Great Villains: Rereading Death Masks, by Jim Butcher
Welcome to the blog! I'll try to post here at least twice a month -- if not more -- we're going to skip an introductory post and get straight to some content!
Most of us love to hate a bad guy, and they come in all flavors. A villain can be a complete and total evil, like Sauron from LotR, or they can be rather likable and relatable with goals and ambitions of their own.
Recently I reread Death Masks, by Jim Butcher. To be honest, I listened to it this time. That's how I consume at least two books a month. Read one at home, hear one in the car. After consuming this story a second time, and having developed more as a storyteller myself, I started to really geek out over this novel's villain. This book is the fifth in an ongoing series, and it introduces one of my absolute favorite villains in SFF. Minor spoilers, but the book came out in 2003. In addition, you should know, the earlier books can be read out of order, at least in my opinion.
Today I'd like to ramble a bit about this villain, and what makes him great -- despite his low amount of actual 'screen time'. Hopefully this is a discussion that both SFF readers and writers can enjoy. So let's put in our story goggles, and take a look.
Nicodemus. Even the name has 'arch-enemy material' written all over it. Also, go look into the biblical implications if you so wish.
When I started looking at the story and asking myself why Nicodemus made such a great villain, three things came to mind.
Tags, Actions, and Reactions. And I'll explain each.
Now, lots of things go into making a great villain. But, those are the three things that came to mind as being the most powerful aspects of why I reacted so well to Nicodemus in Death Masks. I'll talk a little bit about each of those aspects, but first let me sum up our bad guy real quick.
Polite and cultured, Nicodemus comes across as a sly businessman in personality. But, make no mistake this bastard is as evil as they get, and does not play by the rules. Little is known about his background except that there are several allusions to the fact that he may be over two thousand years old. Nicodemus is introduced in Death Masks as he and his League of Fallen Angels are trying to steal the Shroud of Turin, in order to use its magical power as a big battery for a ginormous plague curse. Nicodemus is in possession of a cursed coin, which contains a fallen angel. In addition to a bunch of magical power provided by the Fallen angel, he also wears a noose around his neck like a tie. The noose is supposedly the one Judas used to hang himself, and it's power makes him practically impossible to kill. He's described as speaking with a slight British accent and is always calm and comprised no matter the situation he finds himself in. In addition to being downright creepy he also proves himself to be quite brilliant, and formidable in hand-to-hand combat. After all, if you really are 2,000 years old, you would think you'd pick up some skills along the way right? And to top off this villain with a little more creep factor, he's got a thing for his daughter -- who is one of his many demon-coin-carrying followers. Super messed up. And they don't mind openly displaying their affection. Ew.
Jim Butcher did a great job of crafting Nicodemus as a villain and those three topics that came to mind (Tags, Actions, and Reactions) are all executed perfectly. Here's a few observations I've made about those topics, and why they make Nick a very effective Villain.
Keep in mind that as I talk about writing and story telling terms and techniques, definitions may vary. I'm not here to preach undeniable truth, but make opinionated observations.
Tags for all intents and purposes are descriptors. Tags make a character memorable as they walk on screen. From accent to appearance to props, these are things we see and know immediately who it is. For Indiana Jones, a tag would be a whip. For Darth Vader, it would be the haunting sound of his respirator.
For Nicodemus, it's the noose, and his calm smooth demeanor. Each time he appears 'on screen', he's in control. The lone prop of the noose isn't actually the first thing noticed in his first appearance, but later it becomes more prominently mentioned when ushering him into a scene. Having a villain in possession of a strange and powerful artifact can act as a great tag. But, with Nicodemus he wears this powerful artifact like a tie, adding a subtle hint to what kind of character he is. Dark and deadly, but with refined manners and a businessman's smile.
Obviously a villain needs to do some evil stuff to jump off of Santa's naughty list and straight into villainy. But Nicodemus's actions aren't just evil, they're revealing. No. They don't reveal his plan or anything tied directly to plot, but they reveal character. It's not what he does that makes him a great villain, but how he does it.
Generic Villain: Gives the hero the 'join us or die speech'. And this usually happens in passing. Something along the lines of "why don't you join us? Being bad is fun? I have no real reason to offer this to you, but hey, you've been fun. I wish we were evil friends.'
Nicodemus: Offers Harry (our main character) power. However, he doesn't come forth with the catch that is attached to the offer. The power has a price, and the demon who would grant Harry power would eventually turn him into a monster much like Nicodemus. He also delivers this classic monologue after starving Harry for a time as prisoner, and then bringing a delicious breakfast out in front of him.
Nicodemus's actions are yes, evil. But we also learn he's a deceiver, a thinker, and cruel when it comes to fresh home cooking. When Harry refuses to go dark side, Nicodemus plans to simply use him as a sacrifice for his plague ritual. So, he had a real and legitimate reasons for capturing the hero other than the simple, 'join us or die' speech.
This villain's actions tell us about who is.
How characters react to events can tell us alot about that character. How characters react to other characters can tell us a lot about both of them.
Throughout the book, we're shown that Nicodemus is a powerful and dangerous adversary through other character's reactions. The hero is worried, and has a bad feeling about him. The wise mentors are afraid. Death Masks does a great job of showcasing other's reactions to Nicodemus. This allows us to dig deeper into the villain even when he's off screen.
So there's the rambling observations. A few key things I think made the villain in Death Masks work so well, even though he arguably lacks screen time. I'm sure if I had reread the physical copy of the book, or spent more time thinking on it, I could come up with a million other things to say. Alas, I finished the book a day ago as of writing this, and thought these few thoughts would make a nice post.
Wherever you fall on the geek spectrum of Science Fiction/Fantasy, I hope you found this at least engaging, or mildly entertaining.
Thanks for reading. Expect a couple posts each month.