Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How Bad should the Bad Guys be?

I love reviews where readers have picked up on the details, themes or images I'm trying to get across. I'm even interested in the bad reviews, to see what didn't work or simply wasn't to the reader's taste. But I'm even more fascinated by things readers comment on that hadn't even crossed my mind. For instance...

A recent review for Gethyon mentioned how all my bad 'guys' in the story had no redeeming features (in all but one case I agree, although I know something about one of the villains that readers have yet to learn. Shhh!). They were, to quote 'just bad, plain and simple.' So that got me thinking. Does an antagonist have to have any redeeming elements? Should they? And exactly how 'bad' should they be?

I'm not someone who believes a villain should or needs to rape, murder and pillage (in fact, too much of that completely turns me off a book no matter how good the rest of it might be. I quit reading the Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks because the volume of rape, not just of women incidentally, and the number of significant characters killed off by the start of the second book just destroyed my enjoyment of the story and writing. I no longer cared if the good guys won because I'd had enough. Generally, if I know a book has a detailed rape scene, even if not done to glorify it (and I don't understand anyone who would write a story that does glorify it) I won't buy/read it. That's a personal turn off.

Murder/theft/war/violence are different things. People kill, steal, or go to war for lots of reasons, and readers may or may not forgive a character for it. One of my early crit partners for Gethyon told me I needed to make his character more sympathetic because she was having a hard time empathizing with him despite the circumstances. Fair enough on the protag. You want your reader to have some reason to cheer him/her/them on. But what about the villain? They may feel totally justified in killing. A recent example that springs to mind is Serene Galahad in Neal Asher's Owner trilogy. She felt completely vindicated in killing off Zero Asset citizens - those who had nothing to offer humanity, who were putting a greater strain on the potential survival of the human race at all, and who would die anyway - for the benefit of society as a whole. Harsh, but you could see the logic of it, in terms of a global viewpoint. Of course, ultimately she veers away from her good intentions as revenge, personal necessity and a gradual descent into megalomania take over. But faced with the realities she was, perhaps even the 'good' guys would make the same initial choice. Societies go to war for what they often see as necessary - ideals such as freedom, crushing oppressors, religious fervour, destroying a global threat, etc Both sides may have their justification, and it's always the winning side who declare the bad guys as those who lost.

It made me look at my villains again, and their motivations. The Siah-dhu, for instance, isn't human. It's a dark entity composed of many minds, a thing from your nightmares...well, my nightmares. Faceless, voiceless, it's the shadow you see out of the corner of your eye. It has no conscience, and easily destroys a whole planet without remorse to achieve its aim. It wants Gethyon and Quin for their abilities to travel through space, and the reader never really gets to know why. By Keir, its powers have been severely limited, but its acts are no less evil. It's certainly not intended to be a redeemable, or in any way likeable, character.

Commander Rialto, who made Keir's life hell, also doesn't give us any reason to forgive him. Neither do Neoris or Dephon in Gethyon. Jinx - well, she's a killer, sassy, dangerous, and her motives for hunting Gethyon certainly don't earn any sympathy. The Emmisary in Keir doesn't get any gold stars for redemption either, although we learn something of his motivation. The thing is, I like my bad guys to be BAD, and sometimes even my good guys). Because everybody makes mistakes. It's their choices, and how those mistakes change them that shapes their definition of good and bad.

But readers will forgive some things over others. For instance, I'm not a fan of forced seduction/kidnap scenarios where the heroine falls for her captor, or the 'Mars needs Women' tropes. I watched a discussion on Twitter where a reader verbally shredded a book which had a kidnap with the hero determined the heroine should be his (although there was no forced seduction/rape) but he was being a total jerk, and yet the heroine fell for him. The reader was unimpressed to say the least (I never did find out what the book was though). But as Marcella Burnard proved to me with Nobody's Present in Tales from the SFR Brigade, I'll even enjoy a 'Mars needs Women' story if I like the characters. There it's down to not only the reader, but how exactly the author portrays the characters and writes the story. If they succeed in casting them in a sympathetic light, or give reasons why they've been driven to such desperate measures, you can at least understand, if not completely empathize. It's all a question of perspective.

So how bad DO you want your villain? Would you rather the protag was a redeemable bad guy/gal you can forgive? Or should that be the antagonist's role? Or would you rather the bad guys were just plain BAD?

Pippa's Journal

So, I have good news and bad news. Firstly the bad. My cyberpunk short story Reboot did not make the Sword and Laser anthology. Boo! However, since they took just 20 entries out of nearly a thousand, I don't feel quite so bad. Reboot will find a home, and if not, the benefit of self publishing is I can always release it myself. Another candidate for doing my own print anthology at some point.
The good news? Keir became a RomCon winner last week. Woo hoo! He now has a nice collection of shinies. :)

I hate zombie movies. I hate horror. I'm not a fan of teen romances. And yet, despite all that, I found myself watching, then reading Warm Bodies, and absolutely loving it! I can't quite explain why. I think part of it is this isn't your average zombie story for one. It's actually a sweet romance with some comedy and humour, and while the blurb calls it Romeo and Juliet, I'd say more Beauty and the Beast. While both those tropes have been done, for some reason it all just worked in this story for me. It was themes redone, but with a new twist. While I think I prefer the film over the book (but do read the book because despite the overused 'F' word and more grimness, and perhaps a less feasible plot, you get to hear more of the working inside R's mind and how it all came about), I devoured both. The fact that the author got me to overcome my revulsion for three genres AND something written in first person, and got me to sympathize with and cheer for a rotting, flesh-eating monster means he did something totally right. I just need to pin down how he did it...

In the meantime, I'll be posting a review of the film next week. I'll also be away from my computer (dragged away kicking and screaming, argh!) so I look forward to the comments on that on my return.

Ping Pong
Sharon, huge congrats on news of a third publication with TOR!

Donna, I am thankful for the teacher I met who inspired me just as yours did.

Laurie, hope to see you back soon as August winds toward its end...


  1. Villains with no redeeming - or relateable - qualities are one-dimensional characters, and one-dimensional (flat) characters are never a good thing. That doesn't mean they can't be thoroughly bad, of course, only that the reader has to understand why they're bad. And it doesn't have to be an explanation that makes them sympathetic, like childhood trauma. But it has to be explained, and understandable. IMHO.

  2. Personally, I think it comes down to the genre and the depth of the characters. It's very easy for a writer to fall into the trap of having a flat bad guy character. I think it shows a lack of effort on the writer's part.

    Ideally, when there is a villain or especially and antagonist, the writer should spend as much time getting to know THAT character as he or she does with the protagonists.

    The stories I like best are the ones where the antagonist's goals are in opposition to the protagonist's goals, but they're not necessarily pure evil without hope of redemption. Just because they're at cross purposes and hate each other doesn't make one of them any more 'bad' than the other.

    Even Sherlock Holmes had respect for Moriarty and a measure of admiration for him. The Doctor and The Master is another such relationship. Speaking of The Doctor, one of my most favorite episodes involves the Pandorica, when The Doctor learns that he is considered evil, and the most dangerous villain in the universe. The Who-niverse antagonists have never been so sympathetic to me as they were in that episode.

    I suppose that the bottom line is that the antagonist should be as vile as he needs to be to show the protagonist in his best light, and to tell the story in the way that has the most emotional impact.

  3. I agree that your villains can be as bad as they wanna be as long as they have "good" reasons for it. That is, you as a writer have to provide the same kind of motivation for them that you provide for your protagonist(s), and you have to make the readers understand those motivations just as fully. Not an easy task when you're making them do bad things!

    I loved WARM BODIES for much the same reasons you did, Pippa. It was really sweet, in a twisted sort of way, and the young actor who played R had a lot to do with how well it worked.

  4. No one is evil in their own minds (barring the occasional musical villain who has a song about how bad he or she is).

    The best antagonists aren't redeemable because they see no need to be redeemed. They have their goals, and their reasons. These things are right for them.

    They can wipe cities (or even worlds) off the map with no remorse , go home and eat a healthy dinner and sleep untroubled. Because they have done what is right and needed doing.

    It's just that the rest of the world doesn't agree.

    I have a character who runs a multinational corporation. When cyberthieves are caught in his intrusion-countermeasures, he has them brought in, makes them quadruple amputees and puts them in life support chairs. Everyone around him is horrified and thinks he's mad.
    "I'm only a madman if I fail. If I succeed, I will revolutionize net-running and my name will be remembered with Turing, Gates and Gore. It is no cruelty. I merely give them the life they always wanted, without the need to tend the physical body any more."

  5. I like my villains bad, and sometimes irredeemable. Probably comes from my background in Christian fiction where there's no such thing as a truly unredeemable character.

    I have this one character I can't wait to kill. He's a horrible person, lives to make another character miserable, and there's nothing good about him. He's a sex addict, basically, who views his conquests as possessions. He's obsessed with this one character because this one refuses to let himself be possessed. I do need to do a little more work on his motivation, though. I'm not sure how he became who he is.


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