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?