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Villains Scenes Sans Heroes (guest post)

[My hands are shot, so Dither stepped in at the eleventh hour to help me out. I requested him to cover one of his favourite topics.]

I love villains!

I like to meditate on narrative design, and something about villain scenes has been bothering me for some years: the scenes of villains being demonstrably villainous in the presence of, … no main cast members. It seems to go against good storytelling practices. Yet, these scenes worked. Why?

The first scene that comes to mind is Vader’s conference with the Moffs from A New Hope. As a kid, this was easily one of the most boring scenes to me because I didn’t understand why Vader Force-choked the rude engineer guy. Sure, he called Vader a sorcerer, but then Vader demonstrates his magic by tickling the man’s Adam’s apple. That came out wrong.

I didn’t understand until I was an adult the “senate” that was “dissolved,” and that the conference was about how the Emperor was consolidating political power. The scene is still kind of boring now, but at least I know what’s going on – moreover, it helped me to realize the scene was helping to establish something about the setting itself… it’s an expository scene: featuring Darth Vader.

The second scene, and the far more recent example, is Voldemort’s execution of Charity Burbage at the beginning of Deathly Hallows. Unlike the attacks that Harry witnessed as a result of his connection to Voldemort, this scene seemed like a mistake in my view – either because we shouldn’t see something the main characters can’t see, or because it betrays the fact Snape is one of the good guys.

Something else is going on though, and that’s exposition: in the scene we find out that Voldemort is disappearing people and going about his “New Wizard Order” business. It’s important to note that what is going on isn’t important because it’s from the point of view of the antagonist (or any of the villains), it’s a specific method of delivering exposition.

As a writer, you must be careful about what you show the audience. You don’t want to show the villain being evil for evil’s sake. You risk alienating your audience with arbitrariness, or worse, making the villain more sympathetic or likeable than the protagonist – as is often the case with cartoon villains prior to oh, the 90s. It’s the logical (unfortunate) extreme of “Villains Act, Heroes React.”

If you create a scene in which the villains appear independently of the heroes, remember that you’re writing an expository scene – whatever happens, the purpose of the scene is to deliver to the reader information about the setting or situation (which can be seen as similar to, or as an extension of, the setting itself). It isn’t about characterizing the villain, at least not primarily.

Here’s the thing though: exposition is frequently viewed as boring to the modern audience, and scenes featuring villains doing stuff are often a welcome change of pace. In fact, showing the villains doing stuff can be way better than just having someone tell the heroes that the villains have done Bad Things – it’s part of that whole “show don’t tell” thing we hear all the time about storytelling.

Moreover, using a villain as a vehicle of exposition gives you the opportunity to inject character into the exposition: and you should take that opportunity. If you need the hero galvanized to action by the heinous arson/murder/jaywalking of the villain, then make sure you show the interesting or unique method by which your villain does so: maybe he jaywalks to polka?

It might sound like I’m contradicting myself, telling you to do something that I just told you not to, but you should be used to getting contradictory advice about writing: the point isn’t that there are hard and fast rules to storytelling – but more you should be aware of what you’re doing when you tell a story. “If you’re going to do this thing, but don’t do it like that.”

Villain Scenes Sans Heroes can work when they inject character and perspective into what might otherwise be dry exposition. You don’t have to use them, and oftentimes they might not actually lend anything to the work: and yet, they can be an effective tool in the right story. For example, if you need to introduce your antagonist in Act 1 but the hero doesn’t meet him until Act 3.