Guest post by Nikolai Feinstein
Can evil be good? Can the heart of the most upright be reflected by pure opposition in the form of depravity? Is the light complete without darkness? This isn’t a simple how-to checklist for writers. It’s time to think about the purpose of evil.
For all you villain lovers out there – yes, I see you unashamedly getting excited – here’s some intriguing ideas about mastering art of understanding and creating well-rounded antagonists. I am excited to have Nikolai Feinstein as a guest blogger, sharing the deep thoughts of villainy and the holistic approach one must have to comprehend the true struggle of light and dark. An avid history lover and movie buff, he studies the connections between real-world history and the creation of evil in fictional stories.
What makes evil so good? An attraction to evil is human nature, and it is often the use of this evil that makes some books and movies so successful. So, with that in mind, what makes a good villain? When creating a good villain you must be very careful not to overdo or neglect anything, because the creation of a good villain lies on a very fine line. With having studied many books and movies that contain great villains, I have found where this fine line lies, and it is clear to me that hitting this line is not far from yourself at all.
THE COMPARATIVE CREATION
The creation of evil in your story should be, in itself, the direct creation of your story’s villain. A villain should be the epitome of everything that is morally wrong in your story’s universe. However, that then begs the question, how is your audience supposed to know what is morally right and wrong? That is up to you, the creator of the story. The author of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, once said that “a man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line”. You, as the creator, cannot just assume the audience will know what morals exist in your story’s universe, because your story might not even exist in this universe, so you must show your audience the morals that exist in your story’s universe. Because without a straight line, how is your audience to know where the crooked line lies? The truth of the matter is that your audience won’t, unless you show them. And you show your audience these morals through the relationships your characters have with one another.
A relationship between the antagonist and protagonist is essential if your story so desires to take this route towards forward progression of your story. It amazes me, though, how many stories seem to not understand this concept. For a story containing a hero and a villain, the villain’s existence is entirely dependent on the hero–the existence of the protagonist’s morals along with their willingness to defend them. Hence why, in The Dark Knight, the Joker claims that Batman “completes him”; because it is due to these morals that your villain actually exists, serving as a physical juxtaposition to your hero’s morals. Serving the hero as the point of juxtaposition should not be the only purpose of your villain; as a result, your villain will be lacking in the terrifying presence they should have . . . a presence like the darkness that surrounds a small candle.
THE DEPTH OF A SHADOW
As a candle casts a shadow, so a hero’s actions are challenged by a villain. But the depth of how your villain challenges your hero is what separates a good villain from a villain lacking true evil. A villain lacking true evil is one-dimensional, in that, they will only have the appearance of evil. On the other hand, a good villain will fulfill many dimensions of depth, creating a memorable and lasting villain. The light from a small candle in a dark room is not just in the flame, but there is an even lesser light surrounding the candle. This lesser light is your villain, it is a part of the darkness, but it does not take the direct appearance of darkness. In the everyday understanding of evil, your villain will not appear to be evil at all! While this may seem a bit cliche, it is not as difficult as you may think. You simply have to make your audience question their moral reality. A good villain should blur the seemingly unalterable line between good and evil. Your villain should be both the lesser light and the darkness.
In being the ‘lesser light’ a villain manipulates your personal morals, making you believe something you normally would not. This is the most powerful tool to your story’s villain. It should force you, as the author, to question your story’s morals, until you are no longer certain of who is the antagonist and who is the protagonist, because you cannot be apart from either . . .
THE BANALITY OF EVIL
YOU, the author, are the antagonist of your story; but you also are the protagonist. You must be the epitome of both evil and good in your person when creating a story. As human beings, I believe, we have the ability to do good, but we are more naturally inclined towards evil; and the creation of a good villain will channel both of these realities. But, why? It is because you became afraid when I said that you are the villain, you are naturally inclined towards evil, I backed you up against a wall because you know it is the truth–this is how a good villain terrifies. A good villain will terrify you with yourself, terrify you with your own humanity. Because nothing is more terrifying to human beings than when a fictional villain comes to life in the real world. And they come to life through your own terror.
It can be argued that one of the greatest acts of terror in human history was the Holocaust. And nothing is more terrifying than the monsters who carried it out. Hannah Arendt was present during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s most trusted aides, and the man responsible for the deportation of the Jews and all the other so-called ‘undesirables’ to the concentration camps. In her memory of this monster, Arendt said that Eichmann “was quite ordinary” and was the “banality of evil”. She claims that Eichmann was, on the surface, not much different than herself. It is this idea that creates a good villain. However, this on its own will not be good enough to create a great villain. You, as the author, must ask yourself, what is the difference?
THE DIFFERENCE IN THE SAME
When trying to answer this question, you should not necessarily come up with an answer, because there is, or at least should be, no difference between yourself and the villain of your story. Evil and good can, in fact, be equal when done correctly, you will know that this idea is correct because a good villain will make it correct. A good villain is created by using the terror that is completely natural to human beings; these are terrors we naturally cannot ignore. In our nature, we simply cannot sit idly while this evil in our minds, through a villain, exists.
Simply by the existence of a good villain, you will have a successful story. It will be the villain that allows for the forward progress of your story. A villain can make or ruin a great story. A villain is a very powerful tool to a writer, and however you create your story’s villain is completely up to you; your ideas make your story unique. Just remember, whether your story’s villain triumphs in the end or not, one thing is for certain: To make a memorable and lasting villain, you must be equal to this evil that exists. Because it is in yourself, that evil can be called good.
Nikolai Feinstein is currently studying Social Sciences in San Diego and plans on teaching high school history. He was born in Russia and is the fifth of six siblings, all adopted. He is a walking encyclopedia on a variety of topics due to spending most of his time reading, writing, and watching famous movies. With a love for others, he is one of the kindest writers to study the art of villainy. As a master of famous villain voice impersonations, he studies the minor details of what makes a villain, getting into their heads, allowing him to understand what makes a great villain.
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