You’re all familiar with seasoning analogies, right? Just a little here and there really makes a dish, but too much is over powering?
That’s great, but what are the seasonings? What are those little details that you sprinkle in? Let’s talk about those.
If we’re saying seasonings, I’m going to make this whole discussion an analogy of soup. So say that a villain is a bowl of soup – the broth is his presence in the story, his actions, his relevance, motivations. The meat is his personality, his appearance, his powers, and the other ingredients like vegetables are his base, his minions, his backstory. These ingredients are all necessary for a hearty soup. Quirks and idiosyncrasies, humor and humanity, random facts and specifics of taste are therefore the seasonings.
Quirks and idiosyncrasies are themselves odd, as either could be a tiny bit of pepper in your story, the habit of twirling a moustache or biting a nail, rolling a marble or flipping a coin between the fingers, a peculiar way of dotting an i. However, they could also turn up as larger items, whole bay leaves of entire odd speech patterns or bobbing cloves of peculiar fashion, items that stand out and begin to affect the story or even the plot more than a seasoning should and yet…not out of place, as a bay leaf or clove should not be eaten whole and must be picked out or avoided in eating soup, affecting your experience more than a bit of pepper, but are still not over-seasoning.
Humor can be a dangerous spice to use with your villains because ofttimes, the goal is to incite fear and loathing with your villain. Humor does not usually help in this regard. Breaking slightly away from our soup-spice analogy, consider making the spiciest taco you can, your goal to destroy the mouths of anyone who eats this taco. Humor is like sour cream. On the one hand, it will add a good measure of flavor and temper the spice. On the other hand, if you temper the spice, if you give your diner a sanctuary in the spice-induced death of your taco, your taco is no longer a devilish, sadistic culinary creation. To some people. Who like spice. I’d still hate you for making it and not warning me that it was spicy.
If your villain isn’t supposed to be Satan incarnate, humor can be a good way of showing the humanity in your villain, of showing that maybe he’s the antagonist but maybe not evil, or maybe misguided. In the case of a war, it’s all too easy to think of “them” and “us” and “they” are all evil. The best way to combat this view in anyone, including your readers, is reminding the readers that “the enemy” is only human, just like “us”.
My husband and I, despite both being 90s kids, failed to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender as kids and we’re now doing so. The Fire Nation failed to ever strike me as “that completely evil empire nation” because of Uncle Iroh and his mixture of humor and kindness.
Uncle Iroh is probably one of my all-time favorite characters and I would never, ever classify him, or Zuko, as villains. Azula absolutely yes and she’s a pretty excellent villain too.
There’s a lot less funny with Azula than with Iroh and Zuko. That’s because when you eat your tacos, the intention is to think, “Aw, Zuko isn’t so bad, he’s just trying to restore his hon-HOLY FRICK WHAT IS WRONG WITH IS HIS SISTER?” You bite into the mild, cream-tempered Zuko taco and you feel for him, even as you hope he will lose. Then you bite into the burning death Azula taco and you know that this show does, in fact, know how to villain.
All the same, that doesn’t mean that humor isn’t appropriate with more deadly villains. Comic relief can be a useful tool, and studying masters of comic relief, most well-known of which is Shakespeare, shows us how comic relief is important in monitoring tension. However, let me caution you not to use humor in a way that makes your villains seem incompetent or otherwise deteriorate their credibility. It’s one thing to have your villain or henchmen or whomever tell a joke, or play a prank, or have an amusing hobby or tea obsession. It’s another altogether to have dopey antics that only a foolish Disney character would perform. Schadenfreude humor? That could go either way. If the source of schadenfreude should have been avoidable or was stupidly self-inflicted, it’s probably not a good idea for credibility. If it’s more of a karma kind of thing, well, that could be funny and appropriate.
Random facts: I’m really good at whistling. I’m exactly five feet tall so my friends in high school have used me as a unit of measurement…and other friends have referred to a nickname of mine as a unit of weight too, since I am usually about a hundred pounds even too. I used to play violin. I own around a thousand dragon objects, no exaggeration.
Random facts can be fun, but they don’t add much, and you run into the sword on the mantle problem introducing them (if you spend a paragraph describing the sword on the mantel, you had better darn well have it be plot significant). If you are wanting to include a random fact but not have the random fact be more than flavor, it’s best if either you introduce it in the background (His clothing is blue, his bedsheets are blue, his curtains are blue, the carpet is too, the plates, anything he owns…hm, wonder what his favorite color is? But this only comes up in tiny bits in describing a setting now and then.) or if you introduce it in a mere sentence. Possibly two, although that’s pushing it.
Random facts also add an element of humanity to your villain, although with less risk, generally speaking, of cooling the spice like humor. But these are the subtle spices and they do require a gentle hand to flavor anything properly. A food allergy, for example, does not really change the perspective of my overlord one way or the other. Technically, the fact he’s deathly allergic to shellfish could come in handy, but as it happens, he’s not fed crab as his ultimate defeat. It’s just a fun fact that, hopefully, reminds you that he is human, even if he’s a despicable one as he struts around a dinner party with a disdainful sneer on his face because the hosts had the gall to serve lobster as the main dish, never mind the fact the dinner party is in honor of someone who loves it.
Specifics of taste are just a specific brand of random facts – my villain likes the color blue. He likes it a lot more than any other color. She prefers silk, as any other fabric is too rough. Just consider how it’s a little different to say, “He grabbed the book, opened it, and began to read” and, “He grabbed the book, and pressed his thumb against the pages beneath his nose, breathing in deeply as the book made a soft “prrrbt” noise. “Ah,” he said, “I just love the smell of old books.” And with that, he opened the book and began to read.” Fun fact, little dash of seasoning there, adds a little personality. You can be insanely evil and still like the way a book smells.
Make your characters more like a real person with little seasonings, but remember that the point of the book is to tell a story just as much to meet interesting people. Readers have different motivations in reading a book, some want to see interesting places, some want to meet cool people, but I’m betting it’s safe to say all want to hear a fascinating story. If your little details stunt the flow of the story, it’s too much. But if you don’t include any, it’s bland. You know this for your heroes…don’t forget your villains.