Villains and Antagonists

When I started the rough draft of my novel Owl Riders, I had a set of characters whose goals were going to be odds with the novel’s protagonists. As I’ve come to the end of writing the rough draft and have come to know those characters and understand their motivations better, I find myself pondering the nature of villains and antagonists.

It can be great fun to watch a movie or read a book and encounter a true villain who blocks the hero at every turn, but ultimately meets their comeuppance at the end of the story. That said, there’s an old saying that no one sees themselves as the villain of their own story and I think there’s truth to that. In general people have a set of objectives and sometimes one person’s objectives will exist at cross purposes with another person’s. When those people come into contact, there’s conflict that can help drive a story.

I do think in certain types of stories, such as horror stories, it’s possible to imagine a character such as a demon who understands they’re an agent of evil and actively pursues that objective. Even there, a character who sees themselves as “evil” might see themselves as bringing some form of balance to the cosmos and thus performing a necessary function. My character Mr. Vassago in The Astronomer’s Crypt falls into that category.

Often when I think of the most wicked villains, I think of characters like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon whose only motivation seems to be personal greed and power. It’s tempting to dismiss such characters as cartoonish caricatures except that some people in real life do seem to fit this mold. Villains like this can be fun to write and it can be fun to imagine their ultimate humiliating defeat, but sometimes its more interesting to explore how a character got to be like this and explore any redeeming characteristics they might have.

Another great villain is Darth Vader who thought he was bringing peace and order to the galaxy by choosing the path he did. Although the handling of his origin story is soundly criticized, it was still satisfying to see his ultimate redemption when he defeated his master who was motivated primarily by greed.

Perhaps a more frightening type of villain is the true monster like the xenomorph in Alien motivated by the need to feed and make little aliens, but who can’t be reasoned with. At some level, this type of monster is very understandable and not necessarily evil—after all, it just wants to live—but the only way to defeat this type of villain is to destroy it utterly.

Most antagonists in fiction aren’t going to fit these almost archetypal extremes. Most are going to be people like you and me. That might feel cheated or wronged. They might see an opportunity and try to exploit it. They might actually feel like they’re attempting to do good, but don’t realize they’re causing harm to others. These are the types of antagonists I’ve tried to create in Owl Riders and what makes them scary to me is when I realize that I don’t always have to reach too far from my experience to create a character who my protagonists might see as a character who needs to be stopped.

Do you have a favorite villain or antagonist in fiction? What makes them a particular favorite of yours? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments.

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Grandmother Montana and Aunt Arizona

The other day I stumbled into a quest back in time and through my family history. This particular quest began with Ming the Merciless, always an indication of a truly bad-ass journey.

Specifically, I was watching some of the old Flash Gordon serials starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming. As I was watching, I had this feeling I’d seen Charles Middleton in some other films and went to IMDB to check his list of credits. Sure enough, Charles Middleton appeared in a lot of films, I’d seen. Perhaps most notably was Jesse James. What makes Jesse James notable is that my grandfather was hired to cook for the cast and crew, which of course means my grandfather once cooked for Ming the Merciless. Cool!

Unfortunately, back in 1939, behind-the-scenes crew on movies didn’t get credit, but I was curious whether any documents on the web might discuss my grandfather’s involvement in the film. Alas, I didn’t find anything but I did find a photo of my grandfather’s tombstone on a rather ominous sounding, but very useful website called findagrave.com. I’d actually seen this site before, and I’ve found it helpful when tracking down some genealogical information.

What was new, since the last time I visited was that the site for my grandfather included a link to my mom. I clicked there, and sure enough, I found the tombstone she shares with my dad. This part of the quest was sad and I took a moment to pay my virtual respects. Before I moved on, I noticed that my dad’s parents weren’t linked, even though they’re buried in the same San Bernardino cemetery as my parents. Call this an action item when I have more time to research the site’s submission requirements.

This little side journey led me to wonder if any of my other Summers ancestors were listed at findagrave.com. I soon discovered listings for my great grandparents, James and Montana Summers. Much as it was interesting to find photos of their tombstones, the real treasure I discovered was that someone had posted their obituaries.

For me, the real magic of genealogy is not just learning who you’re descended from and where they came from, which is cool, but actually learning the stories behind the names and dates. These obituaries gave me one of the first real glimpses into the kinds of people my great grandparents were.

As it turns out, I have a transcript of a letter Montana’s father, Paul Teter, wrote to his hometown newspaper describing his time as a Confederate soldier in Missouri and his subsequent business career. James’s father, by the way, also fought in the Civil War, but as a Union soldier. I’ve always been a little curious to know why my great grandmother was named Montana, especially when her siblings had relatively ordinary names like Fred, Paul, and Sarah. It is true that my great grandmother was born just a few months after the founding of Montana Territory, but none of her other siblings were named after new territories—or so I thought.

It turns out, according to the website, my great grandmother had a half-sister named Arizona. No, the title of this post isn’t some clever metaphor, I actually have a great grandmother named Montana and discovered I have an aunt named Arizona. However, that’s not the end of the quest. Although Montana lived her entire life in Missouri, Arizona married a man who went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad, the same company my dad worked for. They eventually moved to California and lived in Orange County, not far from where I grew up.

While it seems likely the founding of Montana territory inspired Montana’s name, I’m at a bit of a loss to know why her sister, born in 1885, was named Arizona. The seminal Arizona event of 1885 seems to have been the founding of the territory’s two major universities: The University of Arizona and Arizona State University. Perhaps my great great grandfather just liked the name!

You might note that Montana and Arizona were the daughters of Paul Teter. That line of the family inspired the name “Mike Teter” for the protagonist of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I was pleased to make a stronger connection to that part of my family.

As quests go, it might not have been Earthshaking. I didn’t destroy the Death Star, keep Mongo from conquering the Earth, or destroy the one ring, but I did learn a little more about myself—perhaps the best outcome from any great quest.