From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about villains lately—not that I haven’t thought about that subject quite a bit for my entire career. I remain convinced that, at least in the more plot- and character-driven genres like fantasy, SF, mystery, western, and anything you might call “adventure fiction,” it’s the villain who tends to be the primary mover of the story. Most of the time, the hero is sort of sitting around waiting for something to happen, or living some version of a life of blissful ignorance, until the villain does something terrible and the story goes on from there.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction I actually graphed this out, and will refer you to that wise old tome for more on the subject of the relative trajectories of hero and villain.

Villains come in all shapes and sizes, but what makes them interesting is their motivations. The cliché of the “mustache-twirling villain” has itself become a cliché. In general, we’re growing up enough as a society, as a readership, viewership, etc. that we’re getting beyond an easy fall-back on evil for evil’s sake. Why is Jason killing all these people? He’s just evil.

That’s not good enough.

That means that any storyteller has a real challenge: Make your villain as solidly motivated as possible. Why he’s trying to take over the kingdom or blow up the starship is of vital importance—and “just because” is never going to be good enough.

All of the villains of history have had some kind of an agenda. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have to agree with them in the slightest, let alone forgive them. I’m sure Hitler thought he was really fixing what was wrong with Germany. Very few of even history’s absolutely worst of the worst would have defined themselves as “evil.”

So then what makes a villain a villain?

Hitler was a baby once, as was Mother Theresa. What happened along the way that made Hitler Hitler and Mother Theresa Mother Theresa? People have been talking for decades now about why Hitler wasn’t stopped sooner—but then how soon? Could Hitler have been stopped without killing him? Was it his fault he turned into a genocidal megalomaniac, or did someone or something—some outside cause—set him on that road?

None of that forgives what he did in any way. I’ll refer you back to a previous post on the disconnect between an excuse and a defense.

Those sorts of questions are at the heart of the brilliant book Columbine by Dave Cullen.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

I bought this book, based on some positive buzz at the time, when it was first published in 2009, but it’s taken me a few years to finally get around to reading it. My teenaged daughter snatched it up right away and loved it, though it did freak her out a little, especially since she read large parts of it in her own high school’s cafeteria and library.

Columbine, as the title certainly suggests, is an in-depth examination of the eponymous school shooting that occurred in Jefferson County, Colorado on April 20, 1999, in which two seniors from Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went on a shooting rampage that ended in the deaths of fifteen people and many more injuries. To say it “shocked the nation” is an understatement. I didn’t know anyone who went to Columbine High School. I’ve never been to Colorado except a couple of flight changes at the Denver airport. I had no connection to this event, personally, but I remember it like it was yesterday. For days, even weeks after, all eyes turned to this little suburb, and as it turns out, so did an awful lot of supposition, confusion, and outright lies.

For our purposes here, let’s skip some of the book’s bigger revelations, such as the myth of the so-called Martyr of Columbine (pure fiction), the supposed influence of Marilyn Manson (neither of the shooters were fans), and other misconceptions that I’ve shared with the general public for more than a decade, now blown out of the water by Cullen’s exhaustive reporting.

For readers of Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I suggest reading this book for its examination of the nature of evil and the journey that these two boys took, along with their families, friends, and community, from seemingly normal kids to bloodthirsty murderers.

Until I read this book, this is how I would have described both Harris and Klebold:

Otherwise normal kids that suffered years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of bullies among the student body and faculty of an upper middle class high school that valued only the athletes and geniuses and left anyone who might have been a bit of a social outsider to fend for himself in a hostile environment. These abused nerds fell into a world of negative influences, growing increasingly obsessed with violent media (video games and goth metal music), ignored by part-time parents who didn’t pay the slightest attention to them, entirely overlooked by an academic and legal system that simply wasn’t interested in what was going on between students. Ostracized, these two created a “gang of two” they called the Trench Coat Mafia, as a way to try to defend themselves against constant assaults by mindless brutes on the lacrosse team. Finally they took advantage of criminally lax gun laws and went in on a random school day, guns ablazing, targeting jocks and Christians only before killing themselves, all in an act of revenge that made them as much victims as any of the bullies they killed.



Notice the string of excuses in that paragraph. It wasn’t them, it was the jocks and/or Christians. It was the video games. It was the music. It was the absentee parents. It was teachers and administrators that didn’t care and never noticed. They got guns easily and went in with a hit list of specific bullies or people they didn’t like. They were nerds. They were picked on. They were driven to violence by violence.

What this book taught me:

Harris and Klebold were not considered “nerds,” and one of the boys was fairly popular with the girls.

They never mentioned Marilyn Manson.

The attack was planned primarily as a bombing, but they screwed up the wiring on the detonators so had to fall back on shooting people.

They shot people at random.

Both of them had criminal records.

Both of them had made threats of violence that were reported to the police, who did nothing.

They were occasionally bullies themselves.

And it just goes on and on from there.

Dylan was suicidally depressed, and up until the day of the attack did not seem willing to go through with it. He often spoke and wrote of suicide and exhibited every sign of clinical depression. He longed for a relationship with a girl and felt unloved.

Eric was the mastermind, and a textbook psychopath with a God complex. There were specific people he didn’t like, but by the time of the attack he just wanted to kill, literally, anyone and everyone. He was also a highly accomplished liar who fooled everyone he came in contact with, including a very hands-on father and loving mother, teachers and school administrators, and mental health and law-enforcement professionals.

This book is required reading just for its clear, detailed definition of a psychopath, put into the overall context of a community unwilling and/or unable to make the deductive leap from “this kid is talking about killing himself and taking as many people with him as possible” to “maybe we should try to stop him before he actually does it.” In some ways, Eric Harris does come across as a mustache–twirling villain, an evil genius bent on world domination . . . all those clichés people like me have been demanding you avoid.

Dylan is a classic depressive, a sort of professional victim obsessed with his own misery and willing to follow Eric into this massacre not out of a need to exert power over others, but out of sheer hopelessness.

These two boys took very different paths to the same destination, and those paths led them through a territory full of people who could have and should have stopped them. They didn’t have “absentee parents.” They had been arrested for robbery and were in a juvenile diversion program, monitored by mental health professionals who identified Dylan as an unrepentant criminal and Eric as a solid young man who made a mistake but has set himself on the right path. The mother of one of their friends made repeated pleas to the local police after what she and her son took as credible threats against the young man’s life. That report was shelved. Eric maintained a web site full of violent rants and specific threats that was roundly ignored.

This is a story of evil hiding in plain sight. It’s a lesson in real, present evil, and a society’s inability to do a thing about it, that no author of genre fiction can afford to miss.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. jakeescholl says:

    I will definitely read this book. Not just for my writing, but also to be able to explain to people what really happened. I play shooters. I listen to metal. I like RPGs. But I would never kill a fellow human.

  2. Pingback: AN EVIL GENIUS, BENT ON WORLD DOMINATION … BUT WHY? | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  3. Jeff says:

    Wow. Great look at the case. I’ll definitely have to pick this up. I’m always looking to make my villains stronger, to really give my protagonist something to fight. This sounds, as you say, like required reading for that reason alone, nevermind, trying to this senseless tragedy.


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