Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 3 of 5: Villains We Can Relate to

Fantasy may be one of the few genres in which a true arch-villain is possible, someone who is purely evil and bent on the destruction of the world.  Political thrillers aside, not many other types of fiction can pull this off.  It’s one reason why I think fantasy remains popular: it’s comforting to step into a world where the bad guy is easy to identify.  There’s no grey area or nuance: Sauron is evil incarnate, and we’d better find a way to stop him.

That said, I’ve never been a fan of the “serial killer villain.”  You know the type, the villain with no motivation other than destruction and pain for its own sake.  It can be done well (Iago?), but more often than not, this kind of bad guy is just boring.  Far more interesting is the villain who wants something, whether it’s a candy bar or eternal life, and even more powerful is when that villain wants something I might want myself.  In other words, what makes a great villain is also what makes a great hero: relatability.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort is a compelling villain because even though he’s as evil as it gets, his desires are the dark side of our own.  He fears death—who doesn’t?  He wants power and control, the same thing every politician strives for.  Of course, unlike us normal folks, Voldemort has let his fears and desires control him, and he’s developed the resources to act on those desires.  He’s a rare and stunning example of a truly evil villain who maintains believable motivations.

I don’t think the series would work half so well, though, if it didn’t include such a rich array of sub-villains.  Rowling weaves in a ton of them, and not all of them want the same thing as the arch-villain.  They aren’t quite as evil, but they are more accessible.  If heroes exemplify what we most admire in ourselves, villains are reflections of the qualities we detest, and Rowling’s sub-villains do this beautifully, even going so far as to reflect the flaws of the heroes we’ve grown to love.  

For example, Dolores Umbrige’s controlling authoritarianism is Hermoine’s respect for rules gone terribly, horribly wrong.  Lockheart’s childish avarice for recognition echoes Ron’s dissatisfaction living in shadow of Harry and his brothers.  And the disrespectful Mundungus, who's not quite a villain, is a sad shadow of the rebellious Sirius Black, who's not quite a hero.  In the heroes, these character traits are mixed with courage and goodness, and so they lead to good things: Hermoine’s sense of justice, Ron’s loyalty, Sirius’s fearlessness in the face of danger.  In the villains, they become coldness, vanity, and selfishness.  Part of what makes these villains so powerful is that they reflect the ways we could go wrong, just like the heroes show us how to go right.

What do you think makes a good villain?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 2 of 5: There's No Free Lunch

∆E = 0

The law of conservation of energy.  It’s the first law of thermodynamics, one of the most important physical laws of the universe.   And just because there’s magic involved doesn’t mean we have to break it.

In a nutshell, the first law means that you have to end up with the same amount of energy you started out with—no more, no less.  If you burn a tank of gas, for example, the chemical energy in the liquid fuel is converted to kinetic energy (the motion of your car) and heat.  The energy contained in your sandwich might get turned into you running a marathon.  (Or, in my case, just sitting on the couch, but for longer.)

I’m not going to argue for total scientific realism in fantasy fiction (where’s the fun in that?), but I do think we can stick to the spirit of the law.  Supernatural powers ought to come at a price.  For example, in the first book of Stacia Kane’s Downside series, the price of summoning and controlling a particularly powerful ghost is a human soul.  Doesn’t get much creepier than that.  Even in the teen drama The Vampire Diaries, vampires who don’t drink human blood are weaker than their murderous counterparts. 

The price doesn’t have to be a human sacrifice: it can be something as simple as time.  In Harry Potter, just because the kids have magical abilities doesn’t mean they can snap their fingers and get whatever they want.  It takes years of study and practice before they can accomplish spells.  And there are limits.  Wizards can’t create food they don’t already have.

Supernatural powers get a little boring if they come too easily.  It's one reason I'm not a big fan of day-walking vampires.  When the bloodsuckers are confined to the dark and can't enter your home without invitation, it makes their creepiness more visceral, and their gift of immortality more limited. A paranormal gift feels more precious when it comes at a cost, whether it’s a character’s personal energy, the time it takes them to study and perfect their art, or some sort of sacrifice.  The alternative is too God-like to be interesting.

What's your favorite price for supernatural power?  

(P.S.  You can check out Part One of this series here.)