The Mary Sue/Gary Stu Villain--Yes, They Exist
Wow, That Was Timely ...
Firstly, I have to say that it is so weird that bin Laden died right when I was preparing this blog …
Ah, but justice is SWEEEEET!!!
Still, I’m kind of in shock. I don’t know what to say about it, except that it is wonderfully a propros to this post. And I’d rather not get into any political rhetoric right now.
But I may jump into ecstatic song and dance every now again whilst wearing my red and white USA sweat shirt and dual flag pins over my blue and white flag tank top.
The Mary-Sue villain is a difficult character to track down (especially if it’s been hiding in a compound for five years undetected, dammit!). Why? Actually, it’s because we’ve so many of them that they’ve basically come to be expected that way.
Wherein lies the problem for writers.
No matter what your story is, you need a villain of some sort to instigate conflict. If there’s no villain, there’s no conflict. I don’t mean that you actually need some thug running around, but for a genre fiction story like fantasy, scifi or romance or the like, you need a big bad. This has got to be somebody your readers will love to hate. They can be dangerous or maybe just obnoxious. Maybe they’re violent or they just make your readers really nervous. Either way, this character has got to be evil to one degree or another.
The problem is for most first time authors and a few established ones is that they can make their character ridiculously, over-the-top powerful. You’ve seen those kinds of villains that are so difficult to defeat that you actually lose faith in the both the character and the story. Why read something where the villain is impossible to take down?
Those of you who know that you’ve got a villain with a bit of the Mary-Sueness/Gary-Stuness, that’s easy to fix. For those of you who don’t realize it, then you’re going to have to pay attention.
PART 1: WHAT IS A VILLAIN?
They’re bad guys. They’re the ones who want to make your life miserable no matter what, and they’ll do it for their own gains. You’re just the little person they step on, just cannon fodder, just food. They like to pick on you, whether it’s just to tease or to threaten you with your life. They’ll destroy everything that you love to torture you.
They hate everything. They have motives even though we might not know what they are. They’re plotting something that could hurt one person or a million. Whatever they want, they’ll get, and they’ll whoever stands up to them.
No matter what the degree, they’re evil.
· Evil (well, duh)
· Easily angered
· Enjoys seeing people in physical or emotional pain
· Difficult to defeat
· Very intelligent
· Strong physically or in magic/cyborg/mutant power
· Designs the best elaborate plans to fool the hero
· Has a powerful or mystical weapon
· Seductive sexually/emotionally/logically (think Stockhold Syndrome for logically)
· Repeatedly comes back from the “dead” (the “Oh my God, why the hell can’t you stay dead?!” constantly returning kind)
· Monstrous in form, logic or behavior
Never forget that your villain is there not just because the story needs some excitement, but also because they need to be the counterpoint to your heroes. They’re there to force your OCs into becoming better, stronger, more mature person. A hero cannot be defined and cannot mature without a villain to stand in their way and knock them back. Your hero depends on the villain in order to grow.
And boy, are there a lot of villains.
PART 4: BUILDING CHARACTER
You can’t have a bland villain. They can’t just be evil. And no matter how badass you make them, no matter how many powers they have, if they don’t have any kind of personality then there’s no interest or emotional connection there. I don’t mean that they have to be pathetic or that the reader should weep over their plight, but your reader must know that this bad guy isn’t just a bunch of words thrown on paper.
If you have an OC villain, then get a piece of paper and write down all the stuff like we did about Mary-Sue last week and a few weeks before that. You can use the formulas for designing your character’s look, but this is one of the few times when you can go nutty and do whatever you want. Make them absolutely gorgeous or terrifyingly huge or horrifically grotesque—exaggerated physical details add intimidation power
“Character” is the most important feature of any … character … (I’m not Ms. Thesaurus, all right?). You need to give all of your OCs, whether good or bad, some kind of personality. If there’s no personality, once again you’ll be left with a one dimensional character.
Luckily, many of the villains that listed below don’t need a complex personality. For an example, if your OC is the really monstrous kind of werewolf, they don’t need to stop and wrestle with the thought of how terrible they would feel if they ate that young shepherd in the field. They’d just eat ‘im.
No, really good villains have personalities and motives, which are listed below. Their personalities are usually formed in their childhood and then become horrifically twisted as they become older. They could have witnessed something that messed them up (like the murder of a loved one,) have been influenced by some form of propaganda, became mad with power, or was just born evil. Always give some kind of history to explain why they are the way they are.
A villain’s personality should be complex for sentient beings. A ruthless warlord might be eager to completely defeat his enemies, but he finds no honor in watching the prisoners being executed. A vile black witch might conjure an army of demons, but a memory might make her sad and she finds comfort in her dogs. A god might be driven to destroy a rival god, but takes pity on a family caught in the crossfire and lets them flee unharmed.
A truly evil villain is unredeemable, and for the most part their personality is now one single trait that I can only describe as blackness. They’ll be easily moved to anger, and they may have a dark sense of humor, but they’re obsessed with conquest or destruction. They are not merciful and will be disgusted at the suggestion. They’re filled with hate.
PART 5: THE VILLAIN DICTIONARY
Despots: want to take over the world. Often it just appears that they want to take over the world just to take over the world (or sometimes just a corporation), but their gamut runs from wanting to punish society by keeping them under the villain’s boot, irrational thinking brought on by a manipulative mentor or associate who secretly want the power for themselves, attacking under the orders of a dark god, believing that they are the rightful heir to a throne or to a political seat, want to drain the land of resources without confrontation, or want to remake the world in their image. They can be sadistic, overpowering, relentless and irrational. Despots are made up of such characters as kings, queens, warlocks, politicians and megalomaniacs.
Mr. Burns, Lex Luthor, Sauron, and the Emperor are examples of Despots.
Monsters: no reason for evil sometimes, they just are what they are. Can be perceived as evil based on actions but are generally just nasty. Some are motivated to do evil deeds (Saw, Friday the 13th—ugh, just writing this horror movie stuff makes me cringe. Yuck!), while others are just the way they are, i.e. the Predator isn’t necessarily evil because he’s just hunting, but his motives and behavior makes him evil to us. The Terminators appear to be evil because they’re programmed to relentless chase down and kill Sarah and John Connor. Dragons could be harmless until they’re driven to attack the hero, not automatically because they’re evil.
Others can’t help but be monsters; generally speaking, a traditional werewolf is going to tear your face off as soon as he looks at you, while a traditional vampire is not going to look like David Boreanaz and will mercilessly tear your throat out. They have no control over what they do.
Human monsters are the ones that you can’t pick out in a crowd. They don’t wear black hats. They don’t have a big sign over their heads advertising the fact that they’re sadists, though we really wish they did. They’re the creepy ones, the ones who stalk people, who lie in wait like an animal, the ones who kill for fun.
Vampires, werewolves and aliens are examples of Monsters.
Sociopaths: hurt people through manipulation. Can easily disguise themselves to be perceived as normal, but they enjoy hurting others. They have no emotions. (Anarchists, predatory, etc.)
Psychopaths: you never know when they’re going to strike. They’re generally extremely deranged and attack without warning.
Hannibal Lecter and the Joker are examples of Psychopaths.
Evil Geniuses: extremely intelligent but also extremely narcissistic, which usually leads to their downfall. A situation or trauma in their life causes them to create the greatest weapon or the greatest monster or illness to unleash on a public that has either shunned them, that the villain believes must be punished for some misdeed, unfounded or otherwise, and frequently to take over the world They’re greedy, often holding a city or person hostage in return for a huge sum of cash, sometimes paranoid, vengeful, insane, violent and irrational. They don’t believe that they can ever be defeated.
Lex Luthor and Syndrome from The Incredibles are examples of Evil Geniuses.
Revenge-Driven: these villains have become evil because they are bent on avenging themselves or someone else and will stop at nothing to achieve it, becoming morally warped and ruthless. Their behavior can stem from being slighted at a potential promotion, from witnessing an injustice, from having an injustice committed upon them, for finding or having seen a loved one(s) killed, for having a loved one(s) forcibly taken away, for being left for dead, for being betrayed, or for the destruction of their country or people. Sometimes they become so evil that they lose sight of what their original intent was and attack everything they see as a threat.
Magneto and Demona from Gargoyles are examples of Revenge-Driven characters.
Bullies: no matter what the age is, there are always bullies. They can run the gamut of being annoying to being outright dangerous. They love lording over everyone else, using strength and threats to intimidate others. Some of the time this continues into adulthood, and can either remain as just an irritating facet of a person or explored into a much more dangerous person. Bullies always make the victim feel humiliated and afraid
Cordelia Chase, Biff from Back to the Future, and Draco Malfoy are examples of Bullies.
Accomplice: dangerous henchmen to a greater evil. They may believe the ideals of the main villain, may have been manipulated, or believe that they owe the villain their lives, and so act out their deeds for the villain himself. It’s possible that they could redeem themselves in the end, but this is often not the case.
Darth Vader and Amanda from Nikita are examples of Accomplices.
Femme Fatales: these are dangerous women and they can come in any form. The term is usually applied to a sexy, dangerous woman but can be applied to everyone. They often act on their own, or might be an accomplice to more powerful boss. These women might be spies, assassins, powerful spell casters, queens, demons, nurses, thieves, stalkers—anything that you can think of. It doesn’t matter.
These women can manipulate people emotionally, mentally, or through sex. They can be or become more violent, stalking the victim, kidnapping them or a loved one, resorting to torture and murder. Others are more mundane, stealing jewelry, committing arson, or threatening blackmail. The worst ones are the real monsters, the horrifically violent, selfish ones, those that enjoy seeing people (particularly men) being torn apart physically/mentally/emotionally, the women who like to see blood spill and won’t hesitate to kill someone, whether they’re child or adult. They’ll do the worst things to accomplish what they want, and they will not let anybody stand in their way—or at least live long enough to stand in their way.
Nurse Ratchet, Annie Wilkes, Bellatrix Lestrange, The Red Phoenix, The White Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West are a few examples of the Femme Fatale.
Traitors: these are the real scummy kinds of villains. They’ll sell out anyone and everyone for a variety of reasons: money, power, vengeance, loyalty to a despot/ruler, or misguidance. They’re smug, and the really bad ones are those that firmly believe that what they’re doing is right, and they don’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.
Alex Krychek from The X-Files, Anakin Skywalker, and Peter Pettigrew are examples of Traitors.
Terrorists: they do just what their name implies: they terrorize people. In theory, it can be argued that these people are the worst kind of bully. They’ll use any means necessary to frighten their targeted group of people, organization, or country, in order to get what they want. These idiots commit acts of terrorism to scare people into surrendering, to drive them out of a particular area or country, to kill them, as a demonstration of power (again, like sadistic bullies,) or even as a distraction in order for greater events to be set in motion. Bank robbers use a form of terrorism in order to get the clerks and customers to comply with their demands. They’ll take hostages and threaten to kill them or claim that they have a bomb strapped to their bodies.
Colonel Quaritch, Habib Marwans from 24, and Clyde Shelton from Law Abiding Citizen are examples of Terrorists.
Evil Magic-Wielders: Evil magic-wielders are some of the toughest and most evil villains around. They tend to be smart, but also cruel, aloof, confident and narcissistic. Their goals may be to conquer a kingdom, destroy a lineage, usurp all the power for themselves, become gods, are driven insane by power, or are just determined to wipe out everything that is good in the world. They’re extremely hard to defeat, and the more magic they have usually means that they have more power to deflect attacks and more power to strike back. They’ll shape shift into monsters, conjure storms, raise demons, and lead armies of monsters straight out of hell. They have no problem with torturing and killing innocent people, but once they realize that the hero is a serious threat to them, they’ll stop at absolutely nothing to destroy them.
Sauron and Voldemort are examples of Evil Magic-Wielders.
PART 6: POWERS
Here’s where the rules of restrictions are loosened a little bit. Unlike your hero, your villain must be strong in whatever power is available to them. They can have a few more powers than your OC hero and they should be efficient in most of them. No 100+ powers because then they’re unbeatable, and there’s no hope of your heroes winning. They need to show off these powers to demonstrate just how powerful they are in order to clearly define what this villain is like and to make it clear to the reader just who they’re dealing with. If you reveal your characters’ powers at the last minute, they become confusing. Let them “show off” what they can do throughout the story. It’s up to you if you want to reveal how potent your bad guy can be right away or shock your readers by showing them what the villain can do at the climax of the story.
PART 7: WEAKNESSES
Every baddie needs some kind of weakness. If they’re all powerful, then there’s no way for your characters to win. Weaknesses should be tricky to find and tricky to implement, because that adds to the excitement and desperation of the story. Don’t make them deliberately obvious because it ruins the thrill of the climax.
A real weakness in a villain is something that they cannot avoid. It’s a part of them that they can’t metaphorically shake off. These are often physical restrictions, or a source of power that can be interrupted. Sometimes even a loved one could be used against them. And there are times when the villain’s own insanity or character flaws brings them down and crushes them.
· Physical weakness—the villain might be one of the strongest jerks in the world, but they might not be able to maintain their strength for long. They can overexert themselves and become weaker. The hero will be running circles around them and the villain will be too tired to fight back.
· Mystical weakness—the villains’ powers drain out due to exhaustion, or they lose control of their powers when they become enraged. The power can be turned back against them (deflected or absorbed and redirected by hero,) or if they use a particular mystical weapon or jewel as a power source and then that item is broken, their powers will be destabilized, drained or nullified. Sometimes they’ll lose the support of whatever it is that is providing their powers, and as soon as that power is revoked, the villain is helpless.
· Insanity—the villain might already be crazy, but the further they’re driven into insanity the easier it becomes to take them down. The bad guy is so out of his mind with rage or denial that he leaves himself open to attacks and cannot focus long enough to defend himself.
· Pride—the villain is so sure and confident in themselves that they believe that they’re unbeatable. This hubris causes them to become lax in their plans, leaving their defenses down and exposing holes in their master plans
· Love—there are many bad guys who have someone they love, and the second these people are in danger some villains will slam on the brakes and retreat or give themselves up if it means protecting those they care about. A lover, child, relative or good friend is one of the few things that can give a villain (but not all) humility and they might feel as though they need these people for comfort and support. “Love tames the savage beast” and all that, but this doesn’t apply to all.
PART 8: FINAL BATTLE
You’ve got two choices here: you can either have a villain that repeatedly pops up like an evil prairie dog in your stories, or you can kill ‘em dead. If you want them to stick around, don’t repeatedly kill them and bring them back from the dead. We got enough of that with characters like Phoenix from X-Men. It’s okay to kick his ass and the drag him off to a mystical version of Supermax and have him escape (ONCE—it’s really annoying to have a bad guy constantly jumping the fence) and go into hiding, or seal them up in some secret vault where they run the risk of finally getting out. Those battles don’t have to be awesomely spectacular.
But if you’re going to permanently kill off your character, make it the most climactic battle ever.
There must be drama and excitement, but stay away from detailing every sword blow or every near bullet miss because it’s description overload. You can make the heroes dodge, but they have to get hurt in order for your reader to worry that the hero might die or be unable to continue fighting. Describe the hero’s POV, about their thoughts and what emotions they’re feeling in the middle of the fight.
Describe the villain’s POV, but make sure you make it clear that this guy is messed up and freakin’ pissed. The villain should be more angry and hateful than scared in the beginning and they should fight with every once of strength they have. DO NOT let them land every blow on the hero or dodge every attack and vice versa. Have the hero wear them down until the hero finds the villain’s weakness or the villain just can’t fight anymore. And never make the weaknesses too easy to find. It doesn’t make any sense for your OC hero to bound in there and wipe the villain out in the first shot (unless you’re a Navy SEAL, hee hee.) Make them work to find it and destroy it or use it against them.
Don’t make your final confrontation scene so long that it takes up 60 pages or five chapters. Nobody wants that. A dragged out fight scene is frustrating for those who are reading the story. You must make it dramatic, but not in so many pages. When the scene is finished, make sure you have a kickass victory, otherwise that whole exciting fight scene will be pointless (try reading the Sorrow, Memory and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. When you get to the last ten aggravating chapters in To Green Angel Tower, then you’ll understand.)
Be careful if your OC villain starts monologuing (remember The Incredibles?). It’s sometimes interesting to hear a furious and frustrated and desperate bad guy say why s/he’s doing this, but the big facts should have been stated a long time ago. If they’re monloguing to vent their anger, keep it short. Remember to use body language more than words. Sometimes limps and blood and tears speak more than words do. A monologue just holds up the action, so avoid it.
At last, keep in mind that you don’t always have to create an OC villain for your OC character to defeat. The villain can be taken out by anyone. Don’t make it so this bad guy can only be defeated by your OC, because then your OC has made the canon heroes look weak and pathetic in their own universe. Let one of the CC characters take him out or at least cripple them in some form to give a canon character or your OC time to strike. (I will say that it’s okay to sometimes have one of your OCs be the only ones in the story that can destroy the bad guy, but they have to suffer and they have to be weaker in some form first. If you have multiple OC heroes in different stories going up against various OC villains, then that would be seen as a clear symptom of Mary-Sue/Gary-Stuness. I’ll revisit this in Week 10: Self Insertion.)
And when the villain’s gone, celebrate it.
WHEN THE REAL VILLAIN WAS DEFEATED:
Again, this post is late, but I can honestly blame part of the delay on obsessively watching the news reports on the death of a real villain. He was a terrorist, despot, psychopath, and a bully. Osama bin Laden was a real life supervillain.
It took almost ten excruciating years before we found him in his lair, holed up like a monster. But we, the good guys, never relented in our search and tracked him down. We had fought him for a decade, tracking him down relentlessly until we cornered him in his lair. We defeated him and took back what he had stolen from us.
That’s what a villain is, and that’s how they’re supposed to be defeated.
GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!
Books You Need to Read and Movies You Need to Watch: Villains
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Sometimes having a Mary Sue-esque character in *original* fiction is a seriously bad thing ... except when it isn't. Confusing? You bet. I'll try to explain.
A common accusation regarding Mary Sues is that they're just a stand-in for the authors themselves. Hey, guess what? That's not a bad thing--and a lot of famous authors are guilty of the same thing.
She sang, she danced, she acted, she fought for civil rights, she spied on the Nazis ... is there anything Josephine Baker *didn't* do?