Why Write: Urban Fantasy with Emmie Mears

Said familiar face; Photograph by Colleen Barrett of Blue Tree Photography.

Said familiar face; Photograph by Colleen Barrett of Blue Tree Photography.

Hey readers! As promised, here is the very first Why Write interview! Because Emmie Mears is my critique partner, query-trenches comrade, and generally buddy, she gets to open this (hopefully) entertaining and enlightening series and set the bar for the rest of us. Plus she’s a fantastic writer and keeper of a fabulous blog, so you should listen to what she has to say.

Hello, Emmie, and welcome! You’re a familiar face around these parts, but go ahead and tell us a little about yourself and your work.

I was that kid who moved around all the time. No, we weren’t military. No, I can’t give any great reason for it, other than that we were excessively poor and usually searching for better economic climes. Because of all the moves, I was a child with a painstaking level of shyness, and I escaped into books more often than not. I fell in love with fantasy and horror first — R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike practically raised me to be this nuts. Sprinkle in a bunch of teen babysitters and L.J. Smith’s Night World series, and I can pretty much see my writing preferences forming in front of my eyes.

I first attempted writing sci-fi, then gave up because I really had no idea about space (I was 9). After that I tried epic fantasy, but found my own work so naive that I almost threw it into the woodstove. Finally, I settled into urban fantasy, and I’ve made a nest there. I love grit and darkness with a healthy addition of quirk and humor. I adore writing female characters who rise above their circumstances in some way and who are more concerned with saving the world than finding a boyfriend.

What made you decide to write urban fantasy?

I don’t remember hearing the name of the genre when I was growing up, but a lot of L.J. Smith’s books would probably fit into that genre (though an argument can also be posed for paranormal romance). I love both the ideas of worlds within our own and the supernatural among us, and I’m lazy, so this way the basic structure of our world remains intact (usually).

What types of stories does urban fantasy make possible?

I think that this genre has a very interesting ability to allow for human stories to be told through a supernatural lens. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a perfect example — many of the episodes use demons and apocalypses to personify the struggle of reaching adulthood and beyond. That’s not to say the same isn’t possible in other genres, but there’s a candor to urban fantasy that I like. It’s not afraid to get messy, and it gives me the freedom to explore all sorts of “what if” scenarios. What if you drank a serum that was supposed to cure your boss’s daughter of terminal cancer? What if that boss already had it in for you? What if she was involved in a political conspiracy against your country?

See? FUN.

What audience do you think urban fantasy attracts? How does that audience influence the types of stories you tell and characters you write?

I think urban fantasy readers (like most fantasy readers) want an escape. There tends to be a common element of “chosen-ness” within the fantasy genre as a whole. A protagonist is the only one who can fight XYZ Evil. I think growing up it attracted me because I (the painfully shy) desperately wanted to be chosen for something majestic and terrible and awesome. At the same time, these characters are often deeply flawed, which is something I think people relate to. Most humans don’t like themselves all the time.

I try to write urban fantasy with that in mind, because I don’t think I’m alone in that mindset. If people want an easy escape, they’ll read something less gritty. But urban fantasy readers want that darkness, that gray area. I try to let that breathe in my characters and like to give them problems that challenge what they’ve thought in the past and push them into territory that makes them uncomfortable — and that makes them have to face their flaws head-on.

How does urban fantasy affect the stakes for your characters and your audience?

As you know, *laughs* I tried to write a magical realism novel this winter. I’m so used to the stakes being primarily physical (if you don’t succeed, you and a bunch of other poor sods will DIE HORRIBLY!) that I struggled writing something where most of the stakes were emotional. In urban fantasy, the stakes tend to be very physical AND emotional, but the physical stakes usually drive the plot. When there are literally creatures that want to eat you, well. Stakes. You’ve got them. And you might become them. Or become steaks, anyway.

Why do you think people love to read urban fantasy? How do you think urban fantasy affects its audience?

I think there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment involved. Urban fantasy protagonists tend to be badasses in larger-than-life conflicts. And who doesn’t want to be a badass hero from the safety of your living room?

I think urban fantasy as a genre can really allow readers to question themselves in a healthy way. I still remember the effect Buffy had on me when I first watched it, or how I felt about Anita Blake’s development and how it challenged how I thought about my own power and my sexuality, or how I could empathize with Rachel Morgan as she discovered things about herself that made her squirm. I’ve grown up in a lot of ways as a direct result of my imagination coming into contact with these characters and these stories. I think other people feel the same.

For funsies, what is your favorite genre to read?

Erm…urban fantasy. Well, any fantasy. Give me magic and creatures and gray areas, and I’m a happy Emmie.

Thanks so much for having me around today, Kristin! *waves to readers*

If you want to track Emmie down, you can reach her via the following links!
Blog: http://www.emmiemears.com
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/emmiemears
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/emmiemears

Student of history. Gamer. Language nerd. Displaced Celt.

Emmie spends at least an hour a day preparing for or thinking about the zombie apocalypse.

Future calamity notwithstanding, Emmie hunts stories in dark alleys and in stone circles and spends most nights listening for something that goes bump.

Emmie lives outside D.C. with her husband, a husky puppy who talks too much, and a tabby who thinks she’s a tiger.

She is currently mucking up the lives of demon-hunters and mythology professors for her current projects. Emmie is represented by Jessica Negrón of Talcott Notch Literary Services.

Zombie Defense: The Squirt Bottle

The trouble with your average Zombie Apocalypse Preparation program is that it neglects the most disturbing and dangerous of all zombies:

THE ZOMBIE CAT.

Sure, we’re sad ’cause it’s dead–TILL IT RISES AGAIN.

The zombie cat is no laughing matter. Behind that soft fur and those long whiskers lurk glowing eyes, sharp (if broken and decaying) claws, and the deadly ability to half-bury you in a litter box after they LAP UP YOUR BRAINS.

I’m telling you. Cats already want to kill us all.

Look at the murder in those eyes.

I’m telling you: we must prepare.

And only the best zombie apocalypse training programs will teach you how to defend yourself. So when ZAP General Emmie Mears asked me to write about the best weapon in the zombie small animal defense arsenal, I agreed.

Because what do all cats fear above ALL ELSE?

This specimen exhibits abnormal bravery in the face of the squirt.

The deadly squirt bottle.

A cat’s fear of the squirt bottle is so powerful, so primal, even the compelling need to consume brains cannot overcome it.

Should you ever find yourself cornered by the furry, rotting, grime-bucket of DOOM, you need to know how best to use your squirt bottle.

1. Know where the nearest water supply is. Your squirt bottle ain’t no use empty.

2. Practice twisting the flow-control nozzle to the right setting. That scattered mist scares no feline: you need the jet setting, and you need to get it fast.

3. Target practice is essential. A truly determined cat will not be phased by a flank hit. No, you need to aim for the face, the ears, the eyes, and the neck. That’s the only way to stop the assault.

Of course, all these methods will only stop a finite number of LOLing-zombies demanding brain-cheezburgers. There’s only one weapon that will stop a pack of zombie-cats, the nuclear bomb of the cat-world, but it merits a blog post of its own:

The jar full of loose change.

Be prepared, folks. You never know when you’re going to need your weapons.

Why Are Even Powerful Women Victims?

As I watched Emmie Mear’s #SuperWomen Twitter chat roll by me last night, and a variety of contributors trying to contribute names to a list of Super Women in popular culture today, I had some trouble articulating why I’m not a fan of Olivia from Fringe. She’s possibly the most bland character on television today—her evil twin was far more appealing—but that’s not what really bothers me.

No, I hate that she’s still portrayed as a victim: even her apparent “superpowers” came about because some mad-scientists experimented on her when she was a kid. Sure, she’s the only one to survive sane, with her powers intact, but those powers were forced upon her and she’s not that keen on using them.

Her reluctance isn’t caution: it’s fear. These powers only exist because she was abused as a kid. I get that it makes her noble for even thinking about using the abilities,  but the fact is, the show-writers perpetuate the effects of the abuse by forcing the character to never overcome them.

And she’s not the only example of the woman who only receives her powers through abuse: look at River Tam from Firefly, the perennial super-assassin-girl. She’s a badass, but she can’t control her badassery. Her skills are the result of years of brainwashing. A brilliant, bright girl was forcibly changed into a weapon of mass (and self) destruction.

That’s not personal power, folks. That’s rape.

It’s unacceptable for women to receive their super powers only as a result of tinkering by outside forces, especially when those forces are portrayed as male. These shows are basically telling us that these women are only amazing because a man stepped in and made her that way, forcing her out of who she was and into a painful new role. These women are powerful, and I won’t deny that. I just can’t redeem the victim-role they’re forced to play.

The journey for these women is then to integrate that power into their lives—and frequently that requires the aid of a lover, brother, or father. Although I hate to besmirch the name, River Song from Doctor Who is an example of where the path of abusive power-giving leads. She’s awesome (and empowering in other ways), but she only came into her awesomeness because she was programmed by a “religious order or movement” to kill the Doctor.

She overcomes that brainwashing, but only because the Doctor himself devises away to let her fulfill her mission, apparently killing him and satisfying her programming. All her well-laid plans to avoid the moment come to nothing, but the Doctor pulls her out of the fire and saves the day.

That’s really uncool when you think about it.

A strong woman’s journey should not require to overcome her abusive past. It should not require her to seek some man’s aid. It should not require her to integrate someone else’s idea of who she should be into her idea of who she is. Maybe she’s all the stronger for overcoming her past, but it’s still not okay to turn her into a victim. Perhaps making her overcome these challenges is more realistic—what woman doesn’t have to overcome some trauma and the perceptions of the world around her?—but the nice thing about television is that it allows us to move past what is and into what could be.

Buffy is awesome, and her power was inborn. Sure, she was “chosen,” but she had the latent powers there already. Part of her journey is to accept that these powers are a defining part of her, for better or worse.

I hate to be the lone nay-sayer, but I think the female superhero sub-genre has yet to reach its potential. We’re still a long way from giving women power without strings, and we viewers, readers, and writers, have the ability to change that. So let’s keep looking. Let’s keep fighting. We’ll have real Super Women across the board one of these days.

#SuperWomen

What do you think? Are you okay with this trope?

Who are some inherently super-powered women? How about:
Hermione from Harry Potter, who knows that nerdiness is awesome
Arwen from The Lord of the Rings films (who, sadly, chooses to give up her powers for a man, which could be a topic for another blog post!)
Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire

Can you think of other powerful women victims? I can:
— Caroline Forbes on The Vampire Diaries received her powers from, well, a bite
— Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, kidnapped and turned into a borg as a kid
Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood, powerful but still vampire bait

Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy

Throughout season four of True Blood, my constant refrain was, “This has to be offensive to Wiccans.” From what I know of Wicca, necromancy and murder aren’t high on the list of healthy pastimes.

More prayin’, less slayin’!

Now that season five has rolled around, though, my refrain is, “Whoa, this is super-offensive to Christians!” The vampires worship Lilith and call the “vampire bible” the true sacred text? Yikes.

It’s gotten me thinking about the treatment of religion in works of urban fantasy. Most universes with demons, ghosts, or witches tend to look toward Judeo-Christian mythology and either corrupt it or use it to ‘preach’ to the audience. On the other side of the coin, we have worlds like the ‘Buffy-verse,’ where Wicca is synonymous with the practice of actual magic and there’s very little worship involved. Religion seems to inform these universes by adding a vocabulary and a mythology rather than shaping them with any remnant of accuracy. And that may not be acceptable to viewers with strong religious belief, of any creed or pantheon.

While we can’t treat religion with kid gloves, we should ask: how far is too far?

Note: this blog post will deal mostly with Christian and Neopagan traditions, only because those are the religions with which I am most familiar. Please, if you can think of additional shows with treatments of additional faiths, leave a comment!

Let’s look at a few portrayal of religion in televised urban fantasy (and/or sci-fi):

Supernatural
Operating within the Judeo-Christian mythology, the Winchesters fight demons, ghosts, pagan gods (who inevitably eat humans), witches (who deal with demons), and even angels. Season five deals with the battle between Michael and Lucifer (yep, that Michael and that Lucifer), who want Dean and Sam respectively as their “vessels.” The boys end up locking both Michael and Lucifer into “the cage,” some trap in hell from which even an archangel can’t escape.

That’s dancing on the line of what may be offensive to some viewers, Christian and Neopagan, but the real rub comes from the show’s treatment of God: he’s missing. Portrayed as an absentee father who never appears in the show and causes endless speculation among viewers, God has washed his hands of the whole race and no longer acts even in the capacity of a deistic “divine mover.” And Jesus? The elephant in the room, so to speak, is never even mentioned.

Angels are not soft and fluffy.

True Blood
As mentioned above, we had a season in which Wiccans appear as harmless Goddess-worshippers and quickly fall under the management of a true witch who wields the power of necromancy and harbors a serious vendetta against vampires. Now we’re learning that the Vampire Authority is split between those who worship Lilith by rote and “terrorists” who fight in Lilith’s name to institute the factory-farming of humans. They quote scripture, too.

Characters frequently pray and ask for God’s protection against the supernatural, but we rarely see truly “good Christian” behavior. Our only experience with a pastor is a man who has an affair with a main character’s mother and later performs an exorcism. That’s… not very inspiring.

It seems that True Blood is an equal opportunity offender.

One believer tortures another.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy exists primarily in a dualistic, secular-humanistic universe. There is a First Evil, but the power of Good and the power of Evil are accessible to humans. The Powers That Be employ and equip champions like Buffy and Angel to fight Evil, but other humans are perfectly capable of fighting against evil without supernatural powers. I’m down with that—I really enjoy system built from the ground up, and this one is such that most dualist believers can place their personal mythology around the show’s framework, while non-believers can watch without offense.

But then there’s the whole sticky wicket of Willow’s “Wicca” and subsequent addiction to magic, which I’ve written about before. The conflation of Wicca and “Powers of Darkness” probably isn’t appreciated by practitioners of a religion that aims to harm none and live in harmony with nature.

Willow prepares to sacrifice a lamb as part of a spell to resurrect Buffy.

Charmed
Confession: I’m not a Charmed fan. I never watched it as a teen, and when I tried to watch it as an adult, it just didn’t click for me. (I believe the words “sooooo cheesy” came out of my mouth repeatedly.) The show uses Wicca/witchcraft and Wiccan/witch synonymously, even though the characters operate within a Christian framework. Angst follows when a protagonist who identifies herself as Christian discovers that she’s a witch—even though she’s a witch that fights demons.

The show jams Christian mythology and dualism together with so-called Wicca (which is duotheist, not dualistic) and witchcraft, and the resulting blend tastes a little sour to me. The internet is rife with diatribes from both religions, complaining about how the show is Satanic or just plain inaccurate. (Aside: if you like Charmed, please tell me why. I’m always willing to be convinced.)

I’m not sure how they end up reconciling witchcraft to a Christian outlook.

The X-Files
This show spans way too many episodes and monsters-of-the-week for me to discuss them all, but a recurring theme is Scully’s semi-devout Catholicism at war with the things she sees in the show. The show takes that juxtaposition seriously, and it deals with the ongoing battle of how people explain the presence of great good and great evil in the world.

Although the show portrays witchcraft as a “black art” at times, it also presents a villain from Orthodox Jewish mythology: perhaps, like True Blood it offends across the board. That said, I believe that the show portrays supernatural or religious power as good or bad, depending on what the user makes of it. In this universe, Christians are just as likely to do evil as witches.

Mulder and Scully continually debate the merits of belief in a higher power.

Doctor Who
The X-Files‘s stance brings us to our final example, the classic British sci-fi show that perpetually looks askance at religion. Religion is forbidden on shuttle platforms, along with weapons and teleportation. The universe’s Big Bad, the Daleks, are the ones who kill because of belief and blasphemy. The Doctor himself treats religion with disdain, attributing to it more death and woe than many other human practices. While a discussion of religion in Doctor Who could run textbook length, I think it’s sufficient to say that religion occupies a fraught position in that war-torn universe.

The Doctor mocks the “impure” Daleks, whose own technology does not recognize them.

That’s just a sampling of portrayals of religion in urban fantasy and/or sci-fi, and it doesn’t even include books. What do you think, readers? How well does religion stand up in a world of magic and mayhem? What other shows treat faith with finesse or with brutality?

Top Ten Reasons I DO NOT Want to Be a Vampire

Last week, Emmie Mears wrote a blog post enumerating the top ten reasons she wants to be a vampire.

She said WHAT?

This week, I’d like to offer a rebuttal. In spite of the fabulous eyelash extensions she-vamps seem to get upon rebirth, the super-speed and super-strength, the eternal youth, and the occasional ability to turn into a bat, vampires are nasty parasites, little more than a sexually-transmitted disease. I’m just not down with signing on for that… and here’s why:

1. Vampires are parasites.
The definition of parasitism calls it “a type of non mutual relationship between organisms of different species where one organism, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host.” In the human-vampire relationship, vampires win… until humans die out because of global warming, and then the vampires are screwed because their only food source is gone. I can’t agree to join a race with such a glaring single point of failure. Plus, then I could be classed with things like tapeworms and fleas… ew.

So queenly, she relies on her servants for life.

2. I’m a vegetarian.
Those blood-colored juices coming out of your steak give me barfy feelings… so how could I possibly want to drink blood? I don’t like eating animals, so I definitely couldn’t like drinking humans.

I’m with Jessica: gross.

3. You’re just as likely to end up an animated corpse as a carnivorous supermodel.
Some alternate series, like Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series, portray vampires as meat puppets, controlled by necromancers who retain their humanity while they make their stinky minions do their bidding from afar. I also hear that in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, vampires are nasty animated corpses… and that’s a bestseller! I’m just saying, it’s a big gamble: sparkly, stone supermodel or rotting puppet. And I’m not willing to take the chance.

This is what Angel is going to look like in 1000 years, Buffy.

4. Vampirism is a sexually transmitted disease.
Ever notice how vampire-lovers frequently end up vampires themselves? There’s a reason for that. Vampirism is passed through the exchange of bodily fluids, after all. And, since I’m monogamous, I’d be pretty darn upset if that particular disease got passed on to me.

This can’t be sanitary.

5. Murder is bad.
We have these things called laws, and those laws say that killing people is bad. If your very existence depends on committing murder, you’re probably a fellow. And also, not a very nice person.

“You can’t do that. It’s wrong.”

6. Eternal life is overrated.
In Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, vampires don’t live thousands of years… because they get bored. You can only go to high school so many times before it makes you suicidal. Plus, look at Godric in True Blood: after you’ve seen the world go to hellrepeatedlyand take your offspring with it, there’s really nothing left to live for.

High school biology again? I think I’m going to be sick!

7. Blood is salty… and salt equals bloat.
This is just Feeling Attractive 101, folks. Don’t go eating a bag of chips before a hot date, because it will make you look and feel all blimpy. And, even if you do look like a supermodel, if you feel like you can’t fasten the button of your jeans, you’re just not going to have the self-confidence to seduce that sexy young ingenue next to you at the vampire bar. 

And you can’t even check a mirror to make sure you don’t look like this.

8. I like food. And hot blood is just not as satisfying as hot tea.
I admit it: I look forward to meals. I like pie. And popcorn. And black bean burgers. I get positively murderous if I can’t have a cup of strong, sweet hot tea in the morning… now just imagine if I hadn’t had my hot tea for a century of mornings. That’s not a pretty picture. And we already talked about how killing people is wrong.

Giles looks much happier with his drink of choice.

9. SAD would get a lot worse.
No sun, ever? I already have to use a sunlamp for three seasons of the year. If it made me burst into flames, I’d cry every single day. And, in some universes, vampire-tears are blood. Worse, in other worlds, vampires can’t cry AT ALL. Depression + no tears = murderous Kristin again, and that whole murder-is-wrong thing causes a problem.

That’s not a good look for anyone.

10. I like to wear colors other than black. And corsets are so confining.
Sure, vampires look badass in their chest-exposing black shirts and their cleavage-exposing shiny corsets. But I like a little variety in my wardrobe… and really, my default uniform is jeans, t-shirt, and Converse sneakers. And no one would be intimidated by a short vampire in beat-up Chucks wearing a shirt with owls that look like Doctor Who.

Because the wannabe look is just SO cool.

Freudian Friday: Xander Harris

Damaged Xander is serious.

Good old Alexander Harris: carpenter, Zeppo, sidekick, general, best friend, almost-husband, and heart of the Scoobies. Without him, the gang would fall apart. Without him, Buffy would have given in to her tendency to treat others like weapons. Without him, Willow would have destroyed the world.

But what do we know about the man himself? What makes Xander tick?

When we first meet him, he’s a nerdy, awkward guy who quickly falls head-over-heels for sexy new-kid Buffy and never realizes his cute pal Willow has the hots for him. He rolls with the punches, accepting the existence of vampires and the death of his friend Jesse with minimal angst.

Although he lacks a superpower and takes a lot of the hardest hits for the Scoobies (hyena-possession, syphilis-infection, eye-reduction), Xander keeps his irrepressible spirits up and continues to feel special just to be included in Buffy’s supernatural world. Throughout the show, he rarely gives in to his doubts—though the women in his life (Anya, Willow, Cordelia) tend to bear the brunt of his moments of weakness.

Xander’s relationship choices are probably his biggest flaw: he seems incapable of entering a relationship that is not doomed, dangerous, or taboo. His attraction to Cordelia sees to stem (at least at first) from a mutual dislike. He becomes involved with Willow only when they’re both in other relationship and it’s a risky, sexy game. And finally, he dates Anya only because she chooses him and then, at first, because it’s convenient. We also can’t forget the odd assortment of demons, bug-women, and evil-doers that he dates along the way.

Why is Xander so prone to falling for women who don’t really care for him? And, once they do care for him, why does he end up hurting them deeply?

Xander hurts Anya in the short-term so he won’t hurt her in the long-term?

Since it’s Freudian Friday, let’s look at some of the supposed root causes. We learn that Xander’s family is dysfunctional to Nth-degree, and we get to witness that horror secondhand through Xander’s tale of woe and firsthand at Xander and Anya’s catastrophic wedding. Xander’s parents are hateful to one another, and Xander fears he’ll end up in the same sort of semi-abusive relationship with Anya.

His father is an overbearing a$$hole who demeans his mother; perhaps we can assume that Xander picks women who walk all over him in a desire to not be like his father. That doesn’t really explain, though, why Xander ends up hurting all three women who care for him the most.

Is it insecurity? He’s the only one of his crowd without a magical power or supernatural ability, so he acts out by acting like a jerk? I don’t really think that’s quite the answer. He’s insecure, yes, but his choices have more to do with a lack long-term planning: perhaps his constant exposure to danger makes him act recklessly, choosing to seek pleasure in the now rather than looking toward long-term happiness. That’s a problem both Buffy and Willow deal with, as well.

What do you think, readers? What is it about Xander that dooms his relationships? Are all the Scoobies adrenaline junkies who are incapable of long-term, successful love?

Xander’s love for Willow saves the world.

Freudian Friday: A Good Villain

First order of business — to those of you who get email updates, I sincerely apologize for publishing earlier this morning my idea for a blog post: writing a good story without a villain. Call it a preview of coming attractions. (And also picture me smacking myself on the forehead repeatedly. Doh!)

Second order of business — I’m still looking for guest posts to run in mid-June when I’m away getting married and stuff. So, if you’re reading this, let me know if you’d like to see your own content here. I will owe you cookies and/or a future guest post.

On to Freudian Friday madness. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been talking a lot about difficulty connecting with a show or a book if it lacks a good villain.

That’s not quite the oxymoron it seems—villains are people, too, you know. They had parents (usually), birthday parties, first loves… and a really intriguing villain gives the audience glimpses of that past and the personality it created.

So if you’re looking to raise—I mean, write—a good villain, keep the following traits in mind:

1. Humor
Part of what makes Joss Whedon’s work so great is his love for a comedic villain. We’re rooting for our hero, sure, but the villain is just so damned funny we can’t help but like him a little, too. Take Captain Hammer. He’s a smarmy, self-involved jerk, sure, and apparently frightened of geese, but he’s frickin’ hilarious.

Who could resist that insincere smile?

Even though we’re rooting for Doctor Horrible, it’s hard not to love Captain Hammer—his fists are not the hammer, he doesn’t need tiny cue cards, and he’s played by Nathan Fillion. How could we not join his groupies?

(Note that extreme good looks didn’t make this list… but they certainly don’t hurt.)

2. Vulnerability
While we’re on Doctor Horrible, let’s talk about the man himself. He “has a PhD in Horribleness,” so, even though he’s our hero, we know he’s looking to become a Big Bad. But his other name is Billy, he wears slouchy-hoodies, he’s too scared to talk to his crush, and he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris: he just screams sensitive soul.

What a crazy random happenstance!

We also know, though, that he keep stalker-photos of his crush and feels wildly inadequate compared to his aforementioned nemesis, Captain Hammer. The fact that he’s vulnerable makes him likable, easy to relate to—he really is a good villain. It’s the exploitation of that tragic flaw that pushes him into the Evil League of Evil.

3. Real Concern for Something or Someone
I’ve mentioned before that I think Mayor Wilkins is an awesome villain. He’s got the humor, and his concern for Faith makes him vulnerable: it’s what enables Buffy to kill him. The Mayor’s love for Faith shows that he’s more than just an evil dude looking for ascension and life as a big snake-demon. He’s also a man with fatherly impulses, someone who wants to sponsor and protect young people.

Sure, he’s evil–but he’s also a family man.

We occasionally get to see him through Faith’s eyes as the only person who ever truly believed in her. And that makes him far more interesting than a villain who only wishes to destroy everyone he touches.

4. A Little Bit of Crazy
One of my personal favorite Buffy villains is Glory, the exiled Hell-God who wants to kill Buffy’s sister Dawn and use her magical Key energy to open the doors back to home-hell. As a god, Glory operates on a completely different plane than the human characters, and Her Sparkling Luminescence is completely batshit crazy. One of her powers is draining humans of their sanity, turning them into some kind of sleeper-agent mindless zombies who eventually activate to do her bidding.

The Most Unstable One claims sanity from nice people like Tara.

Her madness makes her alien, and she’s more frightening because of it. Someone who neither understands nor cares about our “rules” and works completely outside of them is more difficult to beat—and more outrageous to watch.

5. Belief They Are Doing Right
Finally, a convincing, near-likable villain believes she is doing right. While I could talk about Marnie/Antonia from True Blood or the Lord Ruler from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, let’s stick with the Joss Whedon theme, and get Willow into the mix. No, she’s not a true villain, rather more of an antagonist (which nebulous difference I won’t get into), but she is a Big Bad at one point, with an endgame first of vengeance and then of destroying the world.

Big scary veins aren’t a good look for anyone.

Willow turns evil because she wants to avenge Tara’s murder, and she’s driven to destroy the world because she can’t stand the pain that fills it. Dark Willow has a point: the world is a terrible place, especially in the Buffyverse, and sometimes it does seem like a supervillain would be justified in destroying it all and starting over from scratch. We feel for Willow, even as we’re rooting for Xander to stop her. A goal we can understand makes a villain reasonable, and makes the hero’s triumph more difficult and more bittersweet.

What do you think makes a good villain, readers?