Worldbuilding Through Characterization
 

Worldbuilding Through Characterization

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One Way by S. J. Morden
 

One Way

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On The Trail Of Evil – A Look At Villainous Main Characters

Emperor advanced by chasestoneThe skies have darkened and night has come to the world. Thieves and assassins skulk in every shadow, waiting for their chance to strike. Ruthless politicians claw their way up the ladder, smiling politely before they stab you. Dark sorcerers seek out ancient artefacts and perform forbidden rituals in pursuit of more power. And across scores of devastated battlefields, traumatised and merciless soldiers wash away the last of their humanity with the blood of their enemies. The heroes are nowhere in sight, and the bad guys have taken over our pages.

Everybody loves a good villain; the antagonist character has a dark lure for many readers, bringing a chance to dip into the shadows. The recent trend of grimdark writing has brought these characters to the forefront of fantasy fiction. Big name authors like Martin, Abercrombie and Lawrence have introduced a varied cast of sinister figures to stalk across our pages and capture our interest. But if you burn through books like I do, you’ll already be looking for the next novel. So for those who are seeking more stories that focus on antagonist characters, and narratives without a storybook ending, I’ve dredged up a few lesser known gems from the darker places.

Bloodstone (cover)To begin we’ll look at an older creation, Karl Wagner’s immortal wanderer Kane. Inspired by the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Kane is a dark and forbidding character, cursed to travel the earth eternally. In contrast to similar characters like Moorcock’s Elric, who often fights to serve order, Kane’s goals are usually more selfish.

A recurring theme in his novels is Kane’s drive to find meaning in his long life, no matter what it costs anyone else. The novel Bloodstone shows him very much a villain, it charts Kane’s attempts to use an ancient relic of an alien race to take over the earth and doom mankind to slavery. Kane manoeuvres for power, playing rivals off against each other, all the while planning to betray his entire race. Frankly I’m struggling to come up with villains who have done worse.

The character of Kane does have certain draw, a note of power and mystique, but throughout the reader knows that they shouldn’t root from him. The writing is a product of its time, the pulpy sword and sorcery style found in magazines like Unknown, and it still has punch. Wagner’s work does also contain some fascinating ideas and worlds to explore, and is worth a read. There are several novels and short story collections to enjoy.

Jhereg (cover)Moving more into the grey area we have Steven Brust’s series on Vlad Taltos, mobster, assassin, and part of the human minority in a world ruled by the Dragaerans (elf like creatures). A member of house Jhereg, the Mafia equivalent in the world, Vlad is involved in a number of criminal activities that make him a morally dubious character. Despite this, Vlad’s loyalty to his friends and his familiar Loiosh (an intelligent flying lizard), shows he does have some good qualities.

Part of the draw of the stories is Steven Brust’s skill in creating a likeable character with Vlad’s background, along with the detail of the criminal world Vlad is a part of. Thanks to Brust’s fascination with the real world Mafia, the books have a great sense of realism and very intricate plots. There is a story for each of the nineteen noble houses in Brust’s world, and you can find omnibus collections of three stories apiece.

The Black Company (cover)For those who enjoy military fantasy there’s Glen Cook’s The Black Company. Told from the viewpoint of Croaker, the mercenary company’s doctor and historian, the books chart the various engagements and wars the company fights in. The first book of the series begins with an interesting twist in that the company is hired by a dark lord equivalent and pitted against the forces of good. Cook develops this moral issue through Croaker, who obviously knows he’s fighting for the bad guys, yet as the story progresses and Croaker sees the limits the rebels are prepared to go to, both he and the reader start to wonder which is worse.

Questions of morality fill Cook’s work and the writing fits well with the concept of Croaker as an annalist of the company. Croaker is a relatable and believable character, but in being bound to the company and his employers’ wishes, often travels a dark road. The main story spans nine novels, along with a spinoff about the company’s former members.

Grunts (cover)Continuing the military theme we have the satirical Grunts by Mary Gentle. Often described as “Lord of the Rings from the orcs’ perspective”, the book is filled with shots at traditional fantasy and thick with black humour. From ruthless and bloodthirsty halflings to the vapid heroes that you grow to hate, the book turns the usual tropes on their head.

The plot is admittedly ludicrous, and that’s part of the charm of the piece. The orcs in the story are every bit as bloodthirsty as you’d expect, but despite their nature the reader does get a sense of these creatures as victims, bred for fodder in the “last battle,” and it almost makes you want to see them win something for a change. The style and level of violence in the book isn’t for everybody, and you’d never mistake the novel for anything but a parody, but it does provide a humorous glimpse at life on the other side.

Soon I Will Be Invincible (cover)A break from fantasy writing, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman follows the supervillain Dr. Impossible on another of his attempts to conquer the world. The book also has a heroic P.O.V. of Fatale the cyborg, but it’s the Doctor who steals the show. The writing is a bit tongue in cheek, and the characterisation is a bit clichéd, but that doesn’t stop the book from being enjoyable. There aren’t many books that delve into such detail of the villain narrative, following the development of his master plan from conception to execution. The narrative voice is excellent, really drawing the reader to side with the villain, and confirming that bad guys get all the best lines.

Perhaps somewhat unsettling is also the range of children’s fiction that focuses on villains. Many follow the typical path of children outsmarting adults, but with a nefarious background. Mark Walden’s H.I.V.E. series charts the adventures of the students in the Higher Institute of Villainous Education, a school built to train the next generation of criminals. There is also the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, detailing the adventures of an adolescent criminal genius as he seeks to exploit a hidden race of fairies that live underground. The stories are perfect for a young reader and offer something different from the heroic tradition, filled with excitement, adventure, and maybe even some moral lessons. Fortunately these stories tend to have a wholesome ending where the characters change heart and save the day in the end – otherwise we might find ourselves overrun by hordes of tiny masterminds.

The Rise of Nagash (cover)If you prefer sorcerers to supervillians, Nagash of the Warhammer world is one of the darkest characters to cross a page. Mike Lee’s series details the sorcerer’s attempts to rule a kingdom and challenge the gods. Again while there are other viewpoints the story’s main focus is on Nagash, and there is a real sense of progression and development to the character as his plans progress. The reader gets to see the growth of his power in a way rarely shown for such an antagonistic character. And while Nagash is completely irredeemable, he is fascinating. The reader is quickly drawn into his plans and grows eager to see what horror he will unleash next. Even after his setbacks, Nagash has a relentless determination that gives his character a sinister appeal. The books are classic fantasy, tinged with the grim style common to the Warhammer franchise, filled with magic, action and intrigue.

Now this article barely scratches the surface of what’s available – just a dip in shadowy waters. Hopefully this will provide a starting point for readers to seek out new works. Death Note (cover)There is no need to stick to literature either, for something more exotic why not try other mediums like manga or anime. These art forms are filled with characters that deviate from traditional moral heroes. Code Geass has Lelouch Lamperouge, exiled son of Britannia, who uses dark powers to stir rebellion against his family and the oppressive Holy Britannian Empire. Or maybe follow Light Yagami as he uses the power of the Death Note to rid the world of criminals? Both characters employ steadily darker means to achieve their goals, but aren’t they making the world a better place? These types of characters provide something new for the reader and offer a great deal of entertainment and complexity, earning their place in our stories.

If anyone wants to point out some more of these great characters and books, please post them in the comments below.

Title image by jeffsimpsonkh.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Jon_Anon says:

    I picked up The Black Company Omnibus a while back after Erikson said it was an inspiration for his Malazan books and I plan on reading that soon.

  2. Avatar Overlord says:

    So glad you mentioned Light. Light Yagami was such a fantastic character and Deathnote such an incredible television show (anime)… to the extent I’d say it is the best ‘concept’ or ‘story’ I have ever read.

    The series completely plays with your mind. Is Light good, is he bad? He is doing what he feels is good but he is doing it in a bad way. That said, what he wants to achieve (that in his mind is good) is not accomplishable in any other way. This is made all the more complicated when L turns up. Both L and Light are likeable. We want both to succeed, and yet only one can (L has never not caught a criminal and Light needs not to be caught in order to succeed). It has been about 6/7 years since I had the pleasure of watching that show and it has stayed with me ever since.

    • Avatar Jonathan says:

      Light is one of the most villainous characters on this page. His main motivation is simply that he cannot conceive of himself as having done something wrong (accidently murdered someone) so his solution is take over the world and mold it to his liking so that he NEVER did anything wrong. He is clearly sadistic and takes great pleasure in killing, and he is more than prepared to murder innocent people- in the manga (never seen the anime) he even briefly considers killing his own sister at one point. And he plans to eventually start killing people for being lazy, something that was established early on in the story. His New World is a totalitarian police state ruled with an iron fist by a murderous egomaniac with a literal God complex, and technically speaking the murder rate does not truly go down- people just decide to start going on television and asking Kira to kill people FOR them.

      Light’s problem is not that he thinks he is good- its that he fears he might be evil and refuses to face up to that because he can’t dare see himself as so flawed, so he constructs a murderous power fantasy where he is God and the ultimate arbiter of good and evil so that he could not be wrong. Unlike many other villain protagonists he isn’t pitted against someone who might be as bad or worse than he is- L might be a jackass, but its a cold day in Hell when he is worse than the biggest serial killer on the planet.

      No, its actually quite clear that Light is not “good”. Driving down the crime rate alone by whatever means doesn’t make you the good guy and he is far too preoccupied with his own ego (even early on) for that to be taken as his main motive anyway.

      Villains aren’t evil because they kill people; they kill people because they are evil. A villainous or heroic character is not defined by their actions; they are defined by their CHARACTER. And Light’s character is sorely lacking- he is deluded, ruthless, manipulative and sadistic, an egomaniacal control freak who refuses to take responsibility for his actions and is motivated by his own sense of grandiosity far more than any concern for helping people. That fact that his evil actions have good (but temporary) side effects doesn’t make him a good person and it certainly doesn’t mean that his intentions were good- he very quickly loses his conscience and sense of compassion and love and ends up only judging people by his warped standards- in his eyes you are either “bad, useful or in-my-way”. He is making a world that is aesthetically pleasing to him, and that some people might be better off in it (not counting those living in fear or when he moves on to killing those he simply dislikes, which I repeat he planned to do all along) does not really enter his mind except as further proof of his own awesomeness.

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