Top ten ways to spot the Evil, Power-Hungry Villain Cliché
Quick, read the following paragraph:
Evil High Lord Ruderon, eldest son of the half-demon Scythe, commands his chaotic army of Lizard Men, Killer Terriers and Cannibalistic Toads in a bid for world domination. Standing against him is a band of warriors serving the Path of Light, a sect of druids seeking balance in the cosmos.
Now answer the questions, or if you’re too lazy (boo!) scroll down to the answers:
Who is the villain?
Evil or good?
Proof of this?
What does he want?
Why does he want it?
*Final Jeopardy Music* Alright, pens down. Everyone ready with their answers?
Who is the villain? Evil High Lord Ruderon
Evil or good? Evil…it says so in the dude’s title!
Possible proof of this? Son of a demon, commands a ‘chaotic’ horde of bad things like killer terriers, opposes druids who seem to be good
What does he want? World domination
Why does he want it? Um, because…because…
And there we have it. The number 1 sign you have a cliché villain on your hands is the fact that there is no motivation for power (or for being evil in the first place). He just wants power and is evil. No reasoning needed–if it’s good enough for the author, it’s good enough for the reader, right? After all, those readers are pretty bright…and (duh) will know he’s the bad guy without me wasting time explaining why.
No, no, no. Everyone has a reason for what they do. Don’t skimp on the villain–he’s one of the most interesting characters in your story. If you don’t show us WHY he’s being evil/striving for power and glory, it hurts your story and screams cardboard character.
Other signs you need to stage a cliché intervention:
2. He paces a lot &/ drinks wine pretty much in every scene
What is it with the pacing and the wine? I mean seriously, too much wine and not even the most regimented of evil villains will be able to walk a straight line, much less command armies and take over the world. He needs AA, not a fine Merlot.
3. He kills his high ranking minions during fits of rage
This one really bugs me. I mean, not all minions are the sharpest tool in the shed, sure, but cream rises to the top (spotting the clichés, are you?), right? Those high-ranking officials are the best of the best. What villain would clamp his gauntleted hand over the throat of a general just because he was a little miffed that the Hero circumvented his latest nasty trap? I mean, please. Maybe he’d stomp on one of those cannibal toads, but murder a second-in-command just because? No way–the villain is way too smart to waste talent.
4. He rules with a crushing iron fist and treats all enemies/minions/underlings equally bad
Another annoyance. People can rule through fear–I get that. But ask yourself, how far would Hitler have gotten if he started sending his generals to the gas chamber just because the wifey was PMSing or he lost a wad of cash at the track? Villains can rule cruelly, but the followers have to get something out of it, or they’ll lose patience and overthrow him. This is (unfortunately) how it goes in real life, and fiction should be no different.
5. He makes a series of stupid mistakes, or one big one that leads to his downfall which even a Newbie Minion wouldn’t make
Villains are smart. Period. If they made loads of mistakes, they wouldn’t be in a situation to take over the world or lead minion armies. Even baddies like Freddy Kreuger or Jack the Ripper knew their stuff enough to keep sowing discord for a long, long, time. Sure, your villain will need to make a mistake sooner or later for your hero to win, but whatever happens, make sure the mistake is logical and character-consistent, not bone-headed.
6. He has no redeeming qualities
In this sense, a villain is just like any other main character. If he is so evil, so cruel that there is nothing about him that we can understand, recognize or feel within ourselves, the villain screams cliché. This ties in with the whole ‘want power for the sake of power/evil for the sake of evil’ thing. The best way for us to believe your villain is compelling is if he has a redeeming quality, something that humanizes him, just like your protag does.
Show us into his soul, just a little. If he has a goal, want or desire that we understand or have felt our self (the desire to protect family, the need to be accepted, the desire to see a world of equality and prosperity) then we understand his motivation to do what he does. We might disagree with his methods to get it, but we can see where he’s coming from.
If he is a product of abuse, poverty, illness, etc., the reader will feel some empathy and see how that upbringing has shaped him. Sometimes the best villains are the ones who have the same goal or desire as the Hero only their route to achieve it and their choices are different.
7. The final climatic scene shows a dialogue where the villain reveals his master plan to the hero in order to gloat
Oh wow–we’ve all seen this, haven’t we? In fact, I’ll say that it happens enough that it ‘can’ be pulled off, but if it’s done without skill, it feels cliché. This plot device, if used, should be a combination of the hero asking questions and the villain trying to clarify himself WITHOUT the element of gloating. Unless you’re very skilled, I’d avoid this one.
8. He allows the hero to reach his peak strength before ‘doing something about him’
Um, yeah, this makes sense. Let the hero gather his strength/create an army/weapon up/etc before the villain finally decides to take him out. Um, no. Just like the rest of us, Villains don’t like road bumps, they don’t want snags. Smooth and easy saves time, manpower and money.
9. They own a castle, on a barren landscape, frequented by lightning and darkness
Okay, let’s think about this logically. If you wanted to hide out, stay off the radar, amass an army, etc., I completely understand finding a place that’s out of the way with only gophers for company. That make sense. BUT, Don’t go too far off the beaten path. A fortress halfway up a mountains, out in the desert, smack dab in the middle of a bog…does it make sense to choose such a local?
Think about supplying those minions of yours–how are you going to find fresh water stuck in the Sahara? Too much darkness can lead to a vitamin D deficiency, a precursor to many diseases–doesn’t your villain want to enjoy those golden years? Then there’s stuff like Beaver Fever. Can you imagine the medicare costs? Oi. Now that will cut a big chunk out of the Evil Overlord budget.
Atmosphere is important, but don’t verge into the cliché to achieve it.
10. He has unexplained wealth and resources at his disposal
I can sort of understand this for a villain who has worked his way into an army of minions to steal from the populaces (it’s unexplained, but logically alluded to), but what about those villains who show up in a town half-dead and zip in their pockets because they had an early run-in with the hero that almost did them in? It seems like all they need to do is make a few connections and boom, guns, ammo, clothes, a place to stay. If you look at your psychotic killers who stake out seedy motels, how do they pay for their dry cleaning when Tide can’t get out the bloodstains? I have yet to read about Joe Chainsaw rifling through his victim’s pockets after delivering room service to #303, have you?
And your bonus reason (just because you’re all so special)…
11. Your villain has a name like Evil High Lord Ruderon
Um, yeah. Nuff said.
Villains can be evil. They can desire power. These things don’t have to be elements that make them into the cardboard villain cliché. Just treat Uncle Villain like any other character in your story and show the reader WHY he’s hungry for power, WHY he’s evil. Make us sympathize with him, or at least empathize where he’s coming from. Cardboard characters are ones with no motivations, no history, no personality facets. There is no room in good fiction for them.
Look for a fresh edge, a new way to present your villain. How would you describe them if they were the Hero, on the side of right? Remember, villains have their own story. Very few of them see themselves as ‘evil’ or as being in the wrong. In their eyes, the things they do are to achieve an end that has purpose and meaning. According to them, their actions are justified, and it is the writer’s job to show it. Use your imagination, and find your way out of the villain clichés.
Have another Villain cliché you see all the time? Feel free to post it in the comments!