Sympathy for the villain

Flight of the Armada front cover

In order to tell a story there should be conflict so the protagonist can get from point A to points B and C through personal growth and struggle. To achieve that goal, the protagonist needs an antagonist to provide the struggle which brings growth to the protagonist. If life was easy with no bumps in the road and everything flat and uninteresting, we’d all be in Nebraska. (Sorry, Nebraskans; too easy I know.)

My point is, antagonists are just as important to a story as the protagonist. In order to cheer the hero, one must also have a worthwhile villain to hiss. Therein lies the hardest challenge for a writer: one must have an interesting, well-rounded, fully realized hero to champion but one must also provide more for him/her than some cardboard mustache-twirler with a single-minded threat. But the villain cannot be too grand or the audience will cheer for the wrong character. The hero cannot be too wholesome and perfect or the audience will roll their eyes and hope a trapdoor will swallow him whole.

Think of all the books you’ve ever read or the movies you’ve seen, where the villain winds up being the more interesting one to follow. Take the character Loki from the Thor movie: sure, you’re expected to root for Thor but Loki became such a marvelous character in his own right, he somehow won the spot as Character We’d Most Like To Bring Back in a Sequel. And they did, in The Avengers and then again in the Thor: The Frost Giants sequel. Okay, it’s fair to say Tom Hiddleston’s onscreen charm was the major reason Loki worked as well as he did, but that’s also my point. One must make characters that fully flesh out a role and do more than simply wear a sign around the neck reading: Boo This One. How did he get that way; what makes him tick?

Let’s take one of my main villains from Flight of the Armada, Colonel Tomas Hellick. Tomas is jealous of the monarchy and wants power for himself, and he seeks to get that power through the ranks of the Royal Thuringi Air Command. Now if that was the whole background for Tomas, he would be just another cardboard character in the role of antagonist. There are other bits and pieces about Tomas we learn along the way: he not only wants to rule, he wants what other people have. He steals Lia Neo away from her “common” mechanic fiance Gareth Duncan. Gareth later finds love with Princess Carrol, a fact that makes Lia jealous because Tomas doesn’t ‘please’ her the way Gareth once did. Tomas is humiliated by Lia’s public whining, and later loses a duel with Gareth over an insult Tomas gives Carrol. Only later does Tomas realize if he had pursued the princess instead of Lia, he could be two steps from eventual rule, himself. (Damn! This close!)

We also learn Tomas lost his father at an early age and endures speculation that his father was possibly involved in a scandal with a married woman. All this makes Tomas a bitter man. But bitterness and loss are only two components; more needs to be shown in order to breathe believability into Tomas Hellick. And so let’s turn to Book 9: Trouble in the Dark for a scene. Lia has died in the Great Attack against the fleet and after years of struggle and abuse, Gareth has returned to the Armada in triumph. Tomas has never paid attention to his son by Lia, leaving his brother-in-law Glendon to fill in for him, until Gareth returns and takes an interest in the boy. Officer Serene Gordon is on hand to make a few astute observations:

Once the competition ended, many gathered went to congratulate the winner. Glendon and Gareth strolled over to Terran as he was congratulated by Jessick’s father Serene.    “That was a solid performance, Terran,” Serene said.

“Thank you. Hello, Father,” Terran stammered, as Tomas strode up.

“Let’s go, I’ve got to return to the Ellis.” Tomas ordered impatiently.

“I usually take him to a cantina for a treat,” Glendon began, and Tomas glared at him and took Terran by the arm.

“He came in seventh. That may be enough to reward a Garin, but not a Hellick.” Terran gave an involuntary wince at the disapproval in his father’s tone.

“Tomas, for God’s sake! He fought well,” Glendon rebuked, appalled that a man would say such a thing in front of his own son. Garins might not openly praise their children, but they certainly would not put them down in public.

“Perhaps if he had been here to see it, he would realize that,” Serene commented, and won a glare from Tomas for his efforts. “I don’t see what you’re on about, Colonel Hellick. I haven’t noticed you working with Terran in the consue room the way Colonel Garin does. If you don’t like the outcome, you’ve only yourself to scold.” Tomas could not dispute that, and he fumed.

“You surprised me with that initial duck and turn,” Gareth said, addressing Terran. “Is that what they’re teaching in consue these days?”

“Why no, sir,” Terran said with a smile, without thinking about the volatile nature of what he was about to say, “Every lad in the fleet knows the initial parry of Major Sword and Fist.”

“I beg your pardon!” Tomas snapped, jerking his son’s arm so hard it lifted the boy off his feet for a second. “Don’t ever let me hear you say that, again!”

“Don’t do that to him!” Glendon warned, his hand forming a quick fist. He lowered his hand as well as his voice. “Damn your eyes, Tomas, don’t you dare lay a hand on that boy.” The consue instructor was near enough to hear the exchange, and stepped in between the two men.

“Colonel Hellick, your son did an admirable job today. You should be proud of him.”

“Well, I never said I wasn’t,” Tomas told him hotly. “But I would like to know just what kind of garbage you are teaching the cadets these days. That dodging parry of his was not proper form and you know it.”

“I’m afraid the parry is becoming more and more utilized. Even the champion used it to his advantage.”

“Well, it’s sloppy!” Tomas insisted.

“It worked on you, didn’t it,” the instructor said with a distinct chill. Those standing near them fell silent as Tomas Hellick stared at the man incredulously. He then turned to Gareth.

“Keep your damn sword and fists on that fat ugly ship of yours, Duncan, and leave my son alone. You have no claim on him.” To Glendon, he spat out, “Perhaps if you were a better man, you’d have a son of your own, Garin.” He dragged Terran toward the door. Terran looked back over his shoulder at Glendon, stark fear written plainly on his face. Glendon charged after them.

“Poor Terran,” Jessick sighed. “He has the most awful luck.”

“Yeah, poor Kick Face,” echoed Terran’s detractor sympathetically. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on him.”

Glendon caught up with the Hellicks in the hall, and struck at the hand with such a tight grip around Terran’s arm. Tomas released the arm with a pained gasp. Glendon spun the elder Hellick around against the wall with one hand and brandished his sword with the other. “Let me make this perfectly clear, Tomas Hellick,” Glendon said in a deadly voice, “I will be watching this boy and so will Lezale and Mace Neo. If there is so much as the slightest discoloration anywhere on his body, I will strike you. If there is the smallest cut or sore spot on him, I will tear you to pieces. Lia wasn’t a fighter and she never had a chance against you, but I vow I will take you apart if you harm him.”

“I’ll raise my boy as I see fit.”

“Raise him? You ignore him at every turn; why, he doesn’t even live with you! But now for some mysterious reason, you’ve suddenly developed an interest and it’s negative! God’s eye, man; are you never pleased? I would give anything to have a son like him, and you don’t deserve a moment!”

“I keep my distance from him because I know what people say about me,” Tomas growled back, toe to toe with the Naradi. “Don’t you think I know how hard it is for him to be the son of Tomas Hellick? The spawn of Colonel Sourpuss, the descendant of Captain Evil? Do you honestly think it will help him for me to spend time with him? Why? So others can mock him for taking fighting lessons from the man who was defeated by the great Major Sword and Fist?” Glendon’s hold on him lessened at the words. Tomas threw off his arm in disgust, and glared coldly at Terran. “Well tell him, boy. Do the other children tease you and make sport of you, because of me?” Terran slowly nodded as his eyes reddened and watered. “Eh, stop it. Don’t be a crybaby.” Tomas addressed Glendon again. “If you want to pamper him then that’s your business, but I know perfectly well that tomorrow, he’ll be teased for losing at consue. Seventh place is nothing about which to brag. It is the same as being struck by a Fist.”

“Tomas, I… I don’t know what to say –“

“Then keep your nose out of my business. I never asked you in it, in the first place.”

Tomas knows his faults, he realizes them as well as anyone, and it is important for the writer to bring the reader up to the point of understanding and sympathy for him before it is clear that Tomas deliberately chooses to be an asshole. He could be kinder to his son – but he isn’t. He could give up his vendetta against Gareth, but he doesn’t. He could turn to Glendon for help in being a better man and father – but he won’t. He’s too busy feeling sorry for himself; he’s enjoying his imagined role as a martyr of the people when he’s not a martyr AT ALL. He’s where he is because he’s worked hard to become a colonel in the Air Command but he earned that position just like any other officer of the RCAC. He also used his position as director of the Hours staff to gain advantages for himself and his friends in the absence of the royal family by skimming various people’s work hours here and there in order to award his friends and followers with bonus hours. He was brutal to his wife when she was alive and is now just as brutal to his son. He IS Captain Sourpuss to his crew.

Yet Tomas has moments of clarity and remorse where he KNOWS he is in the wrong. And just when you think maybe, just maybe Tomas Hellick might actually turn out all right, he returns to his role as villain not because the story has to have its designated bad guy, but because his character is too weakened by his own self-pity to want to improve himself. He needs that self-massaging ego trip because nobody understands how hard it is to be Tomas Hellick, better than Tomas Hellick.

When I first began writing Flight of the Armada, I intended to make Darien Phillipi the antagonist and his twin brother Stuart the protagonist. But not only did that smack of trite storytelling, it did not make sense for these two brothers who loved each other so much, to suddenly turn on each other in adulthood. Better to make Darien the younger twin who enjoys his freedom as the Royal Spare while Stuart the older and more serious Royal Heir, accept their roles and learn to play to each other’s strengths in order to lessen each other’s weaknesses. Yes, that’s the beauty of fraternal love and trust in the monarchy of Thuringa.

But Tomas, with no noble title but a proud family history of military service and adventure, is unhappy to have lost out in the genetic lottery. Rather than make the most of what he’s got (and it is considerable) he continually looks for ways to complain about something totally out of his hands: he wasn’t born a Phillipi. He was born smart but he wasn’t brilliant like the Duncan lads Gareth and Clive. He grew into reasonably attractive manhood but he wasn’t a stunner like his brother-in-law Glendon Garin.

Well, suck it up, Tomas. Work with your strengths.

I think the thing that makes a villain really villainous is when it’s all completely up to them whether to do well or ill, and the villain makes the deliberate choice to do ill. It’s not as if he’s born in desperate circumstances and must fight for every scrap of decent living – that would be understandable. It’s when there is a choice and he’s decided to be a whiny bitch about everything, that you want to shake him and yell, “well why didn’t you do otherwise, you idiot!?”

It also makes me very aware of secondary villains – “henchmen.” Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up and I’ll guarantee you no kid has ever said, “I want to be a henchman to some villain some day.” No; everyone is a hero in their own story but circumstances don’t always award a heroic role to everyone.

Henchmen are created when a character finds himself between a rock and a hard place and there’s only one way out of his predicament – to earn his daily bread by doing the dirty work of someone far more clever and ambitious than himself. You could say that Tomas is Dr. Asa Mennar’s ‘henchman’ in that Asa is the one who wants to destroy the monarchy and rule the Thuringi himself, and Tomas helps him because Asa has guaranteed him Warrior General status in his New Order. Tomas the military man knows command is difficult, whereas Asa the civilian has little idea how to run a civilization with any amount of practicality. Asa can use Tomas’s military discipline and Tomas can use Asa as an excuse if something goes wrong – “well, what can you expect from a civilian?”

Tomas has a family. Most villain henchmen just kind of show up in stories; are they all orphans or runaways, or do they write home saying “my boss has me on some really hard assignments so I can’t come home this holiday, but here’s a few quid for you to spend in my absence”? When James Bond shoots the Specter henchmen in the villainous underground lair, does anyone care that said henchman was once someone’s sweet baby boy? Then again, if he was regarded that way, it’s not likely he’d become anyone’s henchman. Perhaps henchmen really ARE all orphans or runaways – or tormented souls who deliberately decide to be assholes.

Perhaps it is the baffling adoration of the “Bad Boy” in our society, that villains are often seen as the attractive side of the protagonist/antagonist agenda. But villains are still to be booed and hissed; we need to recognize the hero as the side we should be on, so we MUST make him admirable. In a future post we’ll explore the pitfalls and trails of writing a good guy without making him a goody-two-shoes guys.

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About jmichaeljones57

I am a writer and an avid fan of goats. The two facts are not mutually exclusive.
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