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Great Villains

Writing villains is the best. You can bring out that little evil voice and make him or her do whatever you want, and it’ll be okay, because it’s all in the realm of fiction.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the nastier villains in literature and popular culture, and compare them with the Dungeons and Dragons alignment grid, third edition. For those not familiar with D&D, there are nine alignments that determine how your character’s attitudes towards the world and other characters.
They are as follows:


 

Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Lawful Neutral True Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil


 

This system defines Lawful as someone who is honourable, obedient to authority, and reliable. Chaotic, on the opposite end, implies flexibility, freedom, and adaptability. Neutral is someone who feels no overwhelming need to obey authority or rebel against it.

We’ll be focusing on the last three alignments in this article. While this isn’t an exhaustive system (is there really one?), I think it’s a good tool to determine exactly what sort of “evil” your character is, without getting into too much philosophy.

 

Lawful Evil

 

A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard to whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules, but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but he is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises. This reluctance is partly because of his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped).

the D&D Wikipedia

 
Professor Moriarty

He was described by Sherlock Holmes as the “Napoleon of Crime” and implied that he is the only one with intellect equal to or greater than Holmes’. He ran a crime ring that included most of England’s criminals; in exchange for their protection, the criminals gave their loyalty and part of their profits. Although he was only in a few of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, modern portrayals of Moriarty give him a much more prominent status.

 
Professor Umbridge (Harry Potter)

She makes her appearance in the fifth Harry Potter book as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Although she’s fiercely devoted to upholding the standards set by the Ministry of Magic, she often goes overboard with following these regulations and issues her own form of torturous punishment for those who don’t follow them, such as carving sentences into students’ hands.

 

Neutral Evil

 

A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusion that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.

the D&D Wikipedia

 
Grima Wormtongue (Lord of the Rings)

Advisor to King Theoden of Rohan but falls in league with Saruman. It is hinted that he poisons the king to further confuse him. Saruman is an abusive master, however, and Wormtongue seems to have little loyalty to him. His general behavior is that of craven self-preservation. At the end of Return of the King, after the hobbits rebel against Saruman’s tyranny, Frodo has sympathy for Wormtongue and offers him a home. Saruman tells Frodo that Wormtongue was a murderer, and in a violent rage Wormtongue slits his master’s throat.

 
Macbeth

Macbeth is quickly shown to be a wholly self-interested character. While he does wrestle with the idea of murdering more than some neutral evil characters might, his lust for power ultimately wins the argument. More importantly, once he is in the seat of power, he has to continually resort to deceit and murder as a matter of self-preservation. The anxiety that he might be found out or killed by someone seeking revenge or justice leads him to kill his close friend Banquo, attempt to kill his Banquo’s son Fleance, and after a particularily grim consultation with the three witches, he has Macduff’s entire castle slain, including Macduff’s wife and children.

 

Chaotic Evil

 

A chaotic evil character does whatever his greed, hatred, and lust for destruction drive him to do. He is hot-tempered, vicious, arbitrarily violent, and unpredictable. If simply out for whatever he can get, he is ruthless and brutal. If he is committed to the spread of evil and chaos, he is even worse. Thankfully, his plans are haphazard, and any groups he joins or forms are poorly organized. Typically, chaotic evil people can only be made to work together by force, and their leader lasts only as long as he can thwart attempts to topple or assassinate him.

the D&D Wikipedia

 
The Joker

I think one of the more terrifying things about the Joker is that he doesn’t just do what he does for profit, for greed, or for lust. Remember the scene in the Dark Knight when he burns his pile of money? He does what he does because he loves chaos. He is practically uncontrollable because he is chaos personified, and is committed to spreading it to as many places as possible. Though this varies depending on the iteration of the Batman universe that you look that, there is generally very little known about the Joker’s past, which makes him more mysterious and frightening because his behaviour is that much more inexplicable.

 
Roger (Lord of the Flies)

While Jack Merridew seeks to lead the boys in an animalistic society, Roger cares not for order or any semblance of leadership. Rather, as the situation on the island spirals out of control, he becomes more and more sadistic, eventually abandoning any pretense of morality. He throws a stone at Piggy and kills him, thus solidifying his role as the torturer in Jack’s tribe.

You may want to try classifying your villains to see what their alignments are.

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Creating Believable Characters, Part 2

If you missed the first part of this article, see here.

It’s one thing to create realistic characters, but it’s another to make your readers care about them. If a reader isn’t emotionally invested, they might put down the book and not finish the story. Here are some of the reasons we come to care about the characters in fiction, whether they are in a book or on a screen.

 
 

The character is familiar to the reader.

 
While opposites attract, birds of the same feather fly together. We get along with people best who are most like ourselves.

Who is the target reader for this book? Sometimes the protagonist will mirror the target reader. Not always in gender, but occasionally in age. Young adult novels appeal to teenagers because the stories are about characters who are their age who are in extraordinary circumstances. Teens may see themselves in the character, and identify with them and their situation.

Take Harry Potter for example. Why is it so popular? While there are a variety of answers to this question, one could be that Harry Potter is relatable to children around the world. He’s bullied, he does all right at school, he wears glasses, he’s determined, stubborn–and he’s not perfect.

Same with Twilight’s Bella. Why is this strange paranormal romance (a mediocre book in itself) selling millions of copies? Bella could be described as a blank slate; she has very little personality, (aside from the fact that Edward is so dominating) so it’s easy to imagine yourself as her.

Having a character that is familiar to the reader can serve as an anchor, especially in science fiction and fantasy stories. It’s like taking the reader gently by the hand and guiding them through a world that is different from their own. Sometimes the anchor will comment on unfamiliar events transpiring in the book and ask for an explanation; it can serve as a pause in the narrative so that the writer can use the surrounding characters to briefly explain something going on. This “fish out of water” scenario is a common device in many popular movies as well, such as Percy Jackson, (also a book series), The Last Starfighter, The Matrix, and Avatar.

 

The character is a person they would like to be.

 

This flies in the face of the previous statement. Sometimes, rather than reading about people that are like ourselves, we want an escape. Romance novels often have tough and fearless heroines so that the reader can imagine herself as the lady that ends up lucky in love, or in a relationship that seems too perfect for real life.

One series of books that comes to mind as good example of larger than life heroes is the Sword of Truth series. It’s a fantasy series by Terry Goodkind that was (unfortunately) adapted to a TV series a few years back. It’s about a woodsman named Richard whose life is changed one day when he finds a beautiful woman named Kahlan in his woods, and she seeks his help to destroy the evil Lord Rahl who rules her land. Even though Richard starts as a guy with a simple life, it’s hard to pick out any character flaws. He’s handsome and ripped, has a kind heart, is intelligent, and respected by his village. Kahlan is fierce, wields a powerful magic, has beautiful long hair, is respected (and feared) as a leader and refuses to give up and refuses to stop loving Richard, even in the worst imaginable situations.

It’s hard to imagine these people in real life as they are, but it’s easy to wish that you were them.

What you have to be careful of with these kinds of characters is how they grow. You can only place them in so many situations before they become stale and repetitive. Remember, if you make someone perfect, they become boring. This is my personal opinion, but I stopped reading the Sword of Truth series after eight or nine books because there wasn’t a whole lot to do with Richard and Kahlan after all of those adventures. (Of course, then there’s the final three books, which have an interesting premise, but I’m unsure of the execution).

 

The character does things that the reader can sympathize with.

 

Your character could be a raging psychopath but can still do things that make him sympathetic. He might be working towards a goal that is the lesser of two evils, like the serial killer Dexter, who hunts serial killers.

The reader must understand why a character is doing what he does. If there is no understanding, there is no connection, and the reader will give up on the story. A character might make a decision that isn’t explained in order to create mystery–as long as it’s wrapped up in some fashion at some point, that’s fine. But if your characters are running around doing things “just because”, the narrative will become confusing.

Think about your own life. What drives you to do the things you love most? Try to narrow it down to one or two words. Now choose one or two words for each character you’re trying to develop. How are they expressing these traits in every action they do? Do this with other characters you see in the shows you watch and the books you read.

Who are your favourite characters and what traits make them memorable?
 

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