I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal.
Nothing wrecks a good story like a lame villain.
Be it Mustache Twirlers, Righteous Avengers, or World Conquerors, such villains have nothing to them apart from their evilness. And no matter how grandiose that evilness is, evil without any depth is boring.
A villain’s got to have more than just evil intent to be worthy of page space. A villain needs interests, feelings, and hopes all their own.
I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
In my post on the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil,” I shared my realization that villains “must have some essence of us, of the everyday person.” I think this is why Michael Scott‘s villain Dr. John Dee makes such a magnificent antagonist to Nicholas Flamel in The Alchemyst: he is presented as a complete individual, one with facets physical, intellectual, and emotional.
He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight pontytail, while a neat triangular bear, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. (5)
Right here, in our first sight of Dr. John Dee, we get a sense of Dee’s style. He’s one for theatrical elegance, right down to the very scent of his aura when ignited:
Dee closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “I rather like the smell of brimstone. It is so…” He paused. “So dramatic.” (20)
Chapter 6 builds on this physical image of Dee, with limousines, leather coats, and the latest technology. The man’s even got a favorite ringtone: the theme from The X-Files (which, oddly enough, was MY favorite show back in the day. *Gasp* a sign of my inner villainy!). While a little detail like a favorite ringtone may not sound worth writing, such a little detail gives us a sense of a man amused by what humanity considers paranormal, one who might watch such a show just to see what humans get right. Heck, maybe Dee has a crush on Gillian Anderson.
My point is, a villain sharing his personal tastes in some fashion, any fashion, helps readers see a complete person on the page.
We also see that Dee’s not so disconnected from the world as to think he can do what he wants without affecting the environment. For example, when his undead army fails to capture Flamel and Co. but succeeds to destroy a chunk of a town, there’s a newspaper account of him holding his movie company accountable for the damage and promising to make reparations. Dee’s physical wealth gives him the ability to cover up his magical actions, including the kidnapping of Nicholas’ wife Perenelle. He’s bought Alcatraz as a prison for her…with a sphinx for a guard. Where else could one hide a sphinx near San Francisco?
An icy shiver ran down Perenelle’s spine as she realized just how clever Dee was. She was a defenseless and powerless prisoner on Alcatraz, and she knew that no one had ever escaped The Rock alive. (315)
Dee is, indeed, a wickedly clever individual. He understands alchemy, necromancy, sorcery, and more. He can call up the consciousness of a dead member of the Elder Race, one of the most powerful beings on the planet Earth, and command it to speak truth.
Even though he has not been able to study the powerful book known as the Codex because Flamel guards it, he remembers several elements of its contents, including a prophecy involving twins heralding a powerful change for all races, magical and non-magical, that walk the earth.
So when twins Sophie and Josh are separated in Chapter 37, Dee uses his wit to corner Josh’s fragile mental state. He knows just the lines to say to make Josh feel like Dee is full of truth, and Flamel is the proper liar. Lines like:
“Are you a victim too?”
“It seems we are all victims of Nicholas Flamel.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been chasing Nicholas Flamel, or Nick Fleming, or any of the hundreds of other aliases he’s used?…Flamel never tells anyone everything,” he said. “I used to say that half of everything he said was a lie, and the other half wasn’t entirely truthful, either.” (338-40)
Terms like “victim” and “lie” are just enough to keep Josh second-guessing if Dee is being truly helpful or truly villanous. This buys Dee enough time to cast a spell on Josh to numb his senses so he can go hunting for the others.
But no scene quite shows the inner motivations of Dee like the end of Chapter 32, after the Dark Elders leave Dee to chase Flamel and Co. southward.
Dee shoved his hands in the pockets of his ruined leather coat and set off down the narrow path. He hated it when they did that, dismissed him as if he were nothing more than a child.
But things would change.
The Elders like to think that Dee was their puppet, their tool. He had seen how Bastet had abandoned Senuhet, who had been with her for at least a century, without a second glance. He knew they would do exactly the same to him, given the chance.
But Dr. John Dee had plans to ensure that they never got that chance. (298)
Dee has been granted immortality by the Dark Elders in return for his service. He’s led their armies, he’s spent years wandering Otherworlds and Shadowrealms, he’s fought monsters that would frighten the blackest of natures. If you had ten years to wander around in an Otherworld of ice, that’d leave you time to think.
Dee absolutely believes he is doing the right thing; he has to believe that Flamel and Perenelle are in the wrong. –Michael Scott
Michael Scott takes care to give us consistent glimpses into Dee’s feelings via changes in point of view. Not only do we see the progress of the story from Flamel’s narrow escapes and feats of magic, but we also see the story from Dee’s prepared traps, skillful attacks, angry defeats.
By focusing solely on the twins’ POV, we would only get a tiny glimpse of what was happening. Similarly, with Flamel, we get just another tiny slice. By giving us Dee, and the other POV and perspectives, we get a bigger, broader and wider story. Also, it teases the reader slightly (and this is something which is explored in more detail as the series progressed): are the Flamels being honest? We, the reader, know they are lying to the twins, so suddenly, everything we know about them is thrown into doubt. Maybe, just maybe Dee is telling the truth. –Michael Scott
Dee is just as passionate about achieving his plan as he is cunning in his means to fulfill it. This man even carries one of the greatest swords of humanity’s heroes: Excalibur.
Dr. John Dee lifted the short-bladed sword in his hand. Dirty blue light coiled down its length, and for an instant the ancient stone blade hummed as an invisible breeze moved across the edge. The twisting snakes carved into its hilt came to twisting, hissing life. (267)
Surely a hero wields a heroic sword, doesn’t he? Yet Dee uses it to kill an Elder and destroy an entire Shadowrealm. That doesn’t sound heroic.
But we readers started this series with Flamel. We’ve connected the term “hero” to Flamel, not to Dee–which is ironic, considering the author Scott’s own words:
…for the longest time, [Dee] WAS the hero of the series. It was called the Secrets of Doctor Dee, with Machiavelli, who appears in book two, as the villain of the piece. However, Dee never felt “right” for the role. Because my rule for the series was that every character had to come from history and every creature from myth, I wanted to stick as closely to the “real” Dee as possible. And while the real Dee was many things, he was not a hero. –Michael Scott
Like the “common” villain, Dee has his moments of confidence, and rightfully earned, too: when he first takes the Codex, when he kidnaps Perenelle, when he kills an Elder. His skills and knowledge shine in these moments.
But unlike the “common” villain, Dee does not assume his plans are fool-proof. He often has to create new attacks on the fly. He’s often afraid to deal with the Dark Elders, but he has no choice and seeks their aid.
“Fixing a smile on his lips, he rose stiffly to his feet and turned to face one of the few of the Dark Elders who genuinely terrified him.” (92)
Now normally I’d say fear makes a villain whiny, or at the very least obnoxious. But with Dee, this simply shows he’s capable of more than confident arrogance. Just as a hero fears failure, so does this villain. Both hero and villain are desperate to succeed, but unsure they can. This dual uncertainty, emphasized with the multiple points of view, drives readers to turn one page after another, eager to see who gets the power tipped into his favor in the next chapter, and the next chapter, and the next.
He was a real man, extraordinary in so many ways, but incredibly flawed.
May your own villain be as Dr. John Dee:
A devil in need of sympathy.
Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/.