1) Exaggerate a trait that could be good. One reason I find Dark Lords boring is because so many of them seem utterly inhuman. They’re inhumanly cruel. They torture people in ways that it’s hard to conceive of many people dreaming about or implementing on that scale. They know that what they’re doing is wrong, a great deal of the time, and yet they do it anyway. And that’s just not much of a human motivation. The people who inflicted torture and cruelty throughout history often did it for an ideal, not something they thought of as perverted and evil. Religion, improving society, bettering the position of a group that until then hadn’t had anything, purifying their races—all those sound like good ideas, and that was why people followed them.
Much more interesting, I think, and one way to get human villains, is to take a trait that’s double-edged, both “good” and “evil,” and show the villain as someone who’s taken the “evil” side of that trait to its logical extreme. Heroes often get the virtues that could be faults, but their authors always write them as gifts instead (something else that annoys me. How many times have you seen a quick-witted hero actually jump to false conclusions, for example?) If you have a quick-witted villain, show them as moving so quickly to reach a conclusion that they miss some logical steps in between. If you have a quick-tempered one, show them as letting their anger dominate and cause their cruelty. They might be very sorry afterwards. Abusers often are.
What often marks a fantasy villain, both Dark Lords and the more human kind, is their exaggerated power to cause harm; no one would really care if they were only causing harm to themselves, or even to a small village. So show them as exaggerated in all aspects, if you want. But that exaggeration has to be based on something identifiable as occurring in other people, too, or the villain becomes a shadow-puppet, a caricature—a Dark Lord. Cruelty that no one can see themselves committing under any circumstances is only disgusting, not scary. The scariest thing about a villain is the, “There but for the grace of gods” aspect. The reader should remember that the hero could have become this kind of person, and, if the author’s really good, she’ll see herself in the villain, too.
2) Add little aspects that make the villain more admirable. I don’t mean necessarily show that he had a bad childhood or anything of the kind. Too often, that comes off as an “excuse” for the way that he is now. But do acknowledge that he’s not 100% evil and horrible and cruel. That keeps the reader off-balance, and not so ready to say, “Oh, what a jerk!”
I’ll use a personal example here. The series I’m writing now has a powerful villainess, Hellenta Ravenflower, who is, nonetheless, 100% human. She managed to achieve power for herself in a very male-dominated society by bearing 14 children and using them ruthlessly to gain control of lands, other noble families, and eventually politics. There’s really no excuse for any of what she did. She used and manipulated other human beings, and it showed.
Along the way, she was also cast out of her home for having bastard children, forced to bear eight children within nine years, raped (and impregnated with more bastard children at the same time), and kept from achieving anything until she finally, finally secured herself a position as a regent for her small son and had the money and power to strike back at her enemies. Her overriding motive is security for her family. Everything she does is done to insure that. And three of the children she raised love and adore her.
Is she evil? Oh, yes. I think selling one of her bastard daughters into a service where she would be raped and made to simulate sex in public from the time she was six years old counts as evil. Is she hateful? Oh, yes, if the reactions of the people reading her are anything to go by. But is she inhuman? I don’t think so. She has courage, she cares deeply for the future of her family and her children—she just doesn’t agree with most of them on what the best course for that future is—and she is a survivor, whose hard experiences only made her the more determined to fight. And she is clever enough to frighten her enemies even as she pisses them off.
I think this is the best way to create a villain who isn’t really a villain at all, only a protagonist seen from a different angle. If the motives are understandable and the villain possesses some qualities we would be ready to admire in isolation, it’s a very good start.
Note that I didn’t say it was easy. I don’t think it is. But I think it is very, very good.
3) Make the villain an interesting person to talk to and about. Want to know a bad, shameful secret? One reason I put down fantasy books so often is because their villains are fucking boring.
Strong characters are a must for me to enjoy a fantasy. I think what most authors forget is that that means strong characters for everybody, not just the hero who’s intended to suck up all the attention. Secondary heroes are shadows compared to them, let alone the nasty, dark, cackling shadow of a villain.
Villains can avoid the most obvious and stupid Dark Lord mistakes—for example, killing most of their servants in botched attempts to capture the hero, or blabbing everything to the hero just before he blasts them—and still not be interesting or strong characters. They will still use clichéd dialogue, such as, “You wouldn’t dare!” or “You cannot stop me!” or “I like a woman with spirit.” They’ll still want to rule the world with no justification for it being given. They’ll still do torture scenes with utter gratuitousness, where it seems as though psychological tricks would work better on the hero. They’ll still hate the protagonists for extremely ill-explained reasons, like jealousy of the heroine’s beauty or wanting to “possess” the hero, whatever that means.
Try to clear the preconceptions from your mind before writing a scene with the villain in it. Think like he does. Try to imagine that you share the same goals and desires. Now, how would you achieve them? Authors don’t hesitate to give the heroes bits of themselves, grow close to them, love them. The same process has to happen with the villains, or they’re automatic Dark Lords.
4) They don’t have to have a stronghold. People keep trying to steal Mordor, and their name’s not spelt T-O-L-K-I-E-N. So this doesn’t work.
Really, why does the villain have to live in one place at all? That only gives the “good guys” a target, and leads authors into raptures of ugliness that start echoing each other, and eventually result in Mordor-theft. Sensible villains whose ego is not their greatest fault (please, can’t we have more of them?) and whose main purpose is wreaking havoc against the good guys would not be sitting ducks. They would make sitting ducks of the forces of good.
What about a bandit villain? A guerilla villain? They’re light, quick, and fast-moving, and they often have forests, mountains, or jungles to hide in. They can strike fast, providing they know the country, and leap away again before the good guys, sitting in their own castles or strongholds, can muster the forces to face them. And even if the forces do come to the forests, mountains, or jungles—well, good luck in finding them.
I think one reason authors don’t do this more often is because the rebels are automatically assumed to be the heroes. Don’t have to be. Just because someone is in power doesn’t make him evil. Here and here are some suggestions for adding some reality to rebels. Wield them on the “wrong” side, and you could end up with a truly formidable villain—or antagonist, which might be the better word, since I think in that case fantasy author preconceptions about rebels would, at least in part, neutralize fantasy author preconceptions about the people opposing their precious heroes. You might end up with something far more human than Dark Lord.
5) Show a villain whose problems aren’t stereotypical. When fantasy villains are blinded by their own faults, those faults are either arrogance or insanity. Both are desperately overplayed.
I always wonder how arrogant villains ascended into power. Arrogance usually leads to overestimating one’s own abilities and underestimating the abilities of others. I would expect them to have underestimated a fairly minor antagonist fairly early on and gotten themselves blasted. Or perhaps, if they were summoning demons to aid them, they would have summoned a more powerful demon than they could control and gotten eaten. Or they would have commanded their “loyal” soldiers to follow them into a life-and-death situation and had the soldiers refuse. The odds aren’t good that someone as arrogant as most fantasy Dark Lords would have survived long enough to become a Dark Lord.
As for insanity… once again, how did they get into power? Why do people follow this madman? It’s one thing if the villain is cool enough and charismatic enough to keep his insanity hidden fairly well, but that would require fantasy authors to be subtle, and fantasy authors don’t go for that. Everything must be dramatic. So their villains gibber and gloat and, yes, make stupid mistakes. Why are they rulers at all? Why do their followers not betray them en masse? Why don’t the trusted lieutenants simply ignore their orders, make up better ones instead, and then lie when the Dark Lord finds out? Hey, if they’re as crazy as the authors usually portray them, they could be fooled by fairly simple lies.
Villains with different problems can still often achieve a modicum of power. A quick-tempered man might lose his temper at his wife, but keep it around his troops because they never do anything to piss him off. A man who’s always accusing people of things they didn’t do might not be trusted in the front lines of an army, but he might be perfect for a suspicious king to put in charge of a treasury. Or perhaps the villain has his power and then starts having problems with arrogance or insanity—cracking under the strain, as it were. It’s hard work ruling an empire, y’know? Authors show emperors and kings with problems all the time. Your villain might be the exact same sort of man in exactly the same sort of situation.
6) Shake off the “diametrically opposed” conception. Do you want to write a fantasy novel where the characters are living in another world, interacting with magic, have different histories and societies, and yet don’t serve Good and Evil, Darkness and Light? The first thing that has to go is the concept of Good and Evil itself.
By this, I don’t mean getting rid of all moral distinctions. I mean getting rid of capitalized moral distinctions. Fantasy authors as a group use waaaay too many capital letters. Try not referring to your villains by a capitalized name like the Dark, the Shadow, or the Dark Lord first. See what happens.
Then, show why those villains, under the circumstances, have performed questionable actions and made wrong decisions. It doesn’t mean that those actions and decisions would always be wrong. It means that, in these circumstances, it was the wrong thing to do.
This cuts out a whole other bunch of behavior. Most people would not agree that raping and disemboweling children is right under any circumstances. Nor would they think that raping hundreds of women is right, or commanding your army to destroy villages full of old people, or torturing people by putting hot wires into their eyes. That means that, if your villains and heroes are going to be the same people serving different ideals, they can’t pull this shit that authors use all too often to differentiate the heroes and their allies from those bad, bad people over on the other side. “They must be bad! Look what they’re doing!” runs the mantra of the Dark Lord creator.
Toss that out the window, and you’re playing with new techniques. You’re on tricky ground, in fact, because a “hero” might go too far and become, for one scene, a “villain.” Someone might do something that has bad consequences, but arises from the most noble of motives, and in which they couldn’t foresee the bad consequences. Are they a villain or a hero in that case? Someone might turn a fugitive over to the guards, under the impression that he’s a wanted murderer, and then find out he didn’t do the crime he was accused of, so they go to set this man free—only to have him, once he’s free, become the catalyst for a rebellion in which hundreds of people die. Is that original person a villain or a hero?
Fantasy authors avoid this for a good reason. It fucks up the “clear moral base” that supposedly all fantasy depends on. Topple the pedestals—the ones built either way, to exalt the villains in darkness or the heroes in light—and everyone has to walk on the same level ground. That level ground has quicksand of moral ambiguity and briar bushes of nasty consequences. And quicksand and briar bushes don’t discriminate.
Rant on balancing description, dialogue, and action next.