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The Fluffy Factor

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Jul. 22nd, 2008 | 01:43 am
mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

Oops! I usually update this blog on Sundays, but I missed yesterday. Call it summer scheduling; I'll try not to be late again.

So, I am now about sixty-five pages into The Dogwatchers. This story, unlike many of my others, has a villain! However, I am somewhat concerned that he may be fluffy.

By "fluffy," I mean something incorporating "too sympathetic" and "not nasty enough." I've expressed this worry before about my villains. Now, to sort out some thoughts on writing bad guys via discussing villain types as I see them.


The Traumatized Terror

Many villains rely on emotional scarring - often to the point of insanity - for their actions and motives to seem realistic. Common is the "crazed with grief" or "mad with the desire for revenge" villain. Generally, she was driven to villainy by something in the vein of:
- murder (or perceived murder) of a loved one
- being rejected in love (especially if another person - say, the hero/heroine - replaces the villain)
- physical pain
- serious psychological abuse
- persecution (or perceived persecution) of the self or a group including the self
- extreme fear
- some combination of the above
Think Darth Vader, Dr. Octavian from Spiderman, or Two-Face in the recent Batman movie.

This villain type has a high potential for fluffiness. If the trauma was bad enough, people may think "Well, of course she became warped and murderous! Just look at what happened to her entire family, ancestral home, and pet puppy!" The main thing that makes her a villain is that the heroine, had this happened to her, would probably have handled it better. Indeed, sometimes these things happen to the protagonist as well: think of Harry Potter and Voldemort. Both start out as orphans in rather poor circumstances, but only one becomes evil. But I'll talk more about Voldemort later, since he doesn't really fit in this category.

The main way I have seen people keep the fluffiness down in these villains is by injecting a heavy dose of pride. As in, "She's not upset because she cared about the puppy; she's upset because someone dared to do that to her puppy." Or, "She thinks she will be seen as weak if she fails to annihilate the entire tribe that did such a thing to her puppy." Fluffiness can also be lowered by making the villain obviously malevolently insane, mostly expressed by giving her high collateral damage and really twisted plans.

The alternative is to create a "Good person driven mad by trauma does terrible things, repents, and sacrifices self in a last act of goodness" scenario. See again Doc Oc. This allows for fluffiness on a level that otherwise cannot be sustained, because just at the point when the villain's bad-guy identity would collapse under the weight of reader (or viewer) sympathy, the character goes out in a blaze of redeeming glory.


The Psycho Without a Cause

I have to refer again to the recent Batman movie, as the Joker is a good example of this - rather blatantly so. His lack of an apparent past and detailed explanation of his chaotic motives make it pretty clear that what he's about is pure, violent crazy.

Sometimes, this villain is a sadist, sometimes a sociopath, sometimes a narcisist who wants to prove that he can get away with this, or to crush someone who seems to have wronged him. Extreme and immovable racism, classism, and so on can land a character in this territory. There may be unhappy circumstances in this person's past, but not enough to qualify for the above type - or, even if things were bad enough, it is clear that those circumstances did not make this person the villain he is.

Some characters who are merely jerks, not actually evil, have a stripe of this in them: they like bullying people, or they clearly see themselves as superior. Obviously, this does not make them psychopaths, and it rarely makes them villains. The key difference is commitment.

This villain type is common among creatures that the reader cannot be expect to understand, or that need not evoke sympathy. He may be an alien overlord who sees all Earth life as expendable, for example, or a low-intelligence monster that eats people. Technically, these may not be "insane," but their minds do not follow healthy patterns for a human, those with which the reader is expected to be familiar, and their motivations therefore need not play by the rules of what seems reasonable.

Really, this is where Voldemort goes.


The Iffy Villain

While definitely an antagonist, this is not really a villain at all. She is a sort of Bad Guy Lite, and may have difficulty carrying a book or movie alone. She makes an excellent stumbling block for the protagonist, and may be an unwitting servant of the real villain. (She may even be a witting servant, but one who becomes reluctant once the villain's true evil comes to light.) Think Draco Malfoy, or (if you've read it) the irresponsible parents in Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock.

This encompasses most antagonists who:
- think they are doing the right thing
- are motivated by laziness, selfishness, ignorance, greed, or an overzealous concern for rules
- only have a problem with the protagonist because of something tangential and/or unimportant ("She looks just like my sister that Mom always loved more!")
- are cowards
- have no objection to the protagonist, but only to a specific goal of the protagonist's ("I don't care what else she does, but she's not getting this amulet of puppy-restoration!")
- are unwilling to go to great and evil lengths (often, this means "not prepared to kill people")
- do not have enough focus in the story to be the main villain (the "miniboss" - common in Redwall books as the murderous lieutenant of the real bad guy)

Depending on the motivations and depth of the character, a high potential for fluffiness arises. (Just ask Draco's fangirls.) The upside is that these guys can afford fluffiness, as they don't usually have to carry the entire plot, except in young children's stories. Indeed, they are often allowed to survive, and may even turn good.


So, though I didn't plan it this way, my division of villain types mostly came down to those with understandable, human motives versus those without. ("Human" motives need not require a human character, of course.) Some characters walk the line between these, or seem to fluctuate. Some stories leave the villains' motives and minds largely unexplored, leaving the reader to assume or guess (though many of these - especially in, say, generic serial-killer mysteries - fall into Category Two). Still, this is probably the most important and basic distinction.

The issue I run into is that my villains often lack the evil oomph to make it into either of the first two categories, and languish in the third. In Lord of the Dark Downs, I have a villain who is really only threatening enough to be a miniboss. Fair enough; he should be all right once I go through in editing to enlarge and hopefully darken his role. In The Dogwatchers, the bad guy seems dangerously fluffy - a traumatic experience plus not having done anything all that bad equals a weak force to stand against the protagonists. Hopefully, I'll be able to build his bad guy cred without shedding too much blood, something I can hardly ever bring myself to do. And it's tough: in a fantasy world with magical healing but no resurrection, injuries don't pack much punch unless they're either fatal or extremely nasty. It's possible this will be a job for "oh, you mean it was him that did that awful thing all those years ago?" - less because of my unwillingness to kill off actual characters (though I admit to that wholeheartedly) than because, well, awful things did happen all those years ago. We'll see!

No puppies were harmed in the writing of this journal entry.
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Comments {1}

"Also, I can kill you with my brain."

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from: toastedcheese
date: Jul. 22nd, 2008 02:11 pm (UTC)
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I love how fluffiness is a technical term. :)

This reminds me of a Doctor Who episode - a character who has done some very evil things shows compassion toward a potential victim, and it is rather fluffy. But the Doctor argues, no, that doesn't make you a better person. Plenty of evil people show compassion on a whim, to make themselves feel better or because they liked the person in question. It doesn't actually make you a better person, and only shows how much power you have over other people. That kind of meta-analysis of evil can be fun.

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