Earlier this week, we talked about childhood crushes in fiction. A lot of you shared mine and reminded me of some I’d perhaps let fade.
But today is Terror Tuesday, so let’s get scary.
Different subgenres of fantasy often draw from different archetypes of villainy. The same can be said about the spectrum of morality showcased in subgenres under the same large umbrella. Whichever spectrum of morality exists, it affects the tone of the villains and their progression from Boring to Big Bad. See Figure 1.1. Very scientific.
Every story needs a villain. In fantasy, while there is often the side antagonist of a protagonist’s emotions or freakouts (usually about being called to do something the Do Not Want to do), the Big Bad tends to be someone visible and quantifiable. Sauron in Lord of the Rings. Torak in the Belgariad. Shai’tan in the Wheel of Time. But when you explore other parts of the fantasy genre, you discover different types of villain.
1. Epic Fantasy
A lot of epic fantasy centres on the entire scope of the good-evil spectrum, from extreme to extreme. The good guy is a White Hat, the bad guy is a puppy-drowning Big Bad. The baddies tend to be sequestered somewhere, inside a mountain (or on top of one) or carefully restrained and about to break free.
With a few exceptions, a lot of these massive behemoths of tales operate on the assumption that the protagonist has good in his heart, the antagonist wants to roast that good over a fire built of baby bones, and the idea that if the antagonist were to win, it would not only destroy the protagonist but the entire world and all the good in it.
That’s probably why they call it “epic” fantasy.
There’s nothing wrong with this model. Humans love a good ole fashioned dilemma between good and evil. It still sells. But it’s not the only way.
2. Dark Fantasy
While the original dark fantasy was horror based, the entire intent of the subgenre is to take black and white and mix them together until everything’s nice and grey.
Dark fantasy has been used to flip tropes, such as telling a traditional story from the villain’s point of view. “I was just minding my own business, looking around Middle Earth.” *Shrug* “I don’t know why Frodo wanted to come kill me when all I wanted was my pretty ring back.”
But more artful than that.
Dark fantasy usually mucks up the distinctive colour spectrum* by creating a protagonist with more qualities of an anti-hero than a full on hero — someone a reader will cheer for, but maybe not agree with, and whose motives can often be selfish.
Locations of villains in dark fantasy are similar to epic fantasy — they might get up close and personal sometimes, but other times they’ll be off in a nebulous place from which they can descend unannounced.
*This isn’t a value judgment; it’s only a comparison to the more black-and-white dichotomies that exist in traditional epic fantasy.
“Urban fantasy” is one of those big umbrella terms. The simplest definition is that it is a story taking place in an urban setting with elements of the fantastical, as opposed to the more pastoral nature of epic fantasy settings. This gives it a lot of wiggle room in terms of time period, world-building, and characters — if all it takes is a city, the author can determine when this city exists and if it’s a city from our world at all.
One interesting characteristic of villains in urban fantasy (almost across the board) is that while dark fantasy seeks to layer shades of grey on the protagonist, urban fantasy very often does the same with the antagonist.
In Kim Harrison‘s Hollows series, villains like the ancient vampire Piscary are shown to be ruthless and dangerous — but he still has a thought process you can follow and shows affection for Ivy even as he essentially enslaves her. This is even more evident in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in many, many villains. The Mayor, who I wrote about in-depth here, had a big soft side. He treated Faith like his own daughter. Loved her. Cared for her. But he still wanted to become a giant demon and eat the town of Sunnydale.
Urban fantasy villains tend to get in your face. They tend to be present as opposed to kept in a discrete location away from the protagonist. They’ll invade your home, your mind, your dreams (though the latter has been known to happen a lot in epic fantasy as a way to keep the antagonist scary).
A lot of urban fantasy is all about grey areas. Protagonists who aren’t saints, antagonists who may be demons, but you still relate to. In some ways I feel that these stories are some of the most powerful — because they are (in my opinion) the most true to life. As humans we idealise the struggle between good and evil, and we desperately love when the good guys wear white hats and the baddies wear black ones — but that seldom really happens in the real world.
For the most part, as villainy relates to this world, the bad guys aren’t easily recognisable. They can look like anyone or anything. They won’t be dripping slime or (probably) putting babies on spikes and burning the Shire to the ground. In some ways, grey area evil is all the more insidious because it blends in with its surroundings.
This is not an exhaustive look at villains in fantasy, but it’s panorama of some of the different archetypes that exist in three major subgenres.
What subgenres of fantasy to you read? What sort of makeup do the villains stem from? Classic Evil? Scary clown in a gutter? Guy next door? Sound off in the comments!