Everyone likes a good Sauron, Grendel, Count Dracula, Annie Wilkes or Cersei Lannister. These types of superbads add a certain element of evilness to their novels (and subsequent screen appearances). A compelling villain often makes or breaks a story. Or at least, this is usually the case.
But what about those rare novels that fly in the face of this stratagem, making their own unique path without following preconceived notions of what a Good Story Requires?
What about novels without villains?
Look at modern classics like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? In this gloomy/brilliant dichotomy of a tale, the landscape itself is the enemy, the scorched earth its villain.
Then there is George R.R. Martin’s rarely discussed sci-fi work Tuf Voyaging. Tuf fails to deliver a straight-up scoundrel, and yet the book is engaging all the same.
Of those books I have enjoyed which do not boast a mustache twirling, clear-cut baddie, there tends to be a pattern in their style, features they boast of without any apparent concern for the natural order of How Books are Written. If there is a method to crafting prose without creating a main rogue, it might be found in the following features these pearls have employed:
- They tend to be long fantasies
- They often sport at least 2 vividly compelling protagonists
- They feature several minor, short-term antagonists
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a ready-made how-to-succeed-in-this-rare-endeavor book.
(If you’ve cracked the fat palsied spine of this ‘fantasy of manners’ and actually completed the 800 page tome, then you probably adore it beyond measure. If however you found yourself unable to wade through the slow tedious 200 opening pages, well, you’re totally missing out, buddy!)
In JSMN we are given two protagonists in the magicians Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange. While an argument might be made for several characters fulfilling the role of the big bad, not a single one of them perform the main duty of a proper villain, which is to thwart the primary goal or quest of the main character(s).
Mr Lascelles, with all his villainous traits, might have stepped out of a Dickens novel, but for the majority of the tale he actually serves the MC, Mr Norrell (if only to exalt his own star).
The Gentleman With the Thistledown Hair hates Norrell and wishes to destroy Strange. But his goals are not in direct opposition to the goals of the main characters—that is, he is not directly trying to keep Norrell from bringing magic back to England, and he merely wishes to have Jonathan Strange’s wife to himself (which is why he battles and curses Strange). He couldn’t care less about their goals, except to the extent that their goals impede his own.
The Raven King may present the most obvious case for villainy. He is everything Norrell hates and despises. But he is not a clear and present danger; he is not even seen until the final third of the novel, and even then he is portrayed mostly through flashbacks. And when he is seen in the present timeline of the narrative he does not try to prevent the main characters from achieving their primary goal—which is of course the purpose of any proper villain. In fact, his presence and existence inadvertently aid them in accomplishing their original ambition.
The question then is: How do you sustain a narrative without any clear-cut, in-your-face, drop down super-duper evil bad guy to keep readers on their toes?
After all, hating or loving to hate the big bad is often what elevates a novel from hum-drum to awesome. (Not that Phoenix was hum-drum, but we all loved hating on Professor Umbridge.)
Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, accomplishes this feat by including the above mentioned semi-villains, who basically serve as place-holders for the true evil of the book, which is, when you get right down to it: the fulfillment of the heroes’ goals.
In the end, Norrell and Strange get what they worked and sacrificed for—Magic is returned in full measure to England.
The moral of the story might then be ‘Careful what you wish for.’
But that would be whittling a grand tale down to its simplest denominator, a vile insult to a sprawling epic that is anything but simple and clear cut.
Clarke also employs the technique of ‘mini-quarrels’. This is where she develops a number of small personal battles between various characters, pitting each against another, thereby setting the stage for constant conflict, no matter who you are following in the narrative.
This technique has the advantage of distracting us as readers. In the onslaught of squabbles we forget to notice that there is no main battle. Where is the big fight with the boss? That is a question we forget to ask, so sidetracked are we by these mini-quarrels.
Taking the time to develop a plethora of interpersonal clashes within the world of your novel is always a good idea, regardless of whether or not you are doing the villain thing. It builds tension. It creates dynamic intrigue and presents countless opportunities for unexpected twists.
Another great example is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Unlike the other Potter’s, Voldemort fails to make an appearance in this one. No back-of-the-head hitchhiker, no unicorn-blood-drinking phantom, no journal-naval-gazing apparition, and no reborn Dark Lord to menace poor Harry. This time around there is a different very serious and dark character, whose name makes this utterly clear: Sirius Black.
But though Black is presented as a villain—loudly and often, by everyone—when we finally get to see him, we discover that he is in fact a tragedy of a man, and a loving godfather to Harry Potter.
So once again we have a delightful engaging fantasy without a villain.
Oh sure, the Dementors are about as villainous as you can get, but they make no distinction between friend and foe, and couldn’t care less about the main characters’ primary goal, so they don’t fit the bill in my book as central baddies.
THE SUM OF THE POST (AKA: THE MORAL OF THE TALE)
As we have learned, it is possible to write a great novel without including a traditional villain type character. The question then becomes: Should I write a novel without a villain?
That is up to you. It is an advanced technique. Some writers never even bother to try it, and fewer still have mastered it. The point is that you don’t have to follow the traditional rules of writing to craft a relevant, exciting and best-selling novel. Break the rules if that’s where your inspiration lies. Find your own path. Forge your own rules. Establish a new status quo. Be bold and don’t forget to have fun while doing it!