Villainous deeds are all well and good, but what about evil aesthetic sense? Does a laugh really make the villain? Should one aim for flamboyant or gritty misdeeds? Is there still a place for the classic villain speech? Those are the questions we’re considering this week, along with some important advice about orb pondering.
Generously transcribed by Joy Ugwu. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts; Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is –
Oren: Have you all considered that there is no morality in the realm of audio, only the will to record as you desire. Sir, this is a podcast [Laughter]
Oren: Today, we’re talking about villainous dialogue because I wanted to talk about how villains talk.
Chris: How dare you? [laughter]
Oren: We should probably explain that one. That one is a little obscure. What Chris was referencing there, is one way that the villains should not talk, which is what we call the “how dare you” villain. This is the villain who gets self righteously indignant at the protagonist for fighting them. “I took over your city, but you shot some of my soldiers” How dare you?
Wes: How dare you [laughter]
Chris: But, the thing about it is that, it indicates surprise Right, the villain was expecting that the protagonists just wouldn’t defend their life. For instance, it’s like “I sent my soldiers to kill you and then you fought back and killed one of them”, and now I’m just shocked at this turn of events. And it’s like, “what were you expecting Villain? That’s so strange, what world do you live in?
Wes: They don’t like to be defied. It’s very well-established.
Oren: And just by default, you don’t want your villain to sound not very smart. Like there are some exceptions, there are exceptions to everything.
Chris: Yeah, you don’t want your villains to be incompetent. That is not a good thing for your villains.
Oren: In the vast majority of situations, you don’t want your villain to sound like they don’t know what’s going on or like they take– they’re disconnected from the events around them because your villain has to be threatening, and if they sound like they don’t know what’s going on, they’re not going to be that threatening.
Chris: And the thing about ‘how dare you’ is –Yes, it does indicate a certain amount of entitlement, but not just entitlement, a disconnection from reality, right? Well, that makes the villain look incompetent. So, it’s not a good thing.
Oren: That’s the first step; your villain shouldn’t just sound like they have no concept of heroes fighting against them because that’s just going to happen. Another thing to consider if we’re on some simple warning lists is “making your villain mean is not the same thing as making them threatening”, which is a thing that some people think are synonyms, but they’re not.
Chris: Or making them either cruel or even having them killing helpless puppies or slaughtering minions, not the same thing.
Oren: Taking cruel or mean actions is it own thing, but like, just in terms of what they say, some villains are mean. In those cases, it will make sense for them to be mean. If your villain is a high school bully, they will be mean and it will make sense for them to say mean things but that is a specific circumstance and that’s not a thing that all villains need. What all villains need is to be threatening and making your villain just roll up to the protagonist and be like “man, you’re terrible”. “Your scores on that test were bad and your pair is ugly”.
Wes: That isn’t going to make them seem threatening. It’s just going to be like– it’ll probably just make them seem petty.
Chris: Then, we also have “oh how quaint your little customs are here”. So, they are the condescending villain.
Wes: Yeah, the condescending. Yeah. That’s another one where– if your villain is condescending again– there are some villains that are condescending but you know– if your villain is an 18th century British noble talking to a peasant,.Okay,sure–Having them be condescending makes sense. It’s not a default thing. That’s one thing– That’s something that you want for specific situations, that makes sense.
Chris: I mean,I think that a big problem with villains is that they become character, right? Where, they are always playing the same notes all the time, whenever they go, right? And you can take pretty much any traits that would be okay and exaggerate them to a point where it feels really flat. So, I think a condescending villain is perfectly fine, but you can take it to an extreme and have it–So, they are constantly condescending all over the place. When it starts to feel like “this is no longer a person anymore”.
Oren: Yeah., and I mean, In general, your villains are still characters. You don’t want them to sound like they only know how to say one thing or only know how to speak in one particular manner.
Admittedly, one reason I wanted to talk about this is because of a thing that I am actually not too sure about, which is what I’m tentatively calling “flamboyant villains versus grounded villains” in their manner of speech. The flamboyant villain is what I associate with a Disney movie villain and not just because they’re queer coded –That’s sometimes part of it but I don’t think that’s a necessity, I think that’s just something Disney like to do.
But, the concept of a villain who talks like a villain and kind of “revels in their villain hood”, I feel like it’s very easy for that to go wrong, but I also don’t inherently dislike it. So, I’m trying to figure out what the secret is, what is the sauce to make that work?
Chris:The one thing I would say that you can’t necessarily take the villain from a Disney movie and make it work in the novel because– first of all, these Disney movies are family movies. They, a lot of times are animated. So, they are meant to be cartoonish, to a certain extent and you have –again, visuals and acting. And I think –a lot of times that if you took Disney villains and put them in a novel that is you know, written for adults, they would come off as very flat. So, I think what you need — if you want a villain that’s just very “villainous”. Overtly, right and they’re not a complicated person, they’re just a straight up villain. You want to have some novelty in there, if you can get it especially if they’re just going to be evil person who is evil by default that lacks novelty. So, you want to do something interesting with them to give them that novelty.
And having character that is just kind of a villain, a typical evil villain, is a lot of times — I think a lot of these Disney villains would be — I mean, if you look at, you know, Cruella de vil for instance, and you take away her interesting style and the cool visuals around her, I think that if you translated that to a book she would actually be pretty flat and readers would be pretty bored with her, right? But she looks really cool right? And we can see — hear her voice. right?. And I think that makes all the difference. But if you did something to make her significantly more interesting, then — it gave her some novel characteristics, then you can turn that around. So, I think for instance, that the joker would have been legitimately a novel character also in a novel. right? I think that’s a character that you could take away from a visual medium and put in a book, in many cases, and still have him work because he’s just so different. right?
I think the trick with characters that are like joker is; do they feel like they are doing random nonsensical things or do they feel like they have their own separate logic to their behavior? Right, because — that”s issue with Harley Quinn right too? Is Harley Quinn just saying random things for the purpose of being weird or does she have her own personality that she is expressing that is different?
Oren: Yeah, I mean certainly, I have a very low tolerance for Harley Quinn attempts that doesn’t work out. It can very easily just become Lowell, so random which is not very interesting. What about a villain like Azula from avatar ‘The Last Airbender? Is that in the same category or is she something else?
Chris: I mean, Azula works partly because she’s so threatening. We, also do have moments with her with Zuko, where we have an ingenuine brother and sister dynamic, and I think that does add a little bit of nuance to her. We have — “as much as you like the beach”.
Oren: I don’t like that episode.[laughter]
Chris: She’s like a protagonist in that. Episode, which is kind of interesting. So, you know, over the course of the show, because there’s many episodes, we do see her in other contexts, besides her just being the threatening villain that shows up, and that helps. But, I still think there’s a good chance that she would come across as a little flat if she were put in a narrative.
Wes: I think what also helps her “villainous flamboyance” to you –to use the term that you brought in there, what she’s after –what makes her a villain, is just pursuing power.. She just wants to beat everybody. She’s not like necessarily, particularly cruel, she doesn’t exhibit sinful vices or things like that, you know– I guess, if your villain’s going to be a little bit more self-aware and villainous, then if you’re working on exacerbating parts of that personality, more innocuous ones are probably better.
Chris:I think what makes Azula interesting is that she has some of those very classic villain characteristics, but also we see her being Zuko sister, we see her history with her mother and her father. Right? And that just adds a new element to it. Right?
So, I think it would almost work better if there was a novel that brought up more than that because it would be hard. I mean, she still would be capable of being threatening. I just think she would come off a little flat Otherwise.
Oren: One thing I just noticed is that when I think of characters that I really liked, protagonists that I really like, I have a good mix of protagonists from written stories and protagonists from visual mediums. But when I think of villains that I like, they are all from visual mediums. It’s hard for me to think of a villain from a novel. That, I cannot even remember, except for ones that I didn’t like and that’s why I remember them.
Wes: That’s because villains are just — such a vibe. They got to experience all these senses to really take them in. [laughs]
Oren: I guess it’s just — maybe it’s just because visual mediums have an easier time showing us stuff the villain is doing whereas in a written story that would have to — you’d have to break a “POV” to do that. I don’t know.
Chris: I do think that the visuals make a difference especially when is– Something is threatening. right, because you can be giving the villain a cool get-up for instance, because villains can handle more candy than the protagonists can. And so giving the villain a cool outfit and things like that, is part of what sets villains apart in visual mediums and that’s very memorable..
Whereas it’s much more difficult to distinguish villains in the same manner when you have narration and instead — and I mean, being honest– I’m not sure writers don’t do that great of a job of painting villains in many cases — a lot of times they are very flat and in general readers don’t like ‘mustache rollers’ that — that’s all, they’re just an evil person, they’re to be evil. Again, it’s not possible to make it work.
I think in most cases, If you want somebody who’s just scary — they’re just evil and they’re supposed to be super threatening, It’s actually better if they just don’t talk you know, if they don’t demystify themselves. If they stay mysterious and in the background, for instance like a monster.
Oren: It also — I mean, honestly, it might just be that villain performances are — you know, depend a lot on the actor and, and like more, –whereas like with a protagonist in a novel, you have a lot of time to get to know that character.and so they had a lot more time to build up attachment, whereas that’s just not there with a villain in a film that can be compensated for because even in films, you generally are going to spend more time with the protagonist than with the villain. This handful of scenes got a really good actor and have that actor just go full ham. Oh gosh!.
Who plays ‘green goblin’ in the live action. Spider-Man movies?.
Wes: Willem Defoe.
Oren: That guy is like — I don’t really think much of some of those Spider-Man movies, but man, when that guy is playing the green goblin, that is a scary guy. I don’t care that he’s actually not that powerful and that his tech is kind of weak, look at his face. [laughter]
Chris: Yeah. But, I do think that if you have a villain that is just an evil person — they’re to be evil, visual mediums get away with that much more and they can be really, really memorable. When you have a narrated work, where there isn’t — you can’t actually see the visual, that stick out of you and all you have is the personality. There’s a lot more burden to make that personality Interesting.
Oren: I guess, maybe. I just haven’t read enough authors who have cracked the code. Because I’m thinking of like a bunch of villains who we spent a lot of time with like “the sky” from “A master of gin”. We see him a lot, you know — spoilers turns out to be her later and they were just kind of boring because their motivation was boring and what they were doing was uninteresting.
We have like the villain from “The city we became”, who is in a lot of the story and she’s just kind of “weak” because she keeps getting rolled by the heroes as like — I don’t know.
Chris: Do you think a lot of villains in novels are pretty distant, right? You don’t necessarily see them a lot directly and that’s fine right? Because their job is just to — you know, provide a threat and oppose a protagonist and they don’t necessarily always have to be there personally when they do that.
Oren: So, I’m more on the topic of dialogue because I wanted this to be a dialogue, but inevitably, we were just sort of talking about villains.
Chris: Definitely, we do, the talk goes where it goes.
Oren: But, okay. So what about the villain speech?
Oren: Is there a place for that in novels? How too?
Chris: You mean ‘monologuing’ specifically?
Oren: Yeah. Specifically where they do a monologue about how they’re evil and why they’re evil, Is that a thing, Is that a thing you can do in a novel? If so, how? I would like to know
Chris: I mean, I would say that you have to look at kind of timing and how appropriate it is and whether you really need it, right? So, for instance — for what I would say, you want to avoid a situation where your villain has to explain to the stuff at the end. right? So, if there’s just, you know — every time the villain does a super mysterious thing and then, suddenly at the end, you’re like, “okay, wait, I need to explain to everything that’s been happening” so, my villain’s just going to monologue all that explanation — that is definitely something to be avoided.. You just going to let your hero figure out some of that stuff themself before they get to that point to take the burden off of the villain from — you know, monologuing stuff that they probably have no reason to say, right? ‘That you just want them to say, to explain it to your audience’ — you know, let the hero figure some of that stuff out.
Then, there’s the — does the villain actually have a reason to say those things or are –they just want to express themselves to a literally captive audience? Right? It’s hard to justify a villain. It’s like “Hey, I have you captive here. Now, let me tell you about my grand scheme because I’ve just been awaiting and nobody else will listen to me”. Whereas — I think in a lot of situations when you have dialogue, and you want a large chunk of dialogue, there are times when people have to explain a lot, for instance, ‘me talking right now’.
In your story’, there are some times, you know — instances where your characters have a lot to say or express and if they have a natural reason for doing that, they can do that. However, even then, the question is this, “should this be a monologue or should it be a dialogue”? Meaning, does it make more sense to break it up and have another character say, something, more often? Right? So for instance, if you have your villain, that’s just like “join me and we will rule the world together”, then okay. They might want to make a pitch to the protagonist in that situation and — but usually you’d probably have a little more back and forth, right?
Is the protagonist really going to sit there and listen to the villains entire power point presentation?
Oren: Well, if they brought slides, So obviously [laughs]
Chris: [jokingly] If they brought the slide, they do the slide show. Okay. First you got a, “this is how you buy into my pyramid scheme” and then next,[ Laughs]
Oren: Can I interest you in an NFT?[ Laughter ]
Chris: Or would it make more sense if the protagonist is actually engaged in a conversation, maybe the protagonist is even trying to convince the villain to come over to their side Right?, and if they’re trying to do that, yeah, they have some reason to explain — but, “don’t you see, you think that your peaceful ways will create change, but they won’t. We have to break the world and remake it a new”, whatever you have. [ laughs ]
So, there can be any reasons, right? But it has to — again like any dialogue, like why is the character saying this, does the character actually have a reason to saying this or is this a, “as you and I both know” situation? The other thing that I think that’s really helpful when it comes to villain monologues, “there is no good or bad, there’s only power”, instead things feel a lot more natural if you say less abstract and less vague and actually talk about things that are concrete and practical, right?
So the thing about the ‘good and evil and power’ is that it is extremely abstract. If we’re talking about abstract concepts, not talking about the actual situation the characters are facing, — so if you actually talk about ‘what’s going on in the world’ and why the specific things that the villain wants and the specific people that are involved, that becomes a lot more realistic than if they’re just, you know, talking about their “big ideas”.
Oren: Yeah, and that gets into the other thing I wanted to talk about, which is “a villain philosophy” because authors love to have their villains philosophize, and I think it sort of follows the same line, which is, “trying to have them be specific”. Because — and there are some situations where it might make sense for them to meet — be making grand statements about, “how there is no morality to the human condition”, but how often is that really relevant? “Bob, calm down. We’re fighting over who gets a magic sword”.[ Laughter ]
Oren: Whereas, having some philosophy about “what the purpose of this magic sword is”, sounds like that could be more interesting and more relatable to what’s happening.
Wes: I think since we pointed out earlier that we spend more time with the protagonist than — villain dialogue has to do quite a lot, and so there’s a lot more pressure on it. Monologuing is fine, I think, if we’re talking about a monologue that’s like five sentences or if it’s doing more than one thing – It should be revealing something about the villain, something that the villain may be aware that they’re revealing or they’re not, .and I don’t mean their master plan, I mean their logic. or — I wrote down this one from the dark night, when the jokers in the police holding cell, being watched by an officer and he just looks up and he says, “do you know why I use a knife”? “Guns are too quick, you can’t save her all the little emotions in –you see — their last moments, people show you who they really are. In a way, I know your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which of them were cowards”?
Oren: That’s a good line.
Wes: That’s a solid monologue that tells you about who this person is and why they are bad. You know, I think that’s doing some good lifting
Chris: For one thing, they think that when people are in pain, that’s their defining moments of their life [laughs].
Wes: Yeah, and then to just twist the knife with that last bit about — just like insulting that officer’s dead friends, it’s quite villainous to make those statements and it tells us “this person is manipulative, .can read people very well, and enjoys pain”, without having to say that out rightly. It’s more creative and for a purpose because he uses that monologue to get the guy to attack him, to instigate more of a response within the precinct.
Oren: I mean, I think that one of the biggest thing to think about is “why is the villain saying the things they’re saying”, right?. And the answer shouldn’t be, “because. I want the reader to know that they’re evil”. That’s the meta reason, but they need a better one than that. And of course, people are really sensitive to their villain — to the villain, giving away information when they’re talking, that’s just a thing that people watch for, so if that’s going to happen, you really need to have your character work for it, right? They need to feel like they deserve to get that information, that they successfully were able to provoke the villain into saying something.useful.
Chris: All dialogues got to start with who is this person? You know, what do they want? What is their worldview? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What social skills do they have? and I– Again, I always encourage people to give their villain some social skills other than just being mean or intimidation; that they can woo people when they want to, they will come across as more intimidating and more interesting. And you know, what is their temperament – but give them a temperament beyond being always angry or always cold. Or like flashing quickly between angry and cold. [Laughs]
This is another thing that villains do a lot.
Wes: Yeah. They’re big fans of that “ice cold walking down the hallway, then suddenly turned to scream at somebody”. That’s the thing Golden s do.
Oren: Yeah, I think that’s also — it’s — In dialogue — and how you’re rendering your villain, just be careful with so-called ‘unhinged manic behaviors’, because you know, that can be coded for people pointing out that people with mental health disorders are villainous because they can’t control their outbursts..
Chris: Yeah, we certainly don’t want to villainize neuro-divergence.
Oren: No, you don’t and ‘the unhinged villain’ is such an issue, really,
Chris: but I think you can do a villain that is — has behaviors that are different. You want to make sure that those behaviors are not coded as a specific form of neurodivergence. but also I think it makes — it will work better if you have an explanation for :why they act the way they do”, right? Whether then — this villain is just “crazy”. right? That, could be seen as a kind of a stigmatizing term and it could mean anything. What is it actually saying about this character? right? Whereas, if the character does have a lot of anger pent up; right, then, okay; “that’s a specific thing that you can say about them, and this is a specific result that that thing has”, for instance.
Oren: Or seeing a villain become increasingly desperate as you know,the protagonist is making progress against the villains plans, they resort to more and more desperate measures. You can see that logical progression for why they might start behaving with greater intensity to try to salvage their, eh
Chris: [cuts in] I would say; in that situation, you probably have a villain that is– their threat is reduced too much right? You definitely — yeah, this is a thing that a lot of visual stories do that they probably should not be doing, right? If you get to the point where your villain is desperate and it’s actually — that villain is responsible for providing most tension in the story, right? I mean we can — you can do things differently; if this is like a ‘secondary villain’ that’s more abit a ‘sympathetic villain’ that’s not the ‘big bad’, then yeah totally,. But if this is your main villain and they’re responsible for providing most of the dread of the story, and if they are getting desperate by the end, your protagonist has probably had too many victories than they’ve had too many failures and that’s going to really reduce their threat level to that — even if you’re like — “all the villain, but you don’t understand, now the villain is more dangerous because they’re threatening.” I don’t think that’s really going to cover it, and you could absolutely do that if there’s another big source of threat, so that this villain is not actually having to provide all the tension anymore. .
Oren: Right, or you know saying, “oh they’re more dangerous now because they’ve been trapped in a corner” or “no, they’re less dangerous when they’re trapped in a corner”, that’s wrong. [laughs]
But, it’s just an incorrect statement. This is a thing that I see some people do, and this happens a lot in short episodic stories in particular and then authors pick it up as a bad habit is to have the hero just like thoroughly cleaned the villain’s clock and then have the villain be like, “yes, but I will get you next time” and then say something threatening and then take off like that has somehow restored their threat levels. Nah, that now they just sound like a sore loser.
Chris: Right. This happens a lot in cartoons like She-Ra or children’s cartoons where the writers are just, “well, this is a child’s cartoon, so we actually don’t want the hero to ever lose because we always want it to be happy, we don’t want things to be too dark” and we have these villains — but if the hero always wins, the villains are defanged very quickly and so they’ll try to cover it by being like, “oh, but you don’t understand, this is part of my greater plan” or, you know, “oh, I’ll get you a next time”. Or, you know,” just wait” then every episode, they pull out a new minion and supposedly this men….[laughs]
I’m thinking about sailor moon, we have this ‘Queen’ every episode, and she’s got her hands around this orbit; they are just reusing the same animation sequence, like all the time. She’s got this — she waves her hands around this orb and other of her minions is like, “oh, I will take care of the sailor guardian”. You know, and then they fail and then the next episode, “no, that person was a failure, you don’t understand, I’ll take care of the sailor guardian” [ laughs]
They’re doing it because this is the constraints of a child’s cartoon, where they don’t feel like they can give their protagonist any failures, but that’s definitely not something you want to set up in your novel.
Oren: Although, I do think that it is underrated to have your villain pondering an orb. I think that will definitely give them an air of mystique as they deliver their speech.
Chris: And to mimic the reuse animation, just like “take the same paragraph of description”
Oren: It’s like, “why are they even moving their hands around the orb”, beyond how repetitive it is, why is it even happening? You can ask them about it and then, you can use that to break up the monologue because they can be talking about ‘how the cruel nature of man — and he’d be like, okay, yeah, I mean, that sounds good villain, but why the hands around the orb? And then it’s like, “oh, well, I’m glad you asked, my tragic backstory”.[laughter]
Oren: All right, well with that, now that we’ve gotten to tragic backstories, I think we’re going to go ahead and call this podcast to a close. Before we go on, we want to thank a few of our patreons. First, we have; Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marve. And finally, Danita Rambo, she works with therambogeeks.com
We’ll talk to you next time.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?