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The Art of Playing a Villain

Good villains are a rare commodity. Too often, it seems that people assume that a boatload of points and a nasty attitude are all that's required to play a bad guy. When it comes to character development, villains seem to get the short end of the stick, because most people don't want to bother. The villain is just there to make the good guy's life miserable before he's vanquished, right?

Wrong. Villains are characters too. Some of the most memorable characters from movies and books have been villains. After all, what would "Star Wars" be without Darth Vader? Or "Amadeus" without Salieri? Or "The Lion King" without Scar? Or "Die Hard" without our dear Hans Gruber?

Good villains have depth and motivation and drive, just like heroes. In many cases, they have *more* drive, *more* ambition. After all, they're the brains behind the operation. They're the ones with the "grand plan" for conquest, world domination, usurping the throne, or making off with a lot of cash. All the good guys have to do is stop them.

But just what *do* villains do? Or rather, what can you do, if you opt to play a villain? Some villains are grand-scale kind -- the ones with lots of power, influence, prestige... the ones who appear to hold all the cards, and can't possibly be defeated by the intrepid heroes. Those types of villains may be hard to play, since it'll require approval from the staff, and usually involves higher stats, more powers, a prominent position, and so on.

Such epic-scale villains also require a lot of patience and perseverance, for if they're viewed by general consensus as "the bad guy," then every would-be hero on the game is going to try to take them down. And so they've got the added task of fending off attackers in addition to carrying out their grand schemes, not to mention dealing with the OOC flak that comes with the job (keep in mind, folks, that these characters are *fictional*, and not necessarily an embodiment of the personality behind them. A character might be a bad guy, but that doesn't mean his/her player is). There is a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure in playing a grand-scale villain, so some players may want to start small and get a taste for it before plunging in and playing a Darth Vader-like character.

So what about these smaller-scale ones? What do *they* do? Well, for starters, they tend to be subtler. They *don't* hold all the cards, and have to use what few they have. They might operate more behind-the-scenes. Or employ trickery and deception. They might appear, on the surface, to be a friend; someone you can trust. You only find out the truth once it's too late. Double-crossers, con-men, thieves, backstabbers, manipulators, schemers... they're all still clawing their way up that ladder of treachery, with no thought to whom they climb over or step on to get to the top.

The problem is, who wants to play such a character? Most players want to be the hero; they want to play someone tough, courageous, valiant, generous, compassionate, honorable... all those qualities we'd like to strive for in RL, because it's easier to be what we've always wanted to be in VR. Villains embody all the worst qualities; what we forget is that those qualities can be more fun.

Wrath, envy, pride, lust, greed, sloth, gluttony... heh, sound familiar? Salieri envied Mozart so much he tried to kill him. Ol' Hans was nothing more than a glorified thief, and Darth Vader, well, he let anger and pride lead him to the dark side. Villains always seem to have at least one vice that goes too far -- that crosses that invisible line between "right" and "wrong" and places them firmly in the shadows. But their villainy doesn't stem from madness or just an inherent "evil" -- it's something we've all felt, and that we can all relate to. Who hasn't heard the insidious call of one of those seven deadly sins? The truth is, maybe we're not so different from the "bad guys" after all.

And that's really what makes a good villain -- someone you can relate to -- someone whose motives you understand. I can't stand the "oh, he's insane and chaotically evil" excuse; madness is rarely played realistically, and too often it just seems like a justification for whatever behavior appeals to a player at a given moment. Villains have their reasons for doing what they do, and many of them may not even think of themselves as "villainous."

Those of you who've seen or read "X-Men" ought to be familiar with Magneto. He firmly believed that he was doing what was best for his kind -- mutants. He'd seen enough cruelty from humanity that he had no more use for them and could justify his actions. Or take Livia from this excellent old BBC series called "I, Claudius" -- she couldn't rule herself, but she'd make sure her son did, and so what if she had to kill a few people along the way? It was all for the future glory of Rome.

Villains have their own dreams and ambitions; their problem is that they don't give much thought to who they have to trample on to get there. They're selfish that way, but some of them have redeeming qualities, as well. And that is another key to playing a well-rounded, interesting, multi-faceted character. Don't make 'em just purely evil -- throw a little light into the shadows.

They may have their own code of morals, skewed as they are. They may have honor and integrity -- just not when it comes to the "right" issues. They may be capable of great love and compassion -- but just not for people as a whole. And it's the little things, really, that set a good villain apart from all those cardboard cutouts that seem to exist merely to twist their mustaches and mutter, "Coises, foiled again!"

Your villain, too, could have a conscience. Consider the line from the upcoming "Hollow Man" movie, where Kevin Bacon comments, "It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to look at yourself in the mirror." Maybe your villain *knows* he's crossing that line between good and evil, right and wrong, but he can't help himself. But what is the price? Can he sleep at night? Can he look in the mirror and not be horrified by what he sees? Has he committed himself to a path of which there is no turning back, and will he see it through to the bitter end?

There are so many possibilities. Because, when you get right down to it, a villain is just a *character*. He or she can have as many facets as the player behind the keyboard. Give your villain depth, and vulnerability, and aspirations, and charisma -- give him a *personality*. You may find that the experience is more rewarding than you imagined.

After all, it's not about winning or losing. It's how you play.

Astra Poyser
"Keep an open mind, but don't let your brain fall out."
-Joan Borysenko