Villains! Readers love to hate them. Writers have to have them; in most fiction they are as indispensable as the hero. But how do you draw them? I mean, do you make them evil to the core? Do they glory in the blackest of their deeds? Or do you make them conflicted, give them shades of gray? Do they question their own actions? Do they, perhaps, even consider themselves the “Good Guys?”
Gray villains are more realistic. Most people believe they are doing good even when another viewpoint paints them as evil. The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center almost certainly believed themselves to be doing right. Most of those people in the world who joyed to see Americans suffer and die probably did not think of the deed as black. I, on the other hand, could not help but find myself sickened by those who destroyed so many decent lives and by those who celebrated that fact.
Those of us who write realistic fiction have to keep this kind of thing in mind. If our villains are terrorists, then no matter how repugnant we might find their actions personally, we have to remember that they probably don’t see themselves as evil. They have motivations for their actions; they may even have the kinds of characteristics that we often associate with heroes, such as being loyal, self-sacrificing, and caring about their own families. I’m not saying that you must approve of your villains’ actions, only that you must try to understand “why” they do them and not fall back on the simple explanation that they are “Evil.” Even if your villains know they are doing bad, realistic fiction almost demands that they be conflicted about it, or that their actions are at least partially out of their control.
In fantasy and horror on the other hand, it is OK (although not required) to have a villain who is an absolute. In fact, it can be a hell of a lot of fun. Maybe it shows my own less than literary heritage, but I enjoy a villain who milks their evil for all it’s worth. In my Taleran fantasy novels, Vohanna is just absolutely evil. She knows it, she enjoys it. She tells our hero at one point that she could give him explanations for why she does bad things but the truth is she does them because she “can,” and because “she likes it.” Vohanna was a lot of fun to write. Kargen, the “villain” in Cold in the Light, on the other hand, certainly illustrates many shades of gray. In fact, quite a few people have told me that they identified strongly with the character. Kargen was also fun to write, but a lot harder to pull off than Vohanna.
I don’t accept that there is a right way or a wrong way to draw a villain. Both kinds of villains have their place. Be aware that if you create an “absolute” villain that more literary readers and critics are probably going to think of them as “comic booky.” If you like that kind of villain, however, and enjoy those kinds of stories, then just tell the “comic booky” critics to screw off. What do they know about the joys of evil anyway?
For a related post, see Steve's excellent commentary on developing good villains.