Where would the hero be without their villain? The protagonist, without the antagonist? The conflict between two forces, whether directly or indirectly, openly or secretly, has been a staple of storytelling. Hero and the villain don’t always start as such, nor do they always end up as such, but at some point in both character’s journeys they will oppose each other in one way or another. Readers should have as strong a reaction to the villain as they do to the hero, and like the hero the villain should develop over the course of the story, reactive to their changing situation, and with the intention of being victorious.
The antagonist serves many purposes. At their core they are the foil to the protagonist, set at odds by contrasted values, goals and outcomes. Villains and heroes execute different plot roles: often it is the villain who develops the origin of the conflict, while the hero provides the solution, or vice versa. A villain does not need to be evil to be effective, but like the hero they should believe strongly in what they do. In some cases the difference between a villain and a hero is purely a matter of perspective, motivation, and means to achieve what are similar ends. Antagonists can teach us as much about our nature than a hero, relieved as they can be of social restraint and the pressure to do right. Villains often do what we wish we could do, were it not for the consequences.
To me the best villains are those who have clear motivations, are consistent in the pursuit of those motivations, and can generate a level of understanding in the reader. Making the antagonist sympathetic in some way is also a useful tool so that readers engage with the villain whether they want to or not. A good antagonist can make an excellent point of view character, providing a 360 degree view of the story as well as a different lens through which we can examine the protagonist’s actions and motivations.
In the Echoes of Empire series there are a number of villains but the most prominent is Corajidin of the Great House of Erebus: a nobleman and a statesman; a nationalist and to a degree an idealist; intelligent; educated; and with firm opinions, a course of action, and the will to see it done. In the early days of writing The Garden of Stones, the first novel in the EoE series, Corajidin was never a point of view character. It wasn’t until first readers had read Act I that they saw some value in telling a third of the story from the perspective of the man who set events in motion. So in addition to the points of view of Indris and Mari, I added Corajidin and additional avenues of telling the story opened up. Rather than hearsay and conjecture, the reader had the direct perspective of the villain and knew not only what Corajidin wanted to achieve, but why.
Corajidin begins the story as tragically flawed and misguided, but his motivations are clear and his methodology understood. As the story unfolds either his expectations for his own future need to be managed, or his course changed. To satisfy a self-serving agenda within a veneer of national pride and sentiment, what little decency remained to him was shredded away as he dug deeper into his id and ego to do what he believed needed to be done. As a point of view character the reader joined Corajidin on his self-destructive journey and was with him through his entire decision making process. The same insight into the villain was provided in The Obsidian Heart and The Pillars of Sand, where the reader held on as Corajidin sunk deeper into a circumstance of his own making.
At no point in the novels would I describe Corajidin as a nice person. Though it does not excuse him, he is a product of his nature, his nurture, and his need, no different from many people in positions of authority who are forced to make compromises. In Corajidin’s case those compromises had a domino effect throughout the story from which he refused to escape. In many ways his ultimate fall from what he could have been under different circumstances was as tragic as the fall of any hero.
The villain’s point of view can be an effective tool, and one writers can use to keep the reader immersed in the story from all perspectives.
Mark Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), and The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013). The Pillars of Sand is the third of the series, due for release in May 2014. In April 2014, The Garden of Stones was selected as one of five finalists in the 2013/2014 David Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Newcomer/Debut, with the winner to be announced in London in June 2014.
You can find out more at www.marktbarnes.com, his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/marktbarnes.author, or follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTBarnes.