There’s no reason that you need to assume a villain in order to have a story. Mainstream fiction and many “classic” novels get away quite handily with having no villain, or only one truly despicable character in a populated world where many other shades of morality exist.
The only thing I do assume for this rant is that your non-villain is a fairly important character, and therefore you’ll be thinking about how his or her activities matter to the story as a whole; obviously, if they appear onstage in only one scene, your concerns in developing them will be different.
This doesn’t mean that you have to like both characters, your protagonist and your antagonist, equally (though, speaking for myself, I largely find it impossible to write a believable contest between two people where I don’t like both of them equally. I have the same problem with writing romances; if I can’t see them both as people, I have no business writing this story). It does mean that you need to be able to see the antagonist’s subjectivity as more complicated than, “Hero! Me smash!” or even the more sophisticated version, “I will now bend all my clever and coordinated resources to getting rid of the hero.”
Why? Because the protagonist usually gets the same treatment; he has worries and goals and relationships that are not solely tied to one end. If the antagonist obsesses about him and only him, but he doesn’t obsess about the antagonist in the same way, the story is unbalanced from the beginning, and it’s far too easy to slide down the slope into the dichotomy between Shining Human Hero and Petty Evil/Monstrous Dark Lord once again.
The best way to avoid writing a villain is to make your antagonist a person. This isn’t simple in execution, of course, but I think that, at bottom, it’s really a very simple idea. Why isn’t it followed more often? Perhaps because the dichotomy between good and evil in fantasy writing is so strong (see point 2). Perhaps because the hero usually comes to the author as a character first, and/or the author is more invested in that person, and it’s hard to invest a comparable portion of oneself in the person opposing the hero. Perhaps because far too many people think that the world is actually divided into “stupid!” and “smart!” factions. They’re on the smart side, of course.
So write a story about people. I think that will be better.
2) “There are two sides to every argument” just doesn’t cut it.
People will parrot this back all day. Specifically, my students tend to parrot it back at me all day to get out of doing actual work like evaluation. But just because they’re aware of the existence of the other side doesn’t mean they respect it. And just because you give the villain one scene where she comes across as something other than an amoral psychopath doesn’t mean that her side of the argument will seem convincing to someone else. (In fact, most of the time, this perspective is used to exalt the hero’s moral sense without giving any idea that the villain herself actually believes it).
So, what do you do?
Have an argument with three sides. Or four. Or, much better, more than that. Have other people who are powerful, influence the action (even if not as much as the non-hero and the non-villain), and represent subtly different perspectives. Stories where the hero/ine needs to work with a council, aristocracy, or coalition are great for this. Or have them help the protagonist or antagonist, but for their own reasons. Then you can have interesting ethical debates about whether doing something right for the wrong reasons is still right. Say Spartacus is a bastard and takes great delight in abusing the self-confidence of people around him, but he uses those insults to make the hero/ine try harder, as well as for his own pleasure. At least it’s something different than mindless jealousy or hero-worship, and it’s a sign that people can believe the same thing as the protagonist while not agreeing with his personal interpretation.
Now give the non-villain friends like that, too.
This is one place where political fantasy absolutely excels. Yes, of course you run the risk that some people will be bored by the politics. But, here’s the thing, you write them well, and I bet some other people will find them interesting.
3) Reduce the supernatural aspect of morality.
Here comes the theme I keep harping on. But, see, if people stopped writing moralistic fantasy universes tomorrow, then I would stop harping on about them. So they can stop writing them any time they please.
If you’ve got a world with a clearly defined Absolute Good and Evil, or black and white magic, or one action that is believed by everyone—even the antagonist—to be wrong under any and all circumstances and which a divine lightning bolt will fry your brain for, it’s kind of hard to have a non-villain. People will fall into classes based on what they believe in or what they do, and it’s not a set of ideals or principles that tells one side the other should be destroyed; it’s the “natural design,” or a set of beings acknowledged to be better than flawed humanity ever can be. Or Destiny, of course. Or, if you are a Terry Goodkind character, the cackling of the evil chicken.
Does this mean you need to get rid of gods? No. (Although I would like to see a fantasy that did that. Hint, hint.) Does it mean you need to reduce the presence of gods in your story and stop them showing up at every turn to announce that the heroine is the Destined Ruler of the Kingdom of Froofala and, incidentally, the Possessor of the Diamond Magic? Yes.
Give personal reasons for both non-hero and non-villain to believe what they believe. Show their reasoning on the subject (and make it non-stupid. See point 4). Show the cultures, friends, books, and religions that influenced them.
What you don’t want to do is show that one person is objectively right and one person is objectively wrong, “objective” here being from a perspective that no one can doubt. Leave that up to the reader to decide as much as possible. Yes, you can believe one is right or wrong. That doesn’t mean you need to drizzle this opinion all over the page, so thickly that your reader wonders why the villain doesn’t wake up and smell the bacon grease. My ideal is that, while I may suspect very strongly what the author believes, I can never tell for certain.
4) If argument is a factor, give powerful orators to either side.
I’ve noted before that it’s often hard to write good philosophical argument of any kind, let alone good arguments where one character is supposed to be right and the other wrong. But that does not mean it is impossible. And if ethics is a prominent part of your story, and characters convince others or themselves by means of argument, guess what? You have got an obligation to write the arguments, damnit.
They don’t have to be conversations; they can take place inside the characters’ heads as they seek to justify their own ethically iffy decisions or begin the long, agonizing process of changing their minds. But they have still got to be convincing. If a five-year-old can poke holes in the logic, it’s back to the drawing board, just as the Evil Overlord List advises you to do when a normal five-year-old child can point out holes in your villain’s “brilliant” plan.
What’s the best preparation for this? Crib. Read philosophy, and not just from the side you agree with. Learn who are considered the subtlest thinkers, the cleverest writers, the producers of the most poetic prose, on the Other Side, and become familiar with their arguments. I guarantee you, unless you’re writing about something like the ethics of dragon-breeding, your issue is nothing that some philosophers haven’t chewed over at one time or another—and even then, the dragon-breeding will have its counterpart in things like animal rights.
“Those who don’t know their opponent’s arguments do not truly understand their own,” goes one saying I’ve seen attributed to several people, and sometimes left unattributed. Damn straight. And reading with as open a mind as possible, and trying to understand whypeople find these arguments convincing even if you don’t agree, is great practice for empathy with your non-villain.
5) Vary the emotional reactions, always.
Perhaps logical argument does not play a huge part in your protagonist/antagonist conflict. A lot of it has to do with emotions, and personal background (which, I betcha, includes abuse or betrayal of some kind), and politics and war in the outer fantasy world.
Righty-dighty. Your job in that case is to make sure that the antagonist gets to feel as much as the protagonist does.
I’m thinking of both kinds of clichés here, incidentally. The story where the villain moans on and on about his horrible childhood, and it’s the reason for everything he does, is just as annoying as the one where the hero is at home to every kind of complex emotion angst while the villain only gloats over rotting flesh and braided intestines. Do I find the endless dwelling on one part of the past interesting when it’s coming from the “opposite” side? No. Can rape, or the loss of a family member, or nearly being killed, at some point in the past justify someone in rape or murder or trying to subjugate a country for no reason in the present?
Geez, I hope I don’t have to answer this question. It may explain their actions. It cannot justify them.
So. Have the non-hero and the non-villain alike able to moan, but also cry, find contentment in the company of a friend, feel righteous anger, execute successful plans, have minor failures that irritate them for a day or two, grump at the universe, and discover unknown phobias at the most inconvenient times. This doesn’t mean a mechanical match-up; “Right, he just felt terror, so now she should.” It means letting both people be people.
6) Do not become obsessed with narrative patterns.
Perhaps I should explain that I distrust archetypes like a mad thing. Though you may have noticed that by now.
I don’t care if things like the “Hero’s Journey” are universal. If they really are universal, then you don’t need to make a special attempt to put them in the story anyway; they’ll show up because they’re part of our collective (un)consciousness as human authors. Using them as a map for the story, and thus insisting that the villain must behave in a certain way because That Is What Villains Do, is fucking mental.
Yes, you may be unable to help archetypes. That doesn’t mean the damn things can justify piss-poor writing. “Look, I used her to explore the Madonna/Whore syndrome, so it doesn’t matter that her actions make no sense!”
Besides, there are some archetypes that you don’t really want to obey all the time, or what is the point of reading this rant? What would be the point of ever trying to write stories where women, non-white people, or villains behaved in different ways than what the stories the theorists studied said they “should”? We could just repeat clichés forever and ever, with no changes or twists or the deepening complexity that can justify redeeming them.
Don’t become obsessed with forcing your characters into narrative roles. That is, don’t write the story as if your characters knew they were Hero and Villain. They may think that, but, just as in point 3, their believing that and the author planting giant neon signs all over the place about how, indeed, they are Hero and Villain are different things.
As I said above, if there are truly universal patterns, they’ll come through. I sincerely doubt symbols so powerful need special help.
The next rant will probably be on ways to focus and tighten stories.