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L.J. McDonald | The Best Villains Turn Into Heroes

October 13, 2011

L.J. McDonaldQUEEN OF THE SYLPHSIn writing fantasy, you always need to have a villain. If there isn’t one, who does the hero or heroine have to struggle against? If they don’t have anything to make their life interesting, then nothing happens and the reader has no investment in the characters or what happens to them.

You can have just about anything as a foil to your heroes; a corrupt government or religious system, a spreading fungus that consumes all it infects, a stampeding herd of polka-dotted dragons. Whatever works. However, the traditional enemy for the fantasy hero has always been the good old villain. The bad guy.

Some villains are just utter right bastards. I read one book recently that had a villain in that I loathed. He was evil, he was sadistic, he was vindictive. I’ve rarely written anyone that blatantly nasty.  I wanted to see that guy go down so badly that I couldn’t stop reading the book until I was finished (check out THE KINSHIELD LEGACY by K.C. May). I hated him, but he still had depth to his character.

Even villains need more than their villainy to give them shape. I find that the best villains are as deeply complex as the heroes they fight against. They have reasons for what they do and in their own minds, they’re not the villains at all. After all, very few people wake up in the morning and go “I’m the bad guy”. They just do what they feel they need to, for power, or money, or a sense of duty, or a hundred other things. The hero in their way is as much an obstacle for them to overcome as they are for the hero.

Unless a villain has this, they’re not interesting, because they’re one-dimensional. A fully realized villain can be a lot harder to write, however. It’s not easy to keep them complex and interesting, someone the reader can relate to in some fashion or at least enjoy, but without making them so scummy that people don’t want to read them at all, or so good that the reader roots for them instead of the hero. That can be a hard balance and more than once in my experience, my villains have taken the depth of their character and brought it forth and gone “hey, I don’t want to be the bad guy.”

Leon Petrule was never supposed to be a hero. He was specifically created in the first Sylph book to be the deadliest of the villains sent to destroy my heroes. He tracked them with ruthless efficiency and was intended to bring the war to them. Eventually, he was to die in some horrifically deserved fashion at the end of the novel. That was my plan and Leon wouldn’t stand for it. Even while I was still plotting the book, I could see what he’d do in the next scene. I saw him caring for his battler, going home to his family, protecting people and doing things that no self-respecting villain would do, and I couldn’t stop him. My original intent was to have his battler Ril killed in order to see him become even more hateful. That turned into Ril being pulled into the hive and Leon going to rescue him, only to learn that he was the one Ril had been rescued from. I had to change my list of villains and bring in the generals to make up for his defection, which resulted, I think, in a much better book, as well as the sequel to the novel.

Leon turned into an unabashed good guy.  It turns out he’d always been a good guy, deep down, and only needed the hero and heroine to help him find that part of himself and accept it. In the process, the reader got to see a different kind of male master/sylph bond than the others, as well as meet all of Leon’s family, including Lizzy, who went on to become a major character on her own and very close to her complex father.

He was fun to write, more fun than the villains in that book who stayed villains. It isn’t so easy to write a bad guy. It requires the writing of someone who engages in things that I’d never do and to be convincing about it without being clichéd. I don’t begrudge Leon for not staying a villain because he turned out to be such a long-lasting and favourite good guy and I can always take the concepts of his villainy and use them somewhere else with someone new. Someday I will have my duty bound bastard! Maybe. If they don’t keep turning into good guys.

Not to say that I don’t want to write some ruthless evil villain that everyone loves to hate. I’ve done it and one of them is wandering around in QUEEN OF THE SYLPHS, but it’s hard to get that love part in there with the hate. I always feel like I have to hold back in how deep into the evil I go. I don’t know that anyone would want to read about my villain torturing my handsome and sexy hero by castrating him. I know I don’t really want to write it, though it would be interesting…Ahem. I have written some scenes in QUEEN OF THE SYLPHS that were uncomfortable for me to do. The villain in that book really is evil and unlike stubborn Leon, that one embraced their villainy. I hope you love to hate them as much as I do.

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