When the Villains Are Acting Like Villains

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Well, this has been a rough week since the previous posts were about spoilers and a series have a book of darkness.  Why not end it on the same note?  After all, a big reason I’m anxious is because there are several scenes that involve . . . torture.  I’ve hinted a lot that something like this is in the book, but I figure I should say it out loud:

The Baron is torturing one of the champions.

These scenes are rough and painful and not like anything that came before it.  Remember when the Lich had captured Nyx and was trying to experiment on her?  That was child’s play considering the Baron has had centuries to practice and create new methods to dole out pain.  All of this is to bring a hero to the breaking point before the final battle, which is a very evil thing to do.  I mean, what bad guy wouldn’t try to do something like this if the opportunity came up?  That’s kind of their thing as long as they have the mentality to go that far.

This is where the strangeness comes into my thought process.  Like most people, I’m against torture in real life.  It’s a horrible act that strips the humanity from both people involved.  One becomes a broken human and the other becomes a monster.  This holds in fiction, but that’s also where you can show the terrible act.  You can reveal what it does to the torturer and the scars it leaves behind on the victim.  Perhaps you can show how a person can move on from such an act to live a normal act, which goes more for the victim than the torturer.  I guess you could do the latter if you want them to work toward redemption.  Wouldn’t be surprised if people who did horrible things during a time of war spent the rest of their lives trying to help others.  Pretty sure I’ve heard a few stories about that.  Anyway, fiction is where such acts should stay if an author decides to go this way with their villains.

I worry that people will read this and think I’m all about torture.  These days, it feels like people don’t always separate the artist from the art.  I write about an evil man torturing a beloved hero, so I think it’s okay?  That’s not how it works.  Villains have to be villains and giving all of them the same limits will harm their development if the direction they take is down into darkness.  It’s hard enough when heroes do something wrong or take a moral stumble, which can toss people off a series.  After all, those are the ones that are supposed to be perfect and flawless and nothing like real people who falter from time to time.  To do this to villains makes it difficult to turn them into true threats.  The Baron and his newest agent needed to surpass Stephen in terms of sadism.  Otherwise, the champions wouldn’t be as scared.  Why be afraid of a man who has ethical limits when you already the survived the one who has none?

Not sure if it helps my case, but it was tough to write the torture scenes.  In fact, I’ve been told by a few people who read it early that the parts weren’t as bad as I thought.  So it could be worse for me because I’m doing it to characters that are like my children.  That doesn’t make it sound any better.  After every part, I had to take an hour break and focus on something positive.  Will any of this come across in the book?  Will readers know that I’m not celebrating the flaying, breaking, and agony of my character?

Should I even be concerning myself with this?  I mean, this whole thing sounds like I’m defending myself, which does denote some guilt.  I do have some guilt since I put my characters through this.  Tried to write the book without the darkness, but then it didn’t work out right.  The Baron came off as weak, the final book had no twists, and the whole thing seemed too easy.  Incarceration didn’t hit the right notes, which I can’t really explain without revealing too much.  That spoiler thing rears its head again.  All I can say is that the champions need to enter the final battle with wounds.  The Baron is the type of villain who would make sure of this as a precaution even though he wants a great battle to honor his return.  As much as he wants to play with his food, he doesn’t want to leave too much to chance.  That’s just what some villains do.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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41 Responses to When the Villains Are Acting Like Villains

  1. L. Marie says:

    Sigh. I know what you mean. It’s difficult to write scenes that show the atrocities of evil. I find it difficult to work on those scenes for long. I need a joy break after that to clear my head. What do you do to get out of that dark mode once you’ve written a hard scene like that?

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    • Watch someone more upbeat on TV or eat something tasty. I’ve become rather good at throwing off the rough stuff pretty quickly. Since I compartmentalize it with that villain, I don’t really take it with me when I stop. Probably helps that I acknowledge the character is evil even if they don’t think they are.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        And that’s the key, isn’t it? They think they’re doing the right thing–at least from their perspective. I think of my antagonists as wayward children. I don’t like what they do. But I love them all the same, even knowing they won’t change.

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      • Usually. I will admit that I enjoy writing some villains who simply love being evil. There are people like that in real life, so it isn’t unbelievable to see them rise to power in some stories.

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  2. twixie13 says:

    I can understand it hurting to torture one’s own characters. I think of mine as my children, half the time. The other half, however, they are not my children so much as my bitches and when that happens, it’s time to bring the pain. Of course, wanting to see what’d work may have led to a handful of sketchy Google searches… But whatever works. *once again thinks of why her characters hate her*

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    • Oh yeah. An author’s search history has to be strange. Might scare those poor federal workers hired to spy on everyone. Just makes me laugh thinking about an NSA agent going ‘this guy is looking up poisons and Ohio again’.

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  3. Oh boy, that’s a tough one. I know what you mean about striking the right balance — you don’t want your villains so horrible that people have to put the book down because the torture scene’s so intense they can’t emotionally handle it, (this has happened in one of my critique groups) but at the same time if they don’t do things that are suitably villainous, they just lack credibility as “the big bad”. I guess it’s just a matter of writing the scene a few times, seeing what works, what doesn’t, making changes, running it by people, going back to the drawing board, etc.

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    • I’ve found that running it by people is a double-edged sword when it comes to villains. You might get a variety of opinions because everyone has their own limit to what a villain should be allowed to do without ruining the book. It also causes a problem when you have a story that is heading toward a specific act of evil, but then you get readers telling you not to do it because it’s too far. This seems to happen mostly with torture scenes too. Amazing how we can write blood-filled battles and executions, but torture is the line that even bad guys are expected not to cross.

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      • I mean, there’s always the option of *alluding* to torture but not getting into the nitty gritty details. As in, torturer walks into the room, unrolls their bag of instruments, protagonist screams … fade to black, return a few scenes later with the protagonist hanging limply in their shackles, covered in blood, etc. But then you get readers saying you shied away from the torture scene and that the book suffers from the mildness, or it doesn’t feel real and gritty enough, or whatever. Basically, it’s like you said — everyone has an opinion! Or, as my mother would say, different people are different. I guess just write it how you envision it, and hope the majority of your readers like it.

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      • Just no winning some days. I have done that once or twice, but I can’t this time. It’s too big an event that happens throughout the book. I think I do the aftermath start once here, but only after readers get an idea of how bad it is.

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  4. Cyndi Pilcher says:

    I understand where you are coming from definitely. I am struggling at the moment with my villains because I am not a bad person in real life, so having to write bad things happening to my characters is not an easy feat for me. I am working it out thought and I have others helping me working the scenes out. The way I look at it though is if people don’t like the villainous scenes, then they should just move on to another book — there are plenty of people who WILL read these scenes because they know it’s important to the whole story.

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    • (It doubled, but I can delete the extra. Happens to me some days.)

      Good point. Villain scenes serve a purpose and it’s more than the author getting to write ‘bad’ stuff. A common complaint that we have to avoid is a one-dimensional and stale antagonist. If you want to flush them out then you need to give them scenes instead of only showing up when the hero is around. This also means revealing the acts that make them a bad guy. It isn’t like the villain is doing crossword puzzles and laundry while the hero is journeying.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think you should not be worried about the scenes you write although it is normal unless you are a psychopath. I think readers understand and can separate the author from the story. It is just my opinion.

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  6. nairama says:

    villains are gonna be villains, so it can very well happen that they torture heroes cause, well, theyre villains? depending on the moral inclination of the heroes, they may also torture a captured foe because they see it as a necessity for whatever reason. sometimes, the heroes/villains distinction can blur altogether (my favorite type of book!) because that is what it’s usually like. a war is not good vs evil, more like one side against another.

    c’est la guerre.

    i think as long as the scenes are not overly graphic (no surgically specific descriptions) and they fit into the story then it will not scare anyone away.

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    • Being a present tense author, I do get a little specific on the damage. Think because I see it so vividly in my head that ‘broke a bone’ and ‘cut him’ don’t feel right. Trying to remember if I’ve had a hero use torture yet. Think they’ve stuck to intimidation, but a lot has happened in 12 (15 if you count the three unpublished) books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nairama says:

        of course some details are required, but there is a wide spectrum from 0 to overthetop. i tend to describe what is visible from the outside, or what the character feels, depending on perspective, but leave out the surgical details of what organ was damaged in what way or what kind of fluids and whatnot… firstly im not a doctor, second, the characters probably dont know neither, thirdly, its just where i draw the line of unnecessary gore.

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      • Genre could be a factor too. I find myself using more gore when I try horror than my fantasy series. I only go with fluids if it’s important like bile with a stomach thing. Google is a curious author’s friend. Good point on the perspective too. Which kind do you typically use?

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      • nairama says:

        third person, but kind of dragging amd dropping the “camera” into the different protagonist characters depending on who’s is the most relevant at the moment. and yes, horror is def more gory but i dont write that ;P

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      • I try for a third person omniscient, but I don’t go into character heads too often because it’s awkward in present tense. I have to work more with dialogue and gestures. Horror is something I dabble in. I came up with a paranormal thriller 2 years ago and wrote it, but don’t have enough confidence to publish. So I published it throughout October and it got thumbs up, so I did it again last year. Figure I’ll try for a third and see what people think.

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      • nairama says:

        i’m using first person for the shorts that are going to appear in this blog though.

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      • I’ve only tried first person once and I find it really hard to do. Awesome that you can pull it off.

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  7. It’s tough. There have to be difficult scenes and touchy subjects in our books. I always worry about how readers in the modern era will take it. It came down to a main character flaw for me, and I worried about it for a long time. How bad can a person be and still find some kind of redemption? I still worry about Jason Fogg.

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    • Didn’t think about the modern era vs fiction world. Many do tend to bring real world sensitivities into fiction. I never really got the sense that Jason Fogg was so bad that redemption was impossible. Maybe because I met him when he started wanting it. Never really knew him as the dirtbag you mention in the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Adam says:

    I think it’s natural to have some misgivings about difficult topics like torture, but at the same time I think that’s part of the power of storytelling. Audiences can develop a greater understanding of something without having to experience it firsthand.

    The question of how far to go is a tricky one, but at least part of that lies in the general tone and style of the story. The Ice & Fire series is more graphic than most, but one of its themes is the conflict or contrast between the romantic ideal and the harsh reality.

    When it comes to controversial topics and morally reprehensible behavior, I think the distinction between discussing/engaging and condoning/proponing them lies in the story’s resolution. As you say, villains are often by definition evil, committing horrible crimes, but ultimately suffering for their transgressions, and that’s the key. In the end a villain either has to suffer through to redemption, or suffer when the consequences of their actions catch up with them.

    As long as the villain gains no sustained rewards and/or suffers some form of penalty, I think audiences will understand that you are condemning such behavior.

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    • Thanks. Full agreement and very well said. One difficult thing with a series is that the comeuppance or redemption don’t always come in the same book. So an author has to depend a lot on readers being patient.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Adam says:

        In that case I think one can also portray the scene with a clear slant towards the victim, making the audience sympathize with the victim and feel primarily hostility towards the perpetrator.

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      • Trying to think if I did that. Most times my perspective tends to be of a neutral narrator. So you get insight into both to some extent.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Adam says:

        Well I think the scene could still be slanted using the villain’s motives, the victim’s choices, and to what extent the story seems to either justify or disapprove based on the reasons behind the situation.
        Also, there’s what’s come before. Audiences gradually become attached to specific characters, and if they see someone they’ve become “close to” suffering, that alone is going to slant them against the perpetrator.

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      • Have to admit that I’m not sure what you mean by victim’s choices. Do you mean how they respond to the torture? The victim has been around since the beginning, so I hope people became close to him. I’ve noticed that readers kind of shrug off the bad things that befall him more than some of his friends. Not really sure why.

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      • Adam says:

        I think if a character makes foolish choices that are likely to lead to bad outcomes, that reduces sympathy. It may be that audiences perceive this character as tough, so they don’t worry about their pain.

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      • Got it. I wonder if that works for characters who make mistakes that don’t necessarily lead to the torture. Like they keep messing up in some area of life like romance or finances. Those don’t connect to the torture, but it could make people feel less sympathetic to the character in general.

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      • Adam says:

        Could be, to a lesser extent. I think it would also depend on the outcome. If someone makes a mistake that leads to another character really suffering in some way, then the torture could be interpreted as their own karmic punishment.

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      • I’m actually banking on that for a little bit. I’ve found it’s harder to work a character suffering because they made a mistake that lead another to torture. There’s a lot of angst and a desire for redemption, which others might not want them to even get.

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  9. You must be kidding! It’s obvious you just delight in torture, you’re tying to make money writing after all. Lol, all joking aside, everyone knows all villains do is invite their foes in for a nice cup of tea, discuss the weather, discover they are second cousins twice removed. Then the villain offers the hero a job, the hero declines the offer and reveals he managed to put a quick acting magical poison in the villains tea without being notices, the hero then desires against using the poison because he’s a good guy and the villain lives out the rest of his life in fear of the hero changing his mind.
    Or so a lot of people think.

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    • Well, that does make the case for self-torture. Guessing list indie authors are a little masochistic.

      I have heard scenarios like that get suggested. My favorite is always ‘why can’t the bad guy just see the error of his ways before the hero arrives?’ That always sounds like a comedy ending. Not to mention a waste of the hero’s time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I completely agree, though I think I did read a book once where the villain did realize he was being evil, but he still fought the hero because he was to proud to back off his evil plans, plus the hero was really ticked off and wouldn’t have believed the villain had changed.

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      • That sounds like a fun twist. It even comes close to flipping the roles. Take away the pride and the villain might try to back out of it. Yet, can he if the hero is so angry that he doesn’t believe a change has occurred? This could lead to the plan succeeding because the former villain and rage-blinded hero are too busy fighting each other while someone else rises up to finish the job.

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