Last week I talked about minor villains, and their ability to be great, far greater than the majority of villains are these days*. A brief review, if you missed out and/or don’t feel like reading said post:
Your minor villain is an Ally to the main villain. S/he should be intelligent, terrifying, and easy to empathize with. They should stand for something, and deserve their moment to shine.
Where did I come up with all this? If it’s just something straight from my head, why not just discard it as my personal opinion of what a minor villain should be?
I’ll give you three examples (so that if one of them spoils something you haven’t seen/read, you can skip that one) of minor villains that meet these criteria, and why they fit them.
The first example will be from Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien), the second from Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), and the third from War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy; this minor villain won’t really spoil anything, because once you know if him you know he’s a minor villain. So if you haven’t read War and Peace, you can probably still read that portion of this post.) I’ll alert you when the spoilers for one starts, and when the next one starts. (Spoilers will be throughout, but I’ll keep them to a minimum)
SPOILERS FOR LORD OF THE RINGS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.
First Example: Saruman
Well let’s look at this fellow, using the six tips I outlined last week:
1. He’s an Ally of the true villain. Few minor villains fit this category like Saruman. He willingly (and I find that key) joins Sauron
2. We certainly do detest this fellow. In fact we thoroughly hate him for several reasons. First, for his corruption of Theoden. Secondly, his invasion and desolation of the beautiful land of Rohan and its peoples. Thirdly, for his order to capture the Halflings of the Fellowship. Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), we detest him for his ability to sway men with his words. Everyone dislikes being manipulated, and Saruman is one of the best manipulators around.
3. being empathetic toward Saruman takes a bit more work than detesting him. In fact, empathy towards him may not even occur until the very end of Return of the King, when we see him broken, lost, and forced to travel with a much more despicable creature: Wormtongue.
4. This one is more subtle than the rest, for Saruman. Tolkien devoted more time on his story, and let things like themes, ideals, and such, form by themselves. However, I do think Saruman means something, something that can resonate strong for each person who reads about him.
5. Saruman stands on his own two feet excellently. Well, more like he stands above his ten thousand orcs and palantir and orthanc and mastery of wizardry. Regardless of what/where he’s standing, he does a good job of it. Saruman is not just some pawn (even though he is), but he’s a terrifying opponent on his own merit.
6. Finally, he’s intelligent. Moreover, he’s one of the most powerful wizards in the history of Middle Earth. That alone makes the reader quake in their shoes/slippers/socks/barefeet.
Altogether, when Saruman clashes with the heroes of LoTR, the reading is holding their breath. And when the heroes win, we cheer all the louder.
SPOILERS FOR HARRY POTTER FROM THIS POINT FORWARD
Second example: Draco Malfoy
Once again, we’ll just dissect this sniveling little boy with my six points:
1. This one is, perhaps, the least true for Draco. He is less of an Ally and more of a Slave. However, he still chooses to help He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named of his own desire.
2. Draco is good at making himself detestable. The way he treats Potter, muggle-born, and magical creatures makes us hate him. And it’s not just his scornful, bullying ways that help us grimace when we read about him. His parents are made of the same arrogant material.
3. Flash forward from the first book, across the years of ‘GRRR I THINK DRACO’S ANNOYING’ to the Half Blood Prince. Draco’s joined the Dark Lord of his own free will and now he’s paying for it. His parent’s failures have brought him to center stage as he’s required to do something for the Dark Lord. At first, Draco is excited, but the closer he gets to his objective, the worse Draco begins to appear. He’s haggard, depressed, and moody. At one point he breaks down because a little bird dies during his experiments. Even though we hate him, we feel this moment strongly. Draco is broken. And somehow we hurt despite his annoying nature.
4. The Dark Lord’s Ideal, I think, is Hate. Draco’s is similar, but he defines it in his own way. He follows after his leader, but is strong on his own two feet.
5. Speaking of his own two feet, he certainly gets his chance to do that. Draco is assigned his own mission, and refuses to let… certain people… aid him. He wants to prove himself. And that’s scary.
6. Draco is a leader. His minions (Crabbe and Goyle) are rather… dull-witted. But not he. Draco is clever, he’s well-trained, and well-equipped. So when he reaches his objective, and we’re hanging by our fingernails and hoping he won’t do this terrible thing, we’re terrified he will.
SOME SPOILERS FOR WAR AND PEACE FROM THIS POINT FORWARD
Last example: Prince Anatole Kuragin
This ought to be quick:
1. He actually doesn’t fit the bill here at all. He’s not an Ally of the main villain (France). He’s opposed to them all the way. However, he still does a good job of hampering our heroes and heroines in his own way.
2. Anatole is despicable. He’s a greedy, arrogant, lustful nobleman after his own aims, while all this time he flaunts his flaws as his perfections. We also dislike him because of the way other minor characters seem to flock to him, ignoring his flaws and acting as if he’s perfect.
3. Empathy for Anatole comes later in the story, when he’s wounded in battle. And (*SPOILER*) he loses his leg from said wound. The way in which he is suddenly rendered undesirable, bed-ridden, pitiful, and weak makes us sorry for him.
4. Anatole carries his own theme with him to the very end, and does it rather well. It’s a theme we all hate, but we all hate it because we can identify with it in our own ways.
5. Anatole never does what he does because someone else wants him to. Everything he does is for his own gain, for his own purpose, and for himself. He stands for himself.
6. In his own way, Anatole is very intelligent. He knows just how to charm in this way for that person, and that way for this person. However blind he may be in some areas, Anatole sure knows what he knows, and knows it well.
END OF SPOILERS
To wrap up, I’d like to ask you a question. Consider the minor villains you love, and the ones you hate. And then ask yourself: Why? What makes this minor villain such a great character? What makes this one a weak character?
Once you know why, think of your own minor villains. What makes them strong characters, and what makes them weak?
I was once told by a very wise friend [concerning theatre] that a strong supporting cast can make a weak major role look strong.
And I think he was right. Even poorly written main characters can begin to look better if they have good supporting cast. A weak supporting cast is like a weak foundation: nothing can stand on it forever.
*these days referring to a lot of villains from books and movies of the past decade.
I do not hold copyright to any GIFs, names, and titles presented herein.
Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and War and Peace are all property of their respective copyright holders and are used as descriptive examples only.