Greetings, Everyone! Sorry for the disappearance last week, but we’re back and running to the usual schedule now…
Nanowrimo continues in its quest to challenge writers’ block, sanity and how well you can type with one hand while you eat/drink/brush your teeth with the other. (That’s not just me right? Please tell me that’s not just me!) How are you all doing? I have been sadly running behind, but never mind! There’s a whole half of a month left to go!
So I’m afraid that I start this week with a confession; this wasn’t what I was going to write about at all. I was going to talk about how I went about figuring out what fairy cities looked like, which I suppose is going to be posted next week. It was a masterpiece of literature-related insight and theory, I promise!
I’ve been doing a lot of outlining for the book at the moment and I realised that an idea had solidified and started to become incorporated into everything I was writing without me really noticing or looking at it, and so that’s what I’m talking about this week; What Rules do the Villains Live By? And, just as importantly; Why should Villains have Rules in the first place?
So there’s been a huge movement in the last few decades towards having sympathetic, relatable villains. Villains are given backstories and relatable motivations and I’m really enjoying where various creators have taken us.
Of course it’s not completely new as an idea – writers have been exploring how monsters are created for time out of mind; some famous examples would be Frankenstein and his monster, or even Paradise Lost. But there have been some really interesting moments recently which I seem to have subconsciously nabbed for mine own and, having realised that I had unconsciously developed and started implementing an idea, I went back to try and work out where that idea might have come from and why I found it so appealing.
By the way, let me know in the comments if you’ve got a similar experience to this? Where you suddenly realise you’ve made a decision while you were working on something else and now its woven right into your work seemingly without your own permission? That can’t just be me that has happened to…
So there are two problems with creating a modern villain; you need to make them relatable, and also make them intimidating. These two things don’t always sit very easily together, which can be an interesting conflict for either the character, the audience or both. That’s the genius of some of the best villains and monsters ever written.
Now I should say that you do not need to have both in one villain, and some very memorable characters are not:
The Step-Mother in Disney’s animated Cinderella is terrifying to me, but I don’t relate to her at all: why does she hate her step-daughter so much? No idea. Why is she so cruel? Never explained. But I find her terrifying precisely because I don’t have answers to these questions. She’s an unknown quantity all the way through the film.
By contrast, I really do sort of relate to the character of Erik Lehnsherr, or Magneto, from some versions of X-Men. I’m not saying I agree with his goals, or his actions, but I know a lot about his life to empathise with. I know that he lost his Jewish parents to the Holocaust, his daughter was burned alive in their house by a French mob who didn’t like her being half-Romani, and so I understand why he might, on facing yet another majority decision that his minority people need to be taken down as a threat, decide that this is the end of all his patience. He’s not going to allow this to happen, no matter what. I can relate to that, on some level. The downside is that I don’t find Magneto to be a very frightening villain, and in the films he is indeed usually over-shadowed by a more present threat for what is likely the same reason. I know he’s dangerous, but he’s mostly just a frightened, emotionally- and physically-scarred man who just wants himself and his loved ones to be safe from present and future threats, and that’s too easy to understand to be intimidating to me.
But as previously mentioned, I believe that the very best villains and monsters are the ones with a bit of both in them. They are both relatable and unknowable, and therefore they constantly throw you off-balance as an audience. You don’t know which side of them you’ll be encountering next and therefore you can’t prepare for either. Let’s take two not-so-recent popular examples: Loki from The Avengers and the Joker from The Dark Knight.
Loki is very familiar to the audience; we’ve seen him before in Thor, we know that he’s the spurned younger son trying to get his father to notice and approve of him, trying and failing until finally he despaired and both figuratively and literally fell to the Dark Side (yes, I know I’m mixing fandoms, I do that.)
Now, I know that none of us have fallen from the Bifröst, but Loki’s story is still pretty relatable. I think most of us have experienced something similar (on a smaller scale, of course) either with our own parents if we have siblings or in friendship groups or at work, just some setting where we always feel that we are being constantly overlooked in favour of people who are more… eye-catching in some way. More popular than us, even if they aren’t actually ‘better’. Tone down the scale of the drama, and this exchange from the Avengers may sound pretty familiar to plenty of people:
Thor: We were raised together, we played together, we fought together. Do you remember none of that?
Loki: I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness. I remember you tossing me into an abyss, I who was and should be king!
For this reason, lots of people really related to Loki as a character, even if he was technically the villain. We understood where he was coming from.
Heath Ledger’s Joker, on the other hand, is a complete unknown. We don’t know where he came from, or what he went through to give him this outlook on life. Did he have friends that he lost, did he lose his family? Did he kill his own family? In The Dark Knight, the Joker has even been written to play up this aspect, by having him give two completely different but equally unsettling ‘explanations’ about the origins of his most distinctive features: those scars. Which one is true? Who knows! Is either of them true? No idea! It’s actually a clever trick that I’ll be coming back to later, because you think for a moment that you’ve been given some answers about him, some information about the Joker’s life that you can relate to:
Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was a drinker and a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So – me watching – he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, “Why so serious, son?” Comes at me with the knife… “Why so serious?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face!” And… why so serious?
But later, when the Joker is speaking to another character, he starts the story the same way and you think to yourself for an instant, ‘Really, Nolan? You’re just going to repeat yourself?’ and then:
Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em? Come here, look at me. So, I had a wife, who was beautiful, like you, who tells me I worry too much, who tells me I oughta smile more, who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day they carve her face, and we got no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. Hmm? I just wanted to let her know that I don’t care about the scars. So, I stick a razor in my mouth and do this… to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves! Now I see the funny side. Now, I’m always smiling!
So you now know that neither of these stories is reliable. Blast everything! You’ve been given one tiny bit of information, and now you realise it might be a complete lie. There’s absolutely no steady ground, nothing to relate to, because you can’t trust anything you’re told. So you can’t necessarily relate to the Joker because you don’t know anything about him from before he starts hurting and killing people, but you can find him utterly terrifying for that exact reason.
But now here’s the fun bit; both of these characters also have mixtures of the opposite element mixed into them, this is why they are really good villain characters. Loki has been tortured and has tortured himself to the brink of insanity, so you can’t guarantee what he’s going to do next. Yes, he might be relatable, but he’s not predictable. He’s just far enough off-balance that he’s still a hell of a threatening presence.
The Joker is unknowable as a person, but he’s pretty clear about his goals; he wants to watch the world burn, he is a force of chaos. A friend of mine had a home-made poster for years on his wall which read:
‘All my life I wondered to myself what would happen if I set that building on fire. As I grow up I find that the answer is always: It will be on fire.’
Going from this, I’m going to take a punt and suggest that some people have at least some understanding of the Joker’s perspective? Except most of us don’t actually act on it, right? Right?
So this was a long and involved way to build up to my main point for this post: if possible, villains should be both relatable and unknown – the later making them intimidating because millions of years of evolution has taught humans that the unknown is scary and dangerous. Got that? Right, let us now move on to talking about how and why having some clear rules help us…
The whole point of my books is that there are human characters and folkloric characters mixed together and that they have got to relate to each other and either conflict or work with each other. The problem I faced with my cast of non-human characters was that they needed to be both relatable enough to draw the reader in and alien enough that you’d never for one minute forget that these beings are not and never have been human. They do not see the world like humans do, they don’t value the same things we do. Where we generally see babies and children as vulnerable and therefore something to be protected, most Fey characters would see a human child as vulnerable and therefore worthless except as food or sport. Where we may think of certain things as valuable and worth trading for safety (things like friendship for example), the Fey may see those things as worthless. Things they value we may see as pointless, and therefore could risk insulting them.
So the idea which I have just realised has sneaked into my plot outline and fixed itself right into the foundation of my world was this: The Rule of Fair Warning.
I have a sister, and when we were younger we would play together. And inevitably these games weren’t always happy. And I remember that we had a weird and dubious unspoken arrangement that so long as you warned the other sibling that if they didn’t stop doing something annoying you’d push them over or throw something at them, it didn’t count when they kept doing the thing and you did indeed throw something at them. It was a concept with a lot of connections to the ‘They were asking for it!’ line of defence also commonly used in playgrounds.
Strangely, our parents did not agree with this sentiment.
I wonder why.
Anyway, I realised that all of my Fey characters, regardless of what country and customs they came from all had the same idea: you could attack and eat someone provided that you warned them fairly. So long as you warned another character that if they didn’t stop some action you would wipe them off the face of the earth, it didn’t count.
Essentially it boiled down to: what if those childhood rules really did exist and genuinely powerful people actually lived by them? What if the law upheld them?
It’s pretty closely related to another idea which is more widely seen especially in fantasy fiction, especially from villainous henchmen: The Sporting Chance. You let the hunted character (usually the hero) have just a hint of a chance of getting away and this improves the feeling for the henchman when he catches and kills them … in theory. As previously noted, the hunted is usually the hero, so for narrative reasons he actually does use the chance to get away.
The reason I decided to keep this idea, and the reason I think it works so well is related to a different set of established villains you already know: the Pirates of the Caribbean in The Curse of the Black Pearl. In this film, the pirates are introduced as being so evil they are hanged on capture, and you see a ship which has obviously just been attacked by pirates, it’s burning and there’s only one survivor – a small boy called Will Turner. OK, so pirates are scary and bad, sounds simple enough. Then later on the pirates from the Black Pearl attack the port-town, and they terrify everyone, kill people, steal things, set building on fire, attack women. Yep, pirates are scary and they don’t seem to be easy to stop because they come quickly and leave just as fast.
Then Elizabeth’s character, on being cornered by some pirates, demands ‘parley’, citing the Code of the Order of the Brethern, and the pirates follow it. Suddenly even if we still know that the pirates are a threat, they have become a rational force which has rules – you just have to follow the rules and you’ll be fine.
However, then Elizabeth pushes her luck a bit and tries to use the Pirates’ Code as leverage again, and this time it doesn’t work: the pirates refuse to take Elizabeth back to her home, and kidnap her instead. When Elizabeth objects Captain Barbossa says this:
First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.
Suddenly and for the rest of the film you are always at least a little wary of the pirates, even before you find out that they are really undead zombie pirates. Is there a rule for this? Will the devil be in the details of an agreement? ARE the pirates even going to follow the rules if the answer to the above questions is ‘yes’? We see pirate characters adopting the code;
Jack Sparrow: Keep to the Code. [Any man who falls behind is left behind]
Joshamee Gibbs: (Doubtfully) Aye, the Code.
But we also see them abandon it. Multiple times. It comes up constantly as a reference to a universal set of laws for these lawless characters, but at no point are you certain that it will save the day.
That’s what I wanted for my books; a set of rules which everyone in Fey knows, regardless of their individual country, so they can interact together in a common understanding. I wanted a sense that they all took this set of rules for granted as something they expected everyone, even the humans, to know and understand. The safety of knowing even in this strange world of magic, where the human rules don’t apply, there are rules already set up.
But I also wanted the fear of uncertainty. What counts as ‘Fair Warning’ after all? A few seconds’ head-start? A few weeks? Would it actually warn you enough to avoid some terrible fate, or basically just tell you enough to know that it’s coming? And of course, what if the character you fear refuses to follow this rule at all? What if the rules fail you?
This last is a relatable fear in its own right of course. Humans have thousands of laws designed to help us lead peaceful and non-violent lives. We have local by-laws which only apply to the specific place we live in, national laws which won’t apply when we move to live on another continent (not that we always remember this), and international laws which can either apply across a few countries or (hopefully) over ALL countries everywhere. But what happens when someone isn’t following the same laws that we are? And that’s a very adult and relatable fear. Just like the Joker is a threat to Batman because he is simply not following the same rules, what if WE are facing up against someone who is not playing the same game as us?
Imagine a creature which comes in the night and says ‘Let’s play a little game… except I’m not going to be playing the same game you are… So good luck winning…’
Scared yet? Let’s hope you will be!
Found this interesting or helpful? Or both? Try out the rest of the series here.
You can find my thoughts on how on earth you pick out names for your characters, why you should have limitations built-in to your worlds and why world-building even matters at all.