One of the most important parts of crafting a good villain is giving them motivations that make sense to the villain. Granted this isn’t always necessary, sometimes a wildcard villain can be just as memorable, I love Heath Ledger’s Joker as much as anyone. Still, the Joker is the exception that proves the rule. You want people to remember your villain? To truly hate and despise them? Then that villain needs to act in keeping with his or her character.
To illustrate this point, I’ve decided to do a couple of small articles on some of my favorite villains and why they were so memorable.
The Great Villain:
Loghain Mac Tir (Dragon Age Origins)
Much of what makes Loghain such a great villain is his past history and how it dictates his actions during the events of Dragon Age: Origins. I wrote about the importance of a good backstory during one of my articles on Westworld, and Loghain is a great example of what I was talking about.
Dragon Age: Origins takes place during the 5th Darkspawn Blight, but Loghain’s story starts decades earlier with the Orlesian occupation of Ferelden. For nearly a century the empire of Orlais had occupied Ferelden, and as occupying armies are wont to do, they inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the native Fereldens (Fereldans? Fereldenites?). Loghain was witness to many of these crimes, and it left scars on his psyche far deeper than any blade could reach.
“Hate doesn’t describe it. I’ve seen painted, masked lords beat an old farmer to death with riding crops. To this day, I don’t know why. Is that hate? I saw good, sensible men fighting armored chevaliers with nothing—no weapons, no armies, not even hope of success—to see the occupation end. Is that hate?” – Loghain on the occupation of Ferelden.
Loghain hates Orlais, but behind every great hate lies an even greater fear. It’s that fear that dominates Loghain’s every action and it’s that fear that makes his actions during Dragon Age: Origins make so much sense. Ferelden defeated Orlais and won its freedom, but the scars that Loghain suffered to his psyche would never heal. Orlais terrified him, the idea of once again becoming the vassal of a hated enemy was more than he could bear.
Yet Loghain’s fear is being constantly belittled and dismissed by Cailan.
“Our arguments with the Orlesians are a thing of the past.” – King Cailan
When a true leader sees fear in his subordinates, there are many different ways to alleviate that fear and build confidence. King Cailan doesn’t do any of them however, instead he patronizingly dismisses Loghain’s very understandable concerns, and then pulls rank on him. In fact, King Cailan treats Loghain with disdain and disrespect at every opportunity.
And still, despite this constant ill treatment, Loghain still tries to protect Cailan from himself, to insist that he not fight on the frontline. In many ways this speaks legions about Loghain’s character, namely his fierce loyalty to his best friend King Maric. Maric’s son is everything that Maric wasn’t, but it’s still his best friend’s only child, and Loghain did what he could to protect the stupid imbecile.
So how does all this translate into a believable character? Well, let’s look at the situation at Ostagar from Loghain’s perspective. On the one hand you have the upstart brat King Cailan who not only wants to bring Orlais armies marching into Ferelden, but is also planning to dump your daughter and marry the Empress. On the other you have the Grey Wardens, a bunch of aloof warriors claiming to be the last hope for humanity and taking advantage of King Cailan’s romanticism to use good Ferelden soldiers in their little war. The last blight was over 400 years ago, the Darkspawn are but a bunch of fairytale nonsense to Loghain. Sure, he has seen their armies, but Loghain knows how to defeat armies.
“Perhaps he believes the Blight is an army he can outmaneuver[…]” – Flemeth
That’s exactly what Loghain thinks and to his eye it’s not even that threatening of an army. The Darkspawn horde is a mob of monsters using scavenged or poorly crafted weapons and armor. Compared to the armored medieval tanks that were the Chevaliers of Orlais, the Darkspawn must make for a pitiful sight. For Loghain, Orlais would always be the enemy, and so he did what he thought was best. He rallied his army to defeat the Darkspawn only to prove to Orlais that Ferelden was strong and that it would never kneel to them again.
Yet Loghain was also not willing to throw his entire army against the Darkspawn horde when, to his mind, Orlais was just waiting in the wings to pounce on a weakened Ferelden. To expect him to rush to the defense of King Cailan, a man who seemed more than willing to submit the Orlesian crown, was, perhaps, an unrealistic expectation.
None of this makes Loghain a misunderstood good guy, nor does it make his actions justified or correct. King Cailan’s willingness to put aside the wars of their past makes him a great diplomat and, perhaps, the King to lead Ferelden into a new era of peace. And obviously, Loghain’s belief that the Darkspawn could be defeated militarily was completely wrong. Loghain’s fear of Orlais also led him to commit atrocities that are indefensible no matter what the circumstances: selling the Elves into slavery, the torture of the Denerim Teryn’s son, siding with Arl Howe and approving his betrayal of the Couslands.
Making a good villain doesn’t mean making them into a hero, it simply means making sure that the villain stays true to his own character, which is exactly what Loghain does. Understanding his history, his fear of Orlais, allows the player to see why Loghain acts the way he does. He’s still a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy we can understand.
And in the end, even Loghain understands that it was fear that guided him.
Loghain is a classic tragic villain. He’s a man who doesn’t act evil for evil’s sake, but because he feels that not to act as he does would be an even greater evil. Had I lived the life Loghain had, seen the horrors he’d seen, would I have acted any differently? I would like to think so, obviously, but one can never truly know.
And that’s why Loghain Mac Tir is the great villain of Dragon Age: Origins.