by Vanessa Di Gregorio
There are some characters we just love to hate. The question is: are you hating those characters for the right reasons?
Nobody wants to write a villain who isn’t… well, bad. And no one wants to write a villain who doesn’t do a good job at being a villain. Some people want to write villians who are more than just “evil” – they want to explore what makes a person truly bad – what makes them tick. Maybe your villains aren’t wholly evil – maybe they’re sympathetic. But if there’s one thing everyone will agree on, it’s that your villain needs to be capable of doing some bad things; and they need to be convincing. Otherwise, your villain will be bad for all the wrong reasons.
And villains who are evil just because they’re evil are not only rare: they’re boring.
So, how do you make sure the antagonist in your MS is a bad villain, as opposed to a bad-ly written villain?
First, your bad guy needs some motivation. Not all villains want to take over the world. Some want to regain something that has been lost. And others just like to steal princesses from castles. And others still are trying to play God. So the question is: What is driving Dr. Horrible* to be so, well… horrible?
Is it greed? It could be greed for more money, more power, more anything really. Catwoman is a good example (although she redeems herself later on – cause who says all villains stay villains?). And tying into that is a greed of the thirst for knowledge – Think Faust/Dr. Faustus or Rappaccini.
Perhaps it’s power – some people are power hungry. They want to be at the top of the pyramid. Or it could be hatred or revenge, which can sometimes be tied together. Hatred is pretty straightforward – is there a culture, a person/people they hate? Have they been victims in the past to hate crimes, which has in turn made them into the villain they are today? As for revenge, well… vengeance can include hatred for the one that has wronged them. Some villains want to avenge loved ones, other feel betrayed – the list goes on.
Your villain’s motivations could also be due to insanity. Crazy people can do crazy things – think the Joker, a villain who has become the perfect example of madness. Or it could be fear. Are they afraid of something? Another person, another race, another country, or another gender? Has this fear so completely devoured your villain that they have driven themselves insane? The motivation could even be something instinctual – something deeply encoded into their DNA. Werewolves are often blood-thirty, meat-eating creatures and can’t help their predatory instinct.
Anyways, you get the gist. Your villain needs to be motivated; there needs to be a driving force behind his/her actions. Was there a turning point, or a traumatic experience that has caused them to be the antagonist? Are they incredibly ambitious? Or perhaps they think they’re doing the right thing (but are really misguided) – not all villains are aware that they are evil. Some think that they are doing things for the greater good. And others might want to get rich, or increase their own personal power.
Take Magneto, for example. He is a great example of a complex villain. Having been in the Nazi concentration camps when he was young, he knows how inhumane and cruel a majority could be to a minority. This is something he remembers when he finds himself yet again a minority; this time, as a mutant. Which is why he believes the only reason for mutants to live peacefully is for mutants to be in control and take over the world. THAT is some good motivation to make one do bad things.
Not all evils are the same. Some stories require a bully – or perhaps the bullied kid who snaps and becomes the real bad guy. Some require serial killers, others corrupt kings, cops, or politicians. Some stories require demons or zombies or other supernatural creatures. Rival gang leaders, a killer cyborg, ghosts, an abusive husband, the popular but bitchy girl – the list is endless. Just make sure that your story has the right type of evil for it. A story about highschool, where your antagonist is the popular girl, probably won’t include serial killers – unless that’s what you’re going for, of course. If you’re writing humour, your villain might be over-the-top, like Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Just remember; it needs to be plausible and make sense.
Do a Little Digging
Sometimes you just need to get to know your villain just a little bit more. Even if you don’t include everything into your story, knowing the back-story for your character can help. A few things that can help you build a great villain include:
- Figuring out how they got to where they are now. What was the turning point that made them evil? Was there a traumatic event that occurred that has forever changed them? Or were they raised a certain way? Was something vital missing from their life?
- Give your villain at least one thing they enjoy/love without greed or malice. Some love their significant others so much they’d do anything to get them back. Maybe your villain loves the feel of rocks in one’s hand, the smell of the ocean, or a treasured pet. Maybe they’re attached to a family heirloom or photo. Play around a bit.
- How are these two related? Bounce the two opposing ideas back and forth in your mind – how is your villain capable of loving something so much even though they’re filled with hate and malice?
- Take a look at people you know – what are their flaws? Exaggerate those flaws to a fault.
This isn’t necessary, of course – but I think it can add another dimension to your bad guy. Figure out what makes them vulnerable. Look at Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) – Rowling shows us bits and pieces of Voldemort’s past that help us understand, to an extent, how he came to be. It makes him not only a much more believable character, but more frightening as well. And perhaps a bit sympathetic – the kid you meet in the orphanage, though creepy, is also a bit sad. You think to yourself, “What a cute kid. If only things had been different, he might not have turned into this.”
Just make sure other people who read your story think he’s as badass as you do (because sometimes we, as the writer, assume that the reader understands our characters just as much as we do). Being the creators, we’ve got a whole array of information stored away – information that your readers aren’t aware of.
Where does your hero fit in? Do your protagonist and antagonist know each other? Have they known one another for a long time? Are are they meeting for the first time? Don’t forget to factor in your protagonist.
There is no one singular evil. Bad guys tend to have a posse of other bad guys. Voldermort had the Death Eaters – some of the most memorable being Wormtail and Bellatrix. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings had his Nazgul, and Saruman as his right hand man. Don’t forget about all the other bad guys in your MS! They deserve to be more than two-dimensional.
In the end, it all comes down to how believable your villain is. Some of the most compelling villains are not completely evil. And they serve a purpose in your story. They bring conflict, they create tension and suspense, and they can sometimes make us sympathize with them.
Who Do You Love to Hate?
So, with that said, I’ve still got one more suggestion to help you improve your villains: Read. I know, I say that a lot; but it really does work. Look at some of your favourite villains; what makes them such strong antagonists? Why are they so memorable? What makes you love to hate them? Do you empathize with them at all? Look at what makes them great, and apply that to your own villains.
And so I now have a question for you all. Who are some of your favourite literary villains, and why?
*yes, I threw in that link because I think everyone should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog – and because he’s a great bad-at-being-bad villain, but in all the right ways.
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.