lying spread eagle on the bed, the pillow across his face.

“You can’t keep doing things like this, Stef,” she said softly. “You’ll jeopardize everything that we have worked for. I can’t protect you if she ever decides that you have gone too far.”

He pulled the pillow off his face and sat up, giving her an angry stare.

“I never asked for your protection. I don’t need your protection. You aren’t much more than a silly little girl. What would make you think that I would need you to protect me?”

Happy Halloween everyone!

Flawed to a Fault

By Chantal Boudreau

Those who know me know I think having heroic characters with flaws in my stories is important for realism. It’s not unreasonable to find a beautiful protagonist who is vain, arrogant or promiscuous, a highly intelligent character who is absent-minded, overbearing or socially awkward, or a physically strong character who is overly aggressive or not so bright. Protagonists might be naive or gullible to begin with, or they could be more mercenary than one might expect.

These are all what I would consider minor flaws and for the most part forgivable because of the characters’ more positive, heroic attributes.  But what about serious flaws – the kind a reader might find more difficult to accept in a hero?  I’m not talking someone who likes to pick their nose or lacks acceptable grooming habits and personal hygiene.  I have a hero like that, Shetland, who appears in Magic University and will be returning in the third book in my Masters & Renegades series, Prisoners of Fate.  Most readers really like him, despite his repulsive habits.  I’m talking extreme flaws that would normally be reserved for villains: addictions with real repercussions, mental illnesses that exceed a mild neurosis, or a propensity for violence beyond what is necessary for self-preservation or the preservation of others.

Now in some cases, you might anticipate these types of flaws in the kinds of heroes who straddle that gray line between good and evil.  If your hero is a reformed villain seeking redemption, they might carry some of their old villainous habits with them, like my somewhat reformed bully characters, Royce, in Elevation and Transcendence, or Crag-Climber in The Blood Runs Deep.  I think it’s important, however, to sometimes have these types of severe flaws extend to the ordinary protagonist and I’ll happily explain why.

When you consider the type of stresses the average fantasy hero has to endure, it is entirely unrealistic to think that the basic “good guy” won’t sometimes fold under pressure or break from the strain. We see this happen with real world heroes all the time. Soldiers with PTSD, emergency workers suffering from mental illness, to the point where some of them commit suicide because they can’t cope with the things they have witnessed, people burdened with heavy responsibilities turning to addiction to escape the pressure. It certainly seems reasonable that characters in fantasy stories might react to their stresses in the same way from time to time.

This is why I have made a point to include protagonists in my stories who do exhibit these more extreme flaws. In the sixth book of my Masters & Renegades series (not yet released) I have a protagonist who turns to alcohol when she feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities, I have a character in the fifth book in that same series (also yet to be released) who has a severe mental break when forced into a situation that challenges her to choose between her core beliefs and love and loyalty – she also happens to suffer from anger management and aggression issues – and my character, Fawn, in my Snowy Barrens trilogy has a combined mental and physical breakdown when exhaustion and grief drive her past her breaking point. All of these characters are only human, and I think it’s important to reflect that in their responses to overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.

Do extreme flaws have a place in proper protagonists? I believe they do and I hoping I’ll see more of this in my future fantasy reading.

How Dark is Dark Fantasy? Or – Feel the Fear

Being one of the few in the collective who is a horror writer as a well as a fantasy writer, I get very excited around Halloween. October means as much to me as December means to a Christmas fanatic. I wanted this post to offer a Halloween theme, but still focus on my fantasy work. Of course, my darker fantasy work often treads a fine line between fantasy and horror, but sometimes that line blurs and occasionally spills over completely. I’ve written two books I consider cross-genre, both dark fantasy and horror, not firmly one or the other. My dystopian series and my YA trilogy also come awfully close to horror at times, or as my real-life muse would say “Stephen-King-ish”.

For today’s post, with Halloween in mind, I first considered an article that presented my villains, or possibly a montage relating to one particularly heinous villain in my fantasy series. I saw two problems with this. My worst villains, for the most part, are in books I have yet to publish, the Lady Finesse being an exception. Damon Ramorran, the subject in my montage does not appear until the fifth book of my fantasy series, and as of this moment the third book is waiting on a release that is likely to be at least a couple of months down the road. I prefer to talk about work I have that’s already out there in the cold, cruel world.

Secondly, the montage is viciously dark, so heavy that I don’t think it would be appropriate for a fantasy-related posting. We’re not talking someone who doesn’t separate his recycling or leaves the toilet seat up (although he probably does those things too.) This man is evil incarnate – a true monster of the human kind…no supernatural involved. He’s the type of monster who does things that might make even make the stomachs of my toughest readers turn (hint…he collects body parts for fun.).

Instead, I’m going to discuss fear in fantasy. Heroes are often faced with huge challenges and great danger, but we rarely see a hero cringing, screaming like a little girl, or running away to hide. The fact is, if you want realistic characters, most will have something they fear, to the point they may not be willing to face it even if they stand up to other risks. It shouldn’t be unheard of for a protagonist to suffer from a phobia. I can think of two instances of main characters I have who are afflicted in such a way. My character, Dee Aaronsod, introduced in Casualties of War, suffers from a fear of heights. Her fear shows itself first in this instance (it makes an appearance several more times in the series):

While the stairs were wide, they were very winding and had no railing to prevent a fall. Most of the group didn’t find this disconcerting, but Dee pressed herself to the rock wall as she climbed, as far away from the edge as she could manage. Her fear showed clearly on her face and her hands trembled as she slid them across the stone surface.

“And here I was thinking you weren’t scared of anything,” Nolan teased. “You didn’t seem scared of heights when we were climbing the cliffs.”

“That was different,” Dee huffed. “We had ropes to support us if we fell, and I had something to hold onto. I grew up on a farm, and the highest I ever climbed was up to the hay loft.” She gazed at the distance to the bottom of the stairway, and gritted her teeth as she was overtaken by a moment of vertigo.

In an uncharacteristic display of compassion, Nolan offered her his hand. “Something to hold onto,” he said.

Warily, Dee took the offered hand. She relaxed immediately. They continued their climb together.

In my unpublished novel, Elements of Genocide, one main character, Andreyelle, is very much at ease when it comes to heights. Her problem is claustrophobia:

Zane returned his attention to his travelling companions. Valeria was examining the rock there, wearing a frown that looked completely out of place on her typically contented face. Volgis had located one of the lanterns and was trying to figure out exactly how it worked. Andreyelle had not moved from the spot where she had stopped upon their arrival at the base of the stairs and was staring into the depths of the tunnel, trembling. Zane reached over to grab one of the furs that Osiric had referred to, the mantle having been removed from one of the bags during Volgis’s search for the lantern.

“Here,” Zane said, tapping the pearly skinned woman on the shoulder. “This should help.” She glanced at the fur in his hand and shook her head.

“I don’t need it. I’m not cold,” she claimed, her eyes returning to focus on the dark hole.

“Then why are you shaking? You don’t need to be stoic. Once we start descending it will only get…”

Andreyelle interrupted him, taking two very unsteady steps backwards and shaking her head more vigorously this time. Her voice was panicky.

“I can’t go down there. I can’t.”

She had never been in any fully enclosed spaces. Everything in her city was bright and airy. The buildings were built with many windows and were well-lit. All of them had easy access to their rooftops, and Andreyelle had spent the better part of her time out on her windsurfer, by choice. She found herself suddenly possessed by severe claustrophobia, a panic that was trying to strangle the air from her chest.

Working a phobia into a character’s persona is another one of those ways to avoid cookie-cutter protagonists. It also gives you plenty of material to work into the story. Something to think about when it comes to dark fantasy – it only makes sense that somebody might be feeling the fear.