The Art of Evil – For What Purpose?

We’ve looked at ten definitive villains (see here and here) so now it’s time to start looking at the principles underlying good villains. But before we plunge into the characters themselves we need to ask what the point of a villain is in terms of narrative, that is to say, when a writer sets out to write a villain what roles in the story is a villain supposed to play?

Every story needs different things, of course, but it’s also important to know what circumstances bring out the most in your tools. Likewise, villains are a very flexible archetype but there are some things they have to do in order to count as villains – if they don’t you may need to start thinking of your character as more of an antihero or perhaps just a morally gray actor. While none of these criteria are terribly groundbreaking without them the effectiveness of most villains will be seriously undercut and even the best written story will suffer some.

Villains are the inciting force. 

Heroes almost never start out as heroes. While stories may open with their heroic course already set, and we learn about their motives over the course of the story, remember that at some point that hero probably wasn’t dedicated to setting wrongs right. And when you dig back to the reason those heroes took up the mantel you will always find the villain(s) in one way or another.

The good fairies wouldn’t have taken up their heroic roles if Maleficent hadn’t cursed Princes Aurora. The Pines family wouldn’t have come face to face with the supernatural if Bill Cypher hadn’t reached out to them first. Kuzko definitely wouldn’t have turned into a llama if not for Yzma.

Villains set the hero on their course for the story, if not in life, and as such do a lot to set the tone of the story and, in some ways, the tone of the hero involved (except when the villain is a deliberate reversal of the hero, as with Legato). Make sure your villain can set the tone of the conflict quickly.

Villains are the source of greatest opposition. 

While Bill Cypher shares screen time with several other villains in Gravity Falls he’s clearly the most dangerous of them. The JoJo mythos has many villains aside from Dio but none of them ever fight four seasoned Stand users, and to members of the Joestar lineage, all at once. With the exception of the Pillar Men, all the other major villains tie back to Dio in some way or another. And Darth Vader, although beholden to the Emperor, is still the most forceful presence on the screen throughout the classic Star Wars films.

We’re going to look at menace and power in villains more in the future but for now, the point is your story’s villain is the one who causes the heroes the most trouble. Say you have a story about a cop fighting a mobster, in which said cop spends more time infighting with other cops than actual mobsters. That’s a muddled story because the villain isn’t clear. Is it the mobster or the other cops? Get it clear in your head. Make it clear to your audience (although not necessarily your characters). And, as much as possible, downplay the other side of the conflict so that your villain can shine.

Or whatever it is villains do when the audience is enjoying them.

Villains speak on behalf of the audience. 

Yes, really. The thing about most heroes is that, in addition to being more capable than most people, they have to face more struggles, work harder and hold themselves to higher standards than the average Joe. Most people look at characters with principles like Vash’s and as themselves why bother?

Heroes are generally something to aspire to. But if aspiring to them was all it took then the world would be a much better place. The truth is, most people don’t live like heroes because it’s hard. To be a hero is to serve others and maintain principles, to give up what we want for a greater good that we may never see. And generally it’s a thankless task. Narratively, villains tend to embody many of the reasons a person would choose not to be a hero.

Look at Louis or Klaus. One just wants to get some enjoyment out of life, maybe a benefit or two from his career as a police officer. The other is driven by half-forgotten friendships, family ties and a sense of responsibility. These are understandable motives when they drive people to live out great principles but they’re also very understandable motives when they drive people to abandon principles.

Of all the villains we’re studying none embodies this more than Legato Bluesummers. It’s true that there are thankfully very few people in the world who will embrace Legato’s nihilism, sadism and murderous tendencies but those characteristics are not what makes him relatable. It’s his role in questioning Vash’s idealism. Vash will not kill. Legato pushes him to do so but he does it by offering situations where we can feel that yes, killing a person here would probably be justified. When he asks Vash whether letting a man live is a greater evil than killing him, because a dead villain can’t cause any further evil while a living one almost certainly will, we understand because that’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves from the very beginning.

Villains have a tendency to become more popular than their heroes and, if I had to point to a single reason for that, it would be the fact that villains are closer to everyday audiences than heroes. When a villain fails sometimes it’s because of poor presentation, sometimes it’s because of poor storytelling, but most often what really pushes it over the edge is a villain who fights for the most unrelatable of reasons. Part of what brings the audience to the hero’s point of view is watching him overcome your villain’s objections to his or her philosophy. But if your audience wouldn’t fight a hero for the reasons your villain would then the effect is lost and your villain is much more likely to fail.

You do still get to have your villain fight in whatever insane way you want, that’s part of the fun. It’s the motives and the arguments that have to be understandable. So how do we make the jump from the narrative’s needs to the character’s portrayal? Well, tune in next week when we talk about what drives villains.

The Art of Evil – Ten Villains to Know and Loathe (Part 2)

For the overview of what’s going on here and the first four villains on the list check out this post.

6 – Captain Louis Renault (Casablanca

Louis is a villain. Let’s make that clear from the get go. He extorts money from businesses, abuses his power to carry on affairs with desperate women and shows no loyalty to anyone. He even conspires to see his prisoners murdered. He stands in the way of the heroic Victor Lazlo and frequently backs the greater villain, Major Strausser. His heart is his  least vulnerable spot.

Yes, he is a villain redeemed. Even he can take only so much and finally breaks down and throws in his lot with Rick, Ilsa and Victor. But he was never, even for a second, a good person before.

Louis displays the full breadth of what can be accomplished with a good villain. What he does isn’t good but it is understandable. He’s over a barrel with the Nazis and with everyone else in town is getting theirs, why should Captain Renault be any different? We also understand why, when it comes down to the wire, he makes a break to the other side. He’s had enough of seeing his friends on eggshells. He doesn’t want to be looked down on anymore. And maybe it feels better to be a good guy than a bad guy, too. A lot of stories have tried to replicate Louis’ character arc in the decades since Casablanca. What few of them understood was that his greatness as a sympathetic character is partly defined by his gleeful and almost entirely unrepentant villainy.

5 – Brigid O’Shaughnessy (The Maltese Falcon

The greatest strategist on this list is also the original femme fatale. (Bet you weren’t expecting that.) This classic villain takes Sam Spade and his partner on a wild ride from beginning to end, ruthlessly manipulating the detectives, cutting down enemies and dodging blame like a nonstick pan decades before Teflon would be invented.

O’Shaughnessy might be a surprising pick given how thoroughly all the characters in this story were outwitted – the prize they were fighting over was worthless, after all. She also doesn’t seem like much of an opposing force. After all, she actually wants Sam to get the Falcon for her, so they’re not working at odds… or so it would seem. But since she is the murderer of Sam’s partner, and that’s something he has to clear up as a matter of principle, they are at cross purposes, even if Sam doesn’t know it.

Brigid is a study in understated villainy. While nothing she does seems bad on the surface once the full depths of her character is understood, the degree with which she’s ruthlessly manipulated people for her own goals and the lack of feeling she shows when those she exploits die speak powerfully to how twisted she’s become in her pursuit of the Falcon. She’s a cold woman and has a well deserved spot on this list.

4 – Dio Brando (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

He murders a dog. He does it by tying up the animal and tossing it in a garbage incinerator to burn to death when the trash is disposed of. The sound of the poor creature kicking against the door as it burns will haunt you for life.

Not convinced of his villainy yet? He also poisoned his foster father, who had raised him with care and love. He tried to steal the Joestar (yes, really) family fortune from his foster brother and willingly became a vampire to facilitate his ambitions. He stole the body of Jonathan Joestar after killing him and, after a hundred years at the bottom of the ocean he returned with the power of Stand to threaten the Joestars once more. It would ultimately take three generations of the Joestar lineage to bring an end to Dio, a man of unfathomable talent, charisma and ambition but very little notion of human kindness or decency.

Much of Dio’s impact lies in his presentation. From his arrogant boasting to his clever manipulations, Dio is always the spitting image of someone we have known and hated, whether for good reason or not. That very mundane kind of loathing, combined with his incredible power and generations spanning threat, combine to make him a very unsettling kind of evil. Dio is the kind of villain we all hope to eventually get away from.

He’s also the reminder that we never really will. The sheer scope of Dio’s life and impact on the world is staggering. Although it would take a hundred years and the efforts the six heroes known as the Stardust Crusaders to end Dio for good the results of his actions echoed through every chapter of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a comic that has run for nearly thirty years. While presentation earned him a spot on this list the sheer scope of his villainy is enough to push him to fourth place.

3 – Darth Vader (Star Wars Episodes IV, V, IV

In 1977 Darth Vader walked through an airlock, over the bodies of his enemies and into cinema legend as one of the most recognizable villains to ever grace the silver screen. He projected menace and power, crushed his enemies and nearly pulled a hero from the path of righteousness. His silhouette alone is instantly recognizable. To bring him to life required the towering presence of a bodybuilder, with a stunt double to fill in for his lightsaber battles, two separate costume designers, one to build his suit and another to craft his skull like helmet, the boneshaking bass voice of James Earl Jones and a sound design team to add in the uncanny rasping of his breath. Any character portrayed in film is a mix of multiple contributors but Vader combined the parts so thoroughly, made each piece so much a part of the identity, that to remove one would be to destroy the character in his entirety. Like a chimera or Frankenstein’s creature, Vader is many parts stitched together into a single whole. His very existence is somewhat monstrous.

Yes, I’ve said that all before. That doesn’t make it any less true now.

But Vader is also an example of something else – he is a villain redeemed. In spite of his unsettling presence, no matter the depths of the evil we see him endorse, he’s also a villain who is redeemed. From the human perspective redemption is not about atonement, which is a thing we cannot do, but about repentance. Many people have protested that simply saving the life of his son should not be enough to turn Darth Vader from the path of damnation because it couldn’t make up for all the wrongs he’d done.

He let Alderaan blow up. In one of the few things the prequels did to increase the impact of the original trilogy, he murdered children. (You may now commence the hate.) Let’s face facts – it wouldn’t matter what Vader did it wouldn’t make up for the wrong he’d done.

Vader’s moment of redemption come’s when he repents of his evil, demonstrates that by throwing off the evil that bound him (literally) and seeking forgiveness from the only person he could before he died – his son, Luke. In this character arc Darth Vader shows the tragedy of a true villain. For all his evil he never got close to peace or happiness. His moment of rede

2 – Legato Bluesummers (Trigun

On the planet of Gunsmoke the descendants of a failed human colony fleet eek out a meager existence, doing their best to keep failing technology running while outlaws run rampant and threaten the peace. One of the greatest outlaws – supposedly – is Vash the Stampede, a gunslinger of superhuman abilities and endless bloodlust.

Or not. Vash is actually a goofball who would rather eat pancakes than shoot his gun and bends over backwards to keep everyone, even his enemies, alive to see another day. He loves life, his own and others, and he wants everyone to get all they can out of it.

Legato Bluesummers is his exact opposite.

As the commander of the Gung Ho Guns and the chief minion to Vash’s sociopathic brother Millions Knives (yes, really) Legato has only one purpose in life: To show Vash that his philosophy is worthless.

Where Vash tries to lift people up and inspire them to perfect themselves, Legato’s first attack is carried out by a man who was bought a slave and spent most of his life training to become a killing machine for the sole purpose of fighting Vash. Where Vash delights in times of peace for the people around him, Legato uses his powers to control them into forced suicides, reveling in the horror they feel as they realize they can no longer control themselves.

Did I not mention the Gung Ho Guns all have superhuman powers? They kind of need them to fight Vash. Even the names of Legato’s subordinates are on point – Monev the Gale, Dominique the Cyclops, E.G. Mine, Rai-Dei the Blade, Leonof the Puppetmaster, Gray the Ninelives, Hoppered the Gauntlet, Zazie the Beast, Caine the Longshot, Midvalley the Hornfreak and Chapel the Evergreen.

But they all answer to Legato, and it’s no wonder given that he can take over their body pretty much any time he wants. Ultimately, not even Vash can beat Legato’s powers. Vash is immune to control, sure, but he has friends who aren’t. And Legato doesn’t need to kill Vash, he just needs to prove that Vash’s Vash’s commitment to not killing is untenable. So he asks Vash who should die.

And as Vash’s finger squeezes the trigger, Legato smiles. When he dies, he’s won.

Legato Bluesummers is the villain at his most horrifying. By standing against everything that’s good in a hero he calls those values into question and by breaking the hero he reminds us that nothing is certain, even those things most worthwhile.

Legato is also the villain at his most necessary. Because when Vash slowly pieces himself back together, collects himself and asks if it’s still worthwhile to stand by his values he decides it is. And that makes the story all the stronger. It’s what makes Legato Bluesummers such a valuable villain to understand. And it’s what makes him the strongest villain on this list, perhaps one of the best ever written.

So why is he number two? Well, my friends, that’s because we need to talk about…

Baron Klaus Wolfenbach (Girl Genius)

When Bill and Barry Heterodyne traveled the length and breadth of Europe, saving towns, defeating monsters, discovering SCIENCE! and generally making the continent a better place, Klaus Wolfenbach was right beside them. When they united the continent and Bill got married Klaus went off to parts unknown. Three years later he returned with his son on his back to find his two best friends missing, his castle in ruins and all the old feuds raging once again.

That was when he decided, in his own words, “No more negotiations, no more second chances. We did it my way – and it worked.”

Now Klaus Wolfenbach, lord of Castle Wolfenbach, keeper of the Pax Transylvania, rules all of Europe from the mountains of Romania to the walls of Paris. He expects local rulers to keep public works in order, does his best to keep taxes fair and generally tries not to intervene in local politics unless there’s another childish spat brewing. There’s no room for heroes in the Wolfenbach Empire, the Baron’s troops have a handle on things – and Klaus has put all the monsters to work anyways, thankyouverymuch.

The Corbettites keep the trains running through the wastelands and most people can live halfway comfortably without ever having to leave their city-states. The exceptional can catch the eye of the Baron or a local Spark and turn their genius to science, so long as they leave certain kinds of research to the Baron. Life goes smoothly in the Wolfenbach Empire. It’d be nice if Klaus could enjoy it.

The strangest thing about Klaus is that the whole iron-booted overlord schtick doesn’t sit well with him. He doesn’t want to babysit petulant children like the local lords and ladies, he doesn’t enjoy power half as much as his research, he hasn’t seen his wife in years. But…

There are the Heterodynes. No one’s sure what’s happened to them and Klaus sure seems to miss his friends and he takes their legacy pretty seriously, to the point where he lets people write or perform any kind of nonsense about their adventures they want, no matter how bad he looks in the story (so long as it’s funny). And there’s the Other, the mysterious being who waged war with all Europe for two years before vanishing into the mists of history along with the Heterodyne brothers. Perhaps most of all there’s the sense of responsibility. He just can’t seem to step away and leave Europe to ruin itself.

If that means he has to hunt possible Heterodyne heirs over hill and stream to make sure they stay out of trouble, seize any artifacts of the Other and incarcerate everyone related to them, carve his way through the Other’s brainwashed servants, imprint his own personality on his son to keep him from the Other’s influence and ultimately lock an entire town outside the flow of time

Well, these are the compromises one must make.

Nothing demonstrates Klaus’s potential for villainy than his treatment of his son, Gilgamesh. You see, Klaus is a good father. Maybe even a great one. He makes time for his son, teaches him the ropes of life, both as the ruler of a large nation and as a scientist. When Gil goes out and wins his first great battle Klaus drags himself out of his hospital bed, ignoring his doctor’s orders, and watches it happen. As Gil emerges victorious he returns to bed, considering the pain and potential long term consequences of his actions a small price to pay for witnessing his son’s success. He’s a tough but fair and, in many ways, doting father.

That doesn’t keep him from driving a wedge between Gil and his romantic interests and later engaging in preemptive brainwashing to keep Gil from being influenced by the Other.

Klaus is riddled with contradictions like this. He takes in the Heterodyne’s minions, the Jaegers, because in the past they were feared across the continent. And he owes the Heterodynes, so he’ll look after what’s theirs. He then turns the Jaegers into his own personal storm troops and makes their reputation even worse. He keeps the peace with an iron heel that breeds even more unrest than existed in the past. He approaches every problem with an attitude and desires that are understandable, even normal. But his methods and the outcomes are frequently horrific.

Klaus is the everyman’s villain. Not because he’s normal – in fact, he’s a spark, a mad genius with an intellectual capacity beyond the merely mortal. He comes from a long line of sparks and holds a hereditary title. He’s charismatic, more than a little lucky, dresses great and has the respect of pretty much every other monster out there. But people can have all those things and never amount to anything. What drives him to villainy – friendship, idealism, family – those are things we all understand.

It makes his villainy all the more relatable, disappointing and, sometimes, inspiring. We’d all like to know or be someone like Klaus. It’s very easy to say we wouldn’t go as far as he would but, as the man himself reminds us, actually making good on that promise can be very hard.

The best part about Klaus is that his story isn’t finished. That’s the biggest reason he’s a wildcard on this list, we don’t know the full breadth of his plans, motives and circumstances yet. Until we do he could be anything – a villain, redeemed or otherwise, an antihero or even a hero in his own right, if a very dark one. Until we know for sure he has to be a bit of an enigma to us, and for this reason he’s not officially ranked on this list. Although with all I’ve said, how could he be anything but the best?

The Art of Evil – Ten Villains to Know and Loath (Part One)

Modern fiction has a problem with villains.

Well, maybe not. It could just be that the majority of any kind of popular undertaking is lousy but over time the good stuff becomes timeless and the bad stuff is forgotten, giving the impression that things were better in the past when, in fact, they were no different. But right now modern pop culture seems to have a problem presenting compelling villains. And so, for the next month or two, we’re going to go down the rabbit hole and talk about the other half of a great good vs. evil story.

And this is about good versus evil, or at least normal versus evil. The Art of Evil is not about protagonist and antagonist, it’s explicitly about the second half of a hero and villain equation. Right off the bat this makes the lessons here not applicable everywhere, although some of them have relevance in any story.

Before we start let me stress that what we’re going to be talking are not necessarily things I’ve mastered, or even done well. Part of the reason for writing this is to give me a strong driving reason to dive into the nature of villains in an attempt to uplift my own craft. Hopefully we’ll be making the journey to a better understanding of villains together.

And a second preface is… well the rest of this post. When trying to do something it helps to examine great examples of that thing being done in the past. So The Art of Evil is going to draw heavily on a set of ten villains to serve as those examples. If you want to familiarize yourself with them, or you just want to know what I think some of the greatest villains in fiction are, here’s a list. Don’t feel like you have to go out and watch or read all the source material for these folks – there should be more than one example for everything I want to talk about here so hopefully if you’re not familiar with the villainous context of one character you’ll be able to fill in the blanks with another example. Without further ado, feel free to boo the villains!

Honorable Mentions

Elsa (Frozen

Let me say right of the bat that Elsa is not actually presented as a villain in Frozen. But I think she was meant to be one for a large portion of the film’s development. She fills many of the plot purposes of a traditional villain: A threat to the peace and safety of a large number of people, the primary obstacle for the heroine to overcome and an attitude of callous indifference to how her actions affect others.

Don’t believe that last part? Listen to the song “Let it Go” hard and ask yourself whether the lyrics really sound like something a person worried about hurting others would say. Yes, it’s a kind of teenage rebellion anthem but teenage rebels can be villains as easily as heroes and when they lean that way it’s usually because they’re willing to turn away and slam the door in the face of people who need their help (or sympathy, at the very least). Add to that the fact that the fairy tale character she’s based on, the Snow Queen, was a villain and the case for her being a villain at some point in the creative process looks pretty compelling to me.

Of course, she’s not presented as a full fledged villain in the final product, which is sad because the villain redeemed is a great story line in and of itself and might even have made the story of Frozen more poignant. It certainly would have been better than the somewhat slapdash conclusion we actually got.

Kefka (Final Fantasy Three/Six

Don’t ask about the numbering. Final Fantasy is a weird franchise.

Kefka is the only video game villain explicitly called out on this list (although see The Don’t Knows) and he’s a good example of why video game writing can be good but, due to the needs of the medium, frequently isn’t great.

Our crazy clown is introduced in the opening sequence of the game and he is a thorn in the side for the entirety of the first two acts. He manipulates one hero, runs another out of his ancestral home, schemes against another to ensure she’s proclaimed a traitor and the poisons the water supply of an entire city.

The most interesting thing about Kefka, however, is that he’s laughably weak compared to the heroes and is, in fact, fairly easily run off by them in their early encounters (unless you’re just bad at the game). He’s a fairly unimportant advisor to a powerful military empire – at first. But at the end of the first act, after wiping out the city of Doma, Kefka begins a horrifying ascent to power, political and otherwise, through a series of ruthless manipulations, betrayals, murders and one genocide. By the end of act two he has betrayed his emperor and destroyed the world.

Then, at the beginning of the third act players are left in the ruined world to fend for themselves and Kefka ignores them entirely so they can explore and see how things have changed, destroying all sense of pacing and tension. The heroes have no direct interactions with Kefka again until the very end of the game. It robs him of much of his power and threat. While Kefka is supposedly still a being of power great enough to wipe humanity out in a matter of days the players don’t get to experience that to nearly the extent they got to experience his twisted and heartless ambition in the first two acts.

Of course, this makes the game more fun to play which, let’s face it, is more important than raw story quality for a game. Thus, my assertion that the needs of the medium frequently hold good writing back from being truly great.

Grand Admiral Thrawn (Star Wars novels by Timothy Zahn) 

With blue skin, a taste for art and a touch of compassion, Thrawn was everything the Emperor and Darth Vader were not. Thrawn was a more cultured and insightful villain, frequently interested in his heroes as people as well as pawns, and a deep and more dangerous force of evil for it.

The primary danger from Thrawn was how well he knew his enemies (and fittingly his downfall came from how little he understood his allies). As a tactician he was without peer in the Empire and he once nearly wiped out the Outbound Flight project, colony group with nearly twenty Jedi on board, in spite of having no Force users of his own to draw on. When the old Star Wars continuity was cleared away by Disney one of the first things fans hoped to see again was their favorite blue skinned Admiral. Fortunately the House of Mouse knew a good thing when they saw it and word on the street is he’ll be back with his own novel in 2017, written by the only man who can do Thrawn right.

That said, Thrawn wasn’t a perfect villain. Although he was a great schemer the way Zahn writes is not always fair. Thrawn, in particular, relies on an understanding born from art to predict his opponents moves in ways that no real person could do. While Zahn typically writes “fair” strategies relying on information available to readers and inferences they could draw themselves some of the leaps of logic Thrawn makes are either not quite fair or rely on an understanding of “alien psychology” that exists only in the author’s head. Hardly a deal breaker, but just enough of a drawback to keep him from edging out other master tacticians on the list like Slade or O’Shaughnessy.

The Don’t Knows – The Joker (Batman), Apocalypse and Dr. Doom (Marvel Comics), Sephiroth (Final Fantasy Seven) and many others not on this list 

The villains listed above (and many more) are villains generally acknowledged as “good” but who’s stories I personally haven’t read/watched/don’t understand well enough to use for the purposes of this project. Or to consider definitive villains for that matter.

Anyone from Actual History 

Real history is complex and makes it difficult to really cast people as villains and, even then, these people rarely fit the needs of a fictional villain well.

Yes, Mr. Small-Moustache-Goose-Stepper is an exception. He is still not on the list. Consider Godwin’s Law in effect for the purposes of this project.

And now…

Ten Villains to Know and Loath

10 – Yzma (The Emperor’s New Groove

This lady is a testament to the importance of good HR policy for villains. While she’s not incredibly tough and stern in her own right she does have the remarkably competent Krunk in her corner of the ring. Together the two of them pose a serious threat to Kuzko’s throne where as separate neither one would be truly credible, Krunk for obvious reasons and Yzma because, for all her ambition and very real magical powers, she’s never going to be likable enough to succeed in the ways she really wants.

Yzma and Krunk also embody perfect executions of comical villains. While many comical villains are written as bumblers or otherwise incompetent, thus undercutting their ability to creditably stand in the way of protagonists, Yzma and Krunk have plans that should work but don’t because of their stark contrast in personalities and priorities. By playing these differences for laughs, Yzma’s inability to usurp Kuzko never quite undercuts her threat while still being quite funny. There aren’t many great comedic villains out there and Yzma of one of the best.

9 – Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (Teen Titans

While I don’t know much about the Teen Titans as portrayed in DC Comics I have watched this TV series and Slade is pretty much the perfect villain given it’s tone and target audience. Slade can outthink and outfight the Titans while never giving the impression that he’s overly worried about the outcome. His visual design is sleek and mysterious, adding to his general air of inscrutability. But the capstone on his unpredictability is his single-minded focus on his own legacy. Such an atypical goal made him hard to predict and wrapped another layer of mystery around a man who was already a cipher.

Driven to the point of clashing head on with beings from beyond the walls of the universe, Slade would ultimately pass the doors of death in pursuit of his vision of the future. While it was never clear if he was driven by pride, ideals or something else Slade Wilson never backed down from a fight, regardless of whether it was with Batman’s own protégé, an alien of cosmic power or a cyborg genius. Most strikingly, he did it all without raising his voice, ranting or otherwise breaking with an image of consummate professionalism. Truly an impressive achievement.

8 – Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty

The heavyweights are starting to weigh in. There are few villains in the history of animation that do simple menace as well as Maleficent. From her sickly green color pallet to her eerie entrances and exits to the cold indifference with which she proclaims a death sentence on a newborn child, Maleficent is one of the most hostile figures ever to grace the silver screen. That in and of itself is an accomplishment warranting her place on this list. But when added together with her final apotheosis and battle against the hero and her rival fairies Maleficent becomes a beautiful example of the villain as a spectacle as well.

7 – Bill Cipher (Gravity Falls

There’s a moment, just after he’s introduced, when Bill Cipher snaps his fingers and all the teeth in the mouth of a nearby deer fly out of its mouth. Bill laughs.

A few moments later time reverses and it’s like nothing ever happened. Later, while possessing a human member of the cast, he slams “his” own hand in a drawer because he finds the sensation of pain hilarious. While Bill is obviously powerful, given the many supernatural feats he accomplishes in the first few minutes of our meeting him, it is his incredibly skewed perspective, free of empathy or any notion of human morality, that marks him as truly villainous. He manages to be threatening in spite of just being a triangle with an eye and a top hat and he does it all by setting priorities that will clearly hurt not just the Pines family but anyone who comes into contact with him.

Like Ysma, he’s funny and entertaining in his sociopathy but he’s also an order of magnitude beyond anything the fearless Pines twins will be able to outfight or outwit which makes him all the better as an opposing force.

Tune In Next Time…

Wow, we’ve only covered the first four and we’re already over two thousand words. Guess we’ll have to wrap this up next week! Come back next Friday for more examination of evil’s greatest masterpieces. Hope to see you then!

 

Fail Faster

Time for a postmortem of my latest novella. Normally I’d just write an afterwords and move on but this time there were a lot of issues with Out of Water beyond what I’d normally write about in this space so, instead of doing a standard afterwords, I though I’d write something a little more technical.

“Fail faster” is a common adage in the creative community; whether it be in terms of art or general “design” the notion gets bandied about a lot. In point of fact, one of the few groups of creative people who don’t say it a lot are writers. There’s good reason for that as I now understand. See, the notion is to start doing something, screw it up and then immediately stop, examine what went wrong and start over on a newer, better product. It can be hard to leave your babies behind but iterative work is a big part of improving on craft, whether it be carving, painting or furniture design. The faster you can make something and judge it’s effectiveness the faster you can get started on hammering out the flaws and trying again.

Of course, writers do have fail faster safeties if they want them. That’s why they can outline, for instance. Making character sketches is another tool in this vein. But the ultimate test of writing comes when you set pen to paper or pixels to bytes and start your actual writing. Some flaws in your story just don’t become apparent until you’re writing it.

The writing equivalent of fail faster is kill your babies.

I knew, somewhere around chapter eight, that Out of Water had gone off course. Not just because I was really busy at the time, although that certainly didn’t help. No, there were fundamental problems with the story and how I’d gone about executing it, namely –

  •  I’d tried a new method of outlining. Normally I use the beat outline but I thought I’d experiment this time around and, long story short, the method I’d decided to try out did not match my writing style well and I hadn’t seen problems I probably would have noticed otherwise.
  • There was too much in the story. Again, I might I have noticed it with a better outline but I was trying to tackle a story with too many subplots and characters for the format I was trying to execute in.
  • Speaking of, the novella format was chosen without regard to what the story actually needed. I’ve had a rough outline of what I wanted to happen with Oscar, Herrigan and the whole nation of crusty former prison colonists for years. Tossing the Australians into the mix was something I definitely wanted happening at this point but I didn’t stop to ask myself whether a novella would work for that story – it didn’t – I just set out to write one because I really enjoyed writing The Antisocial Network earlier this year.

As soon as these problems were apparent I should have stopped, posted a quick apology and shifted content to other stuff I’d been wanting to write about. I even considered doing it for a week or so. But I decided to press on and the story truly felt worse as a result.

The fact is I wound up with two stories, one establishing a trio of new Australian characters and just as many new trenchmen, with all the dynamics and tensions that many characters are naturally going to have, and another focusing on Herrigan, Lauren and the question of how a society can draw boundaries without being hypocritical. I’d always thought of Alcatraz as a uniquely libertarian kind of society as a kind of rebellion against its prison roots and I wanted to explore the limits, pros and cons of how such a society might deal with law breakers, especially as compared and contrasted against one more like the modern West.

Unfortunately I don’t think Out of Water was that story.

While it may have been better to terminate Out of Water early and start afresh I did learn the lessons of the story clearly. The new outline format was interesting to experiment with but I won’t be using it going forward. In the future I’ll be especially mindful of how much I bite off for each story and how the format meshes with it. I don’t know if an expanded version of Out of Water is in the works or not, given that a big part of failing faster is moving on quickly to new projects rather than dwelling on those that may not be salvageable. Time will tell… but I would hold my breath.

Tune in next week and we’ll talk about something (or somethings) evil. And no, they’re not vaguely bad thematic puns.

Out of Water – Chapter Fourteen

Randal found them huddled under blankets near an emergency cache just outside the hull access corridor. Lauren was shivering slightly in spite of the warm air, her eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance and her clothes, those that he could see around the edges of her blanket, still wet and clinging. Herrigan had a blanket over his own shoulders and was hunched by another bedgraggled man. Both looked considerably dryer than Lauren, but then they were dressed for the local weather and she wasn’t.

Almost as soon as the three were in sight Sudbury and Hathoway pushed past him and hustled over to Lauren, both men radiating concern. Randal and Sam drifted over to Herrigan, giving the Aussies a few moments of privacy. Sam knelt down by his cousin and flipped the semi-conscious man he had in custody over. The three trenchman stared at him for a moment then Sam asked, “Anyone know who this is?”

“Never seen him before,” Herrigan said, straightening up and stretching. “I caught him, that means someone else gets to look into him. I vote for Ramon.”

Randal shook his head and leaned against the wall. “That’s something you can work out later. Do you want to leave him here until Walker gets the power back on or try and drag him into a holding cell now?”

“Just leave him,” Sam said. “I’d like to call in a proper team to move him. You never know what these unhinged types are going to try. We’ll get him somewhere we can help him get his head on straight but until then he’s pretty much the scariest thing we’ve had in the ward since it was built.”

Herrigan’s eyes slid over to the knot of Australians a few steps away. “And those guys?”

“I dunno,” Randal mused. “I think once they’re over your nearly getting a member of their delegation killed they’ll be ready to sit down and talk. I’m just not convinced talking is what they’re interested in yet. It’s been really hard to read their intentions when they’re worried because one of their delegation got dragged into a life and death situation!

“Lauren’s job here is to be a sounding board for our culture and provide the ambassador with the perspective of a normal person,” Herrigan said. “Was there a better time for her to see the rougher side of life down here?”

“What, she just told you what her job was?” Randal demanded.

“It was guesswork,” he admitted. “But it has a certain ring of truth about it.”

“And you thought the best way to let her sample the sights was to get her drunk and go chasing an unstable man through the guts of the colony.” Sam wasn’t asking a question.

“Best part of who we are, if you ask me,” Herrigan replied with a grin.

“Right.” Randal knew better than to jump between the cousins when they got like this. “And leaving the Newcastle girl in the middle of our technical hubs?”

“Her job is to communicate anything they find with the surface. From what she said when things here went south, I’m guessing communications is her specialty and what we’ve got here is ages behind Australia’s tech.” Herrigan shrugged. “I’m not a coding expert but I doubt she could parse our computer security set-ups in a couple of days, much less a couple of hours. I looked at some source code for the computers they run on the surface and if what we’ve got is Greek to me, they’re stuff is Hindi. If they’re going to talk to the surface they’re going to do it with something they’ve already got on hand. Thus, letting her look at our computers for a little while isn’t costing us much.”

“Other than showing them how far behind we are,” Sam said.

“Other than that,” his cousin admitted. “But if there’s someone here who’s going to try something underhanded my bet is it’ll be the ambassador.”

“Sudbury?” Randal raised an eyebrow.

“Well, he’d have diplomatic immunity on the surface, right?”

That was something he hadn’t considered before. “Yes, he would.”

“‘Course, no reason we’d have to extend it to him here,” Sam mused. “We aren’t exactly covered by those conventions…”

Randal laughed. Then realized Sam had definitely not meant it as a joke. “For now, let’s consider that he does. Shooting messengers isn’t just bad form, it’s stupid. And I don’t want my name living in infamy because we went off half cocked and started a war with Australia. Let’s just get them a place to stay and sleep on it.” Randal glanced at his watch and realized with a jolt that it had been less than twelve hours since he’d gone to meet Erin’s Dream with Sam. “I don’t know about you folks but I’m tired and it hasn’t even been a long day. Let’s just head home and see what the situation looks like in the morning.”

“All right, Randal,” Sam said, getting to his feet. “You’re the boss.”

——–

Of course it wasn’t as simple as that. But in ten minutes or so the power was back, comm lines were open again and Ramon showed up with a couple of other deputies and took the as-of-yet nameless fish out of water off to find him some tranquilizers and trained psychiatric care. Once he was out of sight he offered Lauren a hand and pulled her to her feet. She was still shivering slightly, although Hathoway had given her something that seemed to have helped.

“Tomorrow morning, first thing, we’re getting all of you some clothes that will hold up a little better down here,” Herrigan said. “Otherwise you’ll catch cold and the fabrics will begin to rot. Assuming they’re not synthetic.”

“I have no idea what my clothes are made out of,” Lauren replied. “Is he going to be alright?”

“I’d like to say sure, but it’s mostly up to him now,” Herrigan said. “All of us down here are where we are because we were judged a menace to society, it’d be kind of sad to have to lock him up in the middle of the biggest lock up on Earth. But we might have to.”

“Isn’t that a little hypocritical of you?” She asked.

“Maybe. But we won’t stop trying to help him. Hopefully that will be enough of a difference.” He gave her a tired smile. “Hopefully you folks won’t give up on us, either.”

Lauren smiled back. “We’re doing the best we can. So far, I think it’s working.”

Out of Water – Chapter Thirteen

Herrigan grimaced as lukewarm water sloshed over the tops of his shoes. A gasp came from Lauren then she said, “Is there a hatch open already?”

“No.” Herrigan knelt and dipped a finger into the water, sloshed it around a moment to wash any sweat off of it, then touched the tip of his finger to his tongue. “Fresh water.” He spat out the water, which didn’t taste great but wasn’t salt water either. “The whole area would flood in minutes if there was an exterior hatch open. My guess is he plugged up the drainage channel and is letting it back up.”

He stood back up and waded a few steps further in, Lauren tentatively following. The light from her flashlight as she pointed it down to examine the floor. Herrigan wasn’t particularly interested, short of sticking a snorkel out of the water and lying in wait there wasn’t much chance that the fish could be anywhere in this section. They would have heard him by now.

“How deep in here can he be?” Lauren asked.

“Not too deep,” Herrigan murmured. “At this incline it would only be four or five more sections before he’d be under water.”

“And we’re not sure that’s what he wants?”

“I don’t know.” Herrigan reached down and slowly pulled out his riot gun, his body lapsing into a cautious, quiet state with senses alert and muscles half tense, the rest perfectly relaxed. “I’m not a psychologist. Quietly, now.”

He didn’t actually hear Lauren’s teeth click together as she shut her mouth. At least he was pretty sure that was his imagination. For a second he felt bad, since the silence was more to help him clear his head than to attempt stealth. Any sound they were making was being carried straight through the water in the drainage channel to wherever their fish was. Regardless of how much noise they made now the cat was already out of the bag. Question was what to do about it. With a flick of his finger he took the safety off of his riot gun.

With eight shots of quickly expanding foam that would adhere to pretty much any solid surface, riot guns were a great way to tangle up and take down someone without causing them any kind of serious long term injury. But in the current situation the weapon was less comforting than normal. For starters, the close quarters made it less useful than otherwise, although in tight spaces it was just as easy and almost as effective to stick foam on the walls or floor and let people run into it as shoot it directly at someone.

The problem was the water. Riot foam was designed to bond quickly on wet surfaces, which normally made it harden near instantly on the always damp clothes, walls and floors on Alcatraz. But hitting standing water caused the foam to deploy early and being submerged turned a sticky lump of foam into a football sized lump of hard but squishy plastic in a couple of seconds.

Then he had an idea. “Lauren.”

There was a half second pause. “Are we done being quiet?”

“Sort of.” He turned around and handed her his flashlight. “The cat’s already out of the bag, most likely.”

“Oh.” She took his flashlight tentatively. “And?”

“Cats like fish.”

——–

“A truly stupid thing to say,” Lauren muttered five minutes and a quickly whispered explanation later. “A cat would never do something as silly as this.”

Herrigan didn’t reply because he had stayed in the previous compartment because he apparently thought he was a reincarnated crocodile. She’d been given both their torches and Herrigan’s revolver and essentially become the bait in their little fishing expedition. Another decidedly uncatlike thing. Cats expected their food delivered, they didn’t go hunting for it. Alcatraz didn’t have cats in the first place.

To be fair, the idea was pretty sound. She just wished she didn’t have to be the bait. Sure, it made sense to have the person who’d actually had a little hand to hand training be the one to try and catch their target by surprise but that didn’t mean she had to be happy about being dangled out on the end of a fishhook for whoever to come out and grab.

After some fumbling she’d decided to hook one torch to her belt and keep the other held out a bit to the other side at shoulder height, not only letting her see a fair bit more of the hallway but hopefully at least giving the impression of two people still poking through the corridor rather than just one. The gun he’d given her was in the other hand, it’s rubberized grip firm but scratchy. The torch, on the other hand, was made of that smooth, vaguely textured ceramic Herrigan had been so proud of and he’d assured her it was completely watertight which was good because the water was now all the way up to her mid thighs and soon the one on her belt would be completely underwater.

And she was so focused on where her lights were and whether they’d stay on under water that she almost missed the head bobbing up over the water just to her right. It wasn’t until they whipped their head around, short hair flinging water in all directions as the whites of their eyes suddenly came into view and focused on her, that she realized it was there and yelped.

Something grabbed one of her legs and yanked, she wound up in the water and got a mouth full of tepid, mold flavored swill before her hands found the floor and pushed her upright enough to get her head back above the surface. The fish, or at least what she assumed was the fish out of water they’d come for, scrambled to his feet, not particularly graceful but steady and deliberate. Lauren matched his steadiness with a frantic scramble backwards and, without thinking, threw the torch. It hit him in the shoulder but didn’t slow him down as he waded forward. Belatedly she remembered she had a gun in her off hand and swung the barrel around, firing.

Of course with both electric torches underwater there was no way for her to get a clear picture of what was going on and she was pretty sure the shots missed as the only indication of a hit was a a couple of inorganic sounding thumps further down the hall. She was trying to fumble her gun into her other hand and get the flashlight off of her hip when a sudden splash preceded Herrigan, who’d apparently masked his own approach by crouching down in the water just as the fish had, suddenly rose up out of the water with his arms wrapped around the other man’s waist and slammed him against the wall. Sodden chaos reigned in the hall for a second as people scrambled and grunted.

Lauren figured shooting now would be stupid, the foam from the pistol wouldn’t hurt either man but sticking them together would still be bad, so she swapped gun and torch and gingerly approached the two men as the grappled. As the light steadied she could tell the fish had somehow swapped positions with Herrigan and he was now the one against the wall so Lauren dropped the gun, wrapped both hands around the handle of the torch and rammed the butt end of it into the side of Herrigan’s opponent. That rocked him enough that Herrigan was able twist around and reestablish the dominant position, pressing the other man against the wall with an arm across his chest. The struggle looked like it would go on for another couple of minutes if left alone so Lauren reached over Herrigan’s head and clobbered the far man’s skull with the flashlight. He slumped a bit and Herrigan gave his noggin another bounce against the wall for good measure, on which the fish went entirely limp.

Herrigan nodded, stood up and gave Lauren an appreciative grin. “Nice work.”

She just fished the other flashlight out of the water and held it out to him. “Let’s just get out of here, shall we?”

He nodded and slung the unconscious man over one shoulder. “Lead the way. I’m ready to go somewhere dry and well lit myself.”

Out of Water – Chapter Twelve

Sudbury waited until Halloway had dropped a good fifteen paces back, with Sam and his deputy to keep him company, before broaching the topic. When he did he went about it in a suitably diplomatic way. “Mr. Holman, I know that here in Alcatraz things work a great deal differently than on the surface. But I have to admit that, much like Sergeant Halloway I find Deputy Cartwright’s priorities a bit… strange. I wouldn’t question them,” he hastened to add, “but in this case someone he and I are responsible for is at risk. So I have to ask…”

The two men hurried down the dark hallways of the station for a moment, Randal’s flashlight – borrowed from the equipment locker back at the engineering hub – turning the normally drab back halls where maintenance personnel spent most of their time into a bizarre maze of dancing shadows and half-seen paths branching into the dark. Even as a lifetime resident, Randal found it eerie. Sudbury wasn’t finishing his question so Randal gave him a nudge. “Well?”

“Let me put it this way…” Sudbury took a deep breath and settled his shoulders. “In Australia today suicide is considered a human right. Anyone who feels their life has lost meaning is free to leave it. It’s considered an act of compassion for those who are suffering.”

Randal gave the ambassador a sharp look, a flash of pure revulsion nearly driving him to step away before he controlled himself. Instead he demanded, “Is this going somewhere, Ambassador?”

A careful, placating gesture was the first response. Clearly finding a response that properly articulated his points was taxing even a professionally trained diplomatic mind. After another couple of steps Sudbury continued. “I know that, sociologically speaking, frontier settlements tend to insist on as much as the community surviving as possible so the notion of suicide becomes extremely unpalatable so it may not be a comfortable subject for you-”

“Historically Alcatraz has overcrowding problems, not understaffing ones,” Randal put in woodenly, the part of him that insisted on right facts being on the table at war with the part that was mildly horrified by the other man’s line of thought. “In the early days there were a lot of times when we nearly ran out of oxygen to breath. People were paid if they volunteered to get sterilizations and slow down population growth. There was talk of other measures.”

“I… see.”

For a brief moment Randal indulged his urge to make Sudbury just as uncomfortable as he was. “I’ve always suspected that the neoenvironmentalists who led the push to jail us enjoyed the irony of putting us at the mercy of one atmosphere after all the time we supposedly spent damaging another.”

“You must appreciate the irony of the current ice age, then.”

“I think you’re trying to avoid going back to talking about suicide. Weird, since you brought it up. Go on.”

Sudbury nodded. “Of course. My point is just… that your fish out of water has clearly suffered a serious breakdown in mental health. Many who are healthy would find a loss of mental health on this scale to be justification for suicide and we make it a point not to stand in their way if that’s what they choose. It sounds like you could let that happen for your fish and still keep everyone else in this section safe. Instead, Deputy Cartwright has put himself, Lauren Cochran and possibly the rest of this section in danger in an attempt to interfere with the human right of a person who’s name and circumstances we don’t even know. It seems to me like an overreaction. I don’t mean to judge-”

“You should.” Sudbury stopped in surprise but Randal kept going, forcing the ambassador to struggle to keep up. “In Alcatraz a man without judgement gets no respect from anyone. We judged the policies of the government we used to live under repressive and evil and decided exile was better than living under them. In the early days we judged not being the kind of people who encouraged euthanasia and suicide more important than finding an easy solution to our air supply problems. And right now I’m making a judgement.”

He let the statement hang in the air for a moment. “I’ve decided that, whether I know his name or not, that our fish out of water has a life worth living if I can only convince him to live it. Now. Whether that’s worth Lauren Cochran risking her life or not is something you’ll have to judge for yourself.” Randal threw a glance back, not at Sudbury but at Halloway beyond him. “At least one of you already has and I respect that. But if you want to just sit there and not judge your welcome to do it. Just do it from outside the hull access. I don’t want someone without good judgment getting underfoot in there.”

——–

“How much of this is there?” Lauren asked as she waited for Herrigan to work the hatch between the section of hallway they were in and the next.

“Well, a section is shaped like an oval on it’s side and the internal hull access is at the top, bottom and the middle. The big hatches at top and bottom are all mechanical and have to be accessed from outside once a section’s in use and there’s three floors worth of these corridors around the outside.”

Lauren groaned. “You mean we have other floors to cover?”

Herrigan swung the hatch open. “It spirals up and down.” He looped his finger through the air to illustrate. “You may not have noticed but we’re going up at a slight incline right now. This next chamber is actually the top. And no, before you ask, we don’t have to backtrack to where we were. There’s a ladder in every fourth section you can use for quick access to other levels.”

“I’d wondered what those were for,” Lauren said, following him into the final section of hallway which was anticlimactically empty.

“You could have asked.”

“Didn’t seem like a good time.”

The end of the hallway had some kind of computer access built in to the wall over a large footlocker arrangement in the floor. Herrigan pulled out a set of keys and opened the footlocker. After a moment’s rummaging he pulled out two electric torches, both at least twice the size of the one he was currently carrying, and handed one to her. “These will probably let us see better. Let’s head down. We’re more than halfway done.”

Lauren nodded wordlessly, not feeling particularly encouraged by his reassurance. The torch was nice though. As she started down the ladder she asked, “Why put the hallways on an incline? I’d think level flooring would make getting equipment around easier.”

“You may have noticed it’s a little humid down here.”

“Not particularly.”

Herrigan snorted. “Flattery gets you nothing. Anyway, since the hull is so much cooler than the interior there’s a lot of condensation that forms in this section. We have to drain it away through the channels in the floor. While we’re at it we run it over a series of small hydroelectric turbines for whatever extra power we can get out of it.”

“And you need the incline for that.” She shook her head. “That’s a lot of effort for a couple of kilowatts of electricity.”

“Believe me, we need all we can get.” Herrigan stepped off the ladder two floors down. Lauren gamely tagged along. So far sections of the access halls were pretty much repeats of four basic themes. Empty hall, hallway with ladder, hallway with inner hatch, hallway with exterior hatch. The section beyond this one would thus be an inner hatch, presumably the one they entered through. Beyond that would be an exterior hatch… which now that she thought about it was the most likely place to find their quarry. “Say, Herrigan -”

He swung the hatch open to the next section and stepped ankle deep into water.

” – never mind.”