Villainously Complex

Very often, a positive comment a reviewer will have about a book is that the characters are "complex." That means that the characters are three-dimensional and surprise you occasionally. A tough cop who is afraid of public speaking or a fragile young woman who finds courage to stand on her own are characters we like because they have depth and are not pure stereotypes.

Among writers of Christian/Spiritual/Biblical speculative fiction we often think about the complexity of our heroes. Perhaps as a respect for literature and perhaps simply as a reaction against the too-good-to-be-real-sickly-sweet heroes and heroines of traditional Christian fiction we have taken pains to include weaknesses as well as strengths, show the character as being vulnerable and even sinful at times without condoning the sin simply acknowledging it as part of every Christian's struggle.

Unfortunately, in both Christian and secular speculative fiction, I don't always find the same care given to make the villains. There are, of course, exceptions. Darth Vader's journey from Anikan Skywalker, Jedi Knight to the general of the Dark Side has been chronicled over 6 movies and 30 years. Gollum and to a lesser extent Gandalf's mentor who are both seduced by the power of the ring have some of this complexity.

But those are exceptions rather than the rule. Most fantasy, horror or science fiction villains are portrayed as simply being evil without much since of where that evil came from. Likewise, they are all evil with no good side at all. It's almost the flip side of the too-good-to-be-real hero. Even if a villain does something good, usually we attribute evil motives to the behavior whereas, we will tend to excuse or at least empathize with the failings of our heroes.

I don't know why this is. Well drawn, three dimensional villains are as engaging to a reader as a three-dimensitonal hero. Perhaps in the Christian world that may be the problem. We may be afraid that if we understand the bad guy it is like excusing him. This is nonsense, of course. As a someone who went through high school being assaulted both physically and verbally in every way imaginable, I can understand the actions of high school shooters, yet I can't condone them. Most of us who are abused in the way they are barrel through, get therapy as adults, and don't go shooting people. But that doesn't mean we don't empathize with them. The only difference between me and a high school shooter was a choice I made. It was a choice influence by parental love and a relationship with Christ, but it was still a choice.

Wouldn't it be nice to see villains and heroes where the only difference between them is a series of choices? Instead of the inexplicably inherently evil villain, we have a villain we know is like us. That is the scariest villain of all.

Maybe that is why we don't write such villains. I don't want to admit that I could do the things this evil being does. Yet, I may be just one choice away from beginning the journey down that path. If I see a villain who enjoys coaching a little league team on the weekends after a hard week of running a crime syndicate, I call into question the whole inherently evil assumption, and I have to face the reality that at this moment I may be a generally good person who sins occassionally, but a few bad choices later, I could become an evil person who does good things occassionally, and I'm not totally sure where the line is dividing the two.

Still, such understandable villains are important as anti-role models warnings that our choices determine our destiny and that any one of us has the potential of becoming an angel or a demon.


Deb said...

I'm not sure you're going to see your multi-dimensional villains in Christian (much less CBA) fiction anytime soon. I hope I'm wrong. I don't think I am. Because in this type of niche-market fiction, all the answers have to be easy and plainly spelled out for the (one-step-above-stupid?) reader. We wouldn't want them to think about the villain and say, "There but for the grace of God go I."

I just had a novel rejected because the hero & heroine got married for the wrong reasons. Well, duh. Sometimes we make mistakes...it's my job through the book to show how they rectified that mistake.

Now, where to send this book where they'll buy it? (G)

Terri main said...

Well, I'm targeting Christian Spec Fiction in this article, but the same holds true in much of secular fiction. The TV series Law and Order comes to mind. I like the series, but very many of the stories basically just dismiss the criminal as "wired wrong" or as one psychologist said about a kid a "done deal." There is no sense that these people have any positive qualities at all.

Look at movies like Independence Day or Alien. There is just this mindless evil. Even the greats like H.G. Wells creates Morlocks and the Martians without any real balance. The Morlocks I can sort of understand since Time Machine is a type of social commentary on the concept of social Darwinism, but War of the Worlds there could be some sense of why they suddenly decide to attack Earth without any attempt to communicate even to ask for surrender.

But I do think the Christian author is even more constrained because of the sense that if I understand or empathize with the villain, I am somehow condoning his actions. But we do that with the rest of society. A woman comes in distress and expresses a desire to have an abortion instead of talking to her about why she feels this is her only option, we just whip out a Pro-Life brochure and pronounce abortion as murder cutting off the conversation out of fear that if I empathize with her and tell her I understand that I must be condoning the act. So, I do think it is harder for the Christian, but certainly not unique to Christian fiction.

SherryT said...

Many historical villains have left evidence of loving their families. The Mafia is actually an extreme example of this.

Human beings can compartmentalize their thinking and their activities to mind-boggling extremes to avoid cognitive dissonance and to rationalize actions they really know are evil.

I read a short story years ago about a serial murderer who loved the role of insects in the natural order. He conceded that insects needed to be killed under certain circumstances but he was funding research into ways that it could be done more humanitarianly.


I suppose this analogy isn't entirely relevant but here goes. In a future book I have a young enchanter "snap" when he witnesses the senseless death of his fiancee. (A terrified & confused man kills her, thinking that she was a sorcerer and that she was about to kill him.)

The enchanter impulsively lashes out (magically) at the person who killed his fiancee, stops himself nearly at once, and ends up in kind of catatonic state.

Because of the distraught enchanter's state of mind, the man who killed the fiancee is held in a state of suspended animation, resembling a coma. No one quite knows what to do about it all except to pray that the enchanter will let go of something he doesn't even know he's holding on to.

None of that makes sense, right? I'm sorry.

My point is who is the "villain" here? The man who killed out of terror? Or, the enchanter who struck out yet evidently repented and almost stopped himself?
I'm not sure myself. That's because from a human pov of view, people come in shades of gray, not in black and white.

Grace Bridges said...

Very interesting. It is rare that we even get to know the villain properly in Christian fiction. I shall have to think about this some more for my WIP...

Daniel said...

In addition to the great villians in Christian literature mentioned above, I'd include the Misfit (A Good Man is Hard to Find), Weston (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), Lucian (Demon: A Memoir), many of the damned in Dante's Inferno, Count Falkes (Hood), and Messala (Ben-Hur, the book. I have not seen the movie, oddly.)

Terri main said...


I notice most of the characters you mention come from the older books in the genre. I wonder if modern literature is driven so much by movies and TV which because of time constraints often skimp on characterization.

Just a thought.


Andrea Graham said...

Girl wanting an abortion: I'd probably get her the number to stanton healthcare myself (pro life women's clinic) They're the experts. You might be surprised; some of us do have the gift of mercy.

I tend to like multi-dimensional bad guys. I avoid the pure evil thing unless the character actually literally is evil personified/the devil himself.

Shades of gray. I do tend to see in black and white, myself. But no one is all black or all white. We have areas of black and white and the composite (whole) looks awful gray, yes. Lots of issues are complex and can be difficult to sort out, too, of course. But all gray is is the mixing together of black and white. Gray is tiny black dots on a white background in traditional printing methods, in fact.

Daniel said...


Yes, I think characterization is skimpy of late, but I don't think it has to be this way. Here, many general market books could be a guide.

Both in written and visual arts, good, motivated villains are critical, whether it is Voldemort or Darth Vader.

Villain as deus ex naughty machina can really take the starch out of the story. So, even if publishers are demanding flat villains, I don't think we should ever deliver.

Look how Milton portrayed Satan in Paradise Lost.

This isn't a question of stylistic choice: it is a matter of substance. A mean and motivated villain should sell more books than just a mean one. I'm not saying that's a guarantee: more a wish!