Villains Part 1: Sympathy for the Devil

The villain is the most important character in any adventure story, perhaps in any story at all. This may seem counterintuitive, since the reader wants to root for the hero. However, the villain is more important on two counts. First, just as the reader wants to root for the hero, he or she wants to root against the villain. Second, and more importantly, the villain drives the action. Without the bad guy, the story just doesn’t happen.

So I wanted a great foe for Wolf Dasher in State of Grace — someone who would give him all kinds of trouble. Enter Sagaius Silverleaf, Ambassador from Alfar to Urland.

The first key to making a villain memorable is giving him or her personality traits that will turn off the reader. In Silverleaf’s case, he’s arrogant. That doesn’t sound like much, but people really hate individuals who think they are better than everyone else.

Silverleaf doesn’t just think he’s better than anyone around him. He acts like it. He’s smart and clever and loves to let you know that. He talks to other people as though they are somehow beneath him. Driven by his hatred of Urlanders (more on that below), he cheats at high stakes card games, so he can take their money and prove himself to be better than they are. When Wolf first meets him, he has never been beaten at Conquest — an expensive game played by rich nobles.

Silverleaf’s arrogance leads to his second character flaw, callousness. He has little regard for the lives of others, even those close to him. He shows no emotion when his girlfriend is killed on his orders — neither satisfaction nor remorse nor regret. He sees others as tools to accomplish his ends and discards them when they are no longer useful. His indifference over his lover’s death enrages Wolf, driving him to desire Silverleaf’s downfall even more passionately.

But, if Silverleaf is an arrogant jerk with no regard for the value of others, I did not want that to be all he is about. If I’d left him like that, he’d become a cardboard cutout. He’d be more a caricature than a character. No one acts without motivation, and a villain’s motivations are the things that can define him or her as a truly memorable foe. To make Silverleaf the kind of villain I wanted him to be, I needed him to be a little sympathetic. Sure he’s a bastard, but you can understand why.

Silverleaf is a patriot. His beloved Alfheim was torn by civil war 13 years ago. Despite being of the same sect as the fundamentalists who started the revolution, he decried their actions and fought savagely against them. He was caught, tortured, and maimed by his former countrymen — the people who allegedly shared his religious views. He detests what they did to him, and, more importantly, what they did to his country.

During that civil war, his government asked for help from Urland. With little motivation to assist, they refused. Silverleaf believes this was one of the reasons the rebellion that spawned the theocracy in Jifan was not crushed. He believes Urlanders are responsible for Alfheim dividing into two nations, and he is furious that they responded with soldiers years later only when their trade and strategic interests were threatened.

Thus, he blames the Jifanis for what they did to him and his country, and he blames the Urlanders for not stopping it. And, to a large extent, he’s right. Thus, his motivation for the revenge he’s planning is understandable.

By creating a little sympathy for The Devil, I crafted a character who was fun to write, and who would give my hero fits. He drives the plot by forging a plan to remake the world the way he believes it should be.

Of course, you want a villain your readers can really loathe too. State of Grace has one of those as well, and you’ll meet him and what makes him a prototypical bad guy tomorrow.

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