Recently, I had an interesting dialogue with a writer friend on Twitter. He’d looked through my sci-fi/western/drama/romance and mentioned how “graphic” it is. I agreed that it’s probably “the most gleefully graphic I’ve let myself get in a long time.” Our conversation became more about writing side stories, but I kept thinking about why I’ve enjoyed working with this particular story so much these past few months. Part of that reason is that personal allowance to be graphic, an allowance I haven’t given for my more recent original fiction. There’s a lot of sex, because that’s a big part of the main character’s personal journey, but I’ve also loaded it with more action and violence than I’ve done in a while. Following that thought, I came to realize that it’s the villains who have made this story so much rollicking fun, for me.
I’ve read analyses that say the villain is the most important part of the story. I don’t exactly agree with that wording, because not every story will have a “villain.” In more precise – and also more amorphous – terms, I think it’s conflict that drives a story. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but I want to go into some more detail, here.
Every story needs some conflict, whether it’s external or internal. It’s nice to see characters get a breather or spend some happy time together, but a whole book about that would be rather boring. My drama stories tend to lack a villain in the traditional sense because the conflict usually arises from the hero himself. One of the common characterizations in my stories is that each main character is the principal architect of his or her own happiness…or their own misery. The decisions they make determine how they move forward or backward. Of course, I like development, so they usually set themselves – or get themselves set – on the right path, but the journey’s the fun part, anyway. That said, I hadn’t written a real villain in a long time.
Then, I decided to write a western.
I spent a lot of days reading old westerns, especially the serial stories of Elmore Leonard. The villains in those short stories were varied, violent, cunning bastards. And, even if they only made themselves known for a few pages, they had presence. I wanted my sci-fi shoot-em-up western to have that. Because, while the main character’s internal conflict was perhaps the most important part of the story, he would never be able to make that journey of self-discovery without someone pushing him on. Or shooting at him, as the case came to be.
I love writing my heroes. But, I’ve loved writing these villains, too, each one of them, for their own reasons. Red Widow because she’s a smart, sexy grifter, and deadly for that:
She’d saved her head with her hands, and pushed back against the wall to shove him off. One leg flew out behind her, connecting with Hal’s gut. He staggered with an oof! and she spun, another kick catching him in the ear.
Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, is insane. But his insanity is full of such self-righteous zealotry, his every line full of such grandeur, he makes a formidable foe:
Lohengrin swung his flame toward the popping drehlafette, and licking fire met stoic metal as the autocannon’s barrel slid into place. The muzzle spit its first round, and its second, when the Swan Knight gave a sudden strangled gasp.
Reilly is driven by a simple desire for revenge, but it’s changed him to the point of being unrecognizable even to his old sergeant:
Ax froze at the sight: a gleaming, golden horror of a man, almost seven feet tall with pylons for limbs and black enhancement goggles pressed deep into the puckered flesh of his face. In front of his left eye glowed a red targeting reticle, blazing in the dark. His chest was pockmarked with sparking holes and indentations from the drehlafette, but none of them slowed him down.
And Strenk, who’s probably my favorite of the lot, simply because he has no overarching goal or reason for his grittiness. He’s just plain ol’ nasty:
Strenk’s gaze filled his focus, cold and damning. “Open those pretty petals, tulip.” He dropped his free hand to his crotch. “I want to see if I’ll fit.”
All of these villains do horrible things, and I occasionally feel a bit scared at how easily some of their actions and dialogue have come to me. At the same time, though, I believe in art as a catharsis and unhindered outlay of our personalities, both the dark and light parts of it. Art is also a relatively safe way to explore the more dangerous demons within each of us. I don’t think I could ever pick up a flamethrower and point it at someone, but it definitely gets my senses tingling to imagine that and create it on the page. I suppose what this exercise has truly shown me is that my villains have as much to say about me as they do about my hero. Their danger, their brutality, the sheer ugliness they represent have made this story a crazy-fun ride, because for every dark, twisted action they throw at him, my hero grows a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser, a little more…heroic. But then, isn’t that what a villain is supposed to do?
What is it about your villains that you love? (Come on, admit it: there’s a part of you that loves ’em!)