Protagonists are all very well. You pick a central character whose story you will tell, you get into their head, you understand his or her point of view. A protagonist like that generally has to carry the spear for the good guys in your story because he is the one that the reader will focus on, perhaps directly identify with. But that protagonist is by very definition the Knight of Virtue – or at least mostly so; there are always protags with shades of gray, of course, and they are complex and lovely, but mostly, mostly, they ride on the side of light.
And then there are the people who will rise to stand in that protagonist’s way. The Bad Guys. The Black Hats. The forces of evil. And somehow… your reader remembers them. Often better than your protag.
When you walked out of Star Wars, whom did you carry out with you? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Yes, you might have recognized a few quoted lines from the protagonist, years down the line. But as soon as someone started doing that breathing you did more than that. You were back there, in Vader’s shadow, touched by the billowing black cloak. If you hadn’t been… well, he might have found your lack of faith disturbing.
What of other famous villains? What of Saruman? What of Voldemort?
What of deliberately half-shadowed characters who took on the mantle of protag even while potentially being a creature of the darker realms of morality and ethics – characters like Elric of Melnibone?
Humans may admire virtue, but they do not necessarily like it all that much. Characters whose every facet is bright, shiny and pure tend to annoy after a while – everyone needs their flaws, because without them they cease to be something that any reader will be able to identify with at all. But writing an antagonist – a villain – frees you from certain constraints. You can have these people do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, and they don’t have to answer to anyone except themselves. And they come in different shapes and sizes and darknesses.
A few of my own examples… In the Changer of Days books, there are two characters who might qualify for this particular badge. There be spoilers ahead, be ye warned.
One of them is Sif, the older and illegitimate half-brother of the true queen. He rose to power in the midst of a war, when his army decided that they needed a leader who was a grown man instead of the nine-year-old girl waiting in the royal throne room, far away from the battles. Sif had been disqualified from taking the crown, by virtue of his bastard birth, but also by virtue of the fact that his mother had not been wedded because she lacked a valued attribute – that of Sight (and to learn more about that you really WILL have to read the books…) But Sight (or the lack of it, more specifically) has always been a chip on Sif’s shoulder, and it drives him to do ugly and evil things in its name. And it is those things that have forged his own reputation – that of being ruthless, pitiless, focused, someone who can kill without hesitation and without regret.
It is that reputation which sends my second villain, Ansen, the traitor, straight to him. Ansen, the foster-brother of the young hidden queen, races to Sif’s side with news of the girl so he can destroy her in order to assure his grip on his throne. Ansen is certain of his welcome as the bearer of such news – the betrayal is nothing, in the face of the reward he thinks he can reap – that such tidings will gain him a place at Sif’s side, a trusted confidant or even lieutenant, rising high in the royal favour on the strength of that coin. But he has the misfortune of arriving at the wrong place and the wrong time, and Sif is closed to him. There is nothing there but betrayal, and Sif barely acknowledges his existence before he snuffs him out almost carelessly, like putting out a candle flame with his fingers. In fact, there is a scene where Ansen, about to die on Sif’s orders, is still hoping, praying, waiting, that his hero would save him would intercede for him… would even know his name. Ansen does not know this as he dies, but Sif, casting a desultory eye on the execution that he had ordered, is asked who the hapless person about to die had been.
“Nobody,” Sif replies, turning away. “He was nobody.”
Already forgotten. Insignificant.
And yet he was a terrific villain, and he was remembered by others. Readers who had forgotten the names of many other characters remembered Ansen’s. Because his actions had stabbed deep into their own sense of justice and fairness and the meaning of glory. Not one of them could impugn his courage – but every single one hated him, with the fire of a thousand suns. That was partly because I sketched him with such passion, with such gusto. I was unconstrained by what he SHOULD do, who he OUGHT to have been, and so neither was he – and, freed, he did unconscionable things and became instantly memorable because of them.
In a different book, many years later, I painted a different villain. His name was Lihui and he was a courtier at the Imperial court in Secrets of Jin-shei. The man never raised his voice, was always unfailingly courteous and polite, would reach out to help a crippled girl stand when he came upon her fallen… and yet this is the character of whom one of the book’s readers would write, “…and I just wanted to put both Lihui’s eyes out with my thumbs.”
That’s when I knew that my job there was done. I had effectively gone behind the screen and showed the real soul of a dark and twisted character – and after that no amount of window dressing and surface politeness and general outward good behavior would have been enough. The reader had seen, and could never unsee. The brand was there, invisible, but burning on the skin – and honestly, this was a character who could now do ANYTHING AT ALL and nothing would be disbelieved of him. The world was wide open, and it was fascinating to write a character like that, free to follow every shady impulse, and to make the reader go with him, recoiling and swearing and disgusted but nevertheless unable to look away.
In my recent series, The Were Chronicles, there was a man called Barbican Bain. Another of the quiet, almost oily, ones. But because he held so fast to his convictions – as terrifying and terrible and wrong as they were – he was a train wreck you couldn’t forget. His presence was very Vader-like – you could almost hear his breathing in the background when you stopped to listen, wherever you were in that book. He was omnipresent, a shadow in everyone’s life, the cause of great sorrow that was and great troubles to come. He was an incredible character to write.
That’s why you’ll find that so many villains in literature are utterly memorable. Because you cannot believe that you are there with them – the only real way to disavow them completely and declare that no, you are SO NOT on their side is to stop reading the story they are in, and you can’t, because they’ve got you held fast and you can’t help but look at the things they’re showing you.
A good writer will use a good villain to shine a black light into the darkest recesses of the human spirit and human condition. It’s in that darkness when the writer and the reader reach out and find each other’s hand, and hold fast – because the only other person there in the shadows is someone whose breathing you will hear loud in the silence that surrounds you, and whose presence (if the writer has done their job right) is going to haunt the dreams of anyone whose path that specter has crossed.
And that is why writing those villains is so absolutely rewarding, in the end.
With every word, with every brush stroke, the writer is painting the story that is being told into the reader’s memory. It is the shadows we remember best, and last.