Writing, a craft in which creativity is brought to the forefront, is often lauded with having a vast array of complex characters that can’t be pinned down to simple descriptions. We see characters written in all shapes and sizes, from all kinds of backgrounds, a diversity of religious beliefs, and all kinds of ethnic groups. We’re literally surrounded by an infinity of different personalities just waiting to be written down and published in a book. With all this in mind, one would think that an endeavor to put all characters into certain categories would be a futile waste of one’s time.
And if that’s what you think happens in real life, then you are horribly mistaken.
Having the organizational habits that we do as human beings, writers have made it a mission of theirs to single out characters to particular compartments in which they share similar behavioral patterns. In English, this means that we really love creating tropes. And this is a good thing, believe it or not. It allows us to examine past formulas for characters creation, it builds sympathy between storytellers from all over the world, but most importantly it allows us identify which traits and quirks work the most when placed inside of a character.
And if you thought that some characters may have yet to be classified under the world of tropes and categories, then rest assured that at one point or another they will. Heroes, side characters, mentors, allies, enemies, and even the most meaningless tertiary character have aspects to them that are already indexed. But all of these, while interesting, are not the subject of today’s post. Rather, today we’ll be focusing on those that bring misery upon our
protagonists, those that threaten to destroy the world on a monthly basis, and those that slew the MC’s love interest. Yes, sir, today we’re talking about villains and their perception in modern culture. Specifically, the two categories of villains that can fit all other types of subcategories.
You see, when it comes to the villain there is a very distinct case with his presentation in the story. Unlike the hero, whom can come in all flavors, the class of the villain is always relegated to the same dichotomy it has had since the dawn of literature. And this is the paradigm of the Personal versus Impersonal villain. But before I can delve deeper into any of this, it is pertinent that we have our definitions up to date.
In essence, the very name of these categories should already be forming ideas of what kind of characters these are going to be in your mind. The Personal villain is one that is proportional to the hero in terms of his existence, his limitations, and the level of understanding that we can achieve with regards to his motivations. What does this mean? To give a more vivid image, just think about it like this. If the hero is a human being, then this villain would also be a human being. In one sense, this villain is much more susceptible to being a dynamic, changing character whose views can be altered by the
course of the story. The villain might have abilities that surpass the hero, but not abilities that are incomprehensible in the context of the world. This villain is also very relatable just due to the fact that he is actually a mortal being.
But the other side of the spectrum lies with the Impersonal villain. This villain is one that goes far beyond the hero in terms of his existence, his limitations only go as far as not breaking the story’s plot, and understanding his motivations would be a nigh impossible task. If there is one representation that could accurately describe this villain, it would be that the hero is a human being while the villain is some kind of god or higher power. However, in cases that they are human, they might be suffering from insanity, pure lust for power, and an insane desire. This villain is less likely to be a dynamic character. Often times they are used to represent something and have static personalities that fit into the image that they are trying to get across. Despite being a higher power, this villain might be balanced out by some competing force. And being far more abstract, it is very hard to relate to these villains on a personal level. (A quick glance at the name should have already told you that much)
Now, why do I bring up a subject that might seem so trivial to many of you? Why bring up a subject that’s already been ingrained into your minds for so long? Well, this is because I feel there is an unfair bias against one of these kinds of villains. Namely, the Impersonal kind.
A great deal of modern writing advice is focused on telling you that all villains should be made relatable, that they should be liable to change as much as the hero is, and that they
should have understandable motivations. And at first glance, this seems harmless. There’s nothing wrong with creating a villain that is a dynamic character. It’s often easy to find villains that are at odds with the protagonist to be more engaging and more of a hook to one’s story. I used to think that this was the only proper way to make a villain as well, until i found out a shred of info that changed my perspective on this issue…
Yes, you guessed it folks. This is yet another case of Subjective preferences disguised as Objective truths.
The mistake that these people make is not that they recommend for you to create a villain that is human in his nature. After all, they have a right to give out that suggestion. But they also need to bear in mind that there’s nothing wrong with creating an Impersonal villain either. Many people, including myself, can find ourselves enjoying the presence of a villain that represents an abstract ideal.
The potential that an Impersonal villain has to engage the audience in conversation about the ideals he represents should not be underestimated. He can add a sense of scale and danger that is just not present with even the scariest of Personal villains. But if we are told that these characters are inherently boring to watch, then we’d be missing out on a great opportunity.
So I guess that this post is mostly serving as a PSA. Don’t feel discouraged to make a villain that is Impersonal with his presentation in your story. Aside from being another tool to be applied from the Writer’s Toolbox, it is also a unique opportunity to explore concepts in a scale and tone that could not be possible in any other way. So don’t be afraid to mold the story the way that you wish to mold it, without having to be discouraged by the words of others.
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.