So. Just as in fantasy without magic, I believe it’s perfectly possible to achieve books without villains. Why? Because I’ve read them. Those books still have characters who act against each other, for different goals or at cross-purposes, but they lack “Mwa-ha-ha-ha!” villains, or the kind who get conquered by LOVE, or the kind who are completely insane, or the kind who take over the world because it’s sitting outside their door. They’re just characters. (Incidentally, those books often lack identifiable author-favored protagonists as well, or at least don’t turn their heroes into blank slates of shining light).
This is, then, just a list of ways of achieving the completely possible.
1) Have a reasonable main conflict.
This translates into, “a conflict in which we are not being forced to cheer for one side, because of what will happen if they lose.” Even if the reader doesn’t particularly like one set of characters, he or she has to be able to grasp their motives and understand that, in this particular set of circumstances, it makes sense for these people to act this way. (See points 3 and 4).
This means that “Crazy guy who wants to take over the world vs. a whole bunch of people who don’t want him to” or “Overlord bent on genocide vs. the race he’s trying to slaughter” are automatically villain-laden. They’re going too strongly against the moral barometer of the vast majority of your audience. Even if the crazy guy or the overlord is a well-drawn, complex character, there’s the problem of that goal. He has to fit in the villain role, because there’s no other reasonable slot to put him in without a great deal of pushing and prodding and twisting the narrative. Variations on the second one—an overlord bent on oppressing all women, or a non-magic-user bent on slaughtering mages—are also right out. Beyond the steep slope of morality they’ll require your reader to climb, villains like this tend to slide into clichéd dialogue and reasoning that the most innocent readers know the counterarguments for quite easily. Or the author loses it, and blazons your proper readerly allegiance across the story’s sky by naming them Adolfo. (Really. That happened).
Some conflicts that have worked without producing villains:
- Sorcerer who destroyed a country’s art and culture and obliterated its name by magic because they killed his beloved younger son, vs. the rebels who are quite content to enslave mages in the name of freeing their country—Tigana.
- A woman who wants to protect her children and does it by murdering other children, vs. the man who blindly follows his honor to the detriment of all else—A Song of Ice and Fire (well, okay, that was one of about a hundred different conflicts in that series).
- A mage who summons up a fairy creature he can’t control out of fear and hurt pride, vs. a mage who grows too involved in his studies to notice what’s happening to his wife because of said fairy creature—Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
- A mob boss/assassin/brothel-owner who has no problem casually killing people, vs. a large group of revolutionaries who have no problem with bringing down a system of Empire that magically guarantees civilization—Teckla.
The reasons behind the conflicts can themselves be tangled and ethical and muddy and hard to sort out. But, if that’s the case, it needs to be so for both sides. A conflict where one side is immediately identifiable as “good” and one as “bad” will not help the author to avoid producing a villain and a hero.
2) Integrate the character traits.
This is to avoid what I call the “Hitler was an artist!” complex, where the writer grants the villain one good trait—usually an affinity for art, sometimes a soft spot for children, sometimes something else—and harps on it amid all the evil ones. We are supposed to pity or understand the villain because of it. Sometimes the author winds up tracing everything evil the villain’s ever done back to it, a la “If someone had told Hitler he was a good artist, he wouldn’t have committed genocide.”
This is a cheat, because it substitutes for depth, and because the villain is still a villain. Instead of explaining his actions, the author excuses her own. She’s made him a frustrated artist, what more do you want in the way of mixed characterization?
Well, actual mixed characterization would be nice. If you want a story without a villain, daubing someone with a spot of light amid darkness is not the way to achieve it. You have a hero who can kill to protect those he loves and kill in a cold-blooded rage, and one doesn’t excuse or invalidate the other; many authors get a fruitful source of tension out of such seesaws instead. So make the ‘villain’ such a character. He’s got pride, jealousy, a wonderful artistic talent, too much anger, a sense of humor, a disturbing tendency not to forgive his enemies, and an unexpected largess for people who help him. He’s to be contemplated as a whole, just like any protagonist that you have, not as a source of pity or as someone whose traits cancel each other out in the author’s handling of him.
He’s also lived his life.
3) Pay some attention to the damn environment.
There’s been discussion of this before, how some fantasy worlds have apparently produced people transplanted from Earth, or from a far more ideal fantasy world, without a link to the family, home, journeys, and training the author says they’ve gone through. Connect your protagonists to their world, by all means. But don’t spend all your time and effort on just one person, or the others become shadows. Connect the ones who might play villain roles if you were letting them to their circumstances, too.
Perhaps you have a woman who, reared to be an obedient daughter and wife in a medieval-like environment, would have dutifully loved the man she was arranged to marry and borne him children. But it just so happens that her husband is the exact opposite of the traits she admires, and someone far closer to her has all those traits, and her arranged husband regularly disgraces herself and him while remaining in love with the bride of his youth, and there’s an ancient tradition in the (now deposed) line of former kings justifying incest. It might not be so surprising that that woman winds up sleeping with her brother and hating her arranged husband. I’m sure that people who have read the book in question can tell who I’m talking about. It’s a character that I happen to hate and wish would die. And the circumstances that bear down on her didn’t necessarily compel the incest. But she makes decisions that make sense in light of all of this, and then, once the incest has happened, she finds other justifications, because of what would happen to her if she didn’t, and she has to find some means of making sure that people don’t find out, and, and, and…
It’s very much harder to conceive of a character as Darkest Evil or Shining Light when you know something about their history and the constraints on their choices. The constraints are important, I think. Many fantasy protagonists are creatures of far more freedom than constraints, and this winds up producing people it’s difficult to identify with, because they overcome obstacles too easily and get hung up on smaller problems than afflict other characters in the story. The villains also have too much freedom, though in that case the freedom is oddly patchwork, as when the author makes up the one exception to the villain’s world-conquering power to justify why he hasn’t conquered the world quite yet.
It makes much more sense to spin a complicated, rooted, embedded, personal history. The people become citizens of the world. It lets you know more about the setting as well as them. And it moves them further and further away from the possible stock roles that await them. It’s much harder to stuff living, breathing characters into “villain” slots. Your audience might still hate them (I hate a number of them), but their actions, whether your reader judges them as evil, good, or neutral, will be their evil, good, or neutral actions, not those of a defined role.
4) The justifications have to stop being stupid.
Subset of point 1, but even though you might set up a reasonable conflict, one character, when asked to explain why he’s standing on one side as opposed to the other, might have very stupid reasons for it. I’ve read some fantasies that would have been better if the author had simply left the reader to guess why the villain did what he did, even at the cost of him staying a villain. He was more of a shadowed, complex, possibly-real kind of a person when he kept his mouth shut than when he opened it and removed all depth.
Really stupid justifications:
- A woman/man wronged the character a long time ago, so he’s/she’s striking back at all persons of that gender.
- The character knows and admits the moral truth about the “right” side and what kind of consequences will come to him for opposing it, but persists in supporting the “wrong” one because he hates the “right” one. (This is the sort of thing that comes into play when people claim that atheists know God is right and the devil is real, but they keep on being atheists because they hate God. Not many people are stupid enough to hate something they don’t believe exists. Nor would it make much sense to oppose a God whom you knew was loving and would cast you into an eternal torment for opposing him. /end mini-rant)
- “Women/men/mages/non-mages/white-skinned people/dark-skinned people are obviously inferior because of X/Y/Z.” Once again, it’s a kind of argument that the great majority of your readers can tear holes in all by themselves, and it brands that character irrefutably a villain. It might be a natural outgrowth of your world, but it still makes villains at this point in reader/writer history. (And then, of course, there comes the problem of justifying why your heroes are so shiningly pure of sexism or racism, or why their sexism/racism is of the okay kind).
- The same ones you’d use for your protagonists. Personal vengeance is, I think, overplayed and quite often questionable even when authors approve of it, but it’s understandable.
- Personal loyalty to that particular country/faction/people/group/religion. It helps if the author remembers, “There is no such thing as a just war.”
- A point of logic that something in the narrative or world does support. For this, you might want to use a conflict that started so long ago the two opposing sides long since carved out their justifications and piled up the evidence for each, and the real cause has been lost to history. Both sides will have committed atrocities, both sides will have set it up to make it look like they didn’t commit atrocities, and both sides will be mired too deeply to find an easy way out.
5) Include the possible villain in as many moods as possible.
Not just highest deepest darkest dudgeon and despair. The former is often a case of the villain thinking he’s going to win, the last what happens when he realizes he’s going to lose. And he flips between them with little prompting, sometimes just one action.
Portray these characters laughing, playing, dancing, singing, making art, sorrowing over a lost friend, prodding at an old hurt like a dangling tooth, setting a plan into motion, snapping in irritation at an unwelcome intruder, blurting out an insult they didn’t mean to say, stumbling onto someone else’s sorrow and trying hesitantly to offer comfort, falling in love. Emotion works to make a character human/real. I think ordinary emotion, or understated emotion, works even better than the extremes. We’re all used to villains who shriek as they fall to their deaths, or laugh maniacally at what they believe to be a defeated enemy. Let’s see some who know how to share the smaller moments of life, too.
In fact, I believe this is valuable advice even for the heroes, who at their worst also tend to have “sparkling eyes” and “a glittering single tear.” Show the moments that you might not ordinarily think important to the story, and then make them important. And give a mood to every one.
Hmmm. This is at least half a rant on “how to write books without heroes.” But that’s all right, I suppose. If you’re giving up one, you can give up the other that much more easily.