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The Villain With A Thousand Faces – Part One: Cardboard Cut-Outs

About The Author: Her Holiness the Dragon Queen Zafir, Speaker of the Nine Realms, has played both pro- and antagonist roles in her career as a fictional character. She is either the aloof fist of authority to be respected and feared, a liberator of the oppressed and enslaved, or a dragon-riding genocidal psychotic tyrant bitch-queen from hell, depending on your point of view [1].

There’s been a lot of talk and discussion in these halls over the last months and years about the evolution of the fantasy hero, anti-hero, thing, whatever is the protagonist-du-jour. It’s all very interesting. There’s no doubt that a good story of any genre needs, almost without exception, a good central character or cast.

Evil Wizard by SarahAnnLorethThe protagonists, generally speaking, need to be characters the reader can cheer or boo for. They are, by definition, the champion or advocate of some cause which ought to be readily identifiable. Many protagonists are heroes, but not all. Some are out-and-out villains and gleefully so; but I’m not really here to talk about heroes and villains in some sort of moral sense, more to blow the trumpet for the oft-overlooked foil to the main character’s quest.

The thwarter of dreams, the denier of ambition, whether those dreams are of avarice or altruism. The antagonist. The one(s) who stand against. The obstacles to the hero getting the girl (yawn) or establishing her dominion over all she surveys (much better). It is true, I’m afraid, that most antagonists are also cast as villains, while most protagonists are cast as heroes; and I put it to you that this is the voice of history rearing its ugly head. Whoever she is, the protagonist is the hero of her own story, and the villains, frankly, are whoever get in the way. Write your motives as pure or base as you like, that’s still what it comes down to. In my story, I am the hero. In many others, I am the villain; and for the purposes of the rest of all of this, I’m going to talk about heroes and villains instead of pro- and antagonists, because “hero” and “villain” are much blunter words and I like them.

The Cardboard Cut-Out Shrub With No Soul

gs evil scientist reg by jOuey-Villains, then. Let’s start with the easiest: The Cardboard Cut-Out Shrub With No Soul, also often referred to as the cartoon villain or sometimes the comic-book villain (a disservice to many comic books). The cartoon villain is easily recognisable. He has no personality, no discernible motivations or desires except the one that makes him the villain. There is no nuance, no subtlety, no particular effort at rationale or explanation. He is simply the villain, doing bad things, against which the heroine or heroines must pit themselves and overcome. At this point, some of you will no doubt be ready to laugh and scoff and point and jeer at the idea of an utterly shallow and two-dimensional villain. You couldn’t get away with writing a hero like that, after all.

But really? Bite back your shameful cackling and remember this: a villain serves a different purpose. A villain is there to provide obstacles to the heroine. To some extent, the depth of the heroine’s resolve is revealed only by the villainy of the villain, by his strength and power, not by how much backstory he has. Writers use these cookie-cutter villains all the time. Guardians of the Galaxy: Ronan the Accuser and Thanos. Cardboard Cut-Out Shrubs With No Soul, both of them. A lot of super-hero movies, in fact (the better villains get some personality, but we’ll come to that later). Many action stories, war stories, cardboard cut-out villains are used all over the place, all the time, by good competent writers, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. They can’t carry much weight in a story, but that’s sort of the point: if you want as much time and focus on the protagonists as possible, a complex villain only gets in the way. So don’t be afraid to use the cardboard cut-out shrub. I can even find one in Game of Thrones if you like (Gregor Clegane), so note that even the great Martin, antithesis of cardboard cut-out characters, still uses them now and then.

Smaug destroys Esgaroth by Gaius31dukeThere’s a possibly apocryphal story of a convention panel where one of the panellists got a bit sniffy about the Lord of the Rings, pointing out that at least his/her villains had some sort of reason / motivation / backstory, only to be given a righteous smackdown by the rest of the panel. I don’t know if it’s true, but if anyone has any doubts as to the potential of the cardboard cut-out villain, I give you two of the most widely recognised fantasy villains: Smaug and Sauron. Free from personality and backstory [2], but do they work as villains? Hell yes. And are you going to tell me that the Terminator wasn’t a good villain? Are you going to tell me he was anything but one-dimensional? Being one-dimensional was his whole point, wasn’t it?

Snow Fight by chosacYes, a story with a cardboard cut-out hero or heroine is likely to be pretty lame, but a cardboard cut-out villain can work just fine. It’s both a pitfall and a strength of this villain is that they’re black and white. Their opposition to the goals of the heroine needs to be direct and straightforward and instantly recognisable, something a reader can easily understand. The heroine must carry all the drama of the story through how she overcomes the challenges, internal, external, whatever, necessary to force a final confrontation of some sort and then either fail or prevail.

Cardboard cut-outs don’t leave much wriggle room for twists at the end – they can’t suddenly be persuaded or redeemed because things like that (to be done well, at least) require foreshadowing and some crack in their armour or beliefs into which the heroine can insert a lever, and to make that work they need to have a little more depth. Darth Vader is arguably a cardboard cut-out villain in Star Wars, but the story moves him well away from that long before the end of Return of the Jedi, and rightly so. Nevertheless, if you want a story heavily focussed on the character of the hero or heroine, you might do better to ask “why not?” than “why?” when it comes to the cardboard cut-out villain.

The Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of The Big Bad

angmar by nebezialI was a little cheaty with my examples before. Live with it. Villains cheat, lie, and twist the truth. So do heroes, but they try to pretend they’re better than us. None of my examples were actually human, and that leads me on to another kind of villain – the inexplicable thing that threatens the heroine (or her society, culture, beliefs, blah blah whatever, just as long as we’re all clear that threatening can be anything from poking a knife at me to refusing to accept my dominion of all I survey – and from the back of a dragon I can survey a long damn way). No one considers attempting to argue or debate or negotiate with Sauron because Sauron simply IS the Big Bad. I can’t think of a better example of this sort of villain than the Terminator: it’s here to kill you, it cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, and it absolutely will not stop until one of you is dead.

The Big Bad can be aliens, supernatural forces, you can go all the way with this to volcanoes, a virus or mutating neutrinos if you like, although some of these are more or less likely to have a some form of avatar as a focal point of their villain-ness. The point is that the Big Bad is coming from somewhere so different that effective communication, even if anyone wanted to, isn’t viable, and the avatar reflects exactly that (doubts or inner conflict push our villain out of the cardboard cut-out collection and into the more complex sort I’ll witter about some other time). To make this sort of villain work well it helps for the Big Bad to be integrated into the fabric of the setting.

M'Weru by henningSauron is a distant implacable villain, but the history of his presence throughout the world is felt, deeply ingrained and permeates almost everything. He is a part of Middle Earth’s history. He belongs there, and that’s why he works. Further, even if the Big Bad is an implacable alien force, its avatar can still have a human face and the conflict can still be personal. Cthulhu’s priests might want to take over the world, but they can also kidnap and sacrifice the heroine’s boyfriend while they’re at it [3].

I come back to the Terminator, which executes this villain perfectly: the movie is quickly and unswervingly centred around the premise of a time-travelling killer; although the Big Bad is an AI that hasn’t even been built yet, it’s avatar Arnie is both a nigh unstoppable force that cannot be reasoned with and has a human [4] face; and best of all the conflict is made as simple and personal as a conflict can possibly be. Sarah Conner is battling for the fate of the world, true, but what makes the Terminator so visceral is that as far as she’s concerned she’s battling for her own survival. One of them has to die and there’s no other way.

Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of Some Other Ideology

There’s another variant that I don’t see much in fantasy, which is the Cardboard Cut-Out Avatar of Some Other Ideology. Particularly in genre writing, ideological conflicts (and thus villains) are fairly well represented, but if the story is about ideological differences then its villains are unlikely to manage to stay properly two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, and nor should they.

Robert Redford in The Winter SoldierElsewhere the story is different. Anything with Nazis, for example. Robert Redford in The Winter Soldier (and if that’s a spoiler, I don’t care. Psychotic bitch-queen from hell, remember?). I’ll come to more complex ideological villains some other time, but for the simple cardboard ones work The Ideology works much the same way as the Big Bad. You just need it to be an ideology that’s easily recognisable and be prepared to cast it as the Big Bad without much thought.

That’s it for this instalment; but before you go back to Twitter, carry this thought with you. Complex villains might sound great, but 95% [5] of story villains are cardboard cut-outs and FOR GOOD REASON: the stories in which they appear aren’t about them, they’re about the hero or the heroine, and every second of page-time spent turning your villain into something more is page-time you could have spent on the person your story is supposedly about.

– – –

[1] or food, if your point of view is that of a dragon, but they think that about everyone.

[2] Dear pedants, yes, I realise there is more in what I shall call the secondary material. Writing a lengthy biography of your villain as supplementary material and sticking it on the internet doesn’t count.

[3] For the sake of the story, she’s pissed about this.

[4] ish…

[5] This is a guess but I have a dragon so it’s also right and shut up.

Title image by jOuey.

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10 Comments

  1. Jon_Anon says:

    I’m still searching for that book where the hero is also the villian, s/he just doesn’t know it yet. I really want a fantasy series that deconstructs the “Dark Lord” trope, where over the course of the series the main character goes from being the hero to being the villain. And not just any villain but THE villain and he didn’t even realise it happened or better yet the reader didn’t even realize until when it’s to late and the reader goes “oh” when it turns out they have been rooting for the big bad the whole time.

    Also not to be “that guy” but it’s Thanos nor Thanatos.

    • Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

      Gah! I can’t believe I missed that! Thanks for the correction. 🙂

    • Jonathan says:

      The First Law sortof does this.

      Also, Brent Weeks is good with a similar trope- characters who begin as heroes but slowly over the course of the story become increasingly evil as they are corrupted by dangerous magic, and re-reading the story its tricky to pinpoint any exact moment when they mentally crossed the line.

    • Marzio Ombra says:

      Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny – trust me

    • Zafir says:

      See, old chunky-face in GotG was so unmemorable that I didn’t even get his name right… And not to be *that dragon-riding bitch* but it’s ‘not’ not ;nor’ :-ppppppp

      But I would totally go or *that* book if you could ever find it. It’s been done in other contexts. I can think of an Agatha Christe murder story where the narrator turns out to be the murder. Arguably there’s Breaking Bad and Tyrant (I think – haven’t watched enough to be sure). I’m almost sure its been done as SF, but I can’t actually name the story. But yes, the downfall of an idealist trying to make the world a better place who slips unseeing into being the Dark Lord by trying to force his/her vision on the world but truly seeing that it;s for the greater good, that would totally float my boat.

      • Robin says:

        I am pretty certain that if you could write Adolf Hitler from his point of view, his final thoughts would be something along the lines of, “How did I get HERE? All I wanted was 99% employment and for the trains to run on time!”

  2. Jonathan says:

    In that instance of Smaug and Sauron, if it happened, then I imagine part of the objection would have been that no, neither of those characters are exactly cardboard cutout villains. I say “exactly” because most of their motivation comes from The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-Earth and other materials that delve into the backstory of those books, but they get more of their character and motivations explained (okay, Sauron more than Smaug, but still.)

  3. Erica says:

    And Lord of the Rings also had Saruman and Gollum as villains. Their motives were important to the story, as they both people who had fallen. Gollum was a sort of mirror character for Bilbo and Frodo also, the essence of what they could become if they allowed the ring to rule them.

    I think that mirror (or Jungian shadow) villains are a class of villain that does need a little more complexity. And a story where the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist is central to the story will also need a more three-dimensional villain.

    • Zafir says:

      Yes and yes. There’s no reason why a story can’t have multiple villains of different complexity.

      I love subtle and deep villains who are intimately boiund to their protagonists (I would, right), but there are plenty of great stories that manage without. The relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist in The Terminator is pretty damn central and pretty damn personal and pretty damn not-subtle.

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