I was reading a favorite book of mine the other day, The Belgariad, and at the end was the page with a brief bio about the author, David Eddings. It mentioned that he started writing the fantasy series as a way of working out his own ideas as to what epic fantasy should be. I have talked about what I think about epic fantasy, but I have been thinking about how I would write my ideal fantasy novel, and what elements I would include and how.
Hero: First, I don’t want to write about an orphan boy, raised by his uncle, only to find out that he is destined to some great king or wizard or whatever. Not that I have anything against that, but it does seem a bit cliche. I don’t want to write something that has been done so often before. The hero should be young, and have the opportunity to grow during the novel, and part of that growing should be learning about himself, but I don’t think I want to give him some secret past that is the secret of his success.
Villain: I have written before about my thoughts on villainy, and maybe I’m a little weird for enjoying villains so much, but I think a story needs at least as interesting a villain as a hero. We need to care about the hero and want him to succeed, and that includes having a compelling villain that the hero can be staged against. One thing I don’t like about some stories are villains who are evil just because, the big bad guy who wants to destroy everything good just because he’s evil. I think a villain should have more depth, more character, more reasoning behind his villainy.
I have been thinking about this as I have been rereading the Harry Potter books. It may seem that Lord Voldemort fits into that category of villains that I just said I don’t much care for, he’s just evil and wants to rule the world and subjugate all the Muggles. But, as I have been reading these books, I don’t really think that Voldemort is the villain at all. Yes, he’s the big bad guy, but he doesn’t really show up much. Book One: Quirrell is the villain, possessed by Voldemort, true, but the real challenge for Harry is to get the philosopher’s stone. It’s more about him defeating the traps and getting to the stone, the last trap being Quirrell/Voldemort. Book Two: Again it’s not really Voldemort who is the villain, it’s his memory, his shadow, and Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets and overcome the basilisk inside. Book Three: The villain is supposedly Sirius Black, but we discover at the end that he’s not the bad guy at all. Book Four: The major conflict here is the Tri-Wizard Tournament and the tasks involved. It’s not until the end that we find the Death Eater hiding out at Hogwarts and Lord Voldemort returns and Harry does duel him and escape. Book Five: Voldemort is indeed the villain here, but not actively attacking Harry, but sending him dreams and visions, so the real conflict Harry faces is in controlling himself, especially as he must learn to control his temper around Professor Ubridge. Book Six: I haven’t reread this one yet, so I’m still formulating my thoughts here, but it seems like Snape is more the villain, the Half-blood Prince. Snape is so much more a villain than Voldemort is. For one thing, he is always there interacting with Harry, where Voldemort hides in the background and only makes an appearance in the last few chapters. And Snape’s villainy is so much more complex. He hates Harry because Harry reminds him of the person he loves most and the person he hates most. Harry looks so much like his father who tormented and teased him, but he also looks like his mother, the girl that Snape loved so much. And Harry is the reason that Lily is dead, as she died to protect Harry. So Snape is torn between wanting to protect Harry as an honor to Lily’s memory, at the same time he loathes Harry for looking and acting like his father. There is reason behind Snape’s villainy, a depth of character that explains why he hates Harry. Book Seven: This book seems more like an old-school RPG, where the heroes are on a long drawn-out quest to destroy all Horcruxes and then engage in the final boss battle. And while Voldemort is the big boss at the end, the real conflict was within Harry, as he accepts who he is and his relationship with Voldemort, and what he needs to do to defeat him.
I want to write a villain that has depth, that has understandable reasons for being a villain. I kind want to write a story that starts out with the villain and is told mostly from his perspective so that the audience only realizes that they have been rooting for the villain toward the end. I just think it would be fascinating to play around with traditional villain stories. Because I feel that every villain must believe himself to be the hero of his own story. I heard an telling a story about Alan Rickman, who incidentally plays Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, and a child once asked him why he always played villains. Alan Rickman replied, “I don’t play villains, I play very interesting people” (source). That’s the way I’ve always felt about it, villains are very interesting people who may have just decided to do things a little differently.
For example, one of my favorite villains is Shakespeare’s Richard III. Such a wonderful bad guy, who knew he was a villain, “For I can smile and murder while I smile”, but he didn’t care. He had his ambitions and he did anything to achieve them.
What do you think? Who are your favorite villains? What do you love about them?