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  1. #1
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    The Inscrutable Villain

    I was looking at anther thread about what makes a good villain, and it seems to me there's no pleasing everyone, so I'd like to narrow down the question a bit:

    For a horror story, we want a villain who is horrifying. The more human you make the villain, the less horrifying he is. For me, what horrifies me in real life is people who are just violent and cruel with no discernable motivation. Why? Because there's no possibility of negotiating with them. You can't convert them to the light side, even in theory.

    Other essential components: he must be powerful, and he must be unavoidable. By his very existence, he puts you into a kill-or-be-killed situation.

    The plot is driven by figuring how to destroy the villain before he destroys you. You need to discover his weakness. That means you need to understand someone who does not want to be understood. You have to come face to face with his homicidal madness, dissect it, and pinpoint his blind spot. It's got to be a psychological or cognitive weakness, because a mere physical vulnerability is too comic-book for me.

    I can't think of a perfect example from fiction, because I haven't found one. The Joker from Batman comes closest, I think. In real life, I've known purely evil, violent people, but none with enough intellect that they needed to be outsmarted. There was one guy that I think got away with killing a kid, but he only got away with it because the police were too weak to believe he could do such a thing.

    This brings up another point: in real life, people have trouble believing in this kind of evil, even when it's staring them in the face. A horror story that I would find convincing has to have passive enablers -- people who help the killer get away with things simply by not bringing themselves to believe he could do such things. The hero has to be someone who has no sentimentality about him, who refuses to think the best of everyone, and dares to see the awful truth. He stands alone, because he's surrounded by moral weaklings.

    Stories like this seem rare. There's the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter series, but they don't actually deny that Voldemort is evil. I know people in real life who say in as many words they don't believe evil exists. I wouldn't count on them to have my back in a tough spot.

  2. #2
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    I prefer the scrutable villain, the one who is really the good guy inside his own head, the one whose motives are rationalized somehow even if the results are atrocious, the one who is not fully black is almost able to persuade you to his cause. I have an example from a book I finished only a couple of weeks ago: Geder Palliako from the Dagger and Coin series by Daniel Abraham.

  3. #3
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    Of course the scrutable villain is fine for many purposes. But I'm particularly interested in horror and dark fantasy, and that needs something more horrifying.

    An enabler is someone who in his own mind is the hero. But in my mind, the enabler isn't even a proper villain, because he's not a central character. He's just a tool of the true evil. The enabler is like a lesser bad guy in a video game, You have to defeat him in order to have the final showdown with the boss.

    And in real life, an enabler isn't that hard to beat. You have to learn some things about yourself, to stop enabling the enabler, and then his scrutability and stupidity make the rest easy. But the inscrutable villain is by definition much harder to figure out, and that makes him hard to beat.

    In my own life, once I understood the nature of enabling, a whole lot of problems that had stymied me became much clearer. It was an epiphany. I stopped enabling people who were messing with me, and I easily defeated the enablers who were protecting the really bad people. All I had to do was stop accomodating the enablers in any way, and their power over me just vanished. That left only the hard part: the inscrutably evil people.

    The enablers really are just bit characters. The smarter scrutables... those you can reason with. They cease to be villains once you've gotten through to them. Reasonable people are never really evil. Evil is by nature unreasonable.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by algernoninc View Post
    the one who is not fully black is almost able to persuade you to his cause.
    Because what he says is a half truth, and a half truth is more convincing than a pure lie. But it works the same regardless of whether the teller of the half truth believes what he's saying.

    The world is full of half truths, because of the limitations of human knowledge and human intellect. Yes, this makes for intteresting stories. But an intelligent protagonist sees through the half truths, eventually. This isn't horrifying enough for me because it's too commonplace.

    A horror story needs something truly horrific at the end of the trail of half truths. Something that doesn't persuade, but only leaves one flabbergasted. Something that embodies anti-truth at a fundamental, existential level. Something that simply by existing is an affront to reason itself. Lovecraft tried to invent this sort of antagonist, but he doesn't quite pull it off to my satisfaction, except in "The Colour Out of Space" and maybe "The Call of Cthulhu.".

    If it's a person, or what appeas to be a person, then it has to be someone whose every word is without sincerity, whose motives are never what they seem. He has to be not just a liar, but a total dissembler. Everything you see is false, and everything you finally mask is inhuman. A sociopath, or a madman, or both.

    By the way, I strongly suspect "The Colour Out of Space" is an allegorical description of clinical depression. I think I relate to it because I once suffered from that condition. The mood of that story is exactly what it felt like.

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