On the worst of villains

There is an interesting post up at ejfrostuk‘s blog, on the implacable villain. If you are interested in the workings of villains and how to write them, I recommend you go read it, as there are some interesting ideas on what makes a villain truly scary. But I also thought I’d add my own thoughts on the matter here.

The question raised on the blog is whether it is realistic with an opponent that simply won’t stop. My answer is, that depends.

For villains such as the Terminator or the vampires from 30 Days of Night, it is absolutely reasonable to go about their business (in these cases, killing the protagonist(s)) with relentless persistence. The Terminators are machines that act as such, and the vampires are predators that behave in their natural way as well. Both operate under rules that do not afford humans a special place, and so there should be no reason for them to hesitate or turn back as long as there is a war to be won or food to be eaten. This, logically, means continuing until the humans in their way are dead or devoured.

But what about a human villain? Is it realistic for a human to be relentless? My gut feeling is that it would take special circumstances. Villains without empathy could be one such circumstance. The psychopath would have no reason to stop. But we don’t always want to write psychopathic villains. What about villains that are empathetic in some ways, maybe even most ways, just not when it comes to the protagonist? That is a harder sell, in my opinion. Still, it is not impossible.

One way in which a ‘normal’ human might fit the bill would be if they have utterly dehumanised the protagonist. Why stop if what you seek to destroy has no inherent value? We find this in real-life crime, where the victim is not afforded human status by the perpetrator. We find this in assaults, in murders, and in war. The victim is not addressed, is not even talked to, and when the victim is discussed by the perpetrator(s), he or she may be referred to as animals, lesser-than, even an ‘it’. This allows the perpetrator to act without hesitation, relentlessly and without apology. This is the villain that won’t stop, that won’t negotiate, that might not even talk to their victim. Is it realistic? Yes, unfortunately. Is it going to work in a story? Yes, in some stories. Is it scary? I honestly can’t think of anything more frightening.

Go read the post over at ejfrostuk. It’s good.

2 thoughts on “On the worst of villains

  1. Thank you so much!
    I think “beastly” bad guys like the shark in “Jaws,” the Terminator and other non-human entities are easy sells as unstoppable villains. We expect super-predators and machines to be relentless. And a human who is a super-predator for some reason, like serial killer, is convincing as a unstoppable villain. I think Hannibal Lecter fits into this category. But I’m finding it really hard to make my very ordinary, human villain unstoppable. I’ve decided to pair my villain with an artificial intelligence in order to dehumanize the villain and give the villain access to more information than a normal human would have. I (hope I) can get away with this because I’m writing scifi. But I don’t know how to get away with it in, for example, a contemporary murder mystery. It would be a real challenge. If anyone can think of any book that pulls it off, let me know!

    1. I really enjoyed your blog post, and I absolutely agree: it is a much easier sell if the big bad is a big shark. I can’t think of any book that has pulled off the human version of the unstoppable villain, or even tried, but I don’t think it would be impossible for a good writer. We do, as you mention in your post, have near-unstoppable heroes, so why not the reverse? A pairing with AI is a cool workaround to make the reader believe, though. Sci-fi is great for precisely this reason. Looking forward to seeing how your villain turns out ?

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