Creative Writing Reflection: On Villains (well, Antagonists) and Vengeance

625031_girlfriends_revengeRevenge: 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.

ANY GENRE

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

Evant Linstrom is a cobbler as well as self-educated sorcerer and fan of major villainy.

Evant Linstrom is a cobbler as well as self-educated sorcerer and fan of major villainy.

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?

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14 responses to “Creative Writing Reflection: On Villains (well, Antagonists) and Vengeance

  1. An interesting thing that you mention is how your revenge villain is in a later book. As I read your post, I wondered if you can have a strong revenge villain at the beginning of a series. All I could come up with is the hero’s family did something to provoke the villain. I think a personal hero and villain revenge issue would need to be shown in the book for it to be a solid plot hook. Otherwise, the reader might feel distant from the event.

    For example, it would be one thing to have Eddie Brock show up as Venom and say that Spider-Man ruined his life. This was done when Eddie wrote an article on a supervillain that wanted an interview and Spider-Man caught the real villain. Eddie interviewed a habitual liar, so his career was over and he tried to kill himself only for an alien symbiote (once rejected by Peter Parker) to bond with him. We see all of the events unfold to create this villain, so there is a connection. I think he’d be a less impressive villain if he just showed up and talked about events that the reader never saw.

    • That’s a great point, Charles. I think a revenge plot makes more sense and you can sympathize with the villain more when you see how he’s been wronged unfold and are right there in the midst of it.

      Even if you use flashbacks–which someone could–I don’t think a revenge villain would have the same power if you’re not with him while he’s wronged.

      • Flashbacks really are an overused tool at times. I think people look at them as the answer to plotholes and exposition. I read a book where in the middle of a battle, I’d get a paragraph about something in one of the character’s pasts. Interesting info, but broke the flow. That can actually harm plotlines because they appear so jarringly.

        • Oh my gosh, that’s a HORRIBLE use of a flashback! The middle of a battle! Blah.

          Flashbacks are overused, for sure. There are some legitimate and good ways to use them in moderation, but that’s not it.

        • The only time I can think of it appearing in a battle is the life flashing before one’s eyes effect. Even then, it’s pushing it.

  2. I guess Edmond Dantes would fall under the flawed hero category. I can only think of people in that category. I’m reminded of Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) in THE ITALIAN JOB and the revenge he sought. In my book, my antagonist truly is the antagonist. But I wanted him to have a soul. That’s why I love what you said here: “When your villain is out for revenge, then your world and your ‘heroes’ cannot, by definition, be flawless.” So brilliant. My heroine and her companion are both emotionally damaged people. I wanted the antagonist’s story to mirror their struggle—to show how, with a little push, they might go in his direction.

    • That sounds brilliant! I totally agree there is a fine line–much finer than we sometimes realize–between hero and villain, between striking out in anger or self-control in a tense moment. Between giving in to temptation or overcoming it. Good fiction drives that home, reminds us all of the importance of patience and mercy, and reinforces that at core humanity is humanity.

  3. Oh, there’s also Hamlet. And I wish I could squeeze Macbeth in somewhere. He’s not motivated by revenge though.

  4. Victoria, have you ever read “Villains By Necessity” by Eve Foward? The story focuses on a group of bad guys as the Heroes and the Good guys as Villains in a challenge to upset the balance of Good and Evil.

  5. My brother wrote a phenomenal story with the protagonists driven for revenge. It was gut wrenching and tense. When he went to get an agent and sought for it to be published they told him over and over again that there was no market for it. Pshaw! The man is stubborn and won’t try to self-pub it. My villain is hell bent on revenge. I think much of the world’s conflict is revenge based. Just hang around children for a few hours and anyone can see it.

    • So true!!!! Children can hold grudges and they can be cruel because they don’t yet have a filter for their actions.

      Best of luck to your brother! Revenge stories definitely have their place. I hope an agent realizes the potential of his work because it sounds like he’s got something really engaging and thought-provoking.

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