Creating Compelling Villains

In the fantasy genre, heroes enjoy the spotlight, but villains inevitably steal the show. A compelling villain can terrorize, dominate, and even seduce our sensibilities as they lurk in the background or emerge to play havoc with the narrative. Let’s be honest – the Joker is much more intriguing than Batman. Without Darth Vader and his iconic mask, wouldStar Wars have become such a global phenomenon? Speaking of masks, who can ever forget Hannibal Lecter’s comically hideous restraint in The Silence of the Lambs? By the end of the movie, half the audience was rooting for Lecter to escape. Even Clarice Starling’s most devoted fan would have to concede that Lecter is the real star of the show.

When creating The Tapestry, I knew that villains would play a central role and thus I thought long and hard about them. Who were some of my favorite villains and why had they exerted such a hold on my imagination? Darth Vader was certainly in the mix as was Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. Cormac McCarthy’s Judge in Blood Meridian is undoubtedly the most terrifying fiend I’ve ever encountered in fiction – so perverse and patient and knowing. Dolores Umbridge has nothing on Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestand of course there are the Hannibal Lecters – urbane and charming even as they pencil you into their menu.

I came to the conclusion that compelling villains needed exceptional depth of character or absolutely none at all. The former are Lucifer-types – seductive, convinced that their motives are noble or justifiable, and often marked by some fall from grace or turning away from convention. The latter are pure entropy – destructive forces that will never, ever stop no matter how long you run and no matter how you try to reason with them. It’s just what they do. The middle of the road villains – those without real charisma, grand plans, or even blind, predatory instincts tended to be generic. I didn’t want those. To my mind, I had to go big, go primal, or go home.

I’ve introduced a major villain in each of The Tapestry’s three books thus far. In The Hound of Rowan, we ultimately meet Marley Augur – an undead blacksmith who had betrayed his old order and kidnapped gifted children with the goal of resurrecting an ancient power. While Augur’s actions are reprehensible, he is also a somewhat sympathetic figure. Marley truly believes that his former allies betrayed him; that he was abandoned to rot in obscurity while honors were wrongly heaped on others. He’s driven by vengeance, yes, but also the idea that he’s rightly toppling unjust institutions and their hypocrisies.

In The Second Siege, we meet the demon Astaroth – the arch-villain of the series and chief antagonist in The Tapestry’s mythology. When creating him, I knew he’d have to be utterly charming. He’s not a brute or some mustache-twirling fiend, but an immensely intelligent architect whose vision and schemes far surpass human understanding. While he fancies himself a living god, he’s also playful. Astaroth has a sense of chivalry and humor to match his cruelty. Most unusual of all is the fact that Astaroth never lies.

This last wrinkle is perhaps the most interesting facet of his persona. Like most otherworldly entities, Astaroth is bound by certain strictures and his requires that he speak the truth. This is not only a fun and useful mechanism to drive the narrative, it also lends depth to The Tapestry’s main villain. Astaroth might want to consume you, but at least he’s upfront about it….

By The Tapestry’s third book, The Fiend and the Forge, Astaroth rules the world as the living god he’s always fancied himself to be. But day-to-day management is not really Astaroth’s style and thus he’s installed other demons and subordinates to rule the various fiefdoms that have come to replace mankind’s former countries and cities. One of these demons is Prusias and we come to know him very well.

When creating Prusias, I wanted to combine both models of a compelling villain – I wanted him to have the multi-dimensionality of an archfiend while also giving the primal savagery of something altogether brutish and alien. There is no gray area with Prusias – he is either dominating you with a gruff charm or the switch is flipped and he becomes something so wild and ravenous that even Max McDaniels is cowed into mute terror. While Astaroth’s personality might resemble one of the late Roman emperors in its effete, distant civility, Prusias is earthier, more human and accessible- akin to a barbarian king from some Germanic tribe. Prusias might be jovial and courteous, but he also exudes a simmering menace and the omnipresent threat of sudden, horrific violence. Max is often reminded of the Great Red Dragon in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Prusias is not merely some overgrown lizard, but an ancient evil capable of devouring nations…

Overall I’m pleased with my villains. I think each brings something distinct to the story while skirting some of the pitfalls that could make them generic. As the author, I can’t help but love them. Heroes are often bound by rules and convention, but villains are not. Their mentalities and morals (or lack thereof) provide a writer with immense range to exercise his or her imagination. Whenever I create a scene involving one of my villains, I can’t help but smile as their wickedness flows from my mind to my fingers and finally onto the page. Do my villains make me a bad person? Couldn’t say. I know they make me a better writer.