Redemptive Traits

I’ve talked before about causing readers to experience hatred for villains, and I probably will again, but today I’ll look at the other side of the coin:  loving villains.

It’s easy enough to hate a bad guy.  There are some outstanding examples where the opposite is the case in recent pop culture, but usually audiences want the bad guys to come to a bad end.

However, villains are people–well, characters–as much as heroes are.  People are complicated, especially the ones who do terrible things.  Reflecting that truth in a villainous character can make them incredibly interesting, and when I want to write such a villain, that starts with the aspects of the character that wouldn’t go on their bad guy resume.

The wholly evil villains aren’t terribly realistic, after all, any more than wholly virtuous heroes are.

Take Star Wars, for instance.  Emperor Palpatine is a backstabbing, scheming tyrant who really likes power and doesn’t much care about who he walks over to get it.  We never see a single redemptive act during Palpatine’s screentime.  Darth Vader, on the other hand, loves his son and misses his wife.  That doesn’t make up for the slaughter of the Jedi younglings or the destruction of Alderaan, but it gives us a look at him as something other than a scary black mask.

Star Wars would not be Star Wars without Emperor Palpatine, but Darth Vader is the face of the dark side.  In some ways, his redemptive qualities make his terrible acts even worse–how can you love that deeply, and kill that easily, at the same time?

It’s similar with the Lord of the Rings.  Sure, Sauron and the Ringwraiths are terrifying, but Gollum is the bad guy we remember, and Boromir the hero whose fall from grace speaks loudest.

It’s easy enough to look at popular villains and say what it is that makes them so interesting.  It’s harder to write similarly interesting baddies without accidentally slapping a new name on an old character.

However, there are some common themes which the most memorable villains tend to share.  Love.  Revenge.  Fear.  Hunger, in some cases.

Loving someone, as Darth Vader does, is the simplest way of giving a villain extra depth.  Real love, valuing someone else at least as much as oneself, is universally considered good.  Or so I assume.  If it isn’t universally good, then there are dark corners of the universe that I do not wish to visit.

Because of that belief in the goodness of love, baddies who love someone are fascinating.  Those who slip to the dark side as a result of their efforts to protect a loved one are doubly interesting.  Artemis Fowl loves his father enough to do practically anything to find him–and Artemis is definitely a villain in the beginning–and so we understand him.

Revenge is another common theme in the genesis of a villain, and it usually begins with love.  (Blank)’s need for vengeance against (blank) because of the death of (blank) in Captain America:  Civil War makes him far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill “I will destroy the Universe!” villain.  His destructive tendencies have a purpose and a motivation, even if they’re misguided.

Yes, the censoring was necessary.

That said, vengeance because of some slight against oneself can be as interesting as vengeance because of love.  It can establish the villain’s selfish nature, as well.  Loki joined the dark side initially because of his father’s rejection and finding out he’d been lied to his whole life.  We’ve all felt rejection, and we’ve all had some aspect of our worldview prove to be false–even if it was just Santa Claus.  The rest of us don’t normally try to destroy planets afterwards.

Well, I thought about it.  Briefly.

Giving our villains those redemptive traits so both we and our audience can better relate to them can be complicated.  Everything worthwhile is.  I keep at it anyways.  The characters that result are often at least as interesting as the flawed heroes.


The Week of Insanity

After typing that title, I have Princess Bride lines spouting off at the back of my mind.  Ah well.

This week, next week, and probably the week after that have been/will all be hectic.  Finishing my portfolio and application to the Illustration program at BYU.  Helping with my church’s Pioneer Day celebration.  Babysitting.  My brother’s birthday.  A change in medications.  One of my best friends getting home from his two-year LDS mission in twelve days (not that I’m counting).

Last night I helped operate the fairy floss machine to make sure it would work at the Pioneer Day celebration on Saturday.  I still had sugar in my hair when my family hauled me off to see Star Trek–which was amazing, by the way.

I have a very strong auditory memory, so during times of stress like this my brain starts playing a few of my favorite songs on repeat.  Today it’s Who I Am by David Archuleta.

There was supposed to be a picture with this blog, but the technology is not cooperating.  My apologies.

Next week:  Why villains need redemptive traits.  And possibly a dragon.


One of speculative fiction’s few flaws is that it rarely touches on that frustrating aspect of contemporary civilization:  Paperwork.  There’s a great scene on the subject in the film Jupiter Ascending, possibly inspired by a similar scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but for the most part we don’t talk about it.

It’s not like we discuss how often the characters vacuum their bedrooms unless it’s plot relevant either, but I find that paperwork is mentally and emotionally draining enough to deserve at least a few storied moments.  Maybe we just avoid thinking about it too much.

I’ve always quietly worried that there’s a clause hidden somewhere that means I’m signing away my firstborn child.  I always at least skim the terms and conditions.  Or maybe I worry that I’ll get a digit wrong on my SS number and be arrested for trying to impersonate someone else.  Or that I’ll forget to write down a relevant medical condition and accidentally sign up to do the kind of physical labor my spine isn’t straight enough for and end up unable to get out of it and cripple myself for life.

Avoiding the topic of paperwork could be an aspect of the character of a spec fic creator.  I would have cheerfully spent the rest of my life in Middle-Earth fighting orcs if it meant I didn’t have to fill out another scholarship application at the end of high school.

I still might consider it today.

Maybe it’s just me.  Creators of speculative fiction are a complicated mix of businesspersons and daydreamers, and the most successful ones are responsible adults in all the ways that people outside our field care about, including with paperwork.  Even I’ve gotten okay at doing it.

I still don’t want it invading my fantasy worlds.

But I think there’s a story in paperwork.  Maybe not one I’ll bring myself to write in the next few years, but definitely a story or ten.  A red tape ninja who buries the bad guys in paperwork so they don’t have enough time to do their villainy would be epic.

Stormtroopers and Droid Armies

My wisdom teeth were removed earlier this week, and I’m still on quite a bit of pain medication and shouldn’t be allowed to drive or discuss Important Topics.

I don’t think that rules out talking about Star Wars, though.  I mean, yeah, Star Wars is important, but no one will leap down my throat for discussing it wrong.  Except maybe a few die-hard fanboys.

So.  Let’s talk Star Wars morals.

The Old Republic was meant to be the best government the galaxy had seen, but time and corruption messed that up and made it easy for Palpatine to manipulate events.

It didn’t have any sort of military force–just the Jedi, who were peacekeepers and meant to be separate from the government–so when they actually needed an army, the Clone Army of dubious moral roots slid right into place without anyone raising an eyebrow.

I feel like someone should have questioned the way the clones’ only purpose was to serve the Republic and the fact that they’d been programmed to be okay with that.  How can you protect the galaxy’s freedom when the majority of its fighters have never had what they’re supposed to protect?

The Jedi aren’t off the hook either.  Most of their recruits were babies who grew up knowing nothing but the Jedi ways.

The Separatist army was a little better, with droids–but droids are people the same as any human or alien in the Star Wars universe, and the fact that they get bought and sold like ordinary computers is concerning.  Maybe the Separatist droids weren’t as advanced?  We don’t really see any individuals from that army long enough to figure it out.

Then there’s the Empire.  There are still some clones in that army, but for the most part Empire soldiers were recruited from the Academy–the same Academy Luke wanted to go to.  Maybe the recruits were manipulated or lied to.  We don’t see how the recruitment process works.  But it seems like for the most part, the Empire’s stormtroopers and officers were there willingly, and worked hard towards promotions and the Empire’s cause.

The First Order took a few steps back morality-wise from the Empire.  At least in case of the Jedi, the kids they took were either orphans or given up willingly.  The First Order just kidnapped.  We haven’t seen serious ambition from any of their stormtroopers, but we haven’t seen everything of the First Order yet.

On the other hand, the First Order has female stormtroopers, which is cool.

The Rebellion, the New Republic, and the Resistance all seem to recruit in similar ways.  People who believe in The Cause volunteer.  Of course, they’re supposed to be the good guys, so having it otherwise would be problematic.

The similar recruiting styles make sense.  While they aren’t the same organization and don’t have the same goals, they rose from the same ideals and had several of the same people involved in each, such as Princess/Senator/General Leia.

People or families, that is.  Poe Dameron’s parents fought at Endor, for instance, and then Poe flew for the New Republic until the Resistance offered him a chance to do more against the First Order than he could with the New Republic.

It isn’t just the Skywalker clan getting tangled up in galactic affairs now!

It’s fascinating to see how groups like these work in Star Wars and other universes, since they tend to be less-than-accurate as representations of actual places or people, but they do tend to mirror our own universe and problems.

Today’s drawing is a study for a portfolio piece I’m working on.  Inspired in part by David Archuleta’s music, if anyone’s interested.

Scaring Your Audience

Why are some stories more memorably scary than others?

Yeah, I know–that’s probably not what most 20-ish folks wake up thinking about.  I’m not a telepath, so I can’t say so for certain.

Really, though.  Why?

I’ve been looking through some of my favorite (or least favorite) fictitious monsters for answers, and one isn’t more memorable than the other because it promises a more painful death.  Most of the monsters (that scare me, anyway) might not kill you at all, or do so relatively painlessly.

Take the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who.  Those beasties are terrifying, and all they do is send you back in time.  Away from everything you know.  Why do we remember them?

They’re pretty.  They look like something that would belong in a corner of a cathedral or a graveyard–sad, yes, but beautiful.  Until you turn around and they aren’t where you saw them last.  Doctor Who has a strange obsession with things moving that shouldn’t.

We remember the Weeping Angels because they don’t seem to be things worth being afraid of.  They seem like any other statue, and that adds even more uncertainty. How many statues do we need to watch out for anyway?


Then there are the Dementors of Harry Potter.  Monsters that will literally eat happiness.  They lack the Angels’ subtlety, messing with your mind with their power rather than by being as mysterious as possible, but they are still the scariest things Harry Potter encounters (Except maybe Umbridge.  I think.  The fact that they’re also a metaphor for depression may have me a little biased.).

Who wants their soul eaten?  Anyone?

Another scary thing about the Dementors is the way the wizard government accepts and works with them, even if they don’t like them.  None of us wants to admit that it’s within humanity’s capacity to cooperate with evil like that.

The traditional concept of a werewolf is just as bad.  Anyone can become a werewolf if they get the bite.  Anyone an become the kind of monster that would slaughter its own family–and the fact that it’s only one night a month, and the rest of the time the werewolf has to live with that knowledge, just makes it worse.

That’s part of why I love werewolf stories that explore what that would be like.  Also, Wolves Are Really Cool.

Just from those three monsters (I haven’t even started on Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman creatures), I can get a pretty long list of traits to attempt adding to my own monsters.  The scary, memorable creatures are mysterious.  They’re beautiful.  They hide in plain sight.  They take your best memories away.  They make you question your own capacity for evil.  They twist the natural order of things.  They threaten to turn you into one of them.

Compared to all that, just dying at their hands seems rather tame.

I’ve been developing some monsters for my current project, and while I don’t want to turn it into a horror story I do want the scary bits to actually be scary.  Thinking about what makes my own fears tick has been helping with that.

How do you make your story scary?  Am I a heartless monster for wanting to?  Let me know.