Plausible Villains

     “No villain comes in black, screaming obscenities. All evil has children, homes, regard for self, fear of enemies.” – Greg Bear, Anvil of Stars

     A writer straining to produce drama faces several challenges. One that perpetually bedevils me is the construction of a villain in whom the reader can believe.

     There have been writers that write tales without villains. Isaac Asimov is a prominent example. But Asimov’s stories generally pit Man against Nature, rather than Man against Man. He was a master of such counterpositions. I prefer to write about human failings, including human evil.

     So from time to time, I find myself moved to write about an atrocity or an obscenity brought about by human action – deliberate human action. At such times I must ponder the question, “What would move a man to do such a thing? What kind of person would it take?”

     I’m in that mode this morning.


     Some of the most important villains in the history of fiction never “step onto the stage.” Their motivations remain behind a shroud. The best example I know of is Tolkien’s Sauron. Sauron’s desire to create worldwide misery and darkness is the key to the entire Lord of the Rings adventure. Without it, and him, there would be no story to tell. Yet Tolkien keeps him entirely offstage; why?

     Tolkien has gone to his reward, so it’s impossible to ask him. However, I think I have an inkling. Sauron is so extreme a “character,” being so wholly committed to evil, that Tolkien could not find a way to make him plausible. Satan would fail as a fictional character for the same reason. The quote from Anvil of Stars at the head of this piece points in that direction.

     For good or for ill, villains in fiction written for human readers must have human dimensions. They must have “children, homes, regard for self, fear of enemies.” And in the best cases, they’ll have some residuum of human goodness about them.


     I’ve been held back from starting my next novel by a villain problem. The degree of villainy I have in mind for the book is quite extreme. Yet it’s already at large in our world. The core of it is the complete commodification of life – human life included.

     Let’s be candid: we already commodify life to some extent. We must. We eat plants and animal flesh. That requires that we treat certain life forms as commodities for our consumption. So a degree of commodification is forced on us by our physical needs.

     (Yes: there are self-hating lunatics who hold that Mankind has a moral duty to go extinct for that reason. I don’t know any such persons, but I’d bet heavily that none of them have completely renounced eating.)

     However, despite our need to consume animal flesh, we strive not to be cruel about it. Animals killed for meat are seldom treated cruelly, even in the largest of meat packing and processing plants. The total commodification of life would dismiss that set of considerations. All that would matter would be production. Moreover, human lives would not escape such treatment.

     Slavery was a form of that evil. We renounced it – the United States was only the second nation ever to do so – but it lasted for a shamefully long time. Some slaveholders never accepted that what they’d done was wrong.


     Leave all that to the side. I need a villain who’s willing to embrace that evil in a new form. The slaves of yesteryear were persons born of Man. They owed nothing of their origins or natures to technology. But technology has advanced to a point where it has become plausible that humans can be made to order through genetic engineering and cloning. As Larry Sokoloff noted in Innocents, such humans would be pure commodities:

     “The people who did this,” he said, “did it to turn out a sex slave. Probably by request and to specification, and I’d bet my house that if they haven’t done it before, they’re trying to do it again right now. For that I’m going to send them all to hell. But think about it. Let’s say they were to clone me—produce a baby version of me. That baby would have no parents or other relatives. The people who produced him would have no reason to care for him, or about him, and only they would know he existed. He would be a product for sale. Why would anyone make that product? Why would anyone want that product? Apart from pure altruism?”

     Among human evils, I can think of no degree lower nor more despicable. A man capable of embracing that practice would be more deeply and thoroughly evil than any figure known to history. And it’s my job to envision such a villain and make him plausible to my readers. Hayao Nakahara, the villain of Innocents and Experiences, is only a pale forerunner.


     No political blather from me today. The problem delineated above must receive the whole of my attention. The novel to come – working title Ex Nihilo — may be my last. At least, I can’t imagine delving more deeply into evil and the need for heroes than that. And the first step is conceiving of a plausible human being who would embrace the deliberate creation of human lives to be treated as commodities for sale.

     Has a novelist ever solicited your prayers before this, Gentle Reader?


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    • OneGuy on January 9, 2024 at 10:01 AM

    Don’t forget Nancy Pelosi.  She pushed through $225 million in funding to prosecute Jan 6 protestors.  This was a effort to intimidate the political opposition and make hundreds and maybe thousands of people political prisoners to prevent investigation into the election she and her fellow Democrats stole.  And don’t forget Kinzinger and Cheney who willingly joined Pelosi’s politically motivated fascist panel to trump up charges on the Jan 6th hostages.  And the many DOJ employees and others behind the scenes moving forward to put peaceful protestors in jail so that the Democrats can usurp power.  That is evil.  Lenin, Hitler and Khruschev would be so proud of Pelosi.  AND she did it all while managing to double the value of her stock market investments!!

    • FJ Dagg on January 9, 2024 at 10:34 AM

    The movie, “Never Let Me Go” deals with this question.

    1. How so, James?

        • F.J. Dagg on January 9, 2024 at 12:27 PM

        Spoiler Alert:

        “Never Let Me Go” involves a group of young people who discover that they are clones who have been raised specifically to provide organs for the people of which they are clones. Commodities, as you observe.

        1. Ah. I couldn’t determine that from the IMDB listing. That looks like a relatively ordinary adolescent / coming-of-age drama.

    • F.J. Dagg on January 9, 2024 at 1:30 PM

    It is a coming of age drama, but I wouldn’t call it ordinary. It’s been years since I’ve seen it but I still recall well the hauntingly melancholy atmosphere, and what “coming of age” meant to these particular people. Give it a look if you have the time. I’d be interested in your response to it. That said, get well soon!


    • John in Indy on January 12, 2024 at 12:43 AM

    Sauron is the distillation of evil, with all human nature, and apparently his physical form, eroded by the evil of the acts he had done over the ages, and for the Ring Trilogy, that was enough.

    Saruman is still somewhat human, but well down Saurons’ evil path, and so is more understandable as a once human avaricious for power over others.

    The evils of enslavement or other commodification of humans, like the ChiCom murder of political opponents for organ harvesting and transplants, is an evil per se, and renders the people who do these things hostis humanis generis, opponents of human civilization in general, who should be treated as “outlaws” and pirates once we’re, where outlaws were outside the protection of the law, and subject to summary execution. This is warranted because such crimes take the most essential property right a person has, their ownership and control of their private person.

    Note also that the MSM / Prog / totalitarians demand the use of the term “trafficking”, or “sexual trafficking”, instead of calling it what it is, enslavement, to preserve the joint fictions that slavery only happened in America, done only by White Americans, and only to Africans.


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