What are the Evil Dudes Thinking?

There’s a weird scene in the very first chapter of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. When I read it for the first time, back in something like 1994, I didn’t realize it was weird. It’s pretty standard fantasy fare: a scary dude in a black cloak (don’t call him a nazgûl) appears on a road and glares a nasty, eyeless glare at Rand al’Thor, and it really seems like this guy (who looks a lot like a nazgûl) is just going to rip shit up. And he does. Sorta.

Later that night, the myrddraal (what Jordan calls his nazgûl) and a bunch of his thugs try to kill Rand and his father at their farm. They fail. It’s an exciting scene, and one of fifteen thousand over the course of the following books in which the servants of the Dark One try to murder Rand, a character who, I think I can say without ruining anything, turns out to be pretty important. The question is: why the hell didn’t they do it earlier, on that lonely road?

The answer: the myrddraal sucks. It’s his job to find and kill Rand (and Rand’s friends), and judging from some of the fights we see later in the series, he could probably do it right here, on page two. Lonely road, no one watching, no real protection. It’s gotta be worth at least a shot! It’s true that the myrddraal doesn’t know who, exactly, Rand is. It’s true that Tam is pretty good with a sword. Nonetheless, it’s not like the servants of the Dark One are known for their strategic vision or tactical finesse. It’s not like the Dark One himself gives a shit if a few of the wrong folks get killed by accident. Here’s a kid who fits the bill – why not take the chance? The myrddraal, however, just… disappears. It’s a creepy move, but a useless one. Who hired this asshole?

It may sound like I’m being hard on Robert Jordan here, but I don’t mean to be. The amazing thing is that this little moment didn’t bother me when I read the book the first time (or the second, or the third)… It was only later, when I was on something like book eight that I thought, “Blood and bloody ashes!” (see my post on cursing in fantasy), “the whole damned thing could have been over on page two if that myrddraal hadn’t had his head buried up his creepy ass. Good thing for the Light that the Dark One doesn’t have nazgûl.”

But then, if you stop to think about it, the nazgûl suck, too, at least at the start of Lord of the Rings.

Actually, moments like this are pretty common in fantasy. Both the writer and the reader tend to spend so much time thinking about the motivations of the protagonists that the thought processes of the villains can get short shrift. And it’s not just an issue of bizarre tactical choices. The most obvious question that almost always rears its head is motivational: why do the bad guys always want to live in a shithole? The consistency is striking: Mordor is a drag, the land north of the Wall where the Others live is a drag, the Dark One hangs out in a place called the Blight for god’s sake… the list goes on. For some strange reason, the evildoers and miscreants rarely seem to want a world filled with natural light and delicious vegetables. Puzzling. Surely, one can still perpetrate murder, pillage, and general chaos in a universe that includes ripe zucchini and gardenias.

But then, Saruman doesn’t think so – he hates trees.

So, in everything from tactics to aesthetics to environmental ethics, the bad guys have some bizarre, sometimes incoherent psychology. The real question is: Does it matter? This stuff bugs me, but not usually on the first reading of a novel or the first viewing of a movie. As I mentioned above, I devoured The Eye of the World when it first came out, and reread it with relish many times thereafter. It’s a lot of work to think through a consistent psychology for every character, and if the villain doesn’t really need one, should the author bother?

8 thoughts on “What are the Evil Dudes Thinking?

  1. I’d say it definitely does matter. Although we readers are usually engrossed in the protagonists affairs, nothing can threaten our immersion in the story more than the sudden realization that the actions of our beloved evil-doers make absolutely no sense. The majority of such foibles, including the delight these villains evidently find in residing in the most unpleasant of scenery, are often explained away by these characters’ assumed lack of any morals, or even standards of cleanliness, that in any way correlate with their human equivalents. However, the elaborate and cunning machinations most of these villains develop serve to mock their apparent total lack of intelligent tactics. The creation of decent thought processes for the bad guys may not be the mark of a great fantasy author, but I would venture to suggest that those authors who choose to do so should be honored for their willingness to create more interesting characters, who actually behave in a rational manner. Or maybe they just have too much time on their hands.

    • Good to hear from you, Ed! I also have an affinity for bad guys who make sense, although I’m amazed at how often I’m willing to suspend my disbelief regarding the motivations of various antagonists when all other cylinders are firing in a story. Writing villains gets especially tricky when they’re very old/immortal. Obviously, we would expect a plan worthy of an immortal being who has had thousands and thousands of years to plot and scheme. Rarely do we get it.

  2. Excellent post, and so true. I devoured the Dragonlance Chronicles as a kid, and it wasn’t until much later that I looked back and realized I didn’t entirely “get” a lot of the motivation that was being thrown at me. Although it didn’t stop me from enjoying those books at the time, I sure do appreciate a well thought-out motivational background these days…

    • Ah, Dragonlance. Just went back to Dragons of Autumn Twilight after many, many years. The fond feelings remain, but this time through was far different from those days in Jr. High.

  3. It’s certainly food for thought… although a lot of the time the reasoning behind such thickheaded logic (at least in regard to the choice of location) is down to the nature of the antagonists, at least in most high fantasy. Sauron lives in Mordor because it’s the place he’s made to suit his needs, and like his master Morgoth he twists the creations of Iluvatar because he can’t create. The Others live in cold wastes because they are cold personified in many ways, and cold turns places into desolate wasteland. So it’s not completely unreasonable.

    The thing that gets me, and it feels like it’s what gets you too, is when antagonists do things purely to service the plot, rather than advance their own interests. It gets my goat when protagonists do this too, but villains do seem more prone to it. Why else do we get the infamous expository monologue? Because the story’s written badly enough that the reader needs to be told bluntly what’s going on, and the author can’t think of a better way to do it. It’s not in-character for the antagonists to do so, it just helps the tale as a whole.

    In some ways it would be better for the antagonists to not be considered antagonists, just characters. That way they’re not playing a role, they’re just being themselves, and are thus less likely to be bent out of shape because the plot demands it. I guess the same applies to protagonists, but authors spend more time developing them because you’re meant to feel for the protagonist, and nothing apparently helps that more than an expository chunk/illustrative sideplot inserted in a convenient place to give them more character. The antagonist very often just gets given the motivation of “be a foil to the protagonist”, which makes the character immediately reactionary and less complete. Then the lurching logic of “what would most get in the protagonists’ way?” starts to prevail, and the antagonists get stupid.

    • Couldn’t agree more about character decisions that seem intended only to drive the plot. And yet, it seems to be a commonplace of epic fantasy, probably because the plots themselves are so vast. I constantly find myself frustrated in my own writing by this issue: I’ll have a whole scene written and then I realize, “Oh wait, these assholes would NEVER have come in through this gate. They have a better way into the city.” Of course, the better way doesn’t bring them into contact with the guys guarding the gate and then there goes the scene; I find myself ripping out 15K words and getting the guards out of the gatehouse and onto the river. Or whatever.

      There is, however, a sound justification for bad decision making. Characters often don’t do the most logical thing for a variety of emotional reasons. As people have pointed out, Hamlet and Othello wouldn’t be very interesting plays if you switched the protagonists: Othello would simply kill Claudius in act one, and Hamlet would realize early on that Desdemona was innocent. The plots of both plays hinge on the protagonists AVOIDING the logical action. Of course, the essential difference between this and the kinds of illogic that seem to irk both of us is that the illogical actions of Hamlet and Othello spring from character rather than the exigencies of the plot.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  4. Very interesting post. I bump up against this question lately, as I work on a second draft of my own epic fantasy novel. I definitely notice that the villains like shitholes and make stupid moves, up until they are cornered towards the end of the book or series. Then they make their good moves, but die anyway. It’s pretty lousy, from the perspective of a writer. Yet it keeps happening and getting published; and, of course, so many amazing epic fantasy books do it. Why do we let it happen? Interesting post…

    I would like to have a villain who likes gardenias and whose motivations and moves during the story make sense, rather then giving him stupid motivations that just serve to keep the story going. Thanks for the food for thought!

    • I always thought Hannibal Lecter was sort of a cool villain for this reason. He’s terrifying and psychotic, but his decisions always seem to make sense according to his own internal logic. Unlike, say, a Bond villain (and I love Bond films), whose actions are usually… inconsistent at best.

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