Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Making the Case for Flat Villains


I’ve been thinking all week about Monday’s post and your responses to it. Normally, I try to respond to all comments individually; with this one, however, I’ve decided to just do a follow up post.
After reading so much agreement with what I said (and much love for Les Mis), I started reconsidering. Yes, in general I like well-rounded villains, and remembering that the villain is the hero of his own story is a good place to start. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that literature is full of bad guys who are bad, period, and we don’t always get the sense of ‘self-heroism’ from them. There are times when it’s appropriate to give your villain the flat treatment. Making the case: Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings, and James LaValle, from my own Parallel Lives.
Sauron is one of the baddest bad guys ever. His whole purpose is to find his ring so that he can conquer all of Middle Earth and enslave its peoples. What we don’t know is Sauron’s motivation. Is he trying to live up to the impossibly high standards his parents set? Is he trying to woo Galadriel? Does he just want ocean-front property? We don’t know, but we really don’t need to know. Sauron is believable. History is littered with men who lived to conquer, and the book was written during the time of Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini and Stalin, men who tried to impose their will on the world. We’ve seen this villain in the real world, and we don’t understand him any better here than in the pages of a book.
The other thing that makes Sauron work is narrative distance. We’re never in his head, we never visit him in his tower in Mordor, we never even see him. That distance allows Tolkien the luxury of not having to give him a personality or fears or dreams beyond what we already know. In other words, he gets to leave out all the stuff we’re told to put in if we want to have well-rounded characters. It’s not supposed to work, but it does. If you have an overarching bad guy like Sauron, you may not need to give us more than the broadest view of what he wants.
And then there’s the point of view of the story. When I sent out Parallel Lives to my first set of readers, I was rather worried that the story’s antagonist, James LaValle, was too flat. Was he believable? I wondered. Did I need to give him more dimension, more depth?
The LaValle we see in the story is what we used to call a ‘derelict’ back in high school. He smokes pot by the bushel. He’s disrespectful to teachers and disruptive in class (and not in a good way). He’s a bully. And for some reason, he decides he doesn’t like my protagonist, Chris Burke, and begins a systematic campaign of harassment that lasts throughout high school.
Now, it was tempting to go and give James some redeeming features, and to wonder why he’s like this, but I resisted, based in part on the story’s point of view. Parallel Lives is a first person narrative, told exclusively from Chris Burke’s perspective. He can only know and react and respond to what he sees, to what James shows him. And James never shows him anything but his bad side. The closest we get to seeing another side of James is in this quote from a friend:

‘”He used to be so nice,” Madison told me once. James had just knocked the books from a seventh-grader’s hands and scattered them halfway up the hall with a kick. “He taught half the kids on our block how to ride bikes.”‘
 So there’s a hint that James wasn’t always like this, but that’s as far as I took it. In the story’s present/past narrative, older, wiser Chris Burke has some theories on why James was such a jerk, and examines his own behavior to see how he may have unwittingly escalated the conflict between them. But he never knows for sure, because he can’t truly get into James’s head, and James isn’t around anymore to give him an answer. His high school self never asked James, “Why do you have a problem with me?” though if he had, he almost certainly would have been told, “I don’t like your face.” Or maybe, “Because you were born.” You know, those classic high school comebacks.
I was gratified when my readers told me I didn’t need to do anything with LaValle. I think if you’ve attended high school, you’ve likely encountered someone like him. Beyond that, what we’re allowed to see of James is limited by what Chris sees. In this case, James as continual jerkwad works; I can get away with leaving him as ‘the sneering, jeering King of the Burnouts.’
So there you go. I think remembering that the villain is the hero of his own story is something to keep in mind, but before you break out the bicycle pumps and try to put more air into your bad guy, ask yourself whether you really need to or not. Consider the page time your villain gets; consider the point of view of the story. Only pump if it makes sense to pump.
Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

9 Responses

  1. Bad guy motivation can be a lot of things. Mostly I think they just want what they want and will do anything to get it. Not to get all psychological (well maybe a little :P), but it sounds like even your bully is looking to reinforce something unhealthy he needs through his behavior in order to feel "good", and doesn't care who he hurts as long as it's not him. You're right we don't necessarily need to have that explained, especially if the story is told through another character's POV. Just knowing he's a bad guy is all we need sometimes. We can sort of intuit the rest.

  2. I really like this post, and I definitely agree – sometimes bad guys are evil, they just are. Sometimes a sympathetic bad guy is the best way to go. But there is evil in the world, and evil often needs no motivation. However, as a matter of word-choice, I wouldn't say that unsympathetic villains are 'flat'. I wouldn't call Sauron a flat character (even though we barely see him, and always from a distance). Some of the most interesting, dynamic, intelligent villains I've read about have absolutely no visible reason to be the way they are. It's part of their personality, which can actually be far less flat than a stereotypical villain who did bad things because 'mommy didn't love me'. That villain has reasons, even empathy, but that's not always enough to bring him to life. 🙂

  3. You make some good points here. Some people just don't seem to have any redeeming features, or they've been buried somewhere as their evil side takes over. Yeah, some people we can't explain their motivations. That can be pretty scary if used effectively!

  4. Great points, Jeff. My villains rarely make it onscreen – and I never get inside their heads. Of course, my stories are romances, so I guess that's hardly surprising! 🙂

  5. You make some great points here, Bethany. The word 'flat' has some unfortunate negative connotations in regards to characters, but it was the best I could come up with. Maybe 'one-sided' would work better: it gets the point across without quite the same negatives as 'flat'.

    I think you also hit on something else that I thought about but didn't get into, and that's 'cartoony'. Sometimes, the 'mommy didn't love me' villains we get come across as caricatures and over-the-top. Those guys are still flat (in the negative way) despite being way overdone. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I see where you're coming from, JeffO, you've raised some great points here that I never really thought of. As writers, we need to consider what is necessary and what is unnecessary within what we write, and that includes how flat or well-rounded our villain is, like Sauron and LaValle compared to Javert or Light Yagami from Death Note.

  7. Thanks, Bonnee. As Bethany pointed out, 'flat' may not have been the best term. And yes, you're exactly right, it's up to us to know what the story needs from our antagonists (and all our characters, of course) and build them from there.

  8. I just love this post and I think you're right about it all. Although it makes me wonder if I went too far with the bad guy in my new book. LOL. We'll see I guess. But yeah, I always like the distance because when someone brings violence and trauma into our lives, even if we've known them for years, we suddenly feel as though we never knew them at all. It's very disconcerting.

  9. Hmmm… I'm thinking it depends on your story, possibly your genre to some degree (how much you really need to pump up your villain).

    Also, I think there is an element of trend to this thought that bad guys need to be fully fleshed out. It is like saying you should cut all adverbs. If you read older books, there are tons of dialogue tags and adverbs and flat/purely evil bad guys.

    More to think about…a few pages yet until my antagonist makes his debut.

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