Villains are tricky.
Villains are usually the instigator of a story, the action driver, the one whose nefarious deeds are making a lot of the plot happen. Countless stories of all kinds – fantasies, crime procedurals, serial killer stories, science fiction – start with one bad actor attempting to achieve some sinister goal, and then of course the various heroes all do their best to make sure that thing does not happen.
The goals, of course, vary in their wickedness. Some wish to control the world, some compulsively murder people in horrible ways, others just want to make a whole lot of money. Some villains are bland and faceless, hiding among government conspiracies or the corporate echelons. Some villains are bold and theatrical, wearing masks or suits or paint and strutting through carnage like it’s a stage.
They’re all villains, certainly. But a really good, memorable villain can be devilishly hard to pull off. Because you often have to strike a balance between their inscrutability and their empathy.
The unknowable villain, for example, is terrifying because we cannot understand what they are doing or why they are doing it. Take Hannibal Lecter, stuck in his tiny glass box, leering out at the audience. Everything about him is obscured: we don’t see what got him in there, nor really understand it – we know what he did, but why he did it, what it meant to him, we can’t comprehend – and in some ways he’s totally denatured in that little prison, reduced down to institutional garb, shorn of all ornament. We can only see the man himself, his face, his eyes, and these give us little hint of what’s going on inside his head. He’s mysterious because we do not see him interacting with the normal world, and we have no way of getting inside his head.
But then you take Hannibal out of the box… and things very quickly get a little boring. The more we learn about Hannibal’s backstory, the more we see him tooling around in Italy, the less we fear him.
Part of the problem is that familiarity breeds contempt: the more you know a person, the less impressed with them you are. If a figure leans too heavily on mystery and inscrutability, then the second the curtain’s raised, they deflate. But, worse, the more an inscrutable figure interacts with the real world and we see the consequences of their actions, the more we start to wonder – why? What compelling reason is there behind what they’re doing? What is it about this person that makes me keep watching these horrible things? This was part of the reason why I feel a little disappointed each time I watch the Joker in The Dark Knight. For all of his posturing, and despite the bravura performance, he has a lot in common with a Saw villain.
But how to make empathy, the other end of the villain spectrum, really work? How do you make an empathic villain come to life?
This was something I meditated on a bit when someone recently asked me who the villain was in City of Stairs, the first entry in The Divine Cities. And I realized my answer was both very vague and very true.
The villain of The Divine Cities is history itself. It’s the past. And its wicked goal is that it simply doesn’t want to let go of the present.
To be sure, there are people who do evil, bad things in both City of Stairs and City of Blades, the first two books. But the reason they do these bad things often comes down to conditioning or trauma. They were bred and raised and told the things they were doing is really, truly, morally right. Or, they’re responding to some past pain or terror, striking out like a child in a fit, trying to make it stop or to simply flee. Either way, the past is dictating their deeds in the present. Their choices are somewhat decided by the actions of those who came before them.
This is even reflected in the magical aspects of the world: the miraculous and the Divine in my books often appear as literal scars in the fabric of reality, the lingering effects of battles that may be forgotten but are still playing out in the present. The villainous characters are either fruitlessly trying to put back the fragments of a world that isn’t there anymore, or raging against those pieces that still remain, refusing to fade, penning them in.
To make a really empathic villain work, I think they must have an air of tragedy to them, a sense that things could have gone better, things could have been different – yet fate would not allow it. I think these villains stick with us more than inscrutable bogeymen not simply because we understand them, but because we see a hint of ourselves in them: we all fear that our choices are not truly our own, that we are victims of our environment. And if our circumstances were different, and if it were we who happened to hold the sword or the gun in our hand at the fateful moment – how would we choose to act?
City of Blades and City of Stairs are now available from Jo Fletcher Books. Click here for our review of City of Stairs; our review of City of Blades wil be posted shortly.