The Regime

"Furthermore, I think that Carthage must be destroyed."
Cato the Elder

I have a horrible memory. Everything blurs together after awhile when your mind is travelling at breakneck speed through half a dozen time periods and as many stories at once... I'm sure you know the feeling. It must have been somewhere between watching the Harry Potter films and some of the recent Marvel productions (real high-brow entertainment, I know, I know) when it dawned on me the wastefulness of these villains. If you insist on barking "Avada Kedavra" left and right, or smashing up whole sections of a town (and the people in the town), when the day is over...who will be left for you to rule over? It suddenly seemed stupid. If you kill a whole people you won't have a people to rule over - and isn't that what you want? Power, recognition, control, fame, the heights of worldly aspirations? But when chanticleer has killed all the other roosters with his spurs, there is no one to applaud him when he stands on the top of the dung-heap. There seemed to be no good point in killing so many people. Even such magnificent works as The Lord of the Rings bothered me with this apparent lack of purpose.

Puzzled, bewildered, I put the question to my husband. Now, my husband can bluff like the devil and I can be as gullible as a child who was born yesterday. I complained that it made sense to decimate a conquered people to teach them who was boss, but you didn't just wholesale slaughter them unless they had proven really stiff-necked (see Cato). He told me this was because these recent stories are built off the Nazi regime and the fixation, not just on world domination (that's an old one) but on the wholesale slaughter of otherwise innocent people groups.

Let's not kid ourselves. Politics until a fairly recent era has always been full of back-stabbing, double-crossing, cloaks and daggers, smoke and mirrors. Politics still has all that, but in our country, at the very least, you are unlikely to find an appointed member of government communally stabbed to death beneath a statue of one of our founding patrons. But what about politics on an economic and inter-provincial scale? We are going to assume that the reason for invasion of a people is for conquest, not for an escape from a depleted farmland or displacement by other moving peoples. We are going to assume that the sword is being used to gain greater power for the hand that wields it.

In general, if I were to invade a people in a large, lush river valley, do you think it would be expedient for me to slaughter them all because, well, they aren't of my people and I want the land for myself? It might be. I might wipe them out and plant my own soldiers there. But I need my soldiers and they aren't time-expired from the army yet, so what do I do? Leave a contingent to hold the peace and let the natives continue farming, harvesting, breeding and slaughtering, and make them pay with the fruit of their land (my land) as tribute. Ta da! National income.

I'm addressing this to fantasy writers because historical fiction often has a lot of parameters laid out already. When you make a villain, and you want to go on the war-path, you have to ask yourself: "Why? And how?" Is this for world domination and rule, or a psychopath's need to kill everything that doesn't say "Yes, sir"? (These are not always mutually exclusive.) Does your villain have a god-complex, or an ego the size of Anatolia, which makes him think that he is the best thing that has ever happened to his country and that he, and he alone, will bring it ultimate glory? Remember, it is unlikely that anyone will act passionately thinking that what he is doing is wrong. I am not going to kill Caesar thinking that killing Caesar will damage the Republic. I am going to kill Caesar because I believe in my heart of hearts that Caesar is a menace to the Republic and that he must be put away. (I might do it for money, though.) I'm not going to secede because I want to break up the Union, I'm going to secede because I think the Union is unfair and oppressive. I'm not going to hunt down and kill the Scarlet Pimpernel because I hate Englishmen, I'm going to hunt down and kill the Scarlet Pimpernel because I believe the aristocracy is a plague upon France (and because I'm French and I've always hated the English). I may be dead wrong, but by golly I'm going to think I'm right. So half the trouble is making your villain reasonable, making him more than a mere power-hungry killing machine, making him more than the poster-child of the Regime. Villains are more than people out to kill everyone else.

Rationality, purpose, a political and economic arena. The regime that stories like The Lord of the Rings were inspired by wielded the sword with purpose too, and it had a reason for what it was doing, a reason it thought was right. But we have to go back and make our reasons in our stories; we can't just hang our stories upon the horror of a massive steam-rolling villain trundling across the landscape, leaving needless and brainless desolation in its wake. And the stronger the validity of the villain's reason, the stronger the villain himself. He may be wrong, he may be unjust, he may be completely blinded by his false ideals, but at least he is more than a marching killing machine. If he wants to be king, he needs people to rule; if he wants his way, he must fight with ideas. He can be a complete devil, but even the devil knows how to be cunning.

" 'Bout fifty percent of the human race is middle man, and they don't take kindly to being eliminated."

8 ripostes:

  1. Very enlightening post. I think I already had an inkling about what a villain should not be - a mindless guillotine - your post turned that inkling into actually thoughts, and now I'm thinking hard about Mr Evil in my novel.

    I kinda-sorta disagree regarding your opinion on LOTR. As I see it, yes, Tolkien did write Sauron as an evil conquerer, but he is also much more than that. Sauron didn't want to take over the world just for the power, he wanted to destroy anything and everything that was ever good in the world. I don't believe Sauron wanted subjects. I think he just wanted to snuff out the Light. Rather like Satan in our own world, no?
    Perhaps I'm wrong. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in such a way that many think it is allegorical, much like C.S. Lewis' Narnia. But Tolkien said that wasn't what he intended. So I really can't claim to say it is one way or the other. But above is my opinion.

    p.s. Where, oh, where do you find such awesome art for each of your posts??

  2. I'm pretty sure Voldemort was rejected in his application for art school, and that's where it all started.

    Seriously, though, this is something that's always bugged me: not so much with LotR, since the characters' inward bent toward power always made the evil of Sauron and his Ring far more interesting than just a glowing ocular device determined to kill everybodyz. But surely due in some part to an exposure to Sauron-like villains on the part of writers, I think now the fantasy-genre is far too overrun with Evil Overlords who have no other purpose or motivation than to provide a sufficient source of conflict to a plot So That A Hero May Be Shown To Be Awesome. Perhaps if writers would read a little less Paolini and a little more Chesterton, they would realize the common villainhood of mankind is a far more interesting and difficult subject (and therefore more worth wrestling with).

    Common man! There lie perils far greater than a textbook of the terrors of Hitler, or the evils of the Ku Klux Klan. Anybody can write a raving mad villain, just like anybody can write Superman. These people are made of plastic in two-dimensions, and of course they are easily written (if it can be called 'writing;' more like a child tracing the awkward outline of a horse with a stencil and proclaiming that he can "draw"). It does not take much to recreate Hitler; he is easily believable in caricature format. All one has to do is scribble in his moustache. But what of the German people of Hitler's day? How will you draw them? Ordinary folk, villains and heroes alike, who require writers to actually look at themselves and know themselves and rub shoulders with real people. The process is infinitely more painful and personal, and therefore (I would say) more worthwhile.

    That is not to affix a universal ban on the Evil Overlord, and I'm glad you have not done so entirely. Use him if you must. But make sure you understand him (as Jenny says), and make sure the conflict doesn't stop with him - unless, of course, your dream job is mediocre script-writing at Disney, Inc.

  3. Good thoughts, thank you. In the very early drafts of my current work, the villain was simply power-hungry and full of hate, his motivation to take over the world being merely desire for power. In subsequent revisions, however, he's turned into a hardened man, who started on his downward course for the sake of love to those dearest to him.

    Like director Pete Doctor says, nobody goes to bed thinking, "I wonder what evil I can do tomorrow!" Everyone has to justify their actions somehow.

  4. As the aforementioned husband, I find this question of villainy interesting, and I should like to address a few of the above points.
    I think pointing out Tolkien's having made Sauron an attempt to blot out the light is valid and well worth noting. He very publicly acknowledged though, that he was influenced by the wars of his day. Some of this can be seen in Saruman and his use of mechanization. As Anna rightly reminds us too, there are also subtleties in every character's relationship to Sauron though, that make the story so much more, and consequently ensures Tolkien's place among the greats.
    Even Hitler though, rationalized his actions, which is how he managed to convince to many people into complicity. He blamed the Jews (also Gypsies et al.) for all the strife that Germany had actually wrought on itself. This it seemed that their extermination was justified. He wanted to conquer and rule the world, and wanted all nations (full of people) to acknowledge German superiority.
    As to the average German person of the day, that is a very interesting, and I think worthwhile inquiry. My brother's last Nano Novel actually dealt with how one becomes the "bad guy". While he ended up setting it in a fictional universe, he had considered setting it in Germany during WWII, sharing as he does similar interests to those here represented.

  5. Three things.

    One: I won't belabor the point well made by others, but Sauron's spiteful destruction absolutely parallels that of our own Adversary. Though not explicitly an allegory, his defiance (and Morgoth's before him) is certainly influenced by Tolkien's theology.

    Two: I was gonna mention my little scribble of last November, but Tim already plugged it for me! Specifically, the goal was to question the notion that since Vader and Palpatine were unquestionably evil, the whole of the Empire, and particularly its political and military stewards, must be as well. Not sure how well I succeeded but if anyone's curious I'd be happy to share.

    Three: For a magnificent deconstruction of the theme (and much more elegant than my own), I cannot recommend Alan Moore's Watchmen highly enough. To say more would be to say too much, but it has well earned its reputation.

    Adding a Fourth: If you should ever find yourself as an Evil Overlord, don't ever turn into a snake. It never helps.

  6. A question for Chewie: Have you read 'Becoming Eichmann'? Disturbing, but at the same time enlightening in an ironic way: how an enlightened man can become overwhelmed by, and consequently an agent for, the darkness.

  7. I have not read that one, but it does seem very interesting; I'll keep an eye out for it. It seems to me that the enlightened types are especially prone to this trap. The "just following orders" underlings will seldom think it through beyond that, but the ones with a specific end in sight will readily adopt any means to reach it. "With great power comes great responsibility" - and great temptation. Whatever the disposition of the Egyptian generals, it was Pharaoh's heart that God hardened, and while the crowd may have clamored for Barabbas, it was Pilate who washed his hands. Through the character of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky probes this issue to its core; Neitzsche's Uebermensch soon discovers that God is far from dead.

    A caution to the authors out there, however; simply ascribing good intentions gone awry to your villain is not enough. If clumsily done, you end up with something like this:

    Anakin: I had a dream that my wife dies in childbirth.

    Palpatine: I will give you the power you need to save her. Now go to the Jedi temple and slaughter children.

    Anakin (busily typing on his iPad): "Slaughter children," got it. Should I murder my wife while I'm at it?

    Palpatine: Sure, just make sure she survives long enough to give birth to your twins who will eventually overthrow us. That's how the next movie starts, you know.

    Anakin: Can do. Wow, character development is fun!

    ....not that I'm bitter or anything.

  8. LOL Chewie! :D Anakin was actually part of my inspiration for making Erasmus (my villain) more realistic, though I drew a lot of inspiration from Denathor as well. Your book sounds very interesting!

    I'm very interested in villains (us sadistic writer-brains are like that), so I'm enjoying listening to all these thoughts and theories. I have been told I write great villains, but I sometimes have trouble pinpointing their motivation realistically.