A response to Blog Prompt #6 – Writing Complex Evil Characters
Villains. Hmmm. I’m a bit like TemplarSora in that my current stories do not have actual villains per say. That is to say, they don’t have revealed villains or developed villains. That said, it’s an interesting topic and one I do plan on returning in a different guise. Certainly, I don’t think that as yet, my published stories feature complex evil characters. Here’s hoping future stories will indeed pay off in this respect.
The obvious danger with undeveloped evil characters is their perception to the readers. They come off as mere cartoon villains with no real motivation and no real characterisation of the villain. Villains in and of themselves can be some of the best and most fascinating characters to write. Yet I think they work best when they challenge our heroes, challenge their perceptions, challenge their morality and make them make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make.
Are villains a key ingredient to a story? No. Not to my mind. Our characters need some sort of catalyst. Sometimes that is a situation or it is an antagonist. However, I wouldn’t limit the term antagonist to merely a villain. The term is wider and deeper than that limited subscription to the term.
How do I write villains with shades of grey? Or how grey is that shading? Well, truthfully, I find most of my characters have shades to them and a great number of them see shades of grey in others. So, I don’t limit the grey shades to the villains. Ok, so I’m the author and I have an inner eye to my characters some of whom I know can appear at first glance as though they are caricatures but if you read into a great number of them of my characters you’ll see there’s a lot more going on.
Some are more obvious. Caitlyn Ryan and Cyste Ryaenn are survivors of a Cardassian prisoner camp. In order to escape, they committed some fairly brutal acts and are of course blighted by the horrors they’ve seen and so when it comes to dealing with Cardassians they are obviously prejudiced.
Others less obvious. Tabatha Chase seems all flirt, adventure and action but she’s a rather mercenary character and given her civilian status she has no Starfleet oath or code of ethics by which to conduct her business. Chase walks a tight rope that means she isn’t exactly squeaky clean. Just how soiled her business hands are will be part of the fun of exploring the character and her world.
I rather imagine that in most of my stories, the characters are themselves the conflict and they don’t have a particular outside enemy character to contend with by and large. Of course, as certain stories develop that is going to change but as it stands I’m enjoying the conflict between characters and the situations they end up facing.
The stories I’ve enjoyed most reading and writing have been those that have featured complex moral situations that confuse the moral compasses and decision making processes of the characters. My Accipiter story ‘Buried History’ dealt with a rather complex sociopolitical situation on a planet that pitted the crew at odds with one another and then the Dominion showed up to mix things up even more. Despite that, the story had no singular villainous characters by and large. There were instances though of a number of main characters who acted more as antagonists in the story. Dr Donna Fichtner for example, got involved in a revolution movement and their cause and wanted Starfleet to side with them threatening a delicate political situation by her actions.
Do my stories feature villains as par the course? No. Do my stories have antagonists? Heck yes. However, I think a further discussion of some of them can wait for another time when some of the said stories will have more published materials. For now, I’m going to have a look at a few iconic popular villains in general before I look to my villain in Kestrel.
Let’s take the villains shown above and consider they pulp villains. Darth Vader appears readily on villain top tens because he’s just so bad. I myself, have always been rather underwhelmed by him as a character honestly – though in fairness he does have the best villain voice. However, when we learn of his rise and fall to villainy I actually can relate to the character more. The fact he gets introduced in the prequels as a little kid is astounding given the end point’s legacy. The story of his descent is fascinating in premise if not in my opinion execution.
Like Vader suffers from the ‘Oh, he’s so evil’ title established from the get go. Voldemort – He who shall not be named – in the Potter books/films is likewise presented from the very beginning as this. With a name so evil it daren’t even be mentioned is pretty damning out of the gate as is the opening act of trying to kill a baby. Props for being so evil he’ll hurt even a baby then, eh. However, we follow the story of the hero and along the way learn more about Voldemort and about his path to assuming immortality and amassing mighty power. Learning more about the villain’s background can be effective to understand their motivations but it can also have the effect of normalising the villain too.
With Magneto, we learn he’s born out of the concentration camps of WWII. That’s a dark place in the first instance for anyone but when his powers manifest, Magneto has seen the very worst of humanity – so no wonder he sees no hope for them and sees himself as outside humanity, he is not human and he embraces that. As a villain then, that makes him very chilling because it means he doesn’t have the same rationale to apply. However, what makes Magneto an ever more fascinating villain is his prior friendship and connection to Picard – I mean – Charles Xavier. The fact that the two friends end up on polar ends, battling each other as much as battling the forces that threaten their mutant existence is one of the most genius brushstrokes. It makes things so much more complex and muddies the water for all concerned.
Then in direct contrast, we have The Joker, I’m thinking in particular here that as presented in The Dark Knight. The Joker is given no background, no motivation for why he does what he does, why he wears the make up, why he is so focused on Batman, or why for a man who is an anarchist he makes so many elaborate plans? The film played with this by revealing some backstory from the Joker himself as to how he got his scars, only he tells conflicting stories and we don’t know what to believe. Despite not knowing his motivation, or learning more about his character, we are enthralled by the character because of what he does, how he does it, and how he challenges Batman and the people of Gotham.
Kestrel – Hunting Grounds is the closest to having the conventional villain in the person of T’Hos Likk. In many ways, T’Hos doesn’t work too well as a captivating villainous character because he is mostly off-screen to the story and his rare appearances to date have all been rather flat and two dimensional. He’s been compared to a Bond villain for such reasons. This is not a bad thing altogether. T’Hos is but a mere catalyst for McGregor and the crew of the Kestrel to be out on patrol chasing him down.
However, by story’s end, the Kestrel will have come face to face with T’Hos at which point I’m hoping people will see how bad a guy he truly is. At that juncture, his acts, his counterpoints to McGregor, the plans T’Hos will hatch and the lengths he will go to in order to stop McGregor, will justify him in the ranks of bad guy. In-universe, we have seen already that T’Hos went to some lengths to break station security to board the Kestrel at rest and infect the ship with a deadly toxin. It was some means to go to in order to make McGregor suffer. Especially given said toxin could have earned him a pretty penny.
What are T’Hos’ motivations beyond that? Well T’Hos is a pirate in the Orion Syndicate vein of piracy. He’s involved in all manner of dark trading, largely based on people trafficking and slavery. During the course of the story we see some impact of such slavery trade and we visit a number of squalid worlds where people like Likk and the Syndicate rule over them and we see that on the border the bright utopian vision of the Federation is but a dream. Given that we see such sights and suffering, T’Hos as villain isn’t so much his person as what he perpetuates and profits from.
T’Hos is greedy and ambitious and very dangerous. This is a figure willing to take on the Orion Syndicate and take a slice of their action. His ambitions include creating a piracy network to rival that of the Syndicate’s. One part of that plan is to actively seek out McGregor and his crew and destroy them. In part, Likk’s plan is to satisfy his own lust for revenge and satisfy a kin blood feud. It is also a statement to the Border Patrol Service, to the Orion Syndicate and to the people living in the sector McGregor patrols that T’Hos does not see McGregor or the Border Patrol as an authority, as untouchable, and that Likk’s own power and might will not be tested. It is vanity of vanities in many ways, but no different to any businessperson with grand schemes and ambitions making the bold decisions that pay off and make them millions. Perhaps in the context of T’Hos’ piracy world it makes sense. Likk has to gamble big in order to win big, otherwise either the Border Patrol or the Orion Syndicate is going to take him down.
The real threat that T’Hos poses however lies in the fact he has a potential mole onboard the Kestrel and the fact that he is baiting McGregor into a confrontation. T’Hos believes he knows McGregor and his weaknesses. Likk imagines that he can best McGregor in his schemes and so cement his position in the criminal underworld. The threat of the mole onboard has caused some trouble, straining the command team and the trust of the senior officers. Additionally, McGregor’s first officer, Molly Cartwright, is fearful that Likk has successfully baited McGregor and that McGregor may be blinded by revenge and or pride so as to not see reason and know when to call a halt to the hunt.
At the outset of writing the story, this was always the core threat to the story. McGregor might be his own worst enemy. Would the captain be so driven in his quest that he might doom his entire crew? Early on, McGregor was compared to a number of things. One particular that struck me was a comparison to Ahab. SLWaker herself made this comparison but has reviewed that comparison since. Yet, despite her reviewing of that position, Steff did strike a certain chord in regards to McGregor, especially at first glance. He is very driven. He is fairly vain and egotistical too. He cares about his ship and his people and they were all attacked by T’Hos when they were supposed to be in safe harbours. This then, is perhaps enough to blind McGregor.
Whether it is or isn’t you’ll have to keep reading to find out (and I have to keep writing it too) but it remains that those closest to him like Molly begin to increasingly believe McGregor may no longer be making the best choices for the sake of the ship. By story’s end, McGregor and the crew are going to be challenged and some tough calls are going to be made. Characters will be challenged by their choices, betray or lose their beliefs, their trust, and their friends and comrades.
Sometimes, the villains and the heroes are within.