Everybody loves a good villain.
It seems a little odd, at times, that the evildoer of a novel can get as much – if not more – love as the main character. The reader is supposed to cheer for the hero, right?
We’re see the world through the heroine’s eyes, we begin to see that what she represents is good, and what the villain represents is bad. Our inner self hates that evil character for setting up so many obstacles in our main character’s path. It makes us grind our teeth and grimace.
Not always. Sometimes the reader falls in love with the villain and says “I understand them,” or “they’re so fantastic”. The main character gets left behind and forgotten because the reader cares more about the villain and the sidekick.
There’s an obvious solution to this: make the main character better. If the villain is outshining the hero, then the hero needs to shape up, rather than the villain shaping down.
What happens when the case is the opposite?
The reader doesn’t care one whit for your villain, whatever their feelings about the main character. They might find the antagonist boring or cliché or flat or unmotivated or unreachable or standoffish and they just can’t connect.
What do you do in that case?
There are many, many ways to develop your villain. You can find countless blog posts dedicated to this idea of “making a better villain”; it’s an obsession writers have, I think.
Well, now it’s my turn. I’d like to look at what makes a good villain and how we can apply it to our own writing.
A Good Place to Start
I… really seem to like quoting that snippet from The Sound of Music, but it applies to so many situations.
Before we really get into this, I want to get the assumptions down: I’m going to assume that your villain is a human or a creature with human characteristics (for instance, Smaug is a dragon, but he acts quite a bit like a human and so is a “human” for the purpose of this series of posts). If you’re writing a “man vs. nature” survival novel or a “man vs. self” slice-of-life novel, you’ll probably need a different post.
Next, I’m going to assume that you know the clichés and are doing your best to avoid them. If you don’t know the clichés and want to learn about them, try Google: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=Villain+Cliches.
All right. Let’s start at the very, very root of the problem. The problem I’m talking about is the good kind: the problem that created the villain. See, each villain has to start somewhere. They weren’t born fully evil and ready to do a whole bunch of twisted and vile things to get at the hero.
Each and every villain used to be a chubby little baby (unless they were born a few weeks early, then they probably weren’t that chubby) who had his or her parents wrapped around their stubby little fingers.
They giggled when their dad tossed them in the air and burped after being fed. They got hiccups at random times, hated their first taste of pureed peas, and learned to blow kisses only to blow them at random strangers.
Depending on the villain, they probably led perfectly normal lives throughout their younger years: they had friends and siblings and school and a crush on the cute kid who lived down the street. They learned to drive (or ride a horse or fly a hovercraft) with all the other kids their age. They suffered under the reign of a bully and felt that euphoric rush that came from finally overcoming said bully.
Then something happened. Whatever it might be, it turned the villain sour. It took their normal life and dashed it to pieces. Whatever it is, it broke them.
Some examples: their parents died, they were kidnapped, they witnessed a killing, they were hurt in some way, they hurt someone else in some way.
Your villain broke.
When someone breaks, they have to learn how to put themselves together. If they don’t, they often wind up… dead. So your villain goes about putting themselves back together. They gather up all the little pieces and get out the hot glue gun and start working.
It hurts, it hurts a lot. The glue is sticky and some of the pieces are jagged and it hurts.
This might remind you of the “broken hero” archetype. A character who was broken or is broken over the course of the story and they have to learn how to fix themselves.
What’s the difference between the broken hero and the broken villain?
The villain puts the pieces together wrong.
Whatever piece it is, they misplace one and their whole self comes out… distorted.
Choosing the Breaking Point
There are two key components to making the beginnings of a good villain. The first is that breaking point.
What makes your villain fall apart?
This is important because it is what defines your villain’s turn from light to dark. They morph from that happy little chubby baby into the Dark Lord of All Evil and there has to be some transition. It might not be super noticeable, or it may be a single blatant event that rocks their world.
For instance, your villain may act villainous because they have Antisocial Personality Disorder (as a disclaimer, I am aware that not everyone with APD is a violent criminal… but a lot of them are so my example is valid). This disorder comes out at a young age (as early as 6). The person (usually a male) is brash and shows little remorse for their actions. They’re often daredevils (because this disorder is marked by low levels of arousal) and highly energetic. As they get older, their actions can become more violent: first toward animals, then to siblings, then to strangers and authority figures.
If your villain’s breaking point is this disorder, the event that breaks them is hard to pinpoint. It’s a lifelong transition from an energetic kid to an emotionless killer.
Or perhaps your villain’s breaking point is more specific. It’s a vivid moment in their life where something awful happens to them: their parents are murdered/they die, a favorite pet is lost/stolen/killed, they’re kidnapped or hurt in some way, etc.
It’s so specific that you can give precise details.
Here’s the deal: you need a strong breaking point. If your villain is going to break, it needs to be clear that the event is capable of breaking them. Turns out, an easily broken villain doesn’t feel like a real villain. Nor a scary one.
At the same time, however, you want to avoid the cliché “Painful Past Syndrome”, in which every possible bad thing that can happen has indeed happened to this character.
Here’s a tip: pick two or less. If your villain is broken by two things – so long as they’re believable – you’ll create a character who has been broken, but not beaten into the dust and left for dead.
An Intricate Puzzle
Just as your villain breaks, so they must be put back together. But in order for that to happen, you need to know how they fell apart and which parts of them are broken beyond repair.
This can be difficult if you’re not a natural character developer (it took me a few years to really get the hang of this). Get into your villain’s shoes. Stand where she stands, figure out how she thinks and how she sees the world. Know exactly how your villain will react to being broken. Will they lash out in anger? Weep silently? Show nothing while turning into a hollow shell of a human being?
If you get into your villain’s shoes, you’ll know exactly which parts of them - the aspects of their life, emotions, personality, thought process, etc. – need to be reconstructed.
There you go: the work is all set out for you. Put them back together. Discover how they would learn to cope with what broke them, how they would heal. Rebuild their emotional integrity, their immune system, their personality, their thought process. As necessary, create and/or repair relationships.
Pick a few spots, however, where their life is drastically different. Perhaps that relationship is never healed. Maybe they’ve gone through so much trauma that their personality changes, makes them more introverted or more touchy or less empathetic.
Find the places your villain put themselves together wrong.
The Effects of Backstory
Unless you’re writing a story about the creation of a villain (which is always a fun thing to do), all of this breaking and rebuilding will take place before the story even starts.
So why does it matter?
Each realistic and thought-out snippet of backstory you create will result in a direct and positive increase in the realism and power generated by your character. Any character, not just the villain.
But when you break your villain, heal them, show the jagged piece that didn’t quite fit, then you’ve created a character that is real.
They weren’t just born into darkness, they fell into it and then… slowly… they embraced it.