I honestly love character studies.  I started them in high school and learned how to write by doing case studies.  Just as I was pondering this very post, I ran into Adam’s blog post about how villains become villains.

eery-1648250_960_720I’ve grown up spoiled with stories.  I’ve gotten to read, watch, and listen to a ton of great stories in a litany of formats.  The most common trend I see these days is the sympathetic villain.  Perhaps a more accurate term in this case is a “relatable” villain.  Let’s face it, people just don’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll be a horrible person today.”  People are motivated to take action.

demon-1294136_960_720This got me thinking about a character study I’d like to share with you.  The most fascinating villainy turn I saw was linked to a phrase of mine. “The Devil isn’t the monster, he’s your best friend.”  I hope the Lord understands my metaphor and his worshipers don’t judge.  Let me explain the theory.  I don’t think the devil is one who threatens and yells.  It’s far easier to ENCOURAGE sin.  So that’s the meaning.  The guy who says, “Why not? Everyone else does it?  Why  not?  Who’s it really hurting.”  Temptation is the enemy of faith, and those “reasonable” steps away from what one should do is how that highway to Hell gets paved.  Now, I promise, this isn’t a theological post.  It just sets up this amazing story arch.

weeks_nightangelomnibus_tpBrent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy is great just to read and enjoy, but I invite you to read it (or even better read it again) and pay close attention to Dorian Ursuul.  His arch is amazing.  You see.  He’s a good guy.  He has his struggles.  He even has this intense desire to step away from the fearful reputation of his father.  He’s a good guy right?  Well…sure.  But let’s try to avoid spoilers as much as we can.

The first thing that happens is he has to take the position his father had.  It’s all fine and good to CLAIM to want to be benevolent and kind, but that doesn’t always work out in practice when you’re in charge.  Dorian starts by hating himself and making concessions as to why it’s “necessary.”  Indeed, as a reader, I found myself noting that, “yeah, what are his options?”  Quite frankly his option was to live the bad guy or die a man of principle.  Who doesn’t understand that?

What Weeks does masterfully is up the anti.  Dorian does something else that isn’t’ very nice, but he has his reason.  Then he does something slightly worse.   By the time he makes his fifth or sixth “bad” decision, the readers have come to see him as having “gone bad.”  Even if his reason is the most noble on the surface.  This proves what I said above.  Villains descend into darkness.  I have a book on my own inspired by that very premise.

This arch is all about how power corrupts.  As Dorian progresses, he makes every decision for a number of reasons, some of which make perfect sense.  His descent was gradual and unfortunate.

grimThis is a POWERFUL storytelling tool I’m surprised hasn’t ben made more useful in fiction.  It makes the villain sympathetic more than a plot devise.  I won’t lie.  The main character, “Grimm,” in The Journals of Bob Drifter, is a plot device.  I don’t hate any storytelling techniques on it’s surface.  I’m simply trying to provide writers a tool for an underused structure they may want to consider.

I hope the example I gave makes sense.  I really fight to avoid spoilers.  If you haven’t read the book, you should JUST to follow THAT character’s story line.  It’s amazing storytelling.

Thanks for reading,


12 thoughts on “A Fall From Grace: When Characters Devolve Into Villains

  1. While the conflict between morality and necessity runs throughout the Night Angel series, I definitely agree that Dorian most exemplifies it. He sets out with such high ideals, and gradually succumbs to the harsh realities of his situation, until he himself becomes part of force that perpetuates it. To me it felt like a strong critique against the many times that characters simply dismiss the villains as monsters, presuming that “I” could never become like “them”.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Indeed. While it may be a bit cliche, I prefer the stories that start out with a character who’s full of vague ideals, and over the course of the story they’re confronted with the reality that life is rarely that simple. Inevitably there’s that moment where they learn something that forces them to reevaluate their perspective. One of my favorite scenes in Bob Drifter is when the protagonist realizes what really happened a long time ago, and the pause as both protagonist and audience realize what it means.

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    1. This is one of my pet peeves with certain types of heroes. It always stuck me as unfortunate that the hero that never went through tragedy after tragedy that the villain or anti hero did. To me, it is much more powerful when the hero did go through something similar, or maybe even worse.

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      1. I’m of two minds about it. I tend to get tired of one thing after a long while, then look for something distinctly different. It can get frustrating looking at a character who can claim to be high and mighty, but they feel false if they’ve never been tested. I think I most prefer characters who get kicked in the teeth through the whole story and never let that change who they are. This, too, can become trite if not done carefully. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. The fallen hero tropes is one of the most interesting to me. To see how far a person can go before theu hit their breaking point is great for intrigue, and it is a powerful means for character development when handled properly.

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    1. Honestly, I have a book planed (way out) where I play with this concept. What I liked most about this character study was how logical each step seemed at the time. Each decision seemed necessary. Then he looked at his actions and realized what he’d become. What I like most is that moment and his reaction to it. Redemption is a big concept to me, so seeing stories that demonstrate this quality makes me happy.

      Liked by 1 person

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