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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Villains and Antagonists: Pure Evil and Tragic Villains

Welcome back to the series on villains. We're going through the list of villain motifs. These are ones that I have observed, and I would like to take the time to explore them, define them, and give examples of the craft. This episode is on Pure Evil villains, as well as Tragic villains. I'm doing these two at a time for the simple fact that we have a dozen to get through, and if I don't combine them, then this series is going to take months upon months to get through.

  1. The Pure Evil Villain

For some, the idea of a “pure evil” villain is utterly taboo and should not be attempted. I'm inclined to agree, to an extent, in the sense that a PE villain done well can turn a mere story into an absolute legend, whereas a PE villain done poorly can take an otherwise serious tale and turn it into little better than satire or a parody of itself.

It is with that in mind that I submit the first parameter of a PE villain, and that the evil must come from beyond humanity for the simple fact that evil exists beyond humanity. Without basic philosophy, morality, and all the larger questions in life, humans are but beasts with no use for such concepts as good and evil. In that line of thought, if it came from man, it can be undone by man. Therefore, whether it's Satan, some form of dark magic, or something else, a PE villain has to have at least some element of being from beyond humanity.

Another reason why this should be considered a criteria of a PE villain is that the fear of the unknown is a powerful thing, and forces that operate beyond our control and understanding can go a long way in writing an effective PE character.

Enter our first example: the Marsuvees Black impostor from the Books of History Chronicles, specifically the Paradise novels, Showdown, Saint, and Sinner. The BoH Chronicles at large detail the mysterious Books of History, blank journals which, when anyone who is a child or has the faith of a child, writes in them, whatever they write comes true. So if a child, such as in the story, writes that his friend's arm is broken, that friend's arm is broken. It doesn't even have to be an accident or an elaborate set-up, whatever is written becomes true.

So the original Marsuvees Black is a monk of sorts who discovers the power of these journals and seeks to harness it for himself. With them, he ends up creating a copy of himself in order to essentially do “magic” and trick the people of the town called Paradise.

As it ends up, the copy of Marsuvees Black becomes self-aware and not only stops responding to the direction of the original Black but ends up murdering him and taking the Books of History for himself. Being of the Books gives him great power and influence over them. Imagine the power of absolute command in the hands of someone who was created by that same power but without the inherent constraints of morality present in normal human beings.

So the actions of Copy Black, I think, give us the second parameter of a PE villain that helps to differentiate it from the Unknown Villain which we will cover later. That is, a PE villain still has a discernible, conscious motivation. True, you might have to go through a few books or chapters to discover the final master plan, and the final plan might not be very imaginative, but there is an end goal.

Seeing how we're discussing “pure evil” here, that motivation is likely to involve a lot of death and destruction. Being a “conscious” motivation also eliminates such fiends as mindless zombie hoards and similar ilk who act on little more than instinct, which we will get to later.

Thus we come to our second PE villain, the Night King and his generals from Game of Thrones.

Now, I have read the books and I've watched the full TV series. In the books, the White Walkers I find a bit spooky, nothing more, but as I've stated elsewhere, books just cannot scare me. I find no horror in horror novels, so don't take that as a tragic reflection of the Song of Ice and Fire books.

The TV series, however, has me scared spitless—I was practically crying—and I'm not a huge fan of horror movies either.

What makes the White Walkers such an effective villain is that their very premise cannot be escaped. They are death. They are the only true absolute in life, and they come for all the living. Using Season 8 as an example just because it's the freshest in the memory, as soon as Sansa sent the young Lord Umber back to Last Hearth to fetch his remaining men and supplies, there was always a sneaking suspicion that he's just not going to come back, at least not alive.

Not a few scenes later, you're watching Tormund and the others creep through an abandoned castle, and you just know there are White Walkers about. They find young Lord Umber skewered to a wall, and my stomach just dropped because I knew what was coming next. Then as Tormund is speaking, in the background you see Umber's eyes open and they're bright blue and you know that nothing good happens now.

When the Night King raises the dead once more in the lull of the battle at Winterfell, it's another moment of terror because the size of his army just increased by, oh, how many men did you lose again? You watch Lyanna Mormont, who sacrificed herself to slay an undead giant, pull her shattered body back together and go after those she argued with and fought for with such passion over the last couple seasons. It's heartbreaking and utterly terrifying.

Death comes for everyone and then it ends up using them in the most heinous of ways. And the only end goal here is to kill the Three-Eyed Raven and usher in the Endless Night.

The White Walkers' evil not only comes from beyond humanity—from a magic that goes back to the children of the forest—and their leader, the Night King, not only has a plan, but they operate on the only absolute in life, that being death. Their fundamental weakness is tied to this magic from beyond humanity, not because Jon Snow learned how to suddenly overcome death (and he couldn't even do that by himself).

And therein lies the third and, I believe, final criteria for a PE villain, that even as their source must come from beyond humanity, so must their undoing. When dealing with good and evil, humanity and our obsession with the gray cannot hope to wrangle such cosmic forces with petty tufts of luck and wavering hope. (Insert comment about Arya Stark here.)

This brings us to our third PE villain, called Barsidious White from the novel and movie House.

Now, interesting tidbit to preface this. While House is never formally lumped in with the Books of History Chronicles, there is a mention in one of them, a single line, that basically implies that Marsuvees Black, the copy, created Barsidious White from the Books of History which he stole after killing the original Marsuvees Black.

So now we have two PE villains created from the same source, worse, one created the other.

With that in mind, the basic plot of House is that a couple in a struggling relationship end up stranded on the side of a country road and are forced to take refuge in an old house in the woods. A second couple ran into the same trouble they did. Now the four of them have to stay the night with the people who live in the house, a man and woman and their grown son who is mentally handicapped.

Early in the evening, the power is cut, all the doors and windows are locked, and a tin can is dropped down the chimney with the following inscription:

 

Welcome to my house

House rules:

  1. God came to my house and I killed him

  2. I will kill anyone who comes into my house like I killed God

  3. Give me one dead body before sunrise and I might let rule #2 slide

 

Thus follows shenanigans. In the process of trying to escape the house which becomes more and more wonky with every minute, the main character finds a girl hiding in the basement who claims that Barsidious White is really after her and trying to get them, the hapless passersby, to deliver her to him so that he can kill her. Why? Because she, too, is from beyond humanity and is the only one capable of destroying him.

In addition to trying to kill this girl, it's also a bit of a psychology experiment as puppetmaster Marsuvees Black tries to get people to give in to panic, to fear, to the primal nature, knowing that everyone is going to (or intended to) die in the end, regardless of whether they deliver a dead body before sunrise.

So I'm not going to say that writing a PE villain is easy, and I certainly won't say that it's for everyone or every story or that it should be done half-heartedly. Part of the charm of a PE villain, ironically enough, is being able to believably fear it or fear what it does to your own mind as it makes you consider your own mortality or the evils of the magic or however it relates to the story at hand.

One rule for this type of villain that I believe any author must follow regarding their PE villain is that they have to take it seriously. You have to take your creation seriously and even fear your creation a little. Be Frankenstein creating his monster. If your monster came to life, would even you be able to stop it? If you don't take it seriously, it is going to show. If you have some built-in off switch that you can flip at any time, you're going to write like it, knowing that if you ever get bored of your villain or things just aren't going how you'd hoped, flip the switch and walk away. Fear your beast, take it seriously, and write like your life, or your characters' lives, depend on it.

  1. The Tragic Villain

Now, personally, I'm a total sucker for a tragic villain. If there is a tragic villain in a tale, no matter the medium, I will typically fall in love with the villain more than the hero, and I have cried over the deaths of said villains. I concoct more fanfiction with these villains than any form of hero.

The first criteria that I have for a tragic villain is that, at one time, they had to be the hero, or a protagonist of some form. While it could be argued that any villain could fall into this, I feel that in a tragic villain, it is especially highlighted in order to show just how far they have fallen. It doesn't even have to be a huge deal with a lot of fanfare.

Consider the White Walkers again. The Night King and his generals are PE villains, for they were intentionally created with some funky magic and they are the working, thinking brain behind the army of the dead, who tell the little minions what to do. They are pure evil.

The minions, the White Walkers themselves, I feel fall somewhat into the tragic villain category. That doesn't mean they don't still scare me spitless, but there is a moment, any time you see a character on screen, alive and well, and they go off into parts unknown, when you know they're not going to come back alive, you feel for them because you know they are going to fall victim to the PE Night King. Even the ones that you're not sure whether they're going to live or die, it's hard to watch them turn into these evil ice zombies.

As an aside, I also believe that the White Walkers are a bit of an exception to the tragic villain motif, because the way they are written falls somewhere between tragic and PE and a couple other categories which we'll discuss later. The simple criteria of “must have been a hero” does encompass more than one category.

To narrow it down, then, I also submit that the descent from hero to villain must be a gradual one based on emotion or some factor other than logic or fact-based decision-making that might reasonably be considered out of one's control. Part of the love-hate that I have for a tragic villain is being able to look at things from an outside perspective and yell at him or her that they're doing something stupid and can't they see the consequences?

So what does this mean, exactly? I'll tell you what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that the villain is necessarily insane (though I will touch on that in a minute) or that he is not responsible for his actions, but it is the driving force that clouds his judgment, so that he thinks everything is logical, it makes sense in his mind, though he is wildly off base.

The one who comes to mind is the Joker, one of the Batman villains. Now there are two different takes on this in recent years. The first is The Dark Knight, and the second is Joker. I have not seen Joker in its entirety, although what I did see was fantastic. And even so, I think I would like The Dark Knight more, and not just for Heath Ledger's phenomenal performance.

In the context of villainy, The Dark Knight does a great job in delivering to us a true dark Joker. While some may argue that he belongs in a different category labeled “the insane villain” I think that an insane villain in this context is merely a subset of the tragic villain as a whole. So I want to go through it piece by piece.

First, we know from several encounters that the Joker was not always the insane laughing villain as we see him. Now whether his scars came from his drunk of a father or trying to please a wife or something else entirely, it can be inferred that he was once a normal human being, or near enough. So in addition to this change being gradual, it is also not entirely out of the realm of believability. I'm not excusing the Joker's actions, nor am I saying he should not be held accountable, but the idea of having a drunkard father or a wife who gets in too deep with loan sharks, that resonates with some people. Half the fear and charm of the tragic villain is the tiny thought in the back of your mind that says, “You were there once.” And also the knowledge that some people in the world, real people in the real world, have acted on this. Maybe they didn't become a super villain, but they did go off the deep end.

And it doesn't take a whole movie or a ton of flashbacks or lengthy dialogue to convey a good villain. The Joker's past and actions leading up to the events of the Dark Knight is only a very small, small portion of the screen time, a minute here, a minute there, a piece of dialogue. And while I still intend to see Joker, I don't think you always need a full backstory on everything and everyone. If you're going for the scary and the psychology and the mystique, too much information can kill the vibe.

The second part of this is that once he's gone off the deep end, reached that point of no return, he knows it and even admits to it. He's like a dog chasing a car. He doesn't know what he would do if he ever caught one, he just does. He not only knows he's gone insane, but he wants everyone else to experience it, too, see what happens when you pull the rug out from under the planners, the schemers. Then the great debate becomes, is he truly insane? If he knows his mind is not fully attached to reality, and he has the time and resources to plan and carry out all these elaborate schemes, even going so far as to completely erase his whole identity, with the goal of introducing chaos in order to break the minds of everyone else, is he crazy? Or just crazy brilliant?

The third piece is sort of related, in that he prepares for his tragedy, his reckoning. I know that there are movie nerds out there who have already dissected everything and concluded that the only way that anything in Dark Knight happened is because the screenwriters said so. But, if the odds of everything that happened could happen naturally is one in a million, that is still a chance. The Joker went through the hassle of erasing everything he ever was, his fingerprints, DNA, all of it gone, just a ghost on the fringes of society, which is a very lonely way to live.

Consider, too, that the events of the Dark Knight are all in a fairly short time span. We don't know when the Joker erased himself, but it would have to be with enough time to concoct his plans and construct everything to play out the way it did, which would probably end up being months or years. Whatever the Joker says about planning or not planning, he would have had to plan some things in advance to happen the way they did.

Anyway, back to villainy and the tragic villain.

Rule one: have to have been a hero or protagonist of some form. For the White Walkers, in this case, the living are the protagonists. For the Joker, an innocent child or loving husband.

Rule two: Gradual change driven by forces believed to be outside of one's control. White Walkers tended to change rather quickly, as the line between life and death tends to be fairly sharp. The Joker, whatever his story is, had to be gradual in the sense that he could have walked away at any point while in his planning stage of things, from the various bombs to the assassinations to anything else that went on.

Now for rule three. The tragic villain must not only know that he has fallen from grace, but he must desire an end to that which he feels he cannot escape, usually not by turning himself in to the local police. There is some ambiguity over whether this end or escape is even feasible.

This brings us to an incredible tragic villain named Ludwig, from the game Bloodborne.

There is quite a bit of backstory and lore surrounding Bloodborne, so I'll try to make it succinct (ha ha ha). Basically, a group of scholars discovered blood of the Great Ones which they turned into a miracle cure for the town of Yharnam. This blood could cure any ailment, and the subsequently founded Healing Church grew in power and prestige. The problem was, after a time, it was discovered that this blood brought a plague upon the people called Ashen Blood which turned them into horrifying monsters. The more old blood one took, the more hideous the changes. The clerics of the Healing Church became the most wretched of them all.

In order to combat this plague, the church enlisted the help of Hunters. While Gehrman was the first hunter, Ludwig was the head of the Hunters, and it is believed that his rank or title was First Hunter. Ludwig believed in enlisting the help of all the citizens of Yharnam to combat the plague and fend off the monsters, and every night he led a hunt to purge the city of beasts.

The problem was, the pathogen was, as its name suggests, blood borne. As a Hunter who went out every night to slay beasts who bore contaminated blood, Hunters were especially susceptible to this beastly scourge.

You can probably already see where I'm going with this.

Ludwig fits the bill to a T. He was a hero of Yharnam and the Healing Church, going out every night, leading the Hunt, desiring only to rid the town of the scourge of the beast. He was greatly revered until his disappearance, and even his legend lived on fondly.

Second, the changes were gradual and he knew it. While the exact details are unknown, his later dialogue suggests that he knew he was going mad and he gave certain instructions to his closest friends and followers before he went into exile and finally transformed into a hideous, rabid beast that needed to be put down, nothing like the proud soldier he had once been.

Getting into rule three, it must also be known that Ludwig wielded the Moonlight Sword, which, in manhood, blessed him with knowledge and insight and great power, and it spoke to him from time to time. It is perhaps what helped him to last as long as he did in the hunt.

When you first go up against Ludwig, he is a snarling centaur-like beast with extraneous appendages and what looks like an extra head covered in eyes and other nastiness. He is, truly, a beast, and he attacks you as such. He leaps forward at an awkward gait, tries to bite and claw and trample and everything else.

Then, halfway through the fight, there is a cutscene where Ludwig is lying next to the Moonlight Sword and he looks at it and begins to speak. He no longer snarls like a beast, but he speaks as an educated man, the soldier he once was. He picks up the sword and faces you now as a true knight, one warrior to another.

But if he is sane, you ask, why not put the sword down and converse? Why continue to fight? The answer is simply because the sanity is only temporary, and it is the sword's way of allowing him to die as an honorable knight rather than a lowly, slavering abomination stuck in the third circle of Hell. And that's what he wants. When you speak to him afterwards, he asks if you have seen the light, and whether the soldiers who came after him did well in their duties. Then he dies.

There is tragedy when faced with finality and the understanding that you have done terrible things. In some genres, death of the villain is not always necessary, but in certain stories where it is plausible within the plot, it does up the ante a little bit.

In Ludwig's case, he could not end any other way. He was not going to turn from a beast back into a man. But for others, there may be hope. But in true Shakespearean form, they're probably going to end up dying in some fashion. Now, even as a beast, Ludwig may still be a tragic villain because he had to sense his own growing insanity, the gradual changes, and it isn't hard to speculate that he was ashamed of his fall even as there was little he could do about it.

As I said, I am a total sucker for a tragic villain, and they do come in several flavors, which allows for some bending and tweaking of the “rules” I have set forth, which, in all reality, are quite loose.

All that being said, you may be wondering if there are any tragic villains in The Timekeeper Chronicles. Are there any villains who started out as heroes, gradually became a villain, and desire an escape? In a word, yes. Depending on when you see this bit on villains, you may still be wondering or you may already know who it is.

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