Guest post by Rebecca Harrison
Deep-set dark eyes. Long, bony fingers rhythmically tapping on a cherrywood desk. Maniacal laughter; a wicked grin; the proclivity for destruction. These are the trademarks of the bad guys. The villains. The antagonists. We hate them, we love them, and sometimes we even feel sorry for them.
Villains can be some of the most difficult characters to write and they can be the difference between a stagnant story and a powerful one.
Before we get any further, it’s important to understand why villains—good ones, at least—are so important and what purpose they serve in storytelling.
The villain is the catalyst of external conflict, the obstacle standing between your hero and his ultimate goal. He is the opposition of your hero’s positive ideal, or driving nature—the personification of your negative ideal— and he is also responsible for raising the stakes and creating a sense of dread, danger, and suspense. Without a strong villain, many stories fall short or feel hollow—because there isn’t enough conflict or weight to keep the storyline compelling.
But what is it, exactly, that makes a bad guy—well, good?
First of all, a good villain is human. This doesn’t mean he must be a human—there are many great villains who belong to another race or species. However, any character that completely lacks any humanlike qualities tends to feel unbelievable and dull. When a villain is human, he becomes grounded in reality. He becomes a real person—someone with ambitions, desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. He becomes powerful. There are few things as unsettling as facing what atrocities our own race is capable of. We are so intertwined and connected with one another, and we want to perceive ourselves as generally good people. But when that idea is challenged, it draws us to the truth that we all have darkness within us. And that is intimidating.
A good villain is also a threat. He raises the stakes, deepens the risk of destruction should the hero fail. When this is done well, it gives weight to the hero’s decision to take on the story goal and accept his destiny, regardless of what it will cost him. There must be something to fear, to dread, and to sacrifice in order to give that choice power. An intimidating villain creates danger and gives your hero something to overcome.
So how do we go about developing that perfect, multi-dimensional villain?
1. Learn who he is and where he comes from. Mold him just as you would your hero. He is no less important. Figure out what makes him tick, delve into his past and discover his backstory. What makes him feel happy, sad, angry, or alive? Ask yourself what he desires above all else and why. Is it power? Recognition? Even love or acceptance? Is his desire founded on something he suffered in his past? How far will he go to obtain his goal?
2. Make sure that your villain has weakness. In addition to furthering his humanness, giving him at least one noticeable weakness creates instability and the looming threat of potential chaos, should he unravel. Why is this? A villain with no weakness is stable, he is whole. When your readers realize that there are things that can push your villain’s buttons, they will also realize there is a strong chance that he will snap. He will overreact. He will lash out. This leaves your reader worried for what he will do when he is pushed to the edge—and who will be in his wake when that time comes.
Also keep in mind that just like your hero, your villain also faces high stakes. His own goal is threatened by the hero just as the hero’s goal is threatened by him. How does he deal with this threat? Is he intimidated, amused, cautious, or confident? How far will he go to keep himself and his goal out of the hero’s reach?
3. Give him both good and bad qualities. We all have some light and some darkness within us. The founding nature of your villain is that he has allowed the darkness within himself to trample and overtake the good. It’s also a good idea to remember that villains don’t always see themselves as cruel or evil. Just like your hero, he is fighting for something that—within his own eyes—is perfectly justifiable.
4. Base your villain off of yourself. Take one of your own “fatal flaws”—whether it be anger, jealousy, bitterness, or even fear—and give it to your villain…then turn up the volume. This idea often comes across as strange or intimidating; we don’t often like to associate ourselves personally with our antagonists. But by putting yourself into your villain, he becomes even more terrifying because what makes him evil is something real—something that exists within the writer, the reader, and probably even within your hero. When you can relate to your villain on a personal level, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your villain and build a better foundation for conflict.
5. Examine your own favorite villains—what makes them so great? What drives them, inspires them? What makes them scary, unsettling, or intimidating? Can you relate to them? Make a list of their assets, failures, and ambitions, and then integrate those qualities into your own villain.
Your antagonist is an important part of what drives your story forward. In your villain, you create a pedestal on which to display your hero’s positive qualities. Learning to write evil, awesome villains is a process, but worth your time because it will give your story greater depth, clearer meaning, and make it all the more powerful.
Rebecca Harrison is an aspiring writer and graphic artist who first joined The One Year Adventure Novel in Fall of 2008, where she discovered her passion for storytelling. She is a crazy cat lady in training and while long walks on the beach aren’t her thing, she does enjoy some hot tea and spending quality time reading with her dragon, Spire.