Villainy without Melodrama and Tantrums

Villainy without Melodrama and TantrumsEvery story needs an antagonist, but can you have villainy without melodrama and tantrums?

We’ve all seen villains from raging maniacs (American Psycho) to chilling cannibals (Silence of the Lambs) to the pervasive and silent menace of the All-Seeing Eye (LotR). Not all are egotistical geniuses with a god-complex. Not all have a Master Plan they exposit in great detail to a captive audience.

Is every villain really the hero of their own story? Surely the true villain holds heroism in contempt? A vainglorious dream of the self-righteous do-gooder; a fantasy beloved by those too feeble to go out and take what they want from life…?

That got dark real fast. Maybe I’m too good at this villainy thing?

The Mark of Cain

The most formidable antagonist has their own meaningful reasons for acting as they do. Just like the protagonist, the source of their villainy stems from the same set of human wants and desires pushed to an extreme: love (or lack of), money, power, status, and revenge.

For the true villain, the abiding morality of the common folk holds nothing for them. Outside societal norms, beyond law or consequence, the true villain pursues their goal without regard to morality. The villain acts out of a sense of entitlement, superiority or of perceived injustice. Often they feel ignored or wronged by society, groups or individuals. The true villain can justify almost any offense against others this way.

Abel Magwitch and Bill Sykes come from a dog-eat-dog world of poverty and will do anything to escape it. Compeyson willfully betrays and steals from Miss Havisham for money and status. George Wickham (yes, collect a sticker) preys on vulnerable girls while he harbors a deep-seated sense of injustice. Wickham believes the world has cheated him out of the wealth and status he believes is rightfully his.

None of screams their  world-conquering scheme over the rooftops. Theirs is villainy without melodrama and tantrums.

Tell Me About Your Childhood

Is it nature or nurture that makes a villain? How far back do we need to look to discover what turned them away from the path of light? How far do we need to psycho-analyse a villain such as Tom Ripley? Can we build a credible villain who doesn’t stroke a white cat or eat human livers?

The best I can answer is to look at the five villains in my fantasy series.

Imperfect Sons

Jovanka‘s father, Dalvir Kaash appears fleetingly but is mentioned often. He’s a soldier, a bully, and a domestic abuser. He perpetuates a cycle of abuse that his younger son guesses must have started in his childhood. The son of a tanner, the stink of the tannery never leaves him, no matter his rank and titles. Ambition drives him on.

For all his ambition and his vanity, Kaash is, at heart, a coward. Unscathed through two decades of war, one near miss from a rebel assassin sends him scuttling for the hills on a hunt for personal wealth. Surrounded by his unassailable Second Company, hubris kills them all at the hands of an enemy who learned from previous defeats.

Urs Radek is a rage-filled psychopath. Described as a child of the gutter, who knows what he endured and what he did to survive? The military offers him an outlet for his rage. The Emperor’s war-dog, he pursues orders with single-minded brutality. Also, Radek is what we’d call a functioning alcoholic. His addiction fuels his rage. He abhors failure in himself and others. He feeds on personal slights and injuries. His obsessive pursuit of prejudice, malice and spite will be his downfall.

Apex Predators

Gessed Straka is a stone-cold sociopath. We don’t know much of his background, but he’s clearly an educated officer of long-standing. The most intelligent of the Emperor’s commanders, Straka is a master of strategy and tactics. His sole objective is winning, by any means, including mass-murder. Confident he can out-think any opponent, Straka commanded the Empire’s campaign to victory during the civil war.  Straka’s sharp analytical mind also makes him the single most capable fighter on the battlefield. That absolute self-confidence presents no crack, no weakness. No doubt…

Jonas Tauber, by contrast, is a narcissist and ego-maniac. An expert hunter and tracker, he has the advantage of Air Magic to hide himself. Tauber rejoices in his anonymity. For him, the Emperor’s wars are all a game. Like a cat, he enjoys toying with his victims, happy to spin out the game for as long as he controls it. His victims aren’t people, they’re prey, worth no more consideration than vermin in the field. Hubris and vanity play a part in his downfall, too. With his skills and his magic, who can possibly end his game?

The One Above All

Finally, there’s the Emperor, Atalan himself. One word describes him: vengeance. A peasant’s son, we know his wife and daughter died in a needless outbreak of the pestilence while he was away fighting some hopeless campaign. Atalan poured his vengeance into breaking the corrupt Republic. Defying orders, he won victory after victory and returned a saviour, then promptly destroyed the Republic he hated. Atalan restored order. He fixed the water and the sewers and restored the grain harvest. He abolished the corrupt Assembly and decimated the officials and the Old Houses. All in the name of law and order. All for personal vengeance. No matter the Empire he created runs on patronage, on military power and the will of one man. No matter the growing lists of the Vanished. There will be order; no resistance, no dissent.

Atalan’s speech on Empire Day is a masterful (and terrifying) display of political rabble-rousing. Always us and you, not me or I, he is the son of the earth, the man of the people. His Vipers, his Lances, the Sisters of the Scildan and his Seer keep him safe, but Atalan is a seasoned general who knows no man is invincible. He will use any means to preserve the order of his rule. And that makes him dangerous.

Faulty Moral Compass

Kaash has his vanity and ambition; Straka his need to prove himself the superior man. Radek simply wants to vent his rage at the entire world. Tauber revels in his games. Atalan wants vengeance and order; to him, power is a means to an end.

My five ‘villains’ each follow their own personal code, their personal ambitions. They live their lives surrounded by violence and death. Life is cheap in their world and they have little regard for the world beyond. Only mutual advantage within the chain of command prevents them killing each other. Everyone else is fair game.

No melodrama. No tantrums.

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