You might expect a late-Sunday BEA panel to be a sedate affair, but The Big Bad Theory was anything but! Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky, moderated a lively discussion on the tropes of villainy with authors Ilana C. Myer, Scott Westerfeld, David Wellington, and Michael Buckley. If you’re trying to write a villain, these panelists have some excellent advice for you! Anders kicked things off by asking the audience to give her their best “villainous mwahahaha” – and the room responded with a truly terrifying enthusiasm.
Anders began by asking the panelists to introduce themselves, and talk about their villains. David Wellington’s latest book is titled Positive, and his favorite villain is “a moving presence behind the scenes named Anubis. I’ve written 17 novels, but this one is my favorite, and this is the one you should buy.” Scott Westerfeld’s new book is Zeroes, and his villain is the ambiguous superpowers that the protagonists use. “In this book there are six kids with superpowers that are all a little bit weird and a little bit out of control, because they’re crowd-sourced powers. For instance, one girl, Flicker, is blind, but her power is that she can see through the eyes of others. So in a crowd she’s omniscient. And as we’ve learned from internet, crowds can be good, or they can be… crap. They can become mobs. So as we learn in the book, the villains aren’t the people, but the powers themselves.” Ilana C. Myer’s new book is the epic fantasy Last Song Before Night. “It’s set in a world where art and magic are intertwined, and all the main characters are poets. The archvillain is the court poet who is twisted by dark magic.” This earned a giant appreciative “ooooh” from the crowd. Finally, Michael Buckley’s latest book is Undertow, and “the villain is you! Or, more specifically, society itself.”
CJA: How much of yourself do you put in your villains? Are they ever the authorial surrogate?
DW: We don’t enjoy torturing our characters at all… (laughs) …you have to get into the villains’ heads. The heroes aren’t as interesting as characters, usually, so you need to get into the villains’ head more.
SW: I have theory that we love the sidekick more than the main character. Villains are more like sidekicks, they need to show up and do their one bit: “I am Chaos!” “I am snark plus murder!” “I destroy cities but you feel bad for me because my mother did not love me!” Like the comic relief character, the villain is an easier thing to be than the main character.
IM: This reminds me of the time I showed my manuscript to a friend and he said, “I didn’t know this stuff about you.”
MB: I’m always striving to create villains that have point, so you understand what they’re saying. Like… Doctor Doom. All he wants to do is take this little town and make it the greatest town ever, and all you have to do is give up your freedom. In his way, he’s figured it all out….but then the Fantastic Four show up and screw it all up.
CJA: How important is it that we sympathize with the villain?
DW: It’s dangerous when you make your villain so interesting that people start rooting for them. The antagonist, no matter how understandable, still has to kick the puppy every once in a while. My first book came out as a serial, and one of my villains was so pop that people thought he was the hero! Luckily as soon as I saw that, since it was being published serially, I was able to have him start eating people.
SW: It’s almost too easy to make the villains sympathetic! I don’t know what it says about us as people right now. This is the age of Loki.
IM: I like the idea of the reader being conflicted. What I like about epic fantasy you’re able to put lots of different villains into the book. Obviously, no one sympathizes with Sauron, but you can give the reader someone like Gollum.
MB: I love a sympathetic villain. Remember, your villain is on the hero’s journey, too. The hero and villain each have a goal, and the two of them are screwing it up for each other. I love that grey area, like with Walter White. For me, he’s the greatest villain of all time, because you’re watching Breaking Bad like, “Yeah! Make some more meth!” You want him to succeed.
CJA: Is there a danger in having too strong of a villain?
DW: Sure, because if the hero loses a hundred times, and then only wins in end, you can start to lose sympathy for the hero.
IM: The villain should bring out what is most compelling about the protagonist. The protagonist is supposed to be grappling with huge forces, and sometimes those forces are something within themselves.
CJA: So, the villain is a reflection of the hero?
IM: Not all the time, but like in Lord of the Rings, the Ring brings out whatever is most deeply set inside [the characters].
MB: It also depends on who’s writing the story. Sometimes it’s terrible…like the first Fantastic Four movie, or whenever the hero creates the villain, like in Batman, and Spider-Man… basically if [the hero] were dead, none of the bad things would have happened!
SW: The one I like is the relationship between John Connor and Skynet. They’re in a chess game together, building a time loop, and everyone else is watching it.
DW: You have to figure out how the antagonist and protagonist are connected. If you can’t find even a tenuous connection, that story is not going to work. They don’t have to be father and son, but they can be something like an industrialist billionaire, and his employee, whom he’s just laid off, and go from there. Otherwise you’ve a scenarios like, I don’t know, “What would happen if Batman and Superman got in a fight?” Which everyone knows is a terrible story that no one wants to see.”
CJA: Who’s your all-time favorite villain?
DW: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has a character named The Mule. He shows that it only takes one person to come along and ruin everything.
SW: In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed series, there’s a character named Doro, whose power is that when he dies his soul jumps into the nearest person, and he eats their soul. Some souls are more fun to eat than others, so he starts interbreeding with people to create fun souls. SO MANY EVIL.”
IM: Dorothy Dunnett’s Gabriel, from The Lymond Chronicles! Her protagonist’s an incredible genius, to the point that it gets annoying, but then there’s a villain who’s just as brilliant as he is.
MB: Dorothy Gale in Wizard of Oz. [ticking off crimes on his fingers] “Murder, theft, leaving seen of crime, fraud, hires herself out as an assassin, another murder, then topples the entire government of Oz. But her biggest crime? She has no intellectual curiosity, and spends the whole book wanting to go back to Kansas!
CJA: What do you do to make the villain work, if it isn’t clicking?
DW: First, see if you really need them. Try taking them out! If the book works better without them, then cut them out. But if that’s not the case, go back and figure out why this particular antagonist hates the protagonist, and wants to watch them suffer and die.
SW: Try writing from villain’s point-of-view. Don’t re-write the whole book, obviously, but maybe try writing the climax, or even just a day in the life section – anything that puts you in their head.
IM: Try to think of the villain as if they were any other character. What’s their backstory? What’s driving them?
MB: The truth is, nobody ever thinks they’re the villain. But if you think about it, you are the villain in somebody’s story. In your own life, there’s a person who sees you as their villain.
CJA: What’s the secret of a really epic villain?
DW: Have them do the thing that scares you. That you’re worried will turn off your readers and get you in a Twitter firestorm.
SW: We stick with them cause we know they’re going to lose. So when there’s a moment when we think they’re going to lose, and then they win, we’ll think of them as a much more serious villain. So think about what happens if the rescue doesn’t get there in time.
IM: For me, an epic villain is one who really drives the protagonist to their breaking point.
MB: Um, give ‘em a cape?