Villains. For days I wracked my brains trying to come up with a single villain I loved to hate. I couldn’t. After talking with a friend, I had to admit that I’m just not that into villains. I’m into forces of nature. When I think of villains, I come up with the big, huge, soulless entities. Zombies. Umbrella Corporation (from the Resident Evil games and movies). Entire species of invaders from outspace (the bad guys in my SFR books). Global warming, mega tsunamis, mega volcanoes – or any other way our planet might kill us. The techonology that allowed modern man to create living dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
Maybe this is what comes from being a science fiction author – we’re conditioned to think in terms of humanity learning to comprehend the scope of its apparent mastery of nature and technology. (And subsequently finding out that maybe we hadn’t mastered everything quite the way we’d thought.) It’s a little like Vizzini’s line in Princess Bride: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” In science fiction the classic blunder is: Imagining you know what you think you know will now be disproved. Usually in the worst way possible.
In trying to parse out why I’m drawn to the big, faceless, soulless baddies, I came up with a couple of notions:
a. It feels real to me – how many of us totally and completely trust our government? Do you even know what your government looks like (with the exception of the executive branch photo ops – how about your district’s representative for state office? Not me.) How many of us trust industry to have our best interests at heart unless we’re major shareholders? I think we all grasp ‘faceless, soulless, out to get us.’ Okay. Okay. My love of conspiracy theory fun is showing. Sorry.
b. The big entities offer nearly overwhelming challenges to heroes and heroines – it’s one thing to fight a single person and entirely another to battle something where you can’t even get a handle on WHAT to attack. I do not discount the value of going up a against a single baddy. Hannibel Lector has already been mentioned – brilliant foil for Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. But from my perspective, he isn’t a villain in that movie. He is a foil – someone designed to change Clarice in such a way that she can go from novice investigator to someone who can and does catch a killer. Not even the killer Clarice is trying to catch is the bad guy. Clarice, herself, is the greatest enemy she has to overcome. Which brings me to my third and most important (to me) point.
c. A huge soulless villain points out the fact that the bad guy is inside the hero or heroine the entire time. I think this goes back to the notion of each of us being our own worst enemies. When we’re faced with a big, faceless force, our tendency is to try to humanize it by projecting. From Wikipedia, the definition: “Psychological projection or projection bias is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people.”
I argue that most projection involves the portions of ourselves we don’t want to own – our negative traits. It’s much easier to hate laziness in someone else rather than have to face it and deal with it in yourself. But this is the point of bad guys like Umbrella Corp. Heroes and heroines can paint the overwhelming force with their own dark aspects and then do battle with both themselves and the big bad. Remember reading the Greek plays in high school and college? All those happy, feel-good plays that left the stage littered with dead bodies? Did instructors mention that there’s a fine, thin line between tragedy and a happy ending? In both stories, the hero has to overcome some part himself in order to succeed. Tragedy = failure to execute change in oneself. HEA = change in hero so triumph is possible.
So. What do I like in a bad guy? Menace. Apparent soullessness. Grandious conspiracies are a plus. In the end, though, I’m looking for someone or something that forces my characters to look inside themselves for their fatal flaw so it can be fixed – or not – depending on what the story requires. Change is hard. Especially if you’re asking me to do the changing. One person nagging me to start exercising I can just write off as a jerk. The zombie apocalypse where everything that moves and isn’t human wants to make me a snack pack? I’ll get up off the couch and lace up the tennis shoes. No worries. Maybe that’s why I don’t seem to focus in on a single nasty villain. Single nasty villain need only meet one single bullet on a day when my heroine has PMS and then I’m out a novel.