Sunday, September 20, 2009

Villains too evil?

The Wounded Guardian was reviewed by The Adelaide Advertiser recently, which was a pretty complimentary review (four stars out of five) - although it threw in the comment that the villains were too evil.
That got me thinking - how evil should fantasy villains be? I mean, I don't remember anyone saying Sauron was a bit too nasty in The Lord Of The Rings, or that the Ringwraiths weren't cuddly enough.
There are few fantasy books where the villains are quite nice people really, just a little misunderstood.
Are we willing to accept that orcs/goblins/trolls/whatever are all utterly evil but that humans cannot be that bad?
If so, where do the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot come?
When writing The Wounded Guardian, I had the difficulty of beginning with a compromised hero. Martil is derided as the Butcher of Bellic, a man with evil deeds to his name.
So if you imagine a scale between good and evil, he's kind of sitting in the middle. That meant any villains had to begin further down the scale than Martil - and keep going!
But I don't know if I'd class them as "totally'' evil, although I wanted the like of Duke Gello and the Fearpriest Onzalez to be very dark - they are men who are not bothered by conscience or morality. History is littered with such men.
But what do you think?
Can we believe in utterly evil non-human villains but human villains need to have some sort of redeeming feature?


  1. Hi Duncan,

    I have your book on my shelf, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so I can't make any specific comments about your bad-guys. I was interested to see that remark in the Advertiser review, though, it felt a bit odd coming on top of four-stars.

    I'm very much a beginner at this writing game, so everything I say should be taken with a "large" grain of salt!

    In my opinion, it's not so much a question of a character having "redeeming features" as it is of characters having believable motivations for everything they do. I recently read an extremely successful children's book (which I won't name) where the evil characters consistently did things that served no apparent purpose other than to demonstrate exactly how nasty and wicked they really were. Their actions lacked logic and sense, making them come across as cardboard cutouts rather than living, breathing people.

    To me, the best baddies are the ones who are clearly not evil in their own minds. To them, they are acting reasonably and justly within their own frames of reference. The reader may be repulsed by their actions, but can still understand (if given a look into their heads) why they're doing what they do. That's one of the things that makes Hitler so chilling. In his own mind, everything he did was rational and reasonable, even righteous. His frame of reference was skewed beyond compare, but at all times he acted consistently within it.

    Sauron is an interesting case in point. I've read the Lord of the Rings about twenty times, and I still have no idea why Sauron acts the way he does (perhaps it's in the Silmarillion, but I've never been able to read it). To me, Sauron is a cardboard cutout bad-guy, evil for evil's sake, lacking any depth or realism. How did Tolkien get away with it? Well - he's Tolkien. His strength of story and language and his depth of world building covered over a multitude of sins. Would he get away with it in today's publishing world? I'm not so sure.

    The question I'm always asking in my own writing is this - why is this person acting this way? How is this character rationalising what they do and say - what over-riding ambition or goal is driving them? If you can ask these questions about your own "evil" characters, and answer them in every instance with something other than "because they're baddies" - then you shouldn't have a problem with your bad-guys being "too evil".

    That's my 4 cents. I'm looking forward to hearing what others have to say!

    Best Regards,


  2. I agree with Peter.
    I feel a really good villain can be inherently evil as long as we know the reason for their actions from their viewpoint. Evil isn't evil in the eye of the one committing evil acts as they believe there is a valid reason for their actions.
    Such as Gello, who sincerely believes that Norstalos belongs to him and the people need him so he should use whatever means to rid it of the imposter Queen for the good of himself and the land.
    The Fearpriests believe their religion is the one everyone should follow so in their minds they are doing the right thing using these kings to spread the religion to more people.
    So yes, villains should be as evil as they need to be to achieve their goals that they firmly believe are right. Every person has a redeeming feature, even if it's just being honesty to their own beliefs.

    I just realised there is a lot of 'so' and 'their' in there-sorry!