February 15, 2013

The Villain Parallel

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Villains are a fascinating set. Probably they shouldn’t be; probably we should not be so terribly intrigued by the machinations of the criminal mind. But we are. As writers, we love to peel back the layers of an antagonist (like an onion!) and explore the dynamics of his character, the motives behind his actions, the backstory that helped to shape him. It’s like a train wreck: it’s just so awful that you can’t look away.

 Some while back I wrote a post on the outworking of the villainous mind and on three critical points of his character – his motives and goals, his means of achieving those goals, and his opportunities to put those methods into action. If the antagonist is lacking in any one of these, he has failed at his purpose in literary life, which is to make the protagonist’s life as miserable and his subsequent triumph as glorious as possible. Much as the villain would like it to be otherwise, that is his true raison d’etre. Motive, means, and opportunity are the pillars of his life.

These points, however, are fairly intuitive and require little discussion: we all know what the villain is there for, and we all know that in one way or another he and the hero must butt heads.  It is, to quote Darth Vader, his destiny.  On a certain level, however, this is mere coincidence.  The hero and the villain are tossed together; the hero crosses the villain; the villain retaliates; and so the world spins down.  There is no real connection between the two.  It is the old story of the knight with the monster, or the more recent story of the hero with the evil overlord.

 Such a dynamic has been and can be done quite well, but the interesting thing about the villain-hero relationship is that, when you begin digging, you find it goes much deeper.  You find it isn't coincidence after all, and it isn't that the two just happened to peeve each other.  In some of the best villains, there is a marked parallel to the hero.  The phrase is cliche now and I don't recommend employing it, but it is no accident that "We are not so different" is a common remark from the antagonist to the hero.

To snatch an example, when we think of The Lord of the Rings, the main villain that springs to mind is Sauron himself - but for most of Frodo's journey, his closest antagonist is actually Gollum.  Sauron is way off in Mordor; Gollum is right there by Frodo's side.  And Gollum, unlike Sauron, has a close connection with Frodo.  Both are hobbits, both ring-bearers, and Frodo feels the same pull toward the Ring that destroyed Gollum years before.  In situation, they really are "not so different," and that is what makes Frodo's eventual triumph so much more poignant.  Gollum serves as the backdrop for the heroism of Frodo.

There is a quote attributed to Tom Hiddleston, the actor who played Loki in "Thor" and "The Avengers," that has been making its rounds of the internet recently: "Every villain is a hero in his own mind."  But there is a flipside of that, for I think that every hero has a bit of the villain in his heart.  We don't like to realize it; it makes our heroes less pristine, makes them more brutally honest and more like the villain than we are comfortable admitting.  We want the two to be separate, but oftentimes there is little that makes them to differ except the state of the heart - and when you get down to that bedrock, it makes both characters stand out in starker relief.

but there is a spirit in man, 
and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding.
(job 32:8)


  1. Wow. Very insightful! I've always known I needed to work on making my hero and villain more like each other (and possibly clash more often) but it's difficult when the villain is a queen and the hero is a commoner, and they're both parts of different armies. They never actually meet until the very end. How do I pull off parallels and the backdrop thing when they're so far apart? Any tips?

  2. Great post, Abigail! I've never quite thought about it this way. I enjoyed it!

    I nominated you for the Liebster Award! Check it out on my blog. :)

  3. I loved this post so much! Great job, Abigail. I appreciate how you drew an example from the relationship of Frodo and Gollum and the tensions coming not so much from their differences but from their similarities... that's so true, and I never thought how it actually makes Frodo's heroism more powerful.

    I think I need to work more, not so much on my antagonists, as much as in my heroes, to make them have that little bit villain in him or her but with a different heart, a life saved and transformed by the grace of God... :)

  4. One of my favorite quotes is, "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain."

  5. ElizabethLiberty - Ooh, that is tricky; but on the other hand, similarities might be even more poignant when the characters are so far apart and appear at first glance to be so different. You might dig a little more into the motives of each: they may be on opposing sides, but are their goals similar? Parallels can also be circumstantial: they face the same situation, or the same temptations, and react in different ways. Personality-wise, they might share a weakness - or a strength. Obviously I don't know your characters the way you do, and these are just the top thoughts in my currently-cold-filled brain.

    Also, I ought to add a caveat: I don't think villains and heroes have to reflect this parallelism. In some stories and some characters it doesn't work out that way. It's just a possibility that I think we often brush under the carpet for fear of its consequences, and thus is worth consideration.

    Bethany - Why, thank you! I don't think I'll be participating this time around, but I do appreciate it. I'm glad you thought Scribbles worth awarding!

    Joy - I know you're fond of "The Lord of the Rings," and I thought of you as I dragged in that example. And I do think you're right: the thrust of this post really is not so much the villain, but the hero. So often we try to present our protagonist as a carefully polished person with carefully placed flaws, neglecting to show any raw, real human nature. It is a difficult thought to convey, but I think you hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head.

    Luthian - Interesting quote, though I'm not sure what it has to say about the perseverance of the saints! May I ask what the context was?

  6. This is a really interesting concept! I brushed over it a little in my Differing Characters post awhile back, without realizing the depth of the field on which I'd trod! I was talking about how characters cannot all be polar opposites, and had to have their similarities too-I didn't think of that working with villains. In short, thank you! ;)

    Also, I'm really bad at peeling back those villainous layers. Something in me seems to revolt with every layer, and it takes me ages to get to my antogonists' true hearts. Usually this happens when I finish a book, which is a little late you see. I suppose that is what editing is for?


  7. Aww, thanks, Abigail! You know me well, all right :). I'm borderline obsessed.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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