What do Severus Snape, Gollum, and Darth Vader all have in common? Besides being three of the most celebrated villains in science fiction and fantasy, that is?
The way I see it, there are two types of villains. The first type is like a natural disaster. This kind of villain personifies evil, with no redemptive qualities at all. He represents a force outside of the protagonists, powerful and relentless, that can’t be reasoned with or turned aside. We rarely see the story from his point of view. Voldemort is a villain of the first type, as is Sauron. But that’s not the type I like best.
I want to talk about the other kind of villain: the gray kind. This villain does bad things, even horrible things, but we can see into his soul. We understand him, even sympathize with him at some level. Perhaps he’s been hurt in the past, or got too greedy, or fell prey to temptation. We don’t condone the things he does, but we see some good in him, some possibility for redemption, or at least see his evil choices as tragic. More than the other kind, these are the villains that have depth. The ones we remember, sometimes long after we’ve forgotten the heroes. Occasionally, as in Walter White (Breaking Bad) or Frank Underwood (House of Cards), they even cross the line and become a kind of protagonist in their own right.
Two of my favorite villains in recent fiction fall squarely into this category: Geder Palliako (from Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series) and Gilbert Norrell (from Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). Geder is like the kid that everyone makes fun of on the bus: he’s socially inept, awkward, and more interested in old books and maps than he is in people. He actually thinks he’s acting in the best interest of the empire, while committing genocide and throwing nations into war. Gilbert Norrell is a very different character, but in some ways the same: he’s refined where Geder is ill-mannered, dignified where Geder is bumbling, proud where Geder is self-effacing. But like Geder, he is manipulated by an evil power into giving the faults in his character full rein, and causing the destruction of far more than he realizes or is willing to admit.
When I set out to write Supersymmetry, my second quantum physics thriller, I wanted to write a villain like that. I already had a villain of the first type, the incomprehensible killing quantum creature from the first book, Superposition. Supersymmetry is a new stand-alone story, and I wanted something new. I thought about my favorite villains from genre fiction, and I created Ryan Oronzi.
Oronzi is a brilliant physicist in love with his work. His life is strictly limited by his multiple phobias — fear of flying, fear of elevators, fear of just about any machine he didn’t design and build himself. He has few friends, and tends to alienate his coworkers, but they put up with him because of his genius. He invents a technology worth billions to the US government, powerful enough to make US troops invincible in the field. His fears and his loneliness make him vulnerable, however, susceptible to manipulation that his feelings of guilt aren’t enough to turn aside.
Villains aren’t all the same, and sometimes it’s the bad guy that makes a story stand out. If, like me, you find villains more compelling when they’re dressed in shades of gray, I hope you’ll give Supersymmetry a try!
David Walton is the author of the newly released SF thriller SUPERSYMMETRY. His other works include the quantum physics murder mystery SUPERPOSITION, Philip K. Dick Award-winning TERMINAL MIND, and historical fantasy QUINTESSENCE and its sequel, QUINTESSENCE SKY. You can read about his books and life here.
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