Villains! An-tag-on-ists! Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew. Lovely big enemies who thwart the hero at every turn.
Even literary fiction writers couldn’t say no to that.
Every story needs conflict, and conflict always comes from something or someone that directly opposes the protagonist. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is Bob, who just wants his sandwich– there will always be an antagonist. They don’t have to be big and spiky and carry a war club; the antagonist could seem like a friend. You could even go for the “at war with himself” bit. The antagonist could be another person, the hero himself, the world, society, or anything you want– all it does is oppose the hero.
In fantasy, however, the antagonist is usually a person: big, spiky, carrying a war club, also known as evil incarnate. This person is so much more powerful than the protagonist that it seems crazy to hope for victory.
How do you get an entire series out of a single antagonist, then, if the antagonist can squash the protagonist with a maleficent thumb?
That’s easy. You throw the minions at the hero first. The knife-throwing assassin who creeps through the window to poison a few drinks is fully capable of killing the hero– except that he left a green drop of poison on the rim of the cup, which was spotted just in time. Next, the team of enormous monsters with bad eyes go nosing around the campsite. They too could destroy the hero and company by sitting down in the wrong place– but one begins eating the pack horse, which doesn’t like it. Fear, fire, foes, awake, and off the monsters hobble. The hero fears these attackers, but his confidence grows with each failed attempt. This infallibly leads to the question:
“IS THIS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?”
Of course, it isn’t– but the audience wonders. Where is the villain? Why doesn’t he come out and squash these puny humans? It’s in his best interests, after all. *gasp* Could this be all the strength the villain has? What if these monsters and assassins are actually more powerful than the villain?
It’s dangerous when the villain’s minions are more feared than the villain himself. The villain has to stay aloof– else the hero would die on page two– but his minions are stealing the show. What is to be done?
Brian Jacques did it easily. Using his third-person omniscient style, he just showed the villain in counsel with his assassin before the dastardly deed. It gave a sense of impending doom to the sequence as well.
For those of us struggling to contain stories within first-person or third-person limited styles, we need something less like that and more like the ending of political ads: “I am Mr. Evil and I approve this message.” By tacking the villain’s name onto everything bad, the minions defer hate to the villain. In Wall-E, the world is desolate and the human race contained, and everywhere we see the sign of the big corporation running everything. We get the sense that it was all their fault.
The other option is Gandalf. Someone has probably seen this assassin or breed of monsters before– they can probably point to the villain as the source of all this trouble. But don’t fall into the trap of the old guy who’s seen everything just because it exists– try the young guy whose village was destroyed by these monsters (still really cliche, though) or the passing farmer who sees the body and says, “Why, that there badge is the sign of the Great Evil– my gramma used to tell me about ‘im. Bad world we’re livin’ in, that’s sure as sure.”
One of the big changes they made to the Hobbit for the movie was the spread of antagonists. In the book, Bilbo Baggins just explores the world, which seems determined to kill him because he’s short. The movie brought out the growing evil in Mirkwood as the main antagonist, and all the smaller antagonists acted by his command. (Except Azog– he’s sort of another entity altogether. They deal with that like Brian Jacques did.) The big change was the mountain trolls– Gandalf and Thorin talk about them travelling down from the mountains, which they haven’t done since the days of the great evil or whatever. It coincides with the Necromancer’s return. Even more obvious is the return of the Witch King of Angmar from the dead– that instantly points to the Necromancer.
Capricorn and Basta from Inkheart are the two main villains, but no one fears Capricorn half as much as Basta. Basta seems real and present– his knives are always under our noses, threatening us, and he works independently of his master. Unfortunately, that means that Capricorn doesn’t seem as nasty as he ought, especially since he’s the one burning books and kidnapping Mo. Capricorn seems like a puppet villain– only there for show.
Similarly, Sauron sits atop his tower and does nothing while his orcs ravage Middle Earth. We definitely get the sense that he’s powerful and evil, but did he ride out to the last battle at the Black Gate? Nope. He left that to his Nazgul, his orcs, and his trolls. He sits far off and gazes, and there’s nothing evil about gazing. Furthermore, we see the Ring corrupting Frodo constantly along his journey– we fear it much more than its source of evilness, Sauron. We know that even if Sauron is defeated again, his spirit will live on in his Ring. It isn’t as if we can blow him up and reduce the Ring to a meaningless piece of jewelry; it’s the other way around. The Ring becomes the real villain instead of its master.
Villains are a dying breed, and you don’t want them to be eclipsed by their minions. Make sure your audience knows their villain.