ECCC Panels: Sympathy for the Devil – Crafting Great Villains

I didn't get a photo of the panelists. There were a number of reasons. I'm sorry.

Villains can make or break a story or RPG. This panel was about crafting a good–or even great–villain for your story or game. First, let’s meet our panelists: Philip Anthans, author of several books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Erin M. Evans, author of The God Catcher and soon Brimstone Angels. And our panel leader was editor and writer Susan J. Morris of Writers Don’t Cry.

Morris begins by asking why villains are important. Anthans says, “I really, really believe it’s the villain that begins the story.” Generally the hero is sitting around and waiting for things to happen. It’s the villain’s actions that spur the hero into action. Evans agrees, because villains are the source of the conflict.

“Villains have to want it,” Morris says. There’s rarely a reluctant villain. They tend to have active personalities. Anthans adds that heroes can start out with weak motivation. For example, a homicide detective is assigned to a case and has to deal with it. The killer isn’t assigned to the murder. And of course, villains are great to use as foils to the heroes.

What about sympathetic villains? Evans says “I like villains that you almost want to succeed and then feel dirty about later.” Like minions with incompetent bosses who are always riding them. You kind of want them to show their boss, until you realize that probably means doing bad things. She adds that villains can have good traits and do decent things. A prime example is Tony Soprano. The TV writers managed to show him being a family man but then would make sure to remind the audience he was a terrible person by showing him randomly hitting people who didn’t deserve it, etc. Evans really likes villains who do things anyone could do, and might do if not for X, Y, or Z. Anthans points out that most of the time, the villain doesn’t think they’re the bad guy. They have some agenda and then their methods go off the rails.

What’s the difference between an anti-hero and a villain? Anthans says simply, “Villains don’t turn away from the dark sides of themselves.”

What are good and bad ways to signal who the villain is? Morris said basic evil acts, obviously, like murder and rape. Evans says it depends a lot on the context. Morris brings up Supernatural: on that show, evil is shown in how people think about their actions afterward or whether they hesitate. Anthans added that well drawn villains will have that moment of hesitation too. They may decided to kill people to get what they want, but they will think about it and have to decide how many people can die or how far they’re willing to go.

How does the villain get defeated without making them look stupid or incompetent? They don’t always need to be defeated, Anthans says. Sometimes they win. Evans says that sometimes it can be closer to a draw: the hero doesn’t win but the villain isn’t defeated. All the same, the conflict needs to be resolved. That doesn’t mean one side has to be destroyed.

And now the big one: Villain Origin Stories.

Anthans mentions you have to be careful not to fall into the cliches these days. The worst origin story is EvilMan was abused as a child. It’s just so overdone. And real villains often weren’t. Anthans mentioned that he was reading Columbine–great book that will really change everything you thought you knew about the Columbine school shooting (in my opinion, anyhow). The book explains that not only were the boys not being bullied, but they often bullied other students. Jeffery Dahmer wasn’t abused as a kid. You get the idea. Sometimes the motivation isn’t clear, which is especially true in real life. Sometimes it’s just little things that built up until something inside them cracked. And it isn’t always someone else’s fault.

Evans talks about the argument that the Superman story arc should end with him turning evil, as he fits the overconfidence and power profile. 1. He accepts his heroism. 2. He becomes a nearly invincible hero. 3. Power corrupts and he slowly turns evil. Morris asks how the hero arc differs from the villain arc. Anthans replied that it’s about trajectories. “If you imagine the villain is on a path from point A to point B [and the] hero has another path which could be entirely mundane.” Then they intersect and that bounces both of them off onto a new path.

Evans argues that the differences are in their flaws. A hero ought to be confronting a flaw in themselves or in the system, where as the villain tends to see the same sort of thing as a strength if they don’t ignore it entirely.

Audience question: What about evil for evil’s sake, the Joker from Batman (or Bad Horse)? Evans says the best way to think about them is as a force of nature, doing what they do. One doesn’t analyze the motivations of, say, a tornado. But then you also can’t really show their perspective because it’s just this chaotic force. And villains like that need a hero who can go up against them. Morris recommends the book The Sociopath Next Door. Sociopaths in the real world play games and they play to win, whatever the stakes they’ve invented. They try to trap innocent people in their mind games. Anthans mentioned that the Joker also represents the inner psychopath in Batman, which goes back to the villain making a great foil. Evans said there’s a whole spectrum of evil from mindless, like Jaws, to calculated, like Game of Thrones. Both can be scary, but for different reasons.

Audience question: The creator knows the back story of the villain, but how do you portray pieces of it in a small space? Morris mentions The Hunger Games, and how Katniss is, frankly, kind of a bitch at the start. But then we see she loves her sister and her sister loves her. Immediately the reader is shown she is capable of loving and being loved, so she can’t be totally evil. She suggests throwing in little things and giving them a situation where they can reveal something about themselves or tell a secret.

Audience question: What about big, campy things like evil laughs? Morris says “Hahahaha” always looks silly on the page, however effective it might be in visual media. Anthans thinks mustache twirling can be fun in pulp stuff. Evans then says, “Tropes are like snuggies. They’re really easy to slip into. They’re really comfortable. But you can never stand up and convince people it’s haute couture.” So use tropes, but don’t try to pretend you’re doing something ground breaking when you do.

Final question: Why are heroes usually the ones enforcing the status quo while the villains are often the ones trying to change things? Anthans says, A villain is someone whose motivations you understand but whose methods you abhor. A hero is someone whose motivations you understand and whose methods you admire. Morris chimes in that it’s often because the people doing the attacking, rather than trying to resolve things peacefully, are often seen as the bad guys. But it comes down to circumstances and the situation. After all, America is a nation founded in rebellion. Evans adds that she still wants the villains to be bad. That doesn’t mean they can’t have good reasons for doing evil things, but they still do evil things.

And with that, the panel was out of time. So what do you think makes a good villain? Who are some of your favorite villains and why? Which villains have you found yourself rooting for?


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2 thoughts on “ECCC Panels: Sympathy for the Devil – Crafting Great Villains

  1. Rachael April 8, 2012 at 10:13 am Reply

    I was on board with much of this advice until I came to the part where one of the panelists uses *Katniss* to explain how to slowly reveal a villain’s back story. I mean…come on.

    As far as your question – Joker is the ultimate villain, for me anyway – and I don’t ever want him to have a reason other than the id. I like Harley Quinn, on the other hand, for her very tender humanity and how she has walked the fine line of villain and anti-hero at times. She is a character that once you look beyond the clown paint and giggles, is easy to relate to.

    I guess The Phantom/Erik is technically a villain – and I’m always rooting for him. He’s a sympathetic villain though – and I think his story is one that many side with.

    • Tori April 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm Reply

      I think she just used Katniss as an example of the author showing some backstory quickly and efficiently. There were a lot of examples but I only write so fast. I need to bring my laptop to these things, since I type so much faster, I swear.

      Harley Quinn is awesome. I need to read more of the comics she’s in. I’ve seen her on the animated series, but I don’t think I’ve seen her in comments.

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