Author Topic: DM/GM 101: Credible Villains (and Even Super Villains)  (Read 994 times)


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Offline Lord Palatine

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DM/GM 101: Credible Villains (and Even Super Villains)
« on: May 16, 2013, 08:08:54 PM »
In literature there are two relevant aspects of a villain, physical appearance and personality, this reaches back into antiquity, past Shakespeare and into the deeper reaches of time to descriptions of demons, devils and all sorts of creatures fell and foul telling us that bad guys are bad in every aspect of their being, and often scary-looking to boot.

As I mentioned, the devil was probably the first bad boy of literature, sometimes horned and cloven-hoofed, sometimes fair and beautiful beyond all description. Evil isn't supposed to look like us, its supposed to look like Shakespeare's Richard III, describing himself within the play as:

"But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion, Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, And that so lamely and unfashionable That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, Have no delight to pass away the time, Unless to spy my shadow in the sun And descant on mine own deformity"

And how then does Richard resolve to live his life? His bent and brooding form will turn inward upon itself and affect his very nature:

"And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, To entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain And hate the idle pleasures of these days. Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams, To set my brother Clarence and the king In deadly hate the one against the other: And if King Edward be as true and just As I am subtle, false and treacherous,"

It sounds good on stage, but is it true to life? I mean Tolkien places Gollum within a deformed body, but within that one creature lived two different minds, and the certainty that the rift in his mind and the deformation of the body were cause by the ring that twisted him to its purpose. Objects and machines can have one attribute, it is their nature. But living beings are more complex, at least in real life. Literature is another story all together.  In answer to the question is it true to life? No, actually Richard III was not deformed and no one considered him so until Shakespeare, who among his other attributes was bit of a Tudor propagandist, created this myth to curry favor with the dynasty that came to power through Henry VII seizing the throne after his forces killed Richard on the battlefield.

People look toward the stereotypes of villains, Snidely Whiplash with his long curled mustache dressed in black, the Joker or Two-Face from Batman. Traditional witches rarely get to be hot babes, they are ugly, warty and shrill and hang around dark nasty places stirring pots and weaving incantations. Torak of the Belgariad, one the most beautiful of male figures, now hideous and deformed behind a mask of steel. The inhuman-looking Nosferatu of old Romanian lore. Then there is Sauron, a big eyeball by the Lord of the Rings, but in earlier works fair beyond all reckoning.

Think about the looks of the greater villains of our times. Take away the Charlie Chaplin mustache and Hitler isn't someone that would stand out in a crowd, history has tried to deform him with the whole only has one testicle thing though. Stalin, short but not deformed-looking. Mao, not a great hairline but still, he blends into the crowd. Jeffrey Dahmer, a little geeky. Ted Bundy looks like a guy that sold me a TV. Charlie Manson looks like a freak, but he cultivates that look, so did Rasputin, but when you think about it Bela Lugosi looked more ominous than most of the major bad guys of the past century.

Perhaps one of the best villains ever written was Randall Flagg, the Walkin' Dude, the Dark Man, in several of Stephen King's books, including and especially "The Stand." He is always described as an average-looking man, dressed to blend into a crowd, or at least not stand out much. But when he wanted to he could stand out a bit.

"He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He's always outside. He came out of time. He doesn't know himself. He has the name of a thousand demons. Jesus knocked him into a herd of pigs once. His name is Legion. He's afraid of us. We're inside. He knows magic. He can call the wolves and live in the crows. He's the king of nowhere."

Looks are not the measure of evil, its actions, and even that can become problematic. Did Al Capone spend every minute of every day being the boss of the Chicago outfit? Did Jack the Ripper take a few minutes away from sharpening his knives now and then? Lets look at it from a different angle. How much of your life is spent at work? Surely you have interests outside of it after all. Long walks on the beach? Reading? Raise a family? See where I'm going?

Every movement of a villain can't be spent villainously, how boring would that be? How realistic? Maybe it would work for someone reduced to life as a fiery eyeball, but a person that is at the head of an evil empire? The life of a dark overlord can't be all conquer and pillage. There's administrative things involved in running an empire. Then again they also need a little bit of a social life, all work and no play makes the emperor a dull boy, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

Evil types need time in their schedule for interviewing henchmen, plotting, planning, conniving, staring demonically, punishing, torturing, but they also need charisma. Evil has to be able to wear a fair face now and then, or how are they going to connive and plot. If you're evil all of the time who's going to trust you? Nobody! You have to be a salesman to be evil. The product you're selling is yourself. How else do they con the old widow of her ranch, or coerce the damsel to the railroad tracks they tie her to?

Who is going to follow a guy that stands up and announces that they are evil as all hell and going to unleash carnage on the world and commit wholesale murder and steal lollipops from babies and asks the crowd to skip to the end and just make them the evil overlord now.

Ok, Mein Kampf should have been a bit of a giveaway, but that's more of an exception than the rule.

Look at the oft praised and maligned Star Wars saga. Did the evil emperor walk in wearing black and acting like he was in charge? Nope, he maneuvered in the background to make things happen, a fair face for public consumption and fell countenance for dealings in the shadows. A good villain needs to be two separate people, at least until they hold ultimate power, then some of their more asshole tendencies can come out.

Consider the example of Elizabeth Bathory, a lady from Hungary born approximately a century after Vlad the Impaler's time. She was literate four languages and known as a patroness and protector of many destitute women. She protected the lands from Turkish incursions and was known as a loyal and dutiful noble. On the other hand, with four accomplices, one a dwarf (not called mini-she as far as I know) she tortured and killed between 50 and 200 young women in ways not too pretty. Some even said that she bathed in the blood of her victims. In the end her conspirators were killed and burned, if they were lucky in that order. Countess Bathory was placed under house arrest in one room of a castle until she died a few years later. If you're going to be a high villain it helps to be someone who's trial would upset the social order and the apple carts of those in power around you.

I like my villains complex, they may not have a lot of morals or scruples, but they are interesting and capable of pulling off some interesting plot twists. But subtlety is something of a lost art these days and in a world where the good guys in Rasslin' as just as big a bunch of a**holes as the heels. We're in the age of the anti-hero, which worked with Rooster Cogburn or Sam Spade, but falls a little flat with Hannibal Lecter, who is classified as an anti-hero, but to me will always be a villain. One that blends in with his surrounding on the surface, but capable of barbarism when you go below the surface.

It's hard to be a villain in these times; people have such skewed views of what is good and bad around them in real life. Its easier to point to villains on the screen or printed page because it isn't done all that subtly anymore, when you point to the world around you it's harder to be certain. One person's hero is another's villain. We may be able to concede a few bad points about our heroes but not a single positive point about those we don't like.

People are turning away from the news and the world around them for entertainment like video games and Rasslin' because you know who to root for, real life is getting too complex for the "I want it now" world we're evolving into, directions not included.  We're taking too much away from our villains in the modern age, a lot of it I blame on modern politics, its far easier to demonize people than to intelligently explain why you are opposed to them.  The same with political parties, I belong to party A because party B are all bastards that want to [insert slanderous accusation here.]


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