LastÂ night, I was watching The Musketeers, the new BBC series featuring Peter Capaldi rocking the Van Dyke and redefining diabolical as Cardinal Richelieu. Heâ€™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 bossÂ and creating a foil against ourÂ 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 RichelieuÂ as he makes villainy look really, really good.
That and the wardrobe. And did I mention DAT STACHE?
Watching CapaldiÂ 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 villainsâ€”or antagonists, if you want to use the fancier term for â€œbad guysâ€â€” are as high a priorityÂ to develop as your heroes. They need to resonate with you, lest they reduce themselves toÂ 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 beingÂ quite a tasty and addictive elixir. It takes a lot for someone to say, â€œNo, society and those who set the rules and laws that govern our culture and our country are wrong. This will not stand.â€Â When this happens, villains step up and begin developing their plans to right what they perceive as wrong. Does this mean that your villainâ€™s hubris will assure their downfall? Not always. You can have a character possessingÂ a metric crap-ton of hubris, and they fail to get beyond â€œPhase Oneâ€ of their grand plan. Theyâ€™ll still be convinced their way is the only way, but that doesnâ€™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?Â 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 vanityÂ personifies itself through fine-tailored suits, refined manners, and an opulent lifestyle, it’s hard to resist. When you look at the Phoenix Societyâ€™s Deveraux Havelock and William Devane, you see a way of life thatâ€”on the outsideâ€”is most appealing: weekends in the country, brandy and cigars after a dinner with societyâ€™s elite, and the best seats at the opera. Whatâ€™s not to like?
Well, a lot when we peel back thatÂ 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 Dawnâ€™s Early Light, it was considered reasonable as â€œThomas Edison was a bit of a prick.â€ Maybe with some of the shenanigans that heÂ got up to, that made EdisonÂ a viable candidate for villainy, but I wouldnâ€™t say that was it entirely. Pip and I needed to know â€œWhy would Edison go rogue?â€ 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 adventureâ€¦
And no, â€œbecause it would beÂ coolâ€Â wasn’t a good enough reason.
Without question,Â Edison revolutionized the world with his inventions. Additional research also reveals,Â while science and progress remains synonymous with the inventor, Edison also excelledÂ in businessÂ and marketing. Perhaps the greatest divide between him and the steampunk favorite, Nikola Tesla. When it came to the currents, Tesla was Edisonâ€™s superior; but Tesla remains in Edisonâ€™s shadow as Edison was able to turn a profit better. We simply amplified this spirit of business, just enough to cloud Edisonâ€™s moral compass.
Now that was cool.
Creating appealing protagonists, even when theyÂ are the main characters in your work, doesnâ€™t mean you have to supplyÂ 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 ascentâ€”or descent, depending on your perspectiveâ€” isnâ€™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. Youâ€™ve just witnessed an all-out firefight, the bodies of both sides littering the corridor of aÂ 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 installmentÂ offering a defining moment for the character, including redemption at the conclusion ofÂ Return of the Jedi.
That mystery surrounding Vaderâ€”an unexpected journey to redemptionâ€”is forever tainted by the whiny Annakin Skywalker we met in those god-awful Star Wars prequels.
Now, whenever I look at Vader, I thinkÂ â€œEh, itâ€™s Annie in the suit. No big.â€ Knowing Annie as we do, itâ€™s a bit of a surprise after boarding the blockade runner, Vader didnâ€™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 youâ€™re getting there is a work-in-progress.