Revenge: it can be a motive for a protagonist or antagonist, but it’s always a human pursuit, rooted deep in human nature. Sometimes it constitutes justice taken one step farther. Sometimes it’s all-consuming and corrosive like a poison. When your villain is out for revenge, though, one thing is for sure: it helps to make your plot human.
Today I’m focusing on villains and revenge just because I’m in the middle of a series of posts on villains. I’ve already discussed the bogeyman villain and how to humanize your villains. Now it’s on to the vengeful bad guy.
A quick note on genre before discussing how a thirst for vengeance can really help root a plot in the way human society functions. (Are revenge and vengeance the same thing? That’s debatable, I suppose, but I”ll use the terms interchangeably.)
People think of “villains” in a sci-fi/fantasy capacity, but the truth is antagonists exist in all genres, and an antagonist in any genre can be seeking vengeance of a type, in his or her own way.
Romance novels, historical fiction, literary fiction, crime thrillers, war stories: any and all can have a villain on some level motivated by revenge. So this ISN’T just a “fantasy thing.” Not at all.
AN ANTAGONIST BENT ON REVENGE: HOW IT MAKES A STORY “REAL”
A revenge motive can go a long way to making the development of a conflict more complex and more credible. This is for a few reasons.
- A vengeful villain has been wronged in the past. This means the reader can feel for him in some respect. He has been a victim. He has suffered. Who hasn’t suffered?
- A vengeful villain has a human heart. The desire for revenge is something we all feel and struggle with to some extent. Sometimes we struggle against it in trying to forgive, but we all know of people who have committed horrible crimes that on some level we wish would “get what’s coming to them.” A vengeful villain, then, is incredibly human, and not necessarily evil at core. He takes a good thing–a desire for justice–and goes a bit too far with it. Which of us hasn’t done that at some point, in some way?
- When your villain is out for revenge, then your world and your “heroes” cannot, by definition, be flawless. Flawlessness in fiction is always a flaw. When your villain has a legitimate grudge he’s acting upon, then something or someone, somewhere, screwed something up. The mistake could be more or less malicious. The imperfection could be a honest error in good faith or sinful at heart, but you know things aren’t perfect. When things aren’t perfect, they become believable.
Of course, it’s not only villains that can go out for revenge. Your hero or antihero can have a vengeful streak. And it’s not as though a character seeking revenge is some kind of requirement of fiction or something you should force yourself to work in to your plot.
If a need for revenge enters into your character’s makeup organically, then that’s great. If not, no worries. Revenge is only one driving force of many that can motivate your major players.
MY REVENGE VILLAIN
While I have a couple of villains who might be considered revenge villains depending on how you look at them, one in particular is bent on revenge, no doubt about it: sorcerer Evant Linstrom in The King’s Sons, book III of my Herezoth trilogy.
Without giving away spoilers, I love Linstrom’s plot arc for a couple of reasons. His search for revenge ties book III to the previous installments of my trilogy, because the wrong he wants to address is rooted in the heroes’ actions there.
It also exposes the flaws in my hero characters and their relationships with one another in a light that was very new for my series and that I really enjoyed.
Linstrom’s revenge plot is a huge part of The King’s Sons, providing the conflict for the major story arc. A revenge plot doesn’t have to take center stage, of course. It can be a subplot that throws a wonderful wrench in your heroes progress in their main story.
Who are your favorite villains (or heroes) motivated by revenge?