First, one of my favorite (and simplest) verses from Swinburne, from “Hertha.”

I bid you but be;
I have need not of prayer;
I have need of you free
As your mouths of mine air;
That my heart may be greater within me, beholding the fruits of me fair.

Some of this I’ve said before, but mostly scattered in other places, not in one single rant.

More admitting of biases: I think that fantasy can get along perfectly well without division of the world into Dark and Light, and that the best authors who write without it- Kay, Martin, Berg, Pratchett, Brust- also succeed in complicating their “evil” characters and making you sympathize with them (sometimes more than the heroes). But it is a great attraction to divide the world, and I think it can be done well.

I just wish people didn’t do these.

1) It is apparently a requirement that villains be ugly.

Or so the Dark Lords with their swarms of orcs and trolls and goblins seem to think. This is a cheap trick to tell the audience where their sympathies are supposed to lie. On the rare occasion that a good character is ugly, they have “inner beauty” instead, but no one seems interested in seeking the inner beauty of an orc. The only exceptions I can think of are some dragons, Glen Cook’s Dark Lady (who is more often seen in illusion than in reality for most of the first trilogy), and some villains who put on false beauty in order to trick the good guys. Those last are still ugly underneath.

Is this really necessary?

I don’t think so. Of course, making all the evil characters beautiful wouldn’t solve everything, but as long as fantasy readers remain focused on outer beauty, it’s a step in the right direction- that is, forcing your readers away from easy sympathies and making them think a little. If it’s easy to hate a goblin but not an elf, put elves on the bad side and watch what happens.

2) Give them some credit for intelligence, too.

It doesn’t make much sense to have stupid people conquering the world. Either villains are really secretly intelligent until the hero comes along, at which point their wits drain away, or everyone else who tried to resist evil in the past was monumentally idiotic. The hero always seems to be not only more intelligent than his nemesis, but supremely more intelligent than his nemesis.

How did the nemesis become a nemesis, then?

Think about it. If the dark lords in fantasy really failed as badly most of the time as they do when confronting the heroes, their reigns should have ended centuries ago when they did something like leave a large and obvious loophole in their plans that their enemies could slip through. Lack of intelligence turns them cartoonish. Besides, it makes the suspense of the story turn to jello. No one is going to feel threatened, or should, by someone who tells the hero everything right before he kills him.

That’s another thing, too.

3) Avoid the token signals that are supposed to act as flashing neon signs of EVIL.

These include, but are not limited to: cackling, gloating, wearing all or only black, torturing people just for the hell of it, telling the enemy everything right before they kill him, “testing” the enemy in such a way that it gives him an opportunity to escape, and basically a bunch of other things on the Evil Overlord List. Unless you actually are writing a parody, they’re flat-out silly by this point, and at best will smack of plot contrivance and interrupt the smooth flow of your story.

Of course, going to the opposite extreme and having the good guys wear black can also grind down a reader’s patience. Try to create unique villains instead. Hey, you do it for the heroes, right? If you know a hero’s history from beginning to end, and have taken time to understand his personality, why not do the same for a villain? Too often, the chapters written from a villain’s point of view concentrate on how evil he is or are just there as a “fly on the wall” look at what the Dark is doing, while the good characters’ chapters concentrate on them as people. To be absolutely corny about it: Villains are people, too.

4) If the heroes get kick-ass magic, the Dark should get kick-ass magic.

I’m always puzzled when I read a fantasy story where the heroes seem to pull out magical swords practically from thin air, while the Dark Lord has to go through an immense amount of time-consuming research and dangerous rituals to get a weapon whose power never actually materializes before the heroes kill him. It’s even worse when there’s some half-assed “justification,” like some weapons only being usable by the pure of heart blah blah blah. Muchbetter to give the heroes an actual reason to fear the Dark Lord. If Sauron had had no other weapons to fight the war in LOTR than the Ring, he would have been a pathetic figure. Instead, Tolkien gave him the Nazgûl, and made the Ring something that would cause even more terror if Sauron got ahold of it, not the only source of terror.

This is the problem with having Dark Lords as immense shadowy figures, a threat in potentia instead of in reality. If they haven’t actually done anything yet, why are the heroes so afraid?

5) Don’t make the Dark Lord’s plans undone by mere chance.

This goes back to the leaving of loopholes mentioned above, but this doesn’t always include stupid plans. There are some plans that sound as if they would work- except that the Dark Lord forgets something that everyone else in the world knows, like a child being born at a certain time to dethrone him, or else fails to stop one particular person or action even though you’d think he would bend all his strength to it.

Could someone really have ruled for a thousand years and built a dark empire and then forget that inconvenient prophecy stating the little girl born at midnight on the first day of April will one day wave her magic wand and blow him away? Or fail to watch out for children born on that day, and kill them all no matter what it takes? The Dark Lord is represented as ruthless most of the time, yet somehow he’s never ruthless enough to kill all the children, or some such thing.

Concealment, such as the prophecy being kept a complete secret from the Dark Lord, can provide a possible out, but the longer it’s supposed to go on the more obviously the scales are tilted in good’s favor. Could any prophecy truly stay secret for a thousand years? It becomes increasingly unlikely with each passing decade, I would say, or even each passing year. This is especially true when the good guys somehow find out all the villain’s plans in a much shorter time.

Let the villains be truly threatening- iron-clad plots, good spy networks, intelligent and complex contingency plans. Your heroes will have to work harder to defeat them, but it will look as if they have earned their victory.

6) Don’t make your villains think of themselves as evil.

Fantasy seems to be full of bad guys who revel in being bad, who think longingly about destroying all the good in the world, who should be able to look at the long track record of good winning and hesitate, but don’t seem to care.

This reminds me of the argument that atheists really do believe in God and know they’re going to be sent to Hell, but go on defying God anyway. Both are gryphon shit. Who in their right minds would turn against a force they knew was going to win? There has to be room for honest doubt as to which course is best- in the minds of the villains if nowhere else. And, as much as possible, the villains should believe that what they are doing is right. This especially applies if…

7) The moral standards are slipshod for no apparent reason.

Somehow, actions that the good takes are fine, even if those actions include torture or the killing of children. The good guys may angst for a while, and sometimes- not very often- there’s a nasty consequence or two, but everything is justified because they’re doing it “for the greater good,” or “for the unborn,” or for the faceless, amorphous masses that justify so many actions in fantasy.

Whereas if the evil guy tortures one person, that’s the end. There’s no turning back, and there’s no excusing it.

I want to drop-kick this philosophy from the highest tower I can find. What in the name of Conan is it doing here? How can moral standards be relativistic for the good guys but absolute for the bad ones?

Oh, wait, I know. The good guys are the ones the author wants me to sympathize with. Therefore, the angst and the gray actions are necessary for “character development,” but they can’t actually be allowed to affect my opinion of the good guys in any negative way. Thus the justifications.

Personally I think that implying any moral code in the order of the universe is silly, and that justifications and moral standards should remain in the characters’ minds, not the authorial voice. But if you’re going to aim for moral standards in the universe as it stands, so that one action is always wrong, for the love of your fantasy deities apply them consistently. Torture, murder, rape, or slavery should not stop being wrong just because the heroes do it.

It’s amazing how often lately I find myself gritting my teeth at the good guys.