Monday, June 29, 2009

The Dark Side

We had great discussion last week about including God in our fantasy writings. Now, let’s go to the dark side and talk about villains.

All stories need a strong antagonist – one the protagonist must prevail against. And it can’t be easy. It’s even been said the villain should be stronger than the hero. Or seem to be.

What makes a good dark foe? What characteristics should you give him or her? What makes your antagonist different from all others out there?

Sauron, Darth Vader, Maleficent. Just three examples of fantasy, sci-fi and animated villains. One was redeemed. Two fell to their tragic deaths.

As Christian fantasy writers, how do we handle evil characters? How evil can we go? Can we make our dark characters likeable? Should we?

Lots to talk about this week. Spread the news! Let’s get more people on board for this potentially rousing discussion.

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  1. Sauron fell to his death?

    Nitpicking aside, I'm not sure why Christians should have to handle evil characters any differently than anyone else. Add sermonettes on why we should never ever be like this bad man?

    Let's face it, in real life, evil people can be attractive. Sociopaths are often very charming, for instance. I've got a sociopath in my story and he can be charming too. Not only that, he has vulnerabilities, a need for validation. I do allow him to be human, in other words. He is still totally without a conscience. Quite honestly, if a reader can't figure that out without the other characters commenting on how terrible he is and how his wickedness leads to his downfall, there isn't much hope for that reader's intelligence. (No, I'm not saying you said that. I just need a hypothetical point to argue against...) What happens, happens. What he does, he does. I trust the readers to come to the right conclusion.

    It is part of the consequence of the Fall that we, who are all created in the image of God, have defiled that image. Yet we all, even the bad guys, bear that stamp. If we reduce our villains to cardboard caricatures of human beings, we are also reducing Biblical truth to a caricature. Life is complex and messy, and God is quite capable of dealing with that. So should we be.

  2. Sauron (the great eye) sat at the top of Barad-dur, right? He had no body except for the eye of flame. Therefore, he couldn't leave the tower. And the tower fell. So, yes, in a way, Sauron fell to his death.

    I agree with you about cardboard villians. None of our characters should be two dimensional. But what about likeability? Antagonists like Sauron, who are pure evil, we can resist. But what about the ones who still have some humanity? How do we handle them?

  3. i think there are the actual evil characters (Sauron, The Emperor in Star Wars). i don't think they have to be likeable at all. the the ones influenced by evil (Sauruman, Denethor, Anakin/Darth Vader) - those are the characters i want to know because maybe they can be redeemed in the end.

    on that note, i liked the way George Lucas made us think that Darth Vader was the bad guy in movies 4 and 5. it isn't till movies 6 and then 1 -3 that you realize the Emperor is the bad guy and Anankin fell under his influence. (sorry, after making that SW quiz on FB, my brain is still humming with Star Wars.)

  4. Hey Michelle... where's that quiz? I think Lucas changed his mind between the first movie and the later ones. Over time, as we all know, our characters grow and develop.

    Mine have certainly had enough time to ripen!

    I think the key to handling villains in Christian fiction is to make sure that the plot supports the idea that they failed because they were evil, not just because of bad luck on their part, or good luck on the hero's part. There has to be some sort of tragic flaw that causes them to fall.

    For example, since we're talking about Sauron, his tragic flaw was that he could not comprehend the good guys not using the Ring of Power. And so he miscalculated and was defeated.

    Darth Vader was obsessed with protecting those he loved to the point of embracing darkness for the power it offered, and so ended up killing his own wife and hunting down his own children.

    However, I blame Yoda for some of that, because of his accusation to the child Anakin that he had "too much fear." Well Gee... he was six years old and had left his mother for good and come through horrible danger and was now standing in front of a bunch of very stern old guys who were deciding if he was good enough to become a Jedi. I see that as a form of emotional abuse!

    There are some serious flaws, in my opinion, with the Jedi way, but that's another topic.

  5. ohmygosh, there are BIG mistakes between the early Star Wars movies and the later ones. Someone (and shame on Lucas. He was the writer) didn't take into account the early movies while writing the later ones.

    Michelle's quiz is on Facebook.

    Yes, the good guys have to win on their merit and strength and/or cunning. They need to save the day by doing what's right.

    Personally, I love writing my female antagonist, Tzmet. She's evil, to be sure, she eats fairies! But she's SO funny. And the reader will find out she's not totally evil, as she is redeemed in the end, although she loses her life. Maybe that's why I like her so much. Because I know she's not totally dark.

    At some point, she'll have to visit Come in Character. :)

  6. my kids and i have come up with several factors that led to Anakin going to the dark side. as with every "bad guy" in real life, there's more than one incident in their background that led them to the life they have now.

  7. Great discussion, Pam.

    I know I'm in the minority when it comes to showing an antagonist. I don't want to show him as sympathetic, but a lot of writers have chosen the pet-the-dog route to show that the evil guy has another side. This is supposedly showing the villains as realistic.

    I tend to believe that a villain is realistic if he has his own wants, needs, conflict, backstory, etc. He doesn't need to have a "good" side.

    In my opinion, Darth Vader was a much better villain before he was revealed as Luke's father. The Emperor paled as a villain in comparison and the Star Wars movies were never as good again, in large part because the villain had been de-fanged.

    BTW, Rachel Starr Thomson had last year's ACFW Genesis winner in the speculative category, Chawna Schroeder, guest blog on the subject of evil (not just the evil antagonist). It's worth a look.


  8. A couple side issues. Another site you might want to include as fantasy related is Speculative Faith.

    Also, for those fans of Christian speculative literature, I am once again discussing the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction and have a poll in connection to it. The more participants, the better.


  9. Thanks, Rebecca ~ I will add Speculative Faith to my list of fantasy related sites.

    I am so with you about Darth Vadar. He was the ultimate villian. Just the music set us to trembling! :) Yes, some of the magic is gone now that we know who he really is.

    But the BEST villian I've ever seen is Sylar from HEROES. Anyone watch that? He's terrifying and yet I can't take my eyes off him. What a perfect antagonist.

  10. Yea! Thanks, Pam.

    I'm afraid I haven't gotten into Heroes, so don't know Sylar.

    I heard Ted Dekker speak a number of years ago and he said he thought we needed to paint the dark in order for readers to see the light. all gray esentially hides the need for light.

    Yet writing book after writing book advocates giving antagonists a warm fuzzy side "to make them believable."

    I don't know as I agree with either position, at least not entirely. Do we need to see serial killers spilling blood to know they are evil? Do we need to know they have a pet turtle to find them believable?

    Janet said antagonists can be attractive, and I agree with that, not because I think they'll have something good an author should portray, but because there's something in me attracted to or deceived by their evil.

    The White Witch in Narnia comes to mind as a good antagonist. Believable, but evil, with no relatable trait that would make readers sympathetic toward her. And evil in a clear way that she stood in stark contrast with Aslan, yet without showing excessive darkness.

    But here I'm talking, when one of my early readers said my second book was dark. I'd never thought of it in those terms, but when evil comes on stage, I guess it is.


  11. Hey, in defense of George Lucas... he made movies, not books, which once committed to screen are permanent. We don't even know if he intended to make the earlier films when he first made Star Wars. I saw a documentary about the first movie and he was basically holding things together with tape and string, making a low-budget action film and hoping he didn't lose his shirt.

    Tolkein made a lot of changes to his stories between the Hobbit and LOTR, and in the second edition of LOTR he says he corrected some inconsistencies that were pointed out by readers. Lucas didn't get that chance.

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  13. I think the "petting the turtle" syndrome is one way of preventing the villain from seeming totally unreal. Even Hitler had a girlfriend.

    But what makes it truly chilling, if well-done, is the contrast between those personal relationships and the very public evil they do. My antagonist has such a deep-rooted need for validation and affection that he "adopts" (brainwashes) another man's son into thinking he is his father. The villain himself doesn't consciously realize his own need - he thinks it's just part of his master plan to use this younger man for his own ends - but it's really rather frightening to see this strange relationship they have.

  14. I'm not picking on George Lucas ... really! But it's a lesson for us to remember the details we've included. Our readers will.

    I believe fantasy/sci-fi is the only genres that we can get away with a character who is pure evil. But do we really care about them? I'm more interested in Darth Vadar than the Emperor or Saruman than Sauron.

    Dean Koontz has quite an interesting, but really evil, antagonist in THE GOOD GUY. It's not fantasy, but the layers he gave this killer is fascinating! Of course, he doesn't win in the end, but there were times when I wondered. :) Not that is great writing.

  15. Hi Pam, this is my first visit to your blog & I am enjoying it, and read some fantasy. My own writing is nonfiction.
    I came over here to say hi because I read your post today on TWV, which was very touching.
    My book is about celebrating Christmas.

  16. hi Terra! Welcome to Fairies, Fantasy and Faith. I hope you join in the discussion as a reader since you have a different perspective.