Crafting the Perfect Villain – The Darkling
Good villains are hard to come by. All too often they’re either pure evil to cartoonish extremes or they’re just boring and forgettable. We’ve all seen villainous characters go from phenomenal villain to poorly written villain in a single scene. So what do good villains need? How do you craft a memorable, balanced and consistent villain that the audience loves from beginning to end? To showcase every attribute I believe is necessary in a great villain, we’re going to look at the main villain of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone Trilogy. Spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t read the series.
The villain of the Shadow and Bone series is the charming, one-of-a-kind sorcerer known as the Darkling. Some background information is now necessary to lay the groundwork for his motives. Firstly, he is an important military official in the country of Ravka. Ravka is ruled by an indifferent king who cares more about his personal gratification and protection than the needs of his people. The Darkling serves this king and is limited to following the king’s wishes, at least officially.
Secondly, the Darkling is a powerful Grisha, one who can wield one select branch magic dependent on the person. The Grisha are persecuted for possessing this power by Ravka’s neighboring countries, which the king isn’t concerned about. Ravka is the one country that accepts the Grisha, using them for military combat. One thing sets the Darkling apart from the rest of the Grisha however. Whereas the others are segmented into groups based on their abilities, his branch of magic is totally unique to him and his bloodline. He is gifted with longevity and the ability to control and shape darkness. This magic is what has allowed him to climb so high into the military but it has also isolated him as there is no one who can relate to him. No one else has lived so long and everyone else has hundreds of fellow Grisha that can wield the same magic.
Long before the current apathetic king, the Darkling came up with a plan to help his people. Using his unique magic he created a void of darkness known as the Shadow Fold. Monsters form within the darkness, terrified of the light outside. His plan is to wield the Shadow Fold and the monsters within as a weapon to protect their borders and to attack the neighboring countries that hunted the Grisha. The experiment went horribly wrong. The Fold was created but he couldn’t control it. It now cuts Ravka off from the sea, leaving its only lifeline to the outside world the two neighboring countries that hate it. Ravka suffers economically, slowly dying as its resources dwindle. The Darkling slips into obscurity waiting and watching for generations until before the book begins. He then climbs to the top of the military under a different identity and adopts the guise of the king’s loyal servant. He remains there until the story begins.
Those pieces of information are all the background you need to know to understand him as a villain. Since this isn’t a comprehensive look at his character or the series’ plot, I am leaving more irrelevant details out in favor of the ones that showcase him as an outstanding villain.
But you probably didn’t come here for lore and background information. You came here to see how to craft a superb villain and I am multiple paragraphs in and still haven’t delivered on that promise. I suppose I should get to that.
The book opens by introducing you to the main character, Alina. She is also the perspective character of our first-person adventure. Through a series of events, she discovers she can create and manipulate light. The Darkling is told about this by a few Grisha soldiers that witnessed it. His mind begins kicking into gear. With Alina he can control the Shadow Fold. His old dreams can be realised, they can finally regain access to the sea, and he finally has someone who is just as special and alone as he is.
He recruits her and takes her back to the castle where she is introduced to the king. The Darkling says that Alina can destroy the Shadow Fold, hiding his true intentions. Her training begins and the book follows that until the climax. A majority of the book then is Alina’s training at the hands of people at the castle. Let’s get into how the Darkling is built up and why it works.
For starters, the Darkling has many good attributes which are essential for any well-written villain. The books first person narrative does wonders for this. Since most of the first book is Alina at the castle while the Darkling is still serving the king, he hides his less than desirable attributes. This leaves you only seeing the parts of him that are admirable. But since he’s holding back isn’t all of this a moot point? Nope. This would be pointless if he was merely putting on a mask or pretending to be something he’s not. Instead, he’s repressing his negative tendencies and leading with his best qualities. The distinction is that they are truly his qualities. He’s like a teenage boy on his first date, showcasing all his best personality traits. He cares passionately for the betterment and safety of his people. He is capable of leading well. He sees people’s talents and needs and how to address them. All of this is good and true. He desires many of the same things the heroes do, safety and improvement. How he goes about this is what sets him apart. Villains are just heroes going about something with less than ideal means. But for a villain to be good, they need a cause worth fighting for and they often need to be fighting for the same or a similar cause as the hero.
Another contribution to the Darkling’s character is that we like him based off of first impressions. First impressions are hard to shake. His moments of cruelty are feasibly justifiable at first when we see him in a good light for most of the first book. If he was a complete monster in his first appearance it would be difficult to sway the reader’s opinion of him. But if you show his goodness first the reader will believe that his villainy isn’t his true self, even when all the evidence says otherwise.
Simply giving him good qualities at all makes the audience forgive many of his negative ones. For example, there is a character named Zoya who hates Alina and sets about making her life miserable at the castle. It never goes beyond a fight and (heaven help us) a love triangle and yet she is one of the most hated characters in the trilogy. Meanwhile the Darkling ends the series by threatening to murder an orphanage and we rationalize away his behavior. Why? The answer is simple: The Darkling’s bad qualities are far worse but he has good ones that contrast them. Zoya has no redeeming qualities beyond being a capable fighter, which isn’t inherently a good trait. While her negative attributes are considerably smaller, those attributes are all there is to her character over the trilogy, giving us less to route for. Depth makes a good character. We forgive the heinous crimes of the Darkling because we know him well. We’ve seen his personality, his reasonings, his motive, and even his past fears and trauma. We see what got him to where he is and part of us wishes for his eventual redemption into the person we know he can be. But if you do not showcase their potential and only give them bad qualities, the audience will have no incentive to root for the villain’s success or change. It is important to note that once Zoya becomes a perspective character in book six and we know her better, she becomes one of the series best characters. A shallow knowledge of a character combined with a lack of good qualities will create a character the audience loathes.
But what was that I said about rooting for him? Well, you do root for him. Once you’ve heard his plan to improve his country and protect it you see it is cold and cruel but also effective. The Darkling eventually usurps the throne, claiming total control over Ravka. He then mercilessly slaughters innocents just to send a message to Ravka’s neighboring countries. However, you get the sense that through these violent means things will improve. The Grisha can have a truly safe haven for the first time in history. Their economy can be saved if they can access the sea and the lives of Grisha and non-Grisha will benefit from that. It will cost the lives of those who were persecuting them and those that resist, but everyone else’s lives will get better. Now, that’s flawed logic and would be terrible for any heroic protagonist but for a villain, that’s the kind of logic that makes us love their character. Well meaning but flawed, effective but not worth the cost.
The last positive quality of the Darkling that makes him a good villain is his self-control. The Darkling has his limits. He lives by a strict moral code that he always abides by. That doesn’t mean it is a good code, but he has rules for himself he refuses to break. If a villain is uncontrollable or on a rampage it can work. But the best villains are those that are human and relatable, and the Darkling’s code adds a layer of believability to his character. He refuses to kill Grisha as those are his people and the future of his country. He will however kill Grisha that attempt to stop his plan to help Ravka and the Grisha. He won’t kill Alina as he needs her to help Ravka but he will kill her friends as they’re obstructing his plans. He prefers not to kill non-Grisha but if it will benefit him he doesn’t hesitate. This gives him a clear cut moral code and a ranking of his priorities and values. He loves his country above all else as he refuses to intentionally harm it in any way. It is the safe haven for everything he cares about and hence his top priority. He loves his people second best because they can betray him or not abide by his plans or goals. Thirdly he prioritizes the non-Grisha people of his nation so long as them thriving assists the Grisha. Finally there is everything else which is inconsequential to his people’s survival and hence unnecessary. This simplistic code he lives by affects the actions he takes over the course of the story.
In book three, when Alina is running from the Darkling with a small band of friends, the Darkling lures her out with the threat of killing everyone at the orphanage she grew up in. The threat is accompanied by the news that he killed the caretakers of the orphanage and has hung their bodies on the orphanage’s tree. Yikes. The heroes rush to the final confrontation with him and the orphans are nowhere to be seen. He tells them their deaths weren’t necessary so they were moved to the castle to live comfortable lives. He didn’t want to harm the future of the nation he was rebuilding. It’s a simple thing but it sets him apart from most other villains. He still killed several people, but his refusal to kill certain people and his logic behind it makes him human and not as big of a monster.
So the Darkling has many good attributes that contribute to his character. He has a charming, enjoyable personality that makes his scenes fun to read. His good attributes are shown before the bad and are shown to be authentic and worth fighting for. His methods are effective and benefit many more than just himself. Finally, he has restraint that keeps him from doing absolutely anything to reach his goals. But isn’t there more to good villains than positive attributes? Sure, the best villains are the ones we root for but if they actually won we’d feel cheated. So what of the negative attributes that separate them from the heroes? The Darkling has those in spades and while they are definitely less likeable they make him the chilling and unforgivable, yet sympathetic villain that he is.
The Darkling has a wide range of negative qualities to choose from. He murders countless people who stand in his way, he manipulates Alina throughout book one and attempts to do so repeatedly in books two and three, he threatens those close to her, he sells a female Grisha to the king in order to use her as a spy, he kills his mother, he created a gigantic Shadow Fold that creates monsters, ect. There’s a lot. But I think coming up with bad qualities is easy. You didn’t come here to have me tell you a good villain should kill and manipulate. I’d much rather focus on the portrayal and causes of the negative because therein is the Darkling’s uniqueness.
His evil is shown lastly, after you’ve had enough evidence to make a case for his goodness. If you were going on a blind date and all you knew about the person was that they were murderous and manipulative, you would most likely rethink whether or not your evening was free. However, if all you knew about him was that he was good natured, charming, caring about his country, caring for the younger generations, good looking, wise economically and that he has provided for his mother for decades, you would be inclined to like him. That, to an exaggerated degree, is the Darkling. Only after seeing his long, impressive list of good qualities do you begin seeing red flags and they’re easy to explain away. Once you know who he murders and why he manipulates it is easy to see them as lesser crimes than they are.
But the series makes it even easier to justify his crimes. For the first two books, the Darkling is rarely the worst person in the room. There is the king, who abuses his power against many of the female servants, the prince who is so apathetic he lets the northern country invade while he rides horses for recreation, the Aparat who manipulates an entire religion for his own personal gain, and all the snobby higher ups who are content to sit by and watch people suffer. The Darkling is a horrible person but he’s set in a world where everyone else is by their apathy or selfishness. His motive for his terrible deeds is selfless. He wants a safe country for his people. Almost everyone else’s motive is selfish. This hint of noble character makes his murder less of a problem, leaving only his manipulation as a glaring flaw. What does he manipulate people towards? Towards building a safe Ravka. Manipulation is intolerable, but he manipulates for a selfless goal. It makes you question whether or not it’s right. While your eventual conclusion is likely that is is still wrong and inexcusable, by then the Darkling is building something better and you’ve seen the positive fruit of all he’s done. True or not, it is difficult for the characters to argue the ruined or manipulated futures of of a few still matter in the face of improvement for millions. His behavior is justifiable, but not excusable. It makes sense, but it is still wrong. His noble motive makes you question his evil methods and his selfless motive in a world of selfish pricks makes him stand out as slightly less dark than the rest.
The combination of his bad attributes with his good ones creates a complicated character. You can like the way he chooses to do something and still remember he manipulated an innocent and vulnerable girl into taking a position that jeopardizes her safety two chapters ago. He can make you smile while still disgusting you with his disregard for certain lives. The good and the bad form an authentic person who feels real. He is someone with a good heart and bad tendencies thrown into circumstances and given enough power to achieve goals others could only dream of.
The greatest aspect of the Darkling’s motive is that it is what the heroes want as well. Tolerable villains want the opposite of the hero. Good villains want similar things. Great villains strive for the same goal but still come into conflict with the heroes. Both the Darkling and Alina want to help Ravka. The only distinction is in the methods they use.
His crowning jewel however is his relatability. In the face of his evil, you catch glimpses of his loneliness. He dines alone as he feels unable to relate to those who have lived so short lives. Since he doesn’t use the same power as the rest of the Grisha, they fear him and refuse to get too close. This isolates him more which gives the impression he is aloof and uncaring towards them when nothing could be farther from the truth. His great experiment to save his people only makes everything worse for them. At first, he toils away unable to affect real change, only capable of placing a few spies and helping the Grisha soldiers closest to him. Then, Alina arrives, just as powerful and just as isolated as he is. With her power she can live just as long as he can. Here is someone who can spend thousands of years with him, one who can relate to his power and isolation, one who can stand with him so he can never be alone. He carefully approaches it and sets in motion his plan to conquer Ravka.
Unfortunately for him, Alina is a good person. Alina flees from him upon discovering his true intentions. Now, he’s alone once more. The loneliness compounds on all his flaws and the rest of the series is the battle between the two of them for the fate of their country. Like Reylo but done years earlier and actually done well.
The Darkling, despite being centuries old and the military leader and eventual king of Ravka, is relatable. He is murderous and manipulative but we see a part of ourselves in him. How? Because he was shown to us from the perspective of the one person he chose to let into his life. We see his good first and it is authentically good. Then, we see his evil and it is repulsive. But since we know his good and are shown his character from the perspective of the one most likely to justify him, we get to wrestle with his character just as much as Alina. At the series end, you catch a glimpse of who the Darkling truly is and it makes the series end more saddening than joyful.
In the end, the Darkling is an individual we are forced to condemn but not one we enjoy condemning. We relate to his loneliness and his desire to help others and his country but we cannot accept his manipulation and the methods he uses for his ends. The Darkling is complicated. As a result, he is one of the greatest villains I’ve ever seen. What then can we take away from all of this?
Truly great, relatable villains have good qualities and good motives. They are effective and have limits for themselves. They have personalities we can see ourselves in. They are evil with a purpose. They oppose the hero by wanting something similar or identical to the hero. Great villains are a balance of good and bad, likeable and hateable at the same time. We want to root for them but would feel cheated if they ended up winning. They combat the hero, providing a dark reflection of the hero in their goals and perhaps their personality. To sum it up quickly, a good villain is one we see as human, with personality, struggles, and motives and one we also could not approve of if left unchecked. The Darkling models all of this perfectly, becoming an ideal example of a stupendous villain.