Last night, I was watching The Musketeers, the new BBC series featuring Peter Capaldi rocking the Van Dyke and redefining diabolical as Cardinal Richelieu. He’s pretty badass in The Musketeers, but not chewing the scenery or twirling his mustache (which I would imagine is hard to resist because dat stache!) kind of way. Capaldi is working the dialogue like a boss and creating a foil against our heroes that makes you sit up and take notice. There’s a mind and a motivation you connect with on a visceral level, and sometimes it’s difficult to take a side against Richelieu as he makes villainy look really, really good.
That and the wardrobe. And did I mention DAT STACHE?
Watching Capaldi in this role has me of late considering villains, what makes them compelling versus comical characters, and why they are so important in writing.
Your villains—or antagonists, if you want to use the fancier term for “bad guys”— are as high a priority to develop as your heroes. They need to resonate with you, lest they reduce themselves to nothing more than set dressing hell bent on destroying said set along with any major players that happen to be in the vicinity.
Hubris is always a great place to start in the development of a villain, self-confidence being quite a tasty and addictive elixir. It takes a lot for someone to say, “No, society and those who set the rules and laws that govern our culture and our country are wrong. This will not stand.” When this happens, villains step up and begin developing their plans to right what they perceive as wrong. Does this mean that your villain’s hubris will assure their downfall? Not always. You can have a character possessing a metric crap-ton of hubris, and they fail to get beyond “Phase One” of their grand plan. They’ll still be convinced their way is the only way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they make great antagonists.
Compelling villains should possess charisma alongside their hubris. You really have to like a villain, otherwise how do they amass followers, minions, henchmen, or the like? These rat-bastards-of-darkness either have charmed their way into power, or embody what people want to be whether they admit it or not. The combination of hubris and charisma can sometimes be mistaken for vanity; but when that vanity personifies itself through fine-tailored suits, refined manners, and an opulent lifestyle, it’s hard to resist. When you look at the Phoenix Society’s Deveraux Havelock and William Devane, you see a way of life that—on the outside—is most appealing: weekends in the country, brandy and cigars after a dinner with society’s elite, and the best seats at the opera. What’s not to like?
Well, a lot when we peel back that veneer…
Now we get to motivation. What drives your villain? Ambition? Opportunity? A sense of predestination? At their core, villains believe without doubt of conviction that they are in the right and totally justified in what they do. Laws, morals, and decency? Quaint notions for mere mortals, but not for them. When we made Thomas Edison our villain in Dawn’s Early Light, it was considered reasonable as “Thomas Edison was a bit of a prick.” Maybe with some of the shenanigans that he got up to, that made Edison a viable candidate for villainy, but I wouldn’t say that was it entirely. Pip and I needed to know “Why would Edison go rogue?” We looked at the history of the American innovator and tried to find a realistic reason behind actions we were setting up in our steampunk adventure…
And no, “because it would be cool” wasn’t a good enough reason.
Without question, Edison revolutionized the world with his inventions. Additional research also reveals, while science and progress remains synonymous with the inventor, Edison also excelled in business and marketing. Perhaps the greatest divide between him and the steampunk favorite, Nikola Tesla. When it came to the currents, Tesla was Edison’s superior; but Tesla remains in Edison’s shadow as Edison was able to turn a profit better. We simply amplified this spirit of business, just enough to cloud Edison’s moral compass.
Now that was cool.
Creating appealing protagonists, even when they are the main characters in your work, doesn’t mean you have to supply all the answers to your readership. Sure, the bad boys can take the lead and even walk away from the hero to fight another day. Why not? Revealing all the details behind their ascent—or descent, depending on your perspective— isn’t always, however, a good thing. A touch of mystery goes a long, long way.
How so? Think about when you saw Darth Vader for the first time. You’ve just witnessed an all-out firefight, the bodies of both sides littering the corridor of a spaceship, and then through the smoke and haze emerges the man in black himself, his respirator the only sound you hear.
>Pretty terrifying, huh? It was one of those unquestionable watershed moments of cinematic history; and across three films, we got to know more about Vader, each installment offering a defining moment for the character, including redemption at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi.
That mystery surrounding Vader—an unexpected journey to redemption—is forever tainted by the whiny Annakin Skywalker we met in those god-awful Star Wars prequels.
Now, whenever I look at Vader, I think “Eh, it’s Annie in the suit. No big.” Knowing Annie as we do, it’s a bit of a surprise after boarding the blockade runner, Vader didn’t whip out a smartphone and selfie that shit.
With villains, make sure they get the attention they deserve. Give them a sense of joy at what they do, and keep in mind that while you want to give your readers a journey there no need to share with them all the details. Sometimes, the best road trips are the ones where you know where your headed but how you’re getting there is a work-in-progress.