We all love a good villain.
Even more than that, we love to fear a good villain. Heath Ledger is commonly heralded as the best Joker ever acted. He portrayed the character as so real and creepy that The Dark Knight got “and some menace” included in its rating.
Now, some of you are probably Scrooges and disagree with the “best Joker ever acted”, but we can all admit that Heath Ledger played him very well. Turns out, the character was written as well as he was acted.
We feared the Joker. Not a single person in the audience left the movie saying “nah he wasn’t scary at all”. Even if he didn’t give you nightmares (I’m with you non-nightmare people… scary is scary, but movies are also movies), he came across as the terrifying man he was supposed to be.
He gave us, in some ways, the same feelings we get when we hear about disasters or acts of terrorism around the world. Like the 9/11 attack in New York City fifteen years ago or the shootings in Paris just a few months ago, he inspired fear and outrage.
Now, the Joker is just a character. He’s a fictional character in a fictional story. There is no work of fiction that can provide the same amount of emotion that a real-world factual story can. That’s not the point of story. Story creates empathy. The Joker inspired us to empathize with the protagonists, with the “good guys”. We felt a sort of anger and fear that mirrored the emotions we feel when we hear about real-world acts of terror and evil.
That is a good villain.
You can develop a villain’s backstory, learn exactly what made them the way they are. You can learn exactly the way they tick, and you can show exactly what makes them the villain. Your villain can be a character of the Past living in the Present, with real shortcomings, real excellence, real doubt, real arrogance, real pride, real fear, and even real joy.
We can do all those things, and our villains can still be weak.
That’s not good. That’s not what we want to do, not at all. We want to create characters and stories and emotions that impact your reader. You want to create empathy which mirrors real-world emotions.
By developing the Past, by exploring the Present, and by dreading the Future.
The Future of a Villain
When I speak of the future, I don’t mean after-story events. Those are for a different blog post altogether. And I’m not talking about what happens to the villain at the very end. Their death/imprisonment/banishment/whatever you do to them isn’t what makes them terrifying.
What disasters does your villain create in your novel?
The future is everything that happens after the moment your villain and hero are set at odds with one another. It’s the scenes that take place after your hero says “I will take the ring to Mordor”, after the Boy Who Lived accepts his destiny, after the heroine screams “I VOLUNTEER! I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE!”.
The Future can be told through your story’s middle and ending chapters. Sometimes even the beginning. Everything that goes wrong for the hero is the future success of the villain. Regardless of the villain’s involvement in the actual disasters that befall the main character, each setback the protagonist faces is a victory for the antagonist.
What does the future hold for your story?
Is it scary?
Dread and Payoff; a Simple Equation
Here’s the deal: if your villain is scary, the reader won’t be scared. It sounds obvious, but let’s try it in a less obvious way: if the main character has more than a tiny fraction of a chance of winning, the reader won’t be scared.
That’s… difficult, right? It’s hard to find ways to make the protagonist’s victory impossible. That’s a lot of work. Conflict and setback are hard to create, to think of, to write, to pull off. Many people are conflict-evasive; they don’t want to write conflict. I used to be that way a long time ago. Since, I’ve come to appreciate conflict – both in writing and outside it.
Conflict drives story. It makes the reader keep reading. If you don’t make us turn every single page, we won’t turn it. Readers are lazy that way.
So... how do you make the reader keep turning pages?
Through the villain, that’s how.
An equation for reader engagement could be shown this way:
Character-connection + Emotional investment + Conflict = Reader Engagement
Now, each of those items could be expanded on, showing how each of those four things is extremely complex and includes a dozen different things. I’d like to show just two items, however, expanded from Conflict:
Dread + Payoff = Reader Engagement
Most of us have heard of the Gandalf and Moria example of “Dreadful Promises”. Gandalf fears going into Moria and will do anything – even braving the mountain pass – to avoid it. The reader knows Gandalf. They know he’s one of the most powerful beings in Middle Earth.
And he’s scared.
You know what that does? It makes the reader scared, too. Now, if Tolkien had gone and written Moria to be less scary than he actually did, the reader wouldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t trust a single thing Tolkien told them after that.
Because he failed to fulfill that promise of something dreadful.
Of course, Tolkien didn’t just fulfill that promise, he went above and beyond and exceeded that promise of dread. It’s what makes that series of scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring so powerful.
We need to do the same thing. Our scenes need to create that sense of fear in the reader, and then they need to exceed the promise in payment. It’s the easiest way to make your reader fear the villain.
This “terrifying” scene with Moria takes place in the first volume of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. If something that bad happens in the FIRST ONE, what about the next two volumes?
That’s down right frightening.
And it keeps you reading.
One of the easiest ways to create this sort of dread and payoff is through the minor villains. I talked about these fellows early last year and my opinion on the subject still stands. Minor villains need to be powerful, decisive, and smart. Place them on the same plane as your main character.
When your main character has to put their entire strength into defeating the minor villains, just think of how hard it will be to defeat the main villain.
Don’t make your minor character senseless goons. They’re not just dragon fodder, they’re scary.
Another way to do this is to show the hero lose early on. When the hero loses to the villain repeatedly, it makes us fear for the showdown. This also gives you an opportunity to show the hero/heroine grow.
The Protagonist’s Reckoning
The Future comes to an end in the showdown.
Your main character has worked their way to this moment, the reader has been anticipating it for however many chapters and however many devastating defeats. The villain has never been stronger, the heroine never weaker.
Your reader is scared.
The greatest emotions come when you start in a very low place and end in a very high place (or vice versa). In the showdown, you probably want both cases. Have the hero come in very low, then high, then low again, then high.
Showdowns should be rollercoasters of emotion and dread and victory and defeat and fear.
Your showdown can’t just be another scene, with the hero actually winning at the end.
That’s boring and unfulfilling.
Rather, each showdown should inspire your reader. Whether you want them to be inspired to endure, to keep trying, to keep their chin up, to forgive, to extend friendship or grace, to take life by the horns and ride it where they will, to stand up for themselves and for others, whatever it may be. The showdown needs to show us the darkness, yes. But it also needs to show us that the darkness can be beaten.
Real life is scary. Trust me, I know. I know it just as well as you, and just as well as your readers know it. As this [LINK] song puts it so well, “I scream/you scream/we all scream/ ‘cause we’re terrified”. The showdown needs to inspire a mirrored fear.
There is darkness out there. We experience it every day, don’t we?
Darkness in your novel can represent that, even if your darkness has nothing to do with the kind of darkness that the average person faces on a daily basis.
When that darkness is strong enough, your reader will fear it. They will quake in their mid-calf cape-and-wing-decorated socks.
Then the darkness fails.
It’s weird to think of it that way, of saying the darkness fails. It’s supposed to be “the hero wins”, right?
Well, yes. But think of this through the eyes of your villain, k?
All those years (probably) of planning and preparation and execution: wasted. The villain is a hero who loses. They’re not the good kind of hero, but they are a hero. There’s a quote that floats around the internet that goes “every villain is the hero of their own story” (I’m not sure who actually coined this saying, I’ve seen it credited to several people).
We’ve been looking through the eyes of the villain for the last three Friday posts. We witness the villain break and put themselves back together. We’ve watched them experience emotions on every end of the spectrum. Now… now we have to see them lose.
What does this do to the villain?
Turns out, it makes them come full circle. Yup, the villain breaks again. They shatter like the cliché fine china. The parts that they fixed right, the parts they fixed wrong. Sometimes the villain survives it, sometimes not.
We often talk about how broken heroes are, nowadays, how much they have to endure in their stories in order to win. But what about the villain?
They’re the real losers here.
I’m not saying that this isn’t okay.
I mean, someone has to lose.
That loss has to be worth it.
Your story has to show that the “sacrifice” of the villain is worth the success of the hero. It has to be difficult, it has to be worth it.