Thinking about this, one major fact jumps out in my mind:
THE STEREOTYPICAL VILLAIN NEVER QUESTIONS HIMSELF AND NEVER DEVELOPS EMOTIONALLY
A stereotypical villain can evolve in a physical manner, especially in fantasy/ sci-fi. (Ganondorf becoming Ganon before the final showdown with Link in every installment of the Legend of Zelda videogame series is a great example.)
Whether or not some physical evolution or change occurs, though, the stereotypical villain–the “bogeyman” villain–never finds his worldview threatened from the interior.
Some classic examples of the bogeyman villain, as I call him:
- Sauron, The Lord of the Rings
- Voldemort, Harry Potter
- Ganon, The Legend of Zelda
- The Daleks, Dr. Who
- Prince Regal, The Farseer Trilogy
There can be a place for a bogeyman villain in a certain kind of story, but the bogeyman, as a character, always has the weakness (from an author’s point of view) of being emotionally nothing close to human.
- He never questions himself or his course. Never doubts the wisdom or considers the immortality of his goals.
- He considers himself a “god” of sorts: infallible and justified in rolling over other people
- He has very little–if any–ability to empathize with anyone else. Basically, he is a psychopath.
If you employ this kind of villain, use him with care. Much, much care. Here are some ways to make this kind of villain work:
- HE NEEDS A KILLER BACKSTORY. The backstory will make or break this kind of character. It’s the difference between your readers being intrigued by him or dismissing him as boring and cliche.
- HE NEEDS SERIOUS ADVANTAGES OVER YOUR HERO. (Hence Ganondorf evolving into Ganon). Because this villain is impossible to feel for or relate to, successful writers often go all the way in separating him from humanity, giving him inhuman characteristics that up the stakes and constitute major trouble for the good guys. This turns your story into an “underdog” tale. You generally don’t have many options with this villain beyond an underdog tale. So if you don’t want to write one, you might reconsider your villain.
- GIVE HIM SUPPORTERS WHO ARE MORE HUMAN. Just because your major baddie doesn’t question what he’s doing, that doesn’t mean some of his supporters can’t. This adds variety and humanity to the “bad” side and even offers a way for your heroes to offset their disadvantages: they can take advantage of minor villains’ doubts. JK Rowling takes great advantage of this strategy through the Malfoy family.
Could there be a way to blend the bogeyman villain with one that’s more human? A seriously, superhumanly powerful bad guy who learns some kind of pity or doubts his plan?
I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head beyond Darth Vader, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It would be difficult to pull off, I think, without feeling gimmicky. From the start you probably want to show in some way that he isn’t a total psychopath…. Otherwise that emotional development would feel impossible to the reader.
Anyway… what are your thoughts on the bogeyman villain? Do you like him? Feel he’s too overdone and overused?
Tomorrow I think I’ll write about ways I and others have humanized villains, because generally, a humanized villain is a better choice, and even stories with a bogeyman villain also contain a humanized bad guy or two. So make sure to drop by to continue the discussion!
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