“So Dawn’s in trouble…must be Tuesday.”
~Buffy (of the Vampire Slaying variety)
Heroes. Villains. The great ones live on in our hearts and minds for decades after the pages have grown still in our hands. They give us something to root for and rage against—reflect hope and terror and keep our eyes glued long after the shadows have crept into our dens.
But what do the good stories need from these figures?
Personality, first of all. If TV is to be consulted, the world is filled with megalomaniac villains bent on destroying the world (which they live on, mind you) simply because someone ate the last pizza roll. Or snubbed them too many times in the theater. Just as it is filled with Mary Sues there to stop them because it’s what they were born/trained/facebooked their way into doing. And we’ll love them for it because they did what no one else would. Well. That’s a thing.
In fantasy in particular these days, such simplistic stereotypes seem to be getting moved away from. While good vs. evil can be at the heart of the story (it’s at the heart of some of the very best stories!), characters are windows into the world, and to one another. Give them layers. Give them neurotic tendencies, intricate motivations, hopes, fears, reasons—there’s no reason they can’t have heroic traits, or evil superpowers, but give them at least a little ground as well. Hell, give your hero some naughty leanings (oh you smuggler you—always shooting first). The anti-hero is ever popular. Why? Because he’s layered.
Conflicting personal, religious, or political motivations can add all sorts of layers. Such could put limits on them, or just the opposite. A member of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, is not exactly likely to shy from a bit of bloodshed to achieve what they think a greater good. Because it’s what they feel their faith commands. A chivalrous knight, however, might refrain from torture, because he would see it as a sully to his honor—or his lord’s honor.
People turn to fantasy for an escape, often enough, but to truly draw them in, we need a living, breathing world—and that means characters that are more than the central goal.
Daenerys Targaryen (or most characters, honestly) from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a wonderful example of this philosophy. The woman is driven, almost relentlessly, by her desire to return to Westeros and crown herself queen. But she is distracted often. The duties of a khalasar bind her as well, while the safety of her dragon children binds her to otherwise illogical action, and her hatred of slavery pushes her to root out those that would push it forward. She is learning. She is growing. But she has clear morals, a layered personality, and conflicts that result from both.
Intelligence. Far too often I’ve found myself screaming at main characters for some of the…well, stupidest decisions I’ve ever seen. Those moments you cannot help but think: who would ever do this? Characters, like people, need to think, and this means both the good and the bad. So Melvin the Dark Lord wants to take over the world. Fine. That’s great. But how? And why? He has to know it won’t be easy. Likewise, if he knows there’s a hero out hunting for him, why would he think monologing over a slowly moving chain-prison is a great way to off the fellow? Have the intellects clash between your characters. Play them off one another. Make them adapt—not one-trick ponies.
Struggle. Be it with their own inner demons, or with one another, the hero and villain should struggle as much the notions and outcomes of their conflict as with the conflict itself. Each should be working toward a resolution. What will they do to achieve? What will the struggles force out of them? Does morality factor in?
They, and their struggle, are what should be moving our story along.