Anatomy of a Villain

On Friday I had an insightful chat with Joseph Planta over at (our discussion should be live next week). He gives a real “writerly” interview: characterization, plotting, personal motivation, measures of success and goal-setting. Details of our conversation are still resonating in my mind, particularly about characterization. Every author writes and develops their characters in different ways. Some people use checklists, cue cards, or fact sheets. I generally just start with a few details—almost always a physical description, since I’m visual author—and then I allow my characters to further express their personalities through the events, conversations and actions in which they partake. My characters, both fair and foul, basically take my story hostage. I’m really just there to record their exploits. I love all of my literary children, even the bad ones.

Earlier last week I completed a chapter in the final manuscript in which we see the trail of misfortune that led to Brutus’s fall from grace. Up until this point, we’ve only had glimpses of what may have turned the once noble king into a repulsive, pillaging tyrant. (An aside: some of the things he does seriously creep me out, too.) In most instances of a fall from grace, there’s always a moment of choice: to become evil, to shove aside one’s consciousness and surrender to the beast. Likewise, was Brutus driven, tempted, and near the end of his nobility, even somewhat tricked into embracing the dark. By the time I was able to view his tale in its totality—his millennia-spanning love for his brother, the conflict of a being torn between man and beast, nature and technomagik, and then, his actions as a hero—I felt for the guy. Damn. Even as an Immortal, a man above men, he tried his damnedest to defend his brother and all of Geadhain from the looming corruption, and he failed. Life kicked him right in the teeth.

Brutus’s tale is not an uncommon story. Every villain was once somewhat innocent. Unless you believe in the concept of pure and cosmic evil, which I do to some degree. However, I also think that we can treat any human evil with free will and empathy (I wouldn’t suggest having a heart to heart with Cthulhu). Violent actions can be shaped: their energy channeled into other pursuits. In pop-culture, we see tortured, ambiguous “heroes” all the time. Dexter, comes to mind. In reality, we have PTSD soldiers transforming the atrocities that they’ve endured into art: poetry, music, and literature. Author SA Hunt, an army vet turned writer who I just started reading last week, is a living example of this fluidity and inspiration drawn of virtue and sin, love and horror. I’m enjoying Hunt’s quippy prose and the moral-morass of his story.

So when I’m writing a villain, it’s important to me that they possess a spark of humanity, no matter how feeble. Villains are people who have been in the presence of terrible things: events and monsters that shatter a person’s mind and faith in what is right and good. An amazing villain leaves us constantly questioning that faith: the status-quo on “goodness”. To me, a hero differs only in her alliances and in her determination to minimize harm and maximize reconciliation. A hero has seen the same things as her antagonist, she’s been touched by darkness, war or depravity, and she’s survived that journey—rarely without scars, though with her conviction intact. (“She”, in this case, chosen for Morigan, Feasts’ protagonist.)

While I haven’t written the end of the Feasts’ quadrology, I know that you’ll watch characters cross the line between black and white so often that you’ll start to see in shades of gray. More than fifty, I promise (and the sex is hotter, too). By the end of the tale, no one will be clean, no one will be spared of sin or regret, and the horrific and mad Brutus may be worthy of a tear or two. If he is, I’ve done my job.

All my love,