Monday, September 5, 2011

Not just evil for evil's sake: What I learned from Long John Silver

Let me clarify. I'm not talking about this Long John Silver...

I'm talking about this one:

Do you remember the basic storyline of Treasure Island (perhaps you know better the steampunk version from Treasure Planet)? 

The premise is the same. Young Jim Hawkins is the recipient of a treasure map from a dying pirate. He takes the map to a local authority, who decides to take him on an incredible adventure to seek out the treasure. This gentleman allows Long John Silver to find him a crew, and they set sail.

Our suspicions are aroused about LJS from the very beginning (because the dying pirate warned about someone matching his description), but LJS works hard to win over young Jim (and us, as readers). LJS becomes a sort of mentor and friend to Jim... and then betrays him. 

Though I grew up watching the 1950s version on VHS, I hadn't watched it in at least 20 years. While I watched the newer steam punk version with the kids a few months ago I was struck by how likable Long John Silver is. 

He's such a compelling villain, because yes, he's an evil pirate who wants to overthrow the ship's captain to steal the treasure, but he is also Jim's friend. I haven't watched the 1950s version or read the book lately, but in Treasure Planet, it's clear he loves Jim. 

It got me thinking about evil for evil's sake, or better yet, avoiding evil for evil's sake. 

I think it's quite natural to paint our 'bad guys' (or even 'mean girls') as caricatures. 

Whether it's a greedy bank robber or a snotty cheerleader, it's easy to fall into the trap of creating a two-dimensional villain.

I don't think it works in every story to have such a compelling or likable villain, but I love the idea of this. 

Have you ever written a likable villain?

What tricks do you use to create antagonists with multi-dimensional motivations? 


  1. Great thing to think about. Especially how to balance the two sides of that kind of villain.

  2. I love a layered, sympathetic villain. It was my goal to create one in the story I'm finishing revisions on, and I think I was successful. I think a three dimensional villain is more fun to write, and more fun to read. Great points, Kat!

  3. I loved the Treasure Planet version of the tale. I felt so bad for Jim and his harried mom; she just wants the best for him and he just keeps screwing up. Too sad.

    You know from my thriller reviews that I love both sympathetic antagonists and those too fascinating to ignore. I think, like you say, you have to round out the antagonist so they aren't a stocktype villain. Make the bank robber greedy because he came from poverty and never wants to rely on handouts again; give the snotty cheerleader unswerving loyalty to a friend in need and let her stand up for her when she's too weak to defend herself. You know, the same things you'd do for your MC: make them more than their role.

  4. This is a GREAT post! I actually abandoned my WIP at about the 30k mark and started over from scratch because my villain was just too one-dimensional. The story fell flat on its face as a result. I spent a solid week getting into his head and figuring out why he does the things he does. Not so much to have to restart like that, but sometimes it's necessary.

    My favorite villains are those who are relatable. We might not agree with the things they do, but deep down we at least understand their reasoning. I haven't read Treasure Island since it was required reading in the 7th grade, and I haven't even heard of Treasure Planet, but it sounds fun. I'll check it out!

  5. I think likable villains are really challenging. I remember never trusting LJS when I read TI, but then I was young and think I didn't see his complexity.

  6. Great post. I've been trying to flesh out my villains more and you made some excellent points. Also, just because they're the villain in Story X doesn't mean they are in Story Y. It's all about perspective.

  7. This is a great post. There is something really sinister about a likeable villian. Sinister because they don't just hurt the protag, but they end up hurting the reader a little too.

  8. Yes Connie- too true!

    Katy- can't wait to read yours!

    Sophia, love your back stories! Exactly!

    Wow Meredith, that sounds like a ton of work, but also a wise decision.

    Totally Christa, I didn't want Jim to trust him, but I understood why he did.

    Great point Alicia-- I love that line that every secondary character is the star in their own story-- and I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Kari- so true, and I hadn't thought about it that way.


YAY for comments! Thanks for adding to the conversation.