“She had always found villains more exciting than heroes. They had ambition, passion. They made the stories happen.” Soman Chainani, The School for Good and Evil
Before I start I would like to thank Jonathan Snyder for allowing me to write a guest post on his blog. It’s a great honor for me, and I hope you will enjoy this little excursion.
Villains are the spice of the stories we read, the movies we watch, the campfire legends we are told. But writing a villain is a really difficult thing to do! Why is that? For me personally it is, because I have a problem to identify with them. We meet people we can use as a blueprint for characters all the time, but how many villains do we meet to do the same?
We might know the one or other bitch or jerk, someone who makes your life hard, a poor misunderstood soul or someone who had a bad day. That is a good start. But usually when we meet them, it is a rather one-sided and subjective image we paint them in. What would make them an effective counterpart in a story?
I’ve been thinking and researching, talked with readers and authors and have compiled a small check-list that helps me to determine if my villain is someone I’d be interested in reading more about.
- One dimensional villains often get boring.
- To do evil just to do evil makes it hard to identify with them, which also can lead to disinterest in reading their parts. There are stories of course in which that is appropriate – use your best judgement.
- Villains need a motive. That ties in with the last item, but even if someone is evil to be evil, they have a reason for it. He it mentally, something in their past, a certain trigger etc.
- Nobody is born evil. Show what made this happen.
- Villains are people too. Sometimes we want to know more about them. Their life, their thoughts, the ins and outs. In some cases the villain is just a regular person, that nobody would suspect, so show that environment.
- Some readers also mentioned that they want to understand villains and why they do what they do. That ties in with some of the points I have mentioned.
- Make the villain believable. If s/he has special powers, make sure they fit in the setting. If they have super skills make sure to explain how they got them. They also make mistakes, don’t be afraid to show that, it is a great tool for character building. Even a villain does not ‘magically’ know everything about the hero and their plan. They had to have time to research and plan. Where did they get their information from and so on.
- There is no black or white. Not everyone is only good or only evil. Actually that’s a rarity. So sometimes you want to make your reader guess, or surprise them about who your villain is.
- When it comes to the Villain / Hero interaction there are two things that have been mentioned many times, which I personally find important as well:
- A villain who cannot be beat, gets frustrating. It is no fun for the reader to see that no matter what the hero does, they fail because the villain just is perfect and too strong. Make sure that there is a way to beat him at his game. He is fallible to and might make a small mistake, or a big one. Either way don’t make him unbeatable.
- A villain who loses at the Hero’s first attempt, is boring. He wouldn’t be a good villain if he can’t even hold out for that long. That just makes him a regular person who is not very smart.
- So a balance is important: Not too strong, not too weak. Enjoy some cat and mouse play between them, make it smart and interesting, but don’t stretch it out too long or make it impossible to beat. If you plan on a re-occurring bad guy, let the hero have small victories and the villain learn from them. But in the end the bad guy should be beatable, unless you plan on a story that ends with the hero being the loser that is.
Some of these might make you wonder. Why should a villain be relatable or why should I understand them? Please note that every kind of story can have a different kind of villain to work with. For me personally there are a few types of villain that I enjoy to read about:
- The kind of villain that makes me want to crawl into the story to beat the crap out of them.
- The kind of villain, that makes me hate to hate them. Someone that I can relate to, understand and think ‘But he had a good reason!’ or ‘It was a good cause’.
- Someone who is like me, faced the same hardships or others that I can relate to.
- The surprise villain. Someone I had not expected to be ‘it’, but when I think about it, it makes a lot of sense.
All of these are pretty vague and can be about anyone in any role in any kind of story. Different examples for villains I have found all over the net and the list varies depending on who writes it. Neither list is finished by any means, they can be pretty extensive. Tastes are different but pretty much everyone has this one thing in common:
Make the villain interesting!