Backstory is the Past. It’s all the events and time that are behind your characters and readers. It’s intricate and complex and sometimes a little vague and quite often you don’t have enough or else far too much.
The equilibrium of backstory can be hard to achieve. There is such a thing as too much backstory detail.
But I’m not here to talk about that, I’m here to talk about villains (I mean, look at the title). Last week, I talked about a specific type of backstory, the kind that creates the motivation and humanity of your villain.
In the attempt to find a strong villain, we’ve examined the Past. Today, I’d like to examine the Present
Darkness in Turmoil
Does your villain ever wonder why? Why they chose the “dark side”? Why they do what they do? It’s often found in novels that the main character and the ally will have to examine what they’re doing, affirm their faith in what is right.
Why should it be any different for the villain?
At every point in our lives, we will all question our actions. Those actions may be far more… innocent, than those of the villain, but we question them nonetheless.
It’s perfectly normal and natural to question one’s actions. It keeps us alive and less likely to do stupid things. Our instinct to question keeps us safe.
And it also happens to make characters real.
When your main character questions the righteous side, we perceive them as human. It makes us cheer all the louder when they decide to stick with what we know is right.
The villain needs to doubt themselves. It’s a natural thing to do, so why don’t our villains do it? Even the Dark Lord of All Evil has to wonder: “am I doing the right thing?”
Of course, to be a real villain, he has to decide “yes”, but your reader needs and wants to see the struggle given to that decision. We have to see the questions asked and answered, even if we disagree with the answer. In fact, we should disagree with the answer. That’s how you know their a villain.
Sure, your villain needs to doubt their own motives, but which ones? Every character has a dozen actions they perform, a dozen ways in which they choose to change and be changed. Which ones do they doubt?
Turns out, it’s different for every villain, because every villain is different. They won’t all have the same situation and questions that need to be addressed and struggled with.
But there are a few things that can create good tension and struggle through the villain’s doubt:
-Have them question the hero’s ‘wrong’. According the story (and the ideas of right and wrong), the hero is right, but according to the villain, the hero is wrong. But is he really? When the villain wonders about the hero’s relative ‘wrongness’, you’ll show a realistic character. Just as the hero should question his righteousness, so the villain should question their belief in he hero’s unrighteousness.
-Let the villain question their abilities. Many villains are powerful and influential people. Even if they’re poor, they hold some kind of power over the main character. Whether this power is political, religious, familial, magical, or something else, it makes them thirst for more, it’s what drives them to press on.
But what if that power isn’t enough?
Heroes always get the heavy hand of doubt placed on their shoulder. They’re always doubting their abilities to fight, to win, to endure. So should the villain. As the saying goes, “every villain is the hero of their own story”.
Now, the villain should be powerful and they should know it. They can accept their massive amount of power while still doubting it. They can wonder if it’s enough and it can drive your reader to a new level of empathy.
A good example of this comes from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (mild spoilers ahead… skip to next bullet if you wish to avoid them). See, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was scared of Dumbledore. HWMNBN – as I like to call him – knew more of the Dark Arts than any wizard, he was second to none and held power and influence. He nearly took over the entire wizarding world… twice. Yet… he feared that Dumbledore could finish him. Even after HWMNBN achieved near-immortality he was wary of facing the man who taught him.
He doubted his strength against the mentor of our young hero, and that is a powerful way to make us pity HWMNBN even as we hate him.
-Let the villain doubt his own motivation. You know that thing I talked about last week? The failed attempt of the villain to put themselves together? Usually, the villain doesn’t think of it as failed. They don’t fully realize how much they managed to break and bend and twist in their recreation of their lives. Sometimes, however, let them wonder if they did something wrong. This moment of “what if all I’m thinking is wrong?” will shake your villain and the readers to their core. And when the villain shakes off the feeling and denies the idea of their wrongness, then the reader will cringe and the villain will become that much more real.
When the Conscience Stops By
All this doubt and turmoil has to come into your story somehow, if you want those elements to make a difference, right? If so, when? The villain needs to doubt, but they can’t just doubt at any random time when your novel has a spare moment.
Take a moment and look at your novel from the POV of the villain. If you have an outline, take it out and examine it from their viewpoint. Oftentimes, the hero has an “inciting incident” when they’re thrust forward into the story after the goal.
When is your villain’s inciting incident?
That is a time for doubt. It’s when the villain should look at their power and their abilities and wonder “can I do this”. When your hero starts his journey, he has similar thoughts. He thinks “I’m just a normal guy, I’m nothing special”. She wonders “how can I make a difference when I’m just… me?”
Let your villain do the same.
Now, I realize that your villain may not have an inciting incident within the pages of your novel. It’s common for villains to start working toward their goals long before the hero even comes into the story. That’s okay. It just means you won’t be able to show this doubt in your story directly. You’ll have to hint at it over time.
Next comes the idea of the “Total Acceptance”, the part of the novel in which the main character chooses to dive in headfirst, regardless of the consequence. There’s no backing out at this point. When does this happen for the villain?
After all, everyone has a chance to say no. They can decide to back down. The villain doesn’t have to become a murderer, a thief, to allow corruption, to allow darkness to seep into their soul. But they choose to embrace it, and that’s what makes them the villain.
At this time, however, is when you should flood your villain with doubt. They should doubt their own power, their abilities, they should doubt their motivation.
Just as the heroine stops to wonder at the usefulness of her involvement, so should the villain.
Finally, there is the Black Moment, the Dark Night of the Soul, the Pit of Despair. When your character is at their weakest. For your villain, this is often reflected by your main character’s victory. It’s often found during the climax of the story (whereas the main character’s comes before the climax, for the most part). The villain is certain of victory and then the hero somehow manages to yank it from their grasp.
The villain is devastated. They’re angry and confused and fearful and then the doubt begins to edge at the back of their mind: “what if the hero is right?”
It will make the villain shiver and it will drive them to say “No. I’m still right… I can do this.” It leads to the act impulsively, in many cases, and leads to their ultimate defeat.
Weaving Doubt into Daring
This post might make it seem like I want you to make your villain a scared little coward, but that’s not what I mean at all. You can show doubt and have worries without being fearful or cowardly. Even the bravest and most powerful people in the world have doubts, at times.
Now, all the examples I’ve given of times for you to let your villain experience doubt are exactly that: examples. You can insert this doubt wherever it fits best into your story, where it feels most natural. I just point out the places where the doubt is often most obvious and comes as a direct result from common story threads.
It will be different for every story.
Thing is, villains that feel doubt, that feel any emotion at all, are often far stronger than the villains that are shown with nothing but power and strength.
It’s a paradox.
A wonderful, beautiful paradox.