Welcome, welcome! *in my best villain voice*. Come join me in my secret lair and lets's jump right into everybody's favorite topic-- bad guys! *claps slowly*
In all honesty, though, I'm not here to talk about "normal" villains. I'm here to talk about borderline villains. Those iffy characters that you're not sure whether they're good or bad. The ones who are "grey" in their morals or thinking. The ones who are against the protagonists but are pretty much against the antagonist as well. THESE are our borderline villains...and boy can they spice things up.
I've been dealing with a lot of these guys recently. (Looking at y'all, my precious novels!) So let's just break it down a little with some examples. I'm going to be using my upcoming novel, Needlemaker as well as Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens as case studies, but don't worry, there'll be no spoilers.
First off, let's talk about antagonists. What are antagonists, really? Basically the antagonist is someone (or something) that is working against your protagonist. Ok, so not every book has antagonists that are super in-your-face-villains. Sometimes the antagonist isn't even really that evil....or even a real person. (But that is a topic for another time, lol!) Let's take a quick look at the antagonists in The Needlemaker and Little Dorrit real quick so we can compare our "borderline" villains to them.
Mr. Rutherford, Senior-- He's an older man...wealthy, business-like and powerful. His main goal is money, and he doesn't let anything stop him. He kind of heads up the "evil" Rutherford family... They've had scandal before and never been brought to justice, and instead are constantly finding ways to let other people take the blame. He is ruthless, focused only on himself, and pretty much has no heart.
Charles Rutherford-- Mr. Rutherford's son, he is also one of the main villains--but more on a personal level to a few certain characters. He's not some "mastermind" organizing from the top but just a bad guy who has no problem hurting other people. He's a rich, spoiled man who has a bad temper.
Rigaud/Blandois/Lagnier -- Not only a murderer, Rigaud (who goes by other names as well) is always conniving and is pure evil. His focus is himself and his own profit, and he is quick to use people--and kill people-- to get his way. While he tries to maintain his facade of a gentleman, his morality is so twisted that it's almost ridiculous.
Mrs. Clennam -- While Mrs. Clennam is an interesting version of a villain (She's what I would call an anti-villain... also another topic to get into later!), she is still very much a villain throughout the book. She might try to excuse her bad behavior by believing it is for the ultimate good, even though it's not, but that doesn't change who she is. She uses her own supposed morality (much like Rigaud uses his supposed gentlemanliness), to mask her bitter, selfish, evil intents against her own flesh and blood.
Flintwinch-- Money grubbing, abusive, and quick to orchestrate things for his own benefit as soon as he gets the chance to snatch the power, Flintwinch is part of a triangle of villains in this book that are pure evil. He beats his wife, he uses secrets to wield power over his mistress, and he is all about himself.
I don't want to give any more away but you can see how these fellows are clearly bad guys!
So let's look into what borderline villains/gray characters really are. While we can get more into detail on various archetypes for characters another time, these are basically the ones that aren't for the protagonist but they might not really be totally against them either. They straddle this weird middle ground that leaves you wondering whether they're good or bad. You don't know what they're going to end up doing because you can't rely on the fact that they will be guided by morals/goals etc that are either bad or good. Now of course, they can lean heavier on the side of good (or the side of bad) but on the whole, they're walking the middle of the line between the two...or using it like a jump rope. Let's take a look at some "gray" characters in our case studies.
Mr. Miles Creep-- he's a detective that has been hired by the Rutherfords for a family matter. Mr. Creep really is very intelligent and catches on to the Rutherfords' game pretty quickly....recognizing that they're up to no good and understanding how they play. The problem is, he's not totally committed to the side of the law if there are ways he can personally benefit. He's a master at twisting things to profit himself, and though he tries to do his job well, he always works it to where he gets as much as possible out of it as well...never ultimately actually breaking the law, but allowing himself to bend the rules. He shoos beggar kids away while nursing stray cats back to health. He tries to catch criminals to maintain justice in society but allows others to remain free while he can profit from it. He works for people even when he is also doing things behind their back to eventually bring them to their demise. He's unpredictable precisely because you never know what he considers right and what he considers wrong, and it doesn't fit the clear-cut, black-and-white categories of right and wrong.
Mr. Yates-- Now on the other hand, we have this quiet, shy sort of bookstore owner. He's a little odd, see-sawing back and forth from being super gentle and kind to actually placing others in dangerous situations whether it is intentional or not. It's hard to understand him because he changes his tune all the time with no apparent reason (unlike Mr. Creep). He latches onto ideas that sound good, but while he's trying to help someone out (because it pleases him) he can also endanger the lives of others...or at least end up making them very miserable. Does he notice how much pain or damage he creates in his "good cause"? Well, the fact is, even if he noticed it, he really wouldn't care, as long as he felt fine about whatever was going on. He's not manipulative like Mr. Creep; he can appear a bit naive and good-hearted. But because he doesn't stand on stable ground when it comes to right/wrong or good/bad he often ends up as "a villain".
Mr. Christopher Casby-- This is the kind of man who presents himself as some sort of magnanimous patriarch to society, all while hiding his ultimately selfish desires. He seems kind and caring and makes others do his dirty work so he can keep up appearances, all while trying to scrounge money from the poor for his own gains. This is a borderline villain because let's be honest-- this kind of thing is the reality in a lot more cases than we would like. Focusing so much on oneself that you disregard others-- it's bad, but in the whole scheme of things, he's only *almost* a villain.
Mr. Henry Gowan-- Mr. Gowan is another borderline villain. He's almost inconsequential, except he's not at all. He abuses those closest to him and treats others without any thought, and readers are sure to dislike him. Various other characters in the book, though, are inclined to excuse his behavior, but his morally shifted attitudes on what he considers acceptable make him a borderline villain.
Mrs. Wade-- The fact that nobody can decide what exactly is wrong about her, but everyone knows Mrs. Wade is not good news is a testimony to her "almost" villain-ness. Bitter, antagonistic, and vengeful, Mrs. Wade's morals are neither here nor there. She bucks social norms, rejects the accepted ideas, and hates almost everybody. And yet... does she ever do anything *quite* villain worthy? The question is debatable and places her solidly as an almost villain.
Robin Winkworth, Isabella Winkworth Rutherford, and Anthony Squires. Now that we've talked about Mr. Creep and Mr. Yates, we've covered the borderline villains in the book. But there's more-- "Gray Characters"-- characters that are almost at the borderline villain stage but lean a little more towards the side of being good. These are characters that:
Mr, Dorrit, Fanny Dorrit, Edward Dorrit, Mrs. General, Mr. Meagle. Continuing with the same note, each of these characters aren't really bad, but perhaps they aren't always good, either. They're not totally against the main characters--they may even be very close and dear-- but they still somehow cause a lot of antagonistic elements.
But how do you write borderline villains or gray characters?
So now that we know the difference between the two and what each is like, how do we write these kinds of characters in our books?
Let's preface a few tips by saying that in the process of developing characters you will usually be able to find out whether they are a borderline villain or a gray character. I'm a fan of telling your character's story and getting to know them really well, and I've found that while doing this you'll usually run across a few that fit in the above descriptions that just happen naturally in your story. But say you haven't come upon any characters like this yet but you really want to add one (or more). What then? You make up a character and then... well...
1. First of all, get to know your character. Oh wait, did I just practically repeat myself? Yes, I did. It's true though-- even if you decide to add in a character and didn't just stumble onto him/her, get to know your character. What are his/her personal goals? How do they view life? What makes them tick? If you can figure out how they think and why, then you'll be able to know how they act.
2. Develop them as multi-dimensional people. The fact is that if you can develop your character as a multi-dimensional person instead of a flat, cardboard character, then you're going to have a much easier time portraying them accurately. Don't fall back on villain cliches! There are reasons behind the why's and wherefores for your characters if you only look. Their personalities can be like a cut diamond, with dozens of different facets. You'll find that polishing up each side of your character and developing them well on all points will bring you a more complex, interesting and unique person. Not only that, but it's super important when doing borderline villains or gray characters because they're not as clear-cut as some other characters might be.
3. Decide whether you're going for a realistic or caricature approach. Now, this isn't saying that a caricature type of character is any less dimensional or realistic than a fully-realistic one. But it's just that some parts of the character are going to be a little bit exaggerated to bring a point across. Think about Charles Dickens (thanks, sir, for the use of your novel as a case study). Many of his characters were caricatures, but they still seem like real, believable people. The thing is, when it comes to borderline villains or gray characters, this realistic vs caricature topic is super important. If you're going for an extremely realistic approach, usually the "gray"-ness is going to be a lot more subtle; a lot harder to decipher. But with the caricature approach, certain things are going to be more easily recognizable and perhaps played up a little more. (This doesn't mean that a caricature style is going to give away everything--you can do it and still pull off a super interesting, confusing and surprising character). In our case studies, I showed both realistic borderline villains and grey characters (mine), and more caricatural (Dickens). Both ways are great, and neither is less effective than the other. It's just what you're trying to get across. Knowing how you want it portrayed, though, is going to help you a lot in writing the character.
Well, there you have it!
Question of the Day: Do you have any borderline villains or gray characters in your novel? Are they super realistic or more of a caricature? Let me know in the comments below! :)