Everyone loves a good villain. The drama, the opposition, the necessary evilness. A good, believable villain is one of the pieces that will take a story to the next level.
Today, 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 if there happens to be a solid antagonist, are pretty much against them as well. These are our borderline villains...and they can certainly spice things up. So let's just break it down a little with some examples. I'm going to be using Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens as a case study, but don't worry, there'll be no spoilers in case you haven't read the book yet.
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. (See our master list of antagonists!) Let's take a quick look at the antagonists in Little Dorrit real quick so we can compare our "borderline" villains to them.
Rigaud/Blandois/Lagnier (The true evil villain)-- Not only a murderer, Rigaud (who goes by other names as well) is always conniving and is pure badness. 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 façade of a gentleman, his morality is so twisted that it's almost ridiculous.
Mrs. Clennam (The corrupted villain)-- While Mrs. Clennam believes throughout the story that she's doing what is right and necessary, 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 intents against her own flesh and blood. The fact that she believes that doing wrong in order to preserve or attain some sort of good result ends up allowing her a free pass to act based on her own flawed judgement, even when it hurts other people.
Flintwinch (The bully villain)-- 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.
So let's look into what borderline villains/gray characters really are. While the study of character archetypes is expansive and quite in-depth, a basic overview of grey characters are those that aren't for the protagonist but they might not really 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 or goals 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. These can be broken down into two types: Borderline villains and grey characters.
Borderline villains are the characters that are not quite outright evil, but are still examples of bad. They may have sides to them that are good, present a flawless front, or seem overall a positive force-- until you recognize the damage they do to those around them, whether it's on purpose or not. They often make conscious choices, however, that show their truer dark nature if one only keeps their eyes open to see it.
Grey characters are those that aren't really bad, but may often take an antagonistic stand to the protagonist that could be morally questionable. This may be due to differing goals or beliefs, personality flaws, or a dislike of the protagonist. They're right there in the middle of things-- they're not true villains, but they also aren't harmless characters who just happen to be antagonists. They do bad things, but they also do good ones, they might assist the protagonist, or they might not. Their very character is called into question just because they are often so unreliable in their actions and alliances.
Let's take a look at some characters like these in our case studies.
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. Whether this is due to misguided intentions or a lack of depth in his ethics, Mr. Casby is a complex character that you both hate and can be confused by. He is so close to being a villain, but because of his wavering moral stance, his assistance to the protagonist, and his general presentation of good, he is actually borderline.
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 are inclined to excuse his behavior, but his morally shifted attitudes on what he considers acceptable make him a questionable character.
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.
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 clichés! 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. 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). 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! :)