Clay Sanger Talks Dark Fantasy Characters in KNAVES (@claysanger)

Writing (or reading) bad guys is fun. And I don't just mean conjuring up clever villains. I mean bad guys as protagonists and antagonists alike. There's just something special about writing characters that you know are capable of very bad things. They're complex and nuanced in ways that their more forthright counterparts frequently aren't.

Clearly, there's a particular kind of bad guy I've got a soft spot for. And it's not the moustache twirling, one-dimensional variety who wakes up in the morning, eats their Evil Flakes while reading the morning edition of the Evil Times and dreams up ways to be evil. Skeletor doesn't count. Because Skeletor is still awesome. Moving on.

I go for bad guys who sport reasons for their badness.  Even if those reasons are self-delusional or woefully misguided. A great bad guy is the hero of his or her own story. They experience love and fear and self-doubt just like their white-hat counterparts. They might cope with it in different ways, and for many of them, being the good bad guy they are is a constant exercise in self-deception or self-loathing. But they have all the same recognizable motivations as the supposed heroes of the story. They're just willing to do things to achieve those goals that others aren't. They have a different take on 'right' and 'wrong.' Or in the most compelling cases, their moral compass has just been bent all to hell by the events that made them who they are. The very finest of the bad guys even seem to aware of the wrongness of their essential nature. They know they're bad apples. They'll even caution others not to follow in their footsteps. But that doesn't deter them from being what they are.

Those are the kind of villains I find the most compelling. There's room for their humanity to bleed through. Chances to glimpse who or what they might have been had circumstances and the consequences of their decisions been a little more kind to them. When you see a villainous, ruthless character's humanity exposed, it hits a very peculiar chord. It's not quite the sympathy you feel for their more kind-hearted counterparts. But it's also not the grim satisfaction you experience when an unrepentant villain gets their comeuppance. It's something akin to pity. A glimpse at the pain that likely made them the monster they are.

No one questions that Jamie Lannister was introduced to our collective consciousness as a villain's villain. His first notable act was the attempted murder of an innocent child for the sole purpose of concealing his incestuous relationship with his twin sister. For a perverse notion of love, he threw a little boy out a window with a smile. Fast forward in time to the betrayal and abandonment visited back on him by that same sister and the seismic shift that watching her descend into madness has taken on him. There was one thing in this world Jamie Lannister loved. It was the thing for which he was capable of committing any crime or sin. And as all of that begins to wither in flames before his eyes, his whole world comes unraveled.

Artemis Entreri, ruthless assassin, calculating killer. He was the infamous arch-nemesis of Drizzt Do'Urden throughout much of R.A. Salvatore's Dark Elf Saga. This man commits murder like a force of nature and seems to feel all the remorse of a hurricane or a plague. But time showed us that monsters are most often made, not born. Born into poverty and abuse, forged by desperation, Entreri learned to survive meant to kill. The sum total of his entire life taught him violence was the ultimate answer and remorse was a weakness to be shed. In the world of his upbringing, there were only two kinds of people – predators and prey. But when faced with the sins of his past, the ghosts that made him who he was, he became as much an unintended vigilante hero as the Punisher.

Jorg Ancrath, the young ruthless Prince and highwayman from Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire series. A boy who but for a short series of brutal turns of events might have drifted unremarkably through the pages of the Broken Empire's history. But instead, he became a monster who united an Empire by battering into submission, paving his road to the throne with the corpses of heroes and tyrants alike. But he was once a terrified little boy who loved his mother, his brother, and his dog. Who lost his whole world in a single night of pain and murder. But even through it all, he was still a young boy who held on desperately to the handful of people he loved, while at the same time, he willfully "…burned ten thousand in Gelleth and did not think it too many." Jorg's whole existence was predicated on the daily reaffirmation of the lies he told himself to cope with the horrors he had endured and continued to endure throughout his apocalyptic adventure. Poignantly illustrated when one of Jorg's companions, the simple-minded Maical, is killed by a stray arrow. Jorg flies into a murderous rage which he takes out on the unfortunate soldiers who flung the arrow. When asked what his flying off the handle was all about, he replied in frustration, "They shot my idiot." But as a reader, I couldn't help but infer that simple-minded Maical was as close to something innocent as Jorg had – and losing him to stupid fortune was a hurt that blindsided him. If there was one thing complex young Jorg struggled to cope with, it was things that truly hurt him. Examples like that made him one of the most compelling "villains" I've ever read.

Writing (or reading) bad guys is fun. Making ones that resonate, that shine with facets like dark diamonds is a peculiar artform.

Cheers to the villain-makers. May you keep churning them out of the forge and breaking their molds when you're done.


About the Author

Clay Sanger is a professional technogeek by day and a writer of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror the rest of the time. A life-long lover of all things wild, Clay spent much of his early adulthood wandering the four corners of the country in search of the weird and wonderful, the dark and the light.  As chance would have it he found them. After meandering far and wide he returned to his native Ozarks where he lives with his dazzling wife, their sons, and a menagerie of mythical creatures both real and imagined.

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About the Book

Outland Entertainment is proud to bring you Knaves: A Blackguards Anthology. Featuring fourteen brand new tales of scheming anti-heroes and dark protagonists from the wrong side of the palace gates, Knaves brings together some of the finest fantasy authors in the industry in a book that will make readers wonder, “What is the ‘right side,’ anyway?” Authors include Mercedes Lackey, Anna Smith Spark, Cullen Bunn, Maurice Broaddus, Anton Strout, Walidah Imarisha, Cat Rambo, Lian Hearn, and more! Edited by Melanie R. Meadors and Alana Joli Abbott