Friday, 23 October 2015

How Evil Should Your Villain Be?

Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra and Witches’ Stones Series
October 1, 2015 Garneau Pub, Edmonton, Alberta
Part Twenty-One – How Evil Should Your Villain Be?
Question – Today, we are going to discuss that great necessity in fiction, the antagonist, or source of conflict, and how that relates to story. First off, let me just say that I am going to use terms like “villain” instead of “antagonist”, and “evil” instead of “antagonist’s motivation”. I know that’s not the jargon taught in English classes, but for much genre writing, especially Science Fiction and Fantasy it is generally appropriate and usually very descriptive.
Answer – I am comfortable with that language, preferring to write genre fiction over literary fiction, anyway.
Question - Ok. So, talking to one of your beta readers this week, I noted that she thought that your villains, especially in the Kati of Terra series, were scary and evil, and ultimately got what was coming to them. I was a bit surprised, because sometimes I thought that your villains could stand to be a little more flat-out evil. What do you make of that?
Answer – Well, I guess it shows how differently readers interpret story and character. A writer has to write character as truthfully as she can, and accept that the reader will always have the final say.
Question - That seems right - the reader is the co-creator of any story, as he or she experiences it. What are your main considerations, when you come up with your villains?
Answer – One thing that I try to do, is to keep my villains “human-sized”. I don’t usually care for psychotic super-beings that have the irrational desire to destroy the universe, or things of that nature, though that can make for a pretty engaging Doctor Who episode. I think that keeping my villains within the realm of human understanding makes my villains more frightening. When I was creating my villains, I wanted to bring something to life that was possible, though perhaps pushed to some logical extreme.
Question - Well, that’s interesting. Some might say that keeping your villains in the realm of the possible, makes them less frightening.
Answer – True. People respond to “scale of evil” differently. For some, the really heavy evil that destroys universes can seem almost comical, because they can’t take the notion seriously. Others measure evil by the scale of the damage it can do, so the greatest evil is the one that creates the greatest damage.
Question - In history that would seem true. I think that most people would agree that Hitler was a bigger villain than Jack the Ripper.
Answer – True, but I think fiction plays by a different set of rules than reality. It’s a more private realm. A villain, whether human or alien, that is motivated by greed or lust, or similar understandable motivations, is a being that we can relate to, since we meet people like that in real life. Indeed, there are times we share those feelings of the villain, if only for fleeting moments. Fortunately most people don’t have much capacity to act on their bad urges, though.
Question - Lucky for us. That seems to raise another central point about the villain. The very “humanity” of a villain like Gorsh (a sometimes hen-pecked husband, who is also a greedy and violent slaver) or Krush (a frightened old man, who is also a life-sucker) can make them oddly sympathetic. At the same time, though, it makes us recoil from them. The very fact that we can understand some aspects of their character, magnifies their evil it in our eyes.
Answer – I should note that I didn’t set out to emphasize some kind of moral paradox, when I created my villains. I just wanted to ensure that Kati and Mikal had worthy adversaries. They are foils, if you like, because all good adventurers need an evil opponent that can really test them.
Question - Ah, so we did drag in some English lit jargon,
Answer – You can’t always help yourself.
Question - The other thing about villains, is that in the vast majority of stories, at least of the genre variety, the villain kicks off the action. The decent hero would just go about his or her normal life, if it wasn’t for the villain doing something villainous.
Answer – In the Kati books, everything begins with Gorsh’s abduction of Kati, in his quest to exploit human beings for the furtherance of his private gain. It is the sin of greed that is the initiating force, and in a sense the driving force, behind the narrative. Similarly, in the Witches’ Stones books, it is the lust for galactic political power on the part of The Organization that threatens Sarah, and her society in general.
Question - Do you think that the initiating event, the evil that kicks things off, defines the level of evil that the story will include overall? Or can little evils lead to great evils?
Answer – I think that the early choices, especially the unconscious early choices, do set the tone of a story. But, it’s not that simple or linear; when I started Kati 1 with the evil men do for greed, I didn’t know that it would culminate with Krush, with the evil that men can do in their desire to extend their life indefinitely, to cheat death.
Question - Which allows me to segue into the notion of natural evil versus supernatural evil, although you may want to phrase it differently.
Answer – I might use the term “non-natural” rather than supernatural.
Question - It’s a less loaded term. In any case, Gorsh simply desires money and power, which you might say is the essence of natural evil.
Answer – It’s also the essence of our economic system, which is interesting to think about.
Question - Yes, Gorsh is capitalism writ large and unconstrained, until he meets up with Kati, Mikal and friends.
Answer – And Star Federation justice.
Question - Just so. But Krush represents something deeper and more frightening. He wants the unattainable and the twisted: unending physical life. He wants to cheat death. Any evil is excusable in his eyes, as it is in the service of defying death, humanity’s greatest evil.
Answer – It is the very epitome of what can go wrong when you let the ends justify the means.
Question - And yet, deep down, we have a twinge of sympathy for both Gorsh and Krush. We understand their motives, even as we recoil from their actions.
Answer – And that is probably what makes them so disturbing, even though I didn’t consciously set out to explore some sort of moral lesson. What was in my conscious mind, was simply to keep the evil on a human scale, in the service of a good story.
Question - And by humanizing evil, you make it more monstrous.
Answer – As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
In Part 2, we will discuss the villain further, and the notion of evil in Science Fiction and Fantasy. We will also compare and contrast the SFF genre and the Gothic or horror genre, and talk about some examples that crossover, between those genres, whether fully or partially. With Halloween approaching, that seems fitting.
Here are links to some of Helena's books, with evil villains:
Kati of Terra, Book 1, Escape from the Drowned Planet  (where we meet the evil slaver Gorsh and his associates):
Kati of Terra, Book 2, On Assignment to the Planet of the Exalted (wherein a whole planet's elite has become corrupt and evil, with the help of Gorsh):
Kati of Terra, Book 3, Showdown on the Planet of the Slavers (Gorsh, and his yet more evil ally Chrush):

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