Seeing how tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate do discuss minor villains.
They’re interrelated, you know.
Really they aren’t, but I felt the need to acknowledge the holiday that provides me with a bunch of cheap chocolate.
It’s a broad category, when you think about it. ‘Minor’ villains include your mercenaries, thugs, assassins, bodyguards, IT personnel, the main villain’s son/daughter who happens to be trained in half a dozen forms of martial arts, and all the other people who side with the actual antagonist of your story.
How many books have you read [or movies you’ve watched] where the minor villains are… incompetent fools? They sleep on the job, lose that all-important sword duel against the newly trained heroine, let prisoners escape under their very noses, they never [ever] hit their target, they’re rude, arrogant, and are dense as a brick wall.
There are people in the world who are idiots like so many of the henchmen in stories. However, if the villain is some kind of genius overlord with a secret plan to rule everything and kill the hero, why is he hiring the least capable minions?
In keeping with your Valentine’s preparations*, I want to give you six tips to make your minor villain a worthwhile character.
1. Think of the minor villain as an Ally to your Villain. Think about this for a minute. Unless your novel(la) has a cast of two, your Hero(ine) will have a friend or two, or even a random stranger they ask directions from. These people are ‘allies’ of the hero.
But what about your villain? Doesn’t he have any ‘friends’ or strangers he uses in his scheme? Of course. I’d venture to guess ninety percent of villains aren’t loners. So your villain has his minions and ninja-like descendants. If you have a minor villain, treat him like an Ally. You don’t make your Allies idiots1, incompetent, and under-developed, do you?
2. Give us a reason to detest them. Please note I’m not asking you to make sure your minor villains kill small children and kick puppies around just so the reader hates them.
However, they are villains. Why should we be rooting for the hero to take down the evil king’s bodyguards? Did they look the other way when a merchant butchered a street urchin who tried to steal from him? What makes the minor villain wrong? Why are they allied to the ‘dark’ side?
3. Create empathy2. Even as we detest them we need to understand why they chose the villain over the hero, or even over a non-committal stance. True, some minor villains want to be villains, but we need to know why.
Did their puppy get run over by the neighbors, so they want the chance to carry out some kind of personal vendetta?
Has the villain offered them a chance at something (power, wealth, freedom, glory, redemption, joy, peace, death)?
Are they working for the villain against their will (through blackmail, debt, a sense of honor, slavery, mind control, father-child relationship)?
4. Give them an Ideal. This can even be the same one as what the villain stands for (Greed, Lies, Corruption, Death, whatever). But the minor villain needs to mean something to me. In order for the reader to care about what is going to happen in this character (which we should; even if we’re rooting for their death, that’s still a form of ‘caring’). Emotional investment should not be limited to just the good guys.
5. Let them stand on their own two feet. When and if your minor villain meets an untimely demise, it needs to be worth my time. Often times the bad guys are just mown down with a machine gun or a few flights of arrows so the hero can get on with the final climactic moment of angsty struggle against the villain (who probably has immaculate hair even if they’re in the middle of a battlefield).
Have you forgotten about the minor villains who just died?
That’s what I thought. We just read that a few dozen people were just wiped from the face of the earth, but we’re too busy chuckling at the hairdo of our handsome villain and the melodramatic waffling of our hero.
The reader should never read about a death and just forget about it half a sentence later.
Never. Nunca. Ne jamais. Etc.
If your minor villain has to die, make it count. When the Ally dies, plenty of people are affected, so should it be with the minor villain. Everyone has friends and family, even your scar-and-tattoo-covered security guard. With that in mind, their death is suddenly more significant to you, the writer, than if they’re just a nameless, faceless, friendless guy in a uniform.
Now that you know this minor villain’s death will mean something to those around him, make it matter to us, your readers.
6. Make them intelligent. Unless it makes them more real to the reader, your minor villains should only be as dumb as the Allies. In fact, make them four times smarter. If it’s impossible to sneak into the enemy camp to rescue the hero’s sister, thanks to your alert minor villains, the conflict, tension, and dread just skyrocketed.
‘But I need it to be that easy!’ you say?
No you don’t.
Your tired little brain has run out of ideas, and you are, consciously or not, taking it out on the poor minor villains.
What did they ever do to you?
Let’s all take a moment and collectively raise the IQ points of our minor villains by about 300.
Even if this sets your hero’s goals back by about thirty chapters, that’s perfectly fine. If your outline is now blown to bits, I’d get out the broom and start collecting the fragments. There is nothing, nothing wrong with adding a chapter or two or twenty because the story goal just got that much harder to achieve.
In fact, I’d give yourself a pat on the back. Your reader will now be sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for the heavyset genius you now have for a bodyguard to pummel the hero [again]. When the IT personnel scramble the Hero’s communications we’ll shake our fists at them and bemoan our poor protagonist.
And guess what: when the hero finally takes down the mercenaries, when she figures out how to pull the plug on the IT department, when the dust settles, we’ll be shouting for an encore.
Bonus: yeah I said six, and it’s still technically six3. I just wanted to take a moment to point out how useful minor villains are. Imagine this: your hero [and thereby, you] are stuck in the middle of a dreadfully boring FoTAT, when the intellectual giant (as in, a literal giant) minor villain shows up. Suddenly the FoTAT is now a FoTATV (Forest of Trees and Terrifying Villains). Food for thought.
*I’m assuming that a charming person such as yourself has a lot of prep for tomorrow, yes?
1 There are, of course, those times where the ally is an idiot. That’s all right. Just make the minor villain smarter than them.
3 If you’ll note, I put no number before the bonus tip, thereby keeping the official number at six. Shhhhh.