An Abstract Villain (and making them believable)

by Twilight Dragon
(Adelaide, South Australia)

Question: How does one make an abstract villain believable?

By abstract, I mean that my main villain is a parasite that doesn't use a physical form or have a physical contagion. Rather, it uses negative emotion as its contagion; sorrow/despair, anger/rage, and particularly hatred. Once infected, it amplifies that latter emotion and negates free will, turning the host into a killing machine, but because, while omnipresent, it has intelligence, the host can act totally normal until the parasite deems it necessary.
So basically a cross between 'The Host' and the black rukh from 'Magi'.

Problem is, I am having a whole heck of difficulty making it sound believable without putting in a physical aspect, which I REALLY don't want to do. Any ideas?

Answer: It sounds like this villain would appear almost indistinguishable from mental illness -- schizophrenia or mass hysteria, for example.

It also sounds like your villain is an attempt to defy the principle of Occam's Razor, one interpretation of which is that you should never look for a non-physical explanation for a physical phenomenon.

I think the question is how your protagonist will identify this villain and find ways to combat it.

If the parasite has intelligence, that implies it has an agenda -- some pattern that can be identified and disrupted. In real life, scientists faced with such a phenomenon would start looking for physical causes such as viruses, poisoning, indoctrination, or trauma. I think there needs to be evidence that indicates what is really going on.

The protagonist probably needs some means of affecting, attacking, or interfering with the parasite. Otherwise you have no conflict between protagonist and antagonist. If the parasite is immune to human action (like
a hurricane or an earthquake), then what you have is a disaster story. The parasite would not be an antagonist -- merely an inciting incident or forewarning. The story would then be about humans coping with this disaster and you would need a human villain who would work against the protagonist's aims (perhaps by exploiting the disaster for personal gain).

Assuming you're not writing a disaster story...

The parasite would also seem more real if the reader can see that it operates on rules, that it has distinct purposes and methods, that it is driven by emotional needs, and that it has certain beliefs and values. In other words, that it has a mind that humans can relate to.

It would also help if the parasite can communicate, either with other characters or possibly the reader (i.e. you could have the parasite narrate). Communication would help establish that the parasite is a mind and not just a force of nature.

In other words (and this is one of the deeper secrets of dramatica), to exercise a dramatic role in a story -- to be a character -- an entity does not require a physical form, but it does require a mind. That is because a story is a representation of a mind attempting to solve a problem. Characters within a story are different drives or facets of the story's mind. Following the fractal/magical rule, "As above, so below. As within, so without," (which only applies to imagination, not the physical universe), a facet of a mind is also a mind. Therefore a character must be a mind to function as a facet of the storymind such as an antagonist or protagonist.

Best of luck.

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