In 2006 I started Pillars of the Earth, and though it was a little too racy, I was determined to finish the gargantuan volume. That was until my favorite character died. In case you’re wondering, this was the same reason I stopped reading the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed that PotE was available on OverDrive Media through my local library, and my determination was renewed. I decided to tackle the goliath head on. I powered through the audio version in roughly a week. The nudity and intercourse scenes are gratuitous, but I did appreciate the way Follet had woven complex characters into overarching themes.
I learned a lot from this novel and wanted to share some thoughts over a 2-part blog called “What Ken Follet Taught Me.” (If that doesn’t supercharge my SEO than I don’t know what will). PotE had some amazing villains, some were awful throughout the novel, while others were created through circumstance. So for the first installment, I’d like to discuss villains: what is the difference between a good villain and a great villain, why you should never ever waste a great villain, and finally, why it’s important to make sure a villain’s demise is emotionally satisfying to the reader.
What is the difference between a good villain and great villain? PotE has no shortage of villains, but the two most vile are William Hamleigh and Bishop Walren Bigod. The former is much more sadistic and malevolent, but the latter frustrates the heroes at every turn. While listening to the book I eagerly anticipated their demise, and even told my wife how much I hated them, and that’s when I realized that Follet had created, not just good villains, but great villains. A lot of stories have characters who do horrible acts, but I had an emotional reaction to these characters. I had to find out what Follet did to elicit that response. As I continued to listen to a mp3 version of the book, here’s what I found: there are attributes of these characters that I connect with. I assure it’s a minute connection, but it’s there nonetheless. This is the genius in crafting a great villain: give them characteristics that your audience will identify with. Anyone can create a psychotic ax wielding killer, but the reader doesn’t connect with that character. If you want the reader to connect with the villain ensure they have a rounded personality: faults, hopes, fears. Allow them to have ambition, albeit skewed. In other words let them be real. One thing you should never do is try to explain why they’re so evil, that should be apparent in the story. The difference between a good character and a bad character is how they respond to conflict.
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Why you should never waste a great villain? Once you have a great villain, it’s important not to waste him. There’s plenty of examples of this in film and novels, and especially true with the two villains mentioned above. Spoiler alert, they both make it to the end. When I was fifty pages into this book I wanted them both to lose, when I was 300 pages in I wanted them to pay for their crimes, and by page 600, I was, as I said before, longing for their death. However, it occurred to me that Follet had just spent a large amount of the book crafting these characters to being the epitome of evil, and if he killed them off, it would be an incredible waste, although incredibly satisfying to the reader. He would also have to replace them, but with whom? Could he have a character turn heel, sure, but at what price? Isn’t better to keep the evil character going; with longevity they become more despicable. It also allows the author to provide an inaudible commentary about the systems governing the society where someone so vile could not only thrive, but continually become more powerful. Great villains, like great heroes, take time to craft, don’t throw away all of your hard work.
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Why it’s important to make sure a villain’s demise is emotionally satisfying to the reader?
When William Hamleigh killed my favorite character, I was so frustrated I put this book down and didn’t pick it up for ten years! Not only was I distraught over the death of that character, I was irate that William didn’t immediately pay for his crimes. Where was the lightening from the sky? Where was the justice? Wasn’t good suppose to triumph over evil? Again, I was forced to ask, what the hell is Follet doing? I found his point amazing. With a simple, pointless death of a beloved character the reader was forced to feel what all the characters being oppressed in the novel felt: meaningless, hopelessness, and injustice. In addition, when I listened to the death scene a second time, I knew that William couldn’t die, not at that time, anyway, he had to meet his demise at the hands of those he had hurt most: Aliena. When that moment in the book came, it was so tense and so well done. William, however, did not die, he simply lost everything he had. This of course was satsifying to the reader, but there was still more to be done, so he had to live on. For the reader to experince the highest state of emotional satisfaction, the villain had to meet a nasty ending with no hope of absolution. In addition, other character whom William had hurt had to have a hand in it, Prior Philip starting the crusade after the Arch-Bishop’s death ultimately culminated in William’s death. The most satisfying part was that Aliena watched his death with eyes wide open. A great villain will have such an integral part of the plot that his or her death will involve several chracters, the major themes, and, possibly, the climax. Great villains deserve great death scenes too.
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