Writing Wrongs: Doing Right by your Villain

Last month, I wrote a section of Charlotte’s Journey that is told from the perspective of our villain, Count Vilnius. When we eventually assemble the jigsaw puzzle and put all these sections in order, “A Vile View of Vilnius” should be the second chapter dealing with our big bad, but in draft format this section was the first time Luke and I had privileged access to Vilnius’ thoughts. It was also the first time I had a chance to write the character at all.

The constant refrain when writing Charlotte’s Journey has been “do something simple very well.” The simple part is so that Luke and I are working in a frame we’re familiar with. The very well part is there so we challenge ourselves in that frame. Although I’ve encountered a number of difficulties writing Charlotte’s Journey, writing Vilnius was perhaps the most difficult so far. As it result, it may also have been the most rewarding.

The problem I encountered seemed simple at first. Every part of a story needs action. We’ve planned for this! Each section of Charlotte’s Journey has a corresponding cue card with an event on it. In this case: “Vilnius talks with soldier that met Charlotte and Raul.” Not a lot to go on, it must be said, and really just a retelling of action we’ve already seen (The Wrestling Match). Enter the problem: how can I make this section interesting while also making it important enough to include? Simply having Vilnius do vile things isn’t enough, no matter how much alliteration I pile on. Every section must add to the narrative in a meaningful way.

Luke and I wanted to include Vilnius in the story because we both felt we needed to work on our villains. I felt like it was important to tell the entirety of his side of the story, even if we get most of it in brief flashbacks, but most of that does not constitute a meaningful addition to the narrative. I was writing about our Villain, yes, but that isn’t enough. I did the best thing I could: I let the idea percolate. I was walking home from work (ideal percolating time, for the record) when an image entered my mind: Vilnius speaking with a pile of rocks that almost looks like a statue.

Talking statues were an idea Luke and I had way back in the earliest planning stages. Although we both really liked this strange expression of magic, when it came time to block out the entire plot, we couldn’t find a place for The Stone Men in our story. As it turns out, it was worth keeping the idea around, as they were a solution to a problem we hadn’t even anticipated. The Stone Man allowed me to make this section as much about magic and Vilnius’ connection with the strange power as much as it was about Vilnius himself.

As an aside, I’d also point out that this solution came out of the ideation process – keeping your idea maps through an entire project can pay off! It’s also interesting to note that Luke and I credit each other with the idea of The Stone Men. We’re not entirely sure where the idea came from!

The Stone Man allowed me to give Vilnius a place to focus his anger other than the soldiers under his command. He would still have disdain for the men and women below him, but I would also have an opportunity to show him recruiting a soldier into his inner circle, ironically enacting the spirit of the meritocracy he is attempting to destabilize (Vilnius is a product of his culture even if he wants to escape it, after all). I felt it important to show that Vilnius is a human being and not just a caricature, that even as an evil usurper he had feelings and needs, and having him recruit a capable soldier allowed me to show his intelligence and forward-thinking. In short: I wanted Vilnius to be rounded and developed as a character. Although this felt like a good idea at the time, it really cut under the whole simple part of our mission.

And so, a section that began as a soldier delivering a report became an exploration of a character’s hypocrisy and hubris that included some important (and some anecdotal!) exposition on the world’s magic. I had a few false starts, and I really felt that my Vilnius was a bit inconsistent, but I was proud of what I had set to paper. As is our usual method, I sent Luke a message that said my draft was ready for his perusal.

Overall, I think he liked it (especially an absolutely killer last line – one I had in mind ever since I imagined Vilnius talking to the Stone Man), but something wasn’t quite right. Vilnius was not, in Luke’s eye, entirely the man he should have been. His comments on the section hint at this. “Wouldn’t it be more in the character we’re trying to establish for Vilnius that he would be mean to the reporting soldier?” Luke asked when Vilnius pretended to be kind to an underling. We discussed and decided that the answer was no, not necessarily. In the context of the events of the section, it makes sense for Vilnius to use kindness in his attempt to recruit the reporting soldier, Barnabus. Vilnius had, after all, tried to recruit Charlotte herself earlier in the story!

So, my treatment of Vilnius’ actions were good, but something was still off about the character. We turned next to his motivations. We did not record our conversation for posterity, but Luke wondered why Vilnius would recruit… isn’t he a selfish villain who wants the world for himself? Why share power? I think the answer is fairly evident – he needs others to get to where he is. Barnabus’ ability and honesty are traits Vilnius understands and respects, and a capable soldier is not to be wasted. Luke agreed, ultimately. Again, Vilnius had his eye on Charlotte in the beginning. To Vilnius, all capable people are “tools to be used and, once broken, thrown away.”

I had written a Vilnius that was a little different than Luke had imagined, but still had all the right motivations and actions. Yet, there was still something off in Luke’s eye. We finally landed on emotion. All the best Vilnius moments in my section are the bits where he is being vile, where he’s thinking of himself and raining disdain down on others. Luke points a number of them out in his comments. In those good bits, Vilnius is always showing emotion. Of the other bits where Vilnius is not betraying what he feels, Luke said “he isn’t making things about himself. He wouldn’t show any kindness to Barnabus because that makes the interaction about Barnabus rather than about himself.” Of course, depending on how you read it, recruiting Barnabus is all about Vilnius and is absolutely a selfish act. The trick is making it read that way.

At the time, we thought maybe Vilnius’ uneven emotions were tied up in my bad habit of overwriting. I give too many expository details and Vilnius’s negative emotions are drained away from what I’m saying, and thus we’re left with an unclear character and less-than-ideal prose. This is a helpful thing to notice, to be sure, and will undoubtedly improve the section in the future, but it still wasn’t it. We still hadn’t put our finger on what exactly was wrong.

We didn’t quit by giving it up as a bad job, but we ended our discussion without really understanding what had gone wrong with the character. We decided to let it percolate (this totally isn’t code for procrastinating, we promise). The advice “sleep on it” really does have some value. I was walking to work the next morning (again: ideal percolation time), letting Vilnius brew slowly in my mind, when an idea struck me. I texted Luke: “Is the problem that Vilnius is showing empathy for other characters?”

And then we had cracked it. Vilnius undoubtedly has empathy. He understands Barnabus perfectly well, and understands what the solider feels, but because he is vile, Vilnius simple would not care. Vilnius is, I suppose, a bit more sociopathic than I had initially imagined. Even those he trusts most, like Sandy and perhaps eventually Barnanus, are nothing more than tools that can be used and, once broken, thrown away. He can understand them, and use that understanding to manipulate them, but Vilnius would never, ever, care about them. The way my section was written, Vilnius appeared to genuinely care for those under his command, and that is a villain with a few more layers of complexity than Luke and I really want to tackle for Charlotte’s Journey.

It took a lot of work for Luke to get me to recognise the problem with my writing. Eventually he admitted that he wanted to ask me “were you trying to make Vilnius likable?” That question wasn’t the right one to ask during our conversation, but in retrospect, it was very enlightening. I wasn’t trying to make Vilnius likable, not really, but I was writing Vilnius as a well-rounded, real human being. In my actual real-life day to day interaction with the world, I find it very difficult to believe that any human is fundamentally evil like Vilnius must be. I believe in the inherent goodness of all people. On a simple, logical level, I know that belief is naive, and it has bit me in the ass more than once, but I can’t shake it (and I’m not sure I want to). It is however important for me to recognise, so I can acknowledge that it might interrupts my ability to write a villain very well.

Sometimes, your villain has just got to like feeling evil.

1 thought on “Writing Wrongs: Doing Right by your Villain”

  1. Oh, villains. How we love to hate you.

    I don’t remember which one of us said it—so it’s likely we’ll attribute the first comment to each other—but during our ideating process for Charlotte’s Journey the phrase was uttered, “I want to write a villain.” I won’t be surprised if I’m the one that said it, as villains (like so, so many things) have been on my mind lately.

    Do you read comics? If not, how about movies, or TV? Are you familiar with the idea of the “anti-hero”? These are your Punishers, Catwomans, and Venoms; your “UnREAL”‘s Rachel, and The Man With No Name. It’s your screaming goats Heathcliffs (damn you, Bronte). They’re the villainous protagonists that you understand, relate to, up until they get all menacing and horrible, and then you just love them for their ability to be bad (or not, I’m not about to proclaim why we like anti-heros). But like them we do.

    This…troubles me.

    Listen, I’m a fan of the anti-hero just as much as the next person, truly I am, but I wonder if our current age of media has gone too far with the trope. Once upon a time, the anti-hero was the necessary characterization to break us from the classic trope of hero vs. villain, to as James points out create more depth and nuance to what was traditionally a flat character.

    But I think flat, non-antihero villains are a product of bad writing / storytelling, not that villains are inherently one- or two-dimensional. Look at Jafar. Look at Vader (yes, he was “redeemed” in the end, but for 6 glorious years he was pure villain). Look at Glory. These are great villains that we understand as villains (we know their motivations, why they’re doing a thing, and there’s nothing noble in it), that we love for being horrible monsters that challenge our heroes.

    A few years ago, after a somewhat ridiculous string of “Blockbuster summer events” in Marvel comics, they entered (and promptly left? I stopped regularly reading monthly comics right around this time, so any clarification is welcome) something they called, “The Heroic Age.” From a distance, and having read several of the lead-up “events”, I took this to mean a return of the heroes we could root for, a renaissance of Good to clear the murky cobwebs of the darkness even our heroes had stepped into in recent years (aka decades). (A quick Google now makes me think this perspective is incredibly flawed—I mean, Dark Avengers was a part of the “Heroic Age”!—but regardless, that’s what I thought it was back in the day.)

    Anyways, what I’m proposing is a “Villainous Age.” Not a time when our heroes learn to be villains (please, don’t take that idea and run with it. Yes, it’d be cool, so damn cool, but really it’s been done already), but when our villains remember what the word “villain” really means.

    They’re not empathetic. They’re not truly relatable. They’re diabolical! They’re mean. They’re aggressive and do bad things for bad reasons and are really, really great at it! They’re grotesquely powerful and a little unstoppable. (That’s why we need heroes to inspire us to rise up against them!)

    That’s why I want Vilnius to live up to his name. Not because it’s easier to write a bad villain, but because I think we’ve forgotten that we don’t love villains because they’re redeemable, we love villains because they’re evil. Not because we wish we could be evil too, but because a hero is defined by their villain, and the greater the villain, the greater the hero.

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