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The Anti-Villain: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tropes by J. Hamlet
TV Tropes is an amazing website. Anyone who doesn’t use it or hasn’t spent far too much time browsing its impressive wiki is missing out. It entertainingly dissects stories, characters, and provides tons of great examples. It’s heaven for a pop culture buff, but even more useful for a writer. It’s helped me out of more than my fair share of jams, allowing me to recognize patterns in my own work and find new ideas to incorporate. One node in particular made a huge difference to how I write and how I read: the Anti-Villain.
When I first started writing, I had a lot of misguided ideas, especially villains. To make them memorable and different, I tried to make my villains as depraved as possible. They crossed any line, did any unspeakable deed they could. They served as excellent engines for plots, driving and uniting disparate personalities together to stop their rampages.
I thought it was clever, but the strategy had an obvious flaw. My villains weren’t relatable. They didn’t have personalities so much as they were a lump of concentrated evil that put on a person-suit and started walking through my pages. They weren’t characters, not really. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I prefer the force-of-nature villain. There are plenty of great examples throughout literature that can be memorable and even transformative. Some of them are classics, like Sauron, the White Witch, Grendel, Blood Meridian’s Judge, the Joker, and Cthulhu (always one of my favorites). These are villains that have few understandable motivations other than death and destruction. They also have no redeemable qualities. They were the kind of villain I tried to write, but it just wasn’t working. I needed to find another way.
When I began preparing to write what would become my real debut novel, Hand of Chaos, I decided to dig into TV Tropes and other resources to think through the issue. The Anti-Villain trope got my mind working. We’re all very familiar with the Anti-Hero. Many say that trope has worn out its welcome. Heroes often become more interesting characters when they’re given secrets, issues, baggage, edges. Rarely does the villain get the same three dimensional treatment. Too often, they become simple obstacles to the hero’s goals or foils to help draw out the hero’s admirable qualities. Taking the other path and imbuing the villain with positive qualities makes things messy. Heroes may not come out looking quite as good. The audience may even want the villain to prevail. Moral clarity is lost and ambiguity reigns. Combine an anti-villain and an anti-hero in the same story? That hands the audience an ethical puzzle.
The best examples of anti-villains are villains that have pathos, reasonable explanations for how they became the way they are and why they do the things they do. Lucifer himself in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Captain Nemo are some of the classics, but for every titan of literature like that, there’s lesser but more common examples (Dexter, Magneto, and most of the cast of True Blood). The best anti-villain would be the hero if the story was told from another perspective. That thought alone really changed my perspective on how to write my antagonists and how to even structure a story.
As tempting as it is to want to write the ultimate tale of good vs. evil, it can be better to write a story that makes the reader think about what good or evil really mean. Ambiguity and conflicted loyalty can cause conflicts less explicit and more internal, but more rewarding and thought-provoking over time. Through studying this simple trope, my approach to characters and conflicts changed. I constructed not just a main villain that had dimension to him, but also a whole landscape of antagonists and interlopers with conflicting motivations and relatable causes. It was through this simple trope that I could build a richer fictional universe with tough ethical questions.
Synopsis: Exhausted, cynical, and confused, Anna is always there to report for duty. She’s part of a clandestine government team that defends the nation against supernatural terrorism—a job that understandably leaves her life in shambles and drives her to drink a little more than she should. Toss in a fear of intimacy with a desire to have friends and lovers like a normal person and, well, Anna is a troubled soul wrapped in a special agent with arcane, magical powers. Waking up hungover at five-thirty in the morning with a zombie-infested apartment building in the heart of DC to deal with, she’s knows she’s got the makings of the worst morning possible.
J. Hamlet: Everyone needs a hobby. I chose writing. Not one of the easier ones. I chose it at the tender age of 14, churning out terrible science fiction novels that heaped on the cliches and barely hidden tropes of all space operas. Thankfully, those creations reside in the prison of an old Commodore 64 hard drive and several 3.5″ disks (kids, ask your parents) in a landfill somewhere. And, let me be clear, the world is better for it. Along the way, I kept writing. Through college. Through grad school. Through the beginning of my career, such as it is. I like to believe I picked up skills. I write genre novels that have characters brimming with personal problems, professional problems, and sexuality. Sure, novels that do this exist. I’m not trying to say they don’t, I just think too few of them are out there and I intend to do my personal best to increase their numbers.