Fantasy Is as Much About Its Villains as Its Heroes

Part IV On Conflict, War, & Mortality – Characters of the Nasty Sort

Characters of every sort, shape, and persuasion form the skin of a story. Villains, victims, heroes; for good or ill they inhabit a novel’s pages, march across its landscape. Through its characters we discover what we cannot see of a story – its bones, heart, and sinew, the scaffolding of plot and story arc that, like blood, flows hot with hidden purposes and slowly revealed secrets.

For my two cents, of all genres within fiction’s sweep, fantasy and science fiction enjoy the broadest canvas upon which to paint a story. What colors can they not use when all and every color possible are available. From Earth’s shadowy past to worlds and dimensions of pure imagination (think Avatar for starters); from flesh and bone hominids to sentient plasma clouds of evil (or good) and everything in-between to include vampires, ghouls, trolls, orcs, faeries, elves, dwarfs, demons, dragons, sandworms, and every variant of witch, warlock, shaman, shoulder woman, and wizard … it’s all fodder for the author’s imagination. Still, despite reality’s fluidity, despite the carte blanche possible for setting scenes, it’s the characters – of whatever kind – that will determine whether we turn the pages or not to read more.

Villains of the Nastiest Sort

Well before I scribbled my first story, I had become a serious reader of fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction. Slipping from one genre to the other offered a perspective on villainy across the genres, from the fantastical to the down-to-earth-this-character-actually-walked-the-pages-of-history. (My favorite historical fiction writers, when including a dramatis personae with the novel’s real-life characters starred with asterisks, display a night’s sky worth of starred actors.) Dig up one of Lady Dorothy Dunnett’s fictions and you’ll discover a truly engrossing tale woven within a historically factual tapestry. I’ve read and loved her novels: The Lymond Chronicles (a six-part series during 16th Century Scotland, England, and France); The House of Niccolò (an eight-part series during 15th Centrury Bruges, Russia, naples, Venice, Florence, Genoa, and the Ottoman Empire); and King Hereafter (The real Macbeth’s story).

It soon became obvious that while the protagonists generally fell into the heroic mold while the villains were … well, villainous, the best written, attention grabbing novels presented their readers with villains every bit as conflicted, as vulnerable, strong, loving, admirable or weak as any hero’s character. Quite simply, as people (or sentient entities as the case may be), villains must be as interesting to get to know as the most likable, admirable character in the story. Love ’em or hate ’em, the stronger emotion they invoke the more believable they are, the more compelled we are to turn the page and discover the tale’s end. The greater we are invested in the story, the greater our suspension of disbelief. It’s one thing to believe unquestionably in Santa and his elves at five years of age. But at fifteen? Or twenty-five or sixty-five? It all begs of us a wee wink at our very well entrenched beliefs, our rock-solid convictions about reality. Do that as a reader and you slip into a wonderfully crafted fantasy with all the fervor of the true believer. And that, is the quest and responsibility we share as writers of any genre, much less fiction. Towards that accomplishment, see your villains as the vital force they can be.

Coming next: Part V of Conflict, War, & Mortality

Heroes Are Like Shadows, Neither All Dark nor All Light

Find out more about Drew’s latest epic fantasy book “Years of Bone and Ash” and pick up your copy of Upon a Legacy Sworn.