Once upon a time, I thought that the worst thing a writer could do was have pride be the downfall of his or her villain. This was when I was first blooming into an evil overlord myself, and I noticed that oftentimes, villains had a problem with pride that was so bad, it was the cause of their death.
This was unacceptable.
Clearly the best solution was to preach that villains should never have pride as a critical character flaw. The problem, however, was multifaceted. For one thing, villains just tend to be prideful creatures. We can’t help it – we’re just so great! I mean seriously, I deserve to rule all of you because, frankly, I’m better than all of you and can make your choices for you better than you can. Without that pride, how could any overlord ever really think he (or she) should rule everyone? Additionally, it’s really hard to have just a little bit of pride. And also, with pride being a perfectly useful trait, I’m not addressing the problem by saying no to pride, because pride is not inherently a problem. It’s the cocky, stupid kind of pride that’s the problem, and even that can’t truly be banned because if I advocate “Villains are people too!” then I can’t turn around and say, “But not those kind of people!”
Villains are all kinds of people. Some villains are quiet and humble. Some are loud and obnoxious. It takes all types.
And yet, I still cringe when I see some jerk flaunting his power and acting invincible and screaming “Noooo!” when he’s slain because it all seems so pathetic and pointless.
So how do we do it? How can we have a prideful villain – whose pride is his downfall – who is not lame? Having a prideful villain who is not destroyed by his pride is one thing, and it’s not actually that hard. But a villain falling to pride is utterly classic and cannot be discarded just because it’s hard to pull off without making the villain look like a loser. It needs to be refined.
Let me talk first of how a villain can be prideful and not die from it. Usually what actually happens is that the villain becomes sloppy and stupid because he thinks he’s good to go – but pride and sloth don’t have to go hand-in-hand. In fact, pride can also mean one takes extra care. Take a car, for example – if you own a fancy car and you’re proud of it, you’ll take good care of it, change the oil, keep the wheels full of air, make sure they’ve still got tread, wash the windows, wax the thing. Maybe you’ll be more reckless in driving it, showing off the speed – maybe you’ll be more cautious because it’s your baby and no one can drive it anywhere ever. A villain can have pride in his importance to the point of cowardice as a defensive trait. “No, I will not fight the protagonist. I am far too important to die at his hand.” One can be prideful about one thing but not another – “I’m not a fighter, I am a thinker. If we fight, I know you will win, and destroy my glorious brain.”
Pride colors and distorts one’s perspective of him or herself, but it doesn’t have to bend their perception so entirely they don’t realize their strengths and weaknesses. Just because I’m very, very proud of some of my writing (haha, actually, no, I’m pretty insecure) doesn’t mean that I think I am the greatest at everything. Just because I’m proud of my dragons doesn’t mean I expect people to be impressed of my cat drawings. I know dragons are the only animal-thing I can draw well. An expert swordsman or gunman may be very proud of their abilities, but that doesn’t mean that he can expect to be good at any weapon. A gunman who is actually good enough to be proud of his sharp shooting ought to know that a bow is very different than a gun – or that a gun can be very different from another type of firearm!
So someone can be prideful without being stupid, without lack of attention to detail. And they should be. So that leaves a simple conclusion as to how a villain can fall to pride and the hero without being lame. It’s the same as any other self-defeating villain:
The hero should be the one defeating the villain, not the villain’s pride.
It’s a slim difference, the hero using the villain’s tool as a weapon against him, verses the villain handing over a victory trophy with his pride. But it’s there – the main difference being whether or not the heroes could have defeated the villain if he wasn’t prideful. If they can’t, if they couldn’t, not even close, you’re falling into an earlier addressed problem of building in a victory for the heroes by building in that flaw in the villain. The villain cannot defeat himself. However, it can be appropriate for the villain, in being a three-dimensional person with flaws, to provide tools for the heroes. If this is done, the heroes should balance in kind. Villains should draw on the heroes’ weaknesses just as the heroes draw on the villains’. So consider – the heroes draw on the villain’s pride, but the villain draws on the heroes’ compassion. Consider a conversation that looks like this:
“Come down here and fight me yourself! If you’re really as great as you say you are, you should be able to sweep me away!”
“Very well, but remember I am a frail old man and my back is bent.”
The hero taunts the villain into getting away from his vantage point; the villain gives himself a boost at the beginning of the battle by evoking pity from the hero. Probably what happens next is that the villain strikes a terrible blow that might very well be the end for our hero and end the fight instantly (except that never works on MCs, but it does build dramatic tension).
What could be interesting is if the villain has a blatant weakness, but the chivalrous hero defeats him another way – but sometimes when this is done, it just makes the hero look like an idiot, so take care in using that technique; the line between “idiot” and “chivalrous badace” is a thin one.
So a villain can be prideful, but he doesn’t have to be sloppy or stupid. Pride and narcissism don’t have to be synonymous, and if they are, you can also mix in paranoia to cover up any sort of sloppiness from the belief that “I am so great”.
Pride can be a downfall – but just take care it’s not the only reason for the downfall. Unless maybe you’re writing an Aesop kind of fable.