Villains are people too. And the very best villains are the ones that we, the reader, kind of, secretly like.
Oh, it’s horrible, isn’t it? We see these bad boys running around shooting up banks, taking hostages, and demanding ransom. Wearing their cool jackets (usually). All the while were thinking:
He’s not so bad. I could change him.
Next thing you know he’s blowing up a hospital and were like-
You’ve changed! I don’t even recognize you anymore!
But that’s the power of a sympathetic villain. For a minute, we’re actually on their side.
And that’s what I want to talk about today. But first, let’s answer this question:
(quick note: if you’re interested learning more about writing compelling characters checkout Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. You know, the guy who wrote Enders Game. I use this book for a lot of research. Also, using the links above will help support the blog. Thanks!)
What is a Villain?
The word conjures images of caped sorcerers shooting lightning bolts from their fingertips. Or hulking warlords who snap away half the universe. But they don’t have to be dramatic.
In Greek antagonist means to struggle against. In a nutshell, a villain is a plot device. Someone or something for your protagonist to struggle against. The job of a villain is to keep your hero from breezing through the plot, unchallenged.
Because if she succeeds in her goal too easily, without learning or growing, not only will your story be boring, it will be pointless. So, let’s talk about what you came here for.
How to Write a Villain
Give them a Strong Motivation.
The worst kind of villain is the one that seems to do things for no other reason than to be mean. That’s why you should stick by this classic piece of writer’s advice and always remember-
The villain is the hero of their own story.
Villains today are much more complex. And audiences are smarter than ever. They won’t put up with any mustache-twirling nonsense from your antagonist. A villain should have their own plan and goals in the story. Most of all, they should believe they’re in the right!
And you, as the writer, should be empathetic to your villain. Understand that no matter how misguided, your villain believes they’re right. Whatever terrible choices they make are in service to their ultimate goal.
Let’s take a look at Heath Ledger’s Joker. At first glance, he seems to be exactly what he says he is: an agent of chaos, and nothing more. But, pay attention to the dialogue and he does have a theory to prove:
“Their morals, their code; it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.”
Every act of terrorism is a step closer to proving a theory that we’re no better than animals.
The fun part is that you may agree with that idea. Joker makes a compelling argument. Which reminds me-
Give your Villain a Compelling Argument.
Sure, a villain can have completely selfish motivations. They can be driven by greed or lust, or they could just be a hateful jerk.
But, the best villains have a point to make. A legitimate problem that they want to solve. Don’t worry, they tell us, the ends will totally justify the means.
These are the best villains because the reader will feel empathetic towards them. They’re not evil, they’re misguided. And we all get lost, from time to time.
Have you ever seen Michael Bay’s The Rock? What am I talking about, of course, you have! Remember Ed Harris’s character. He’s a retired general who steals VX gas, loads it into cruise missiles and threatens to poison San Fransico if he doesn’t get one hundred million dollars.
Seems like a pretty messed up dude, right?
Not quite, because the movie gives him an effective motivation. He wants the money to pay the forgotten families of Marines killed in clandestine missions. He’s gone before Congress, he’s argued in the public forum. He’s explored every legal avenue and the government has refused to help the men under his command. Under those circumstances, his argument isn’t so crazy.
Give them a Softer Side
To construct a great villain, or any character really, you need to create empathy. You need your readers to understand each character in a fundamental way. This is what really bonds a reader to a text.
Now how do you do that with a character who is fundamentally bad? By showing the audience that they’re human. You can do this in a lot of ways, but the best way is to give them another character to care for. Because we’re all human, even the bad guys. And we all have people we care about (hopefully).
Let’s look at Tywin Lannister, who serves as the villain of the first few seasons of Game of Thrones. Tywin is a consummate ass with few redeeming qualities. He kills most of the Stark family and treats his own children like garbage. Despite this, he does have a few moments of softness.
These come in interactions with Arya Stark who poses as his servant girl during the second season. These scenes not only give us a window into Tywin’s motivation but also show us that he can be nice. Even if it’s only to a girl as clever and ruthless as him. Check it out:
Make Your Villain Attractive
Look at Darth Vader. Dude wears an all-black suit and a cape. That’s like the coolest outfit possible. Unless you wear it to my high school. Then everyone calls you a “spaz,” and throws lunch waste at you. Whatever…
It’s not all about physical attraction. Villains often have an alluring personality. This is why so many villains are highly intelligent. Not only does this make things all the more difficult for your hero, but it also makes for a very attractive villain.
Think Hannible Lector. He freaking eats people, but for some weird reason, you kind of want him to like you, right?
Make them Successful
I don’t mean rich and powerful. I mean make them successful in the plot. They should win the lion share of the battles with your protagonist. Really, your hero shouldn’t overcome the villain until she’s reached the climax of her story. The resolution.
So, have the villain win, and win often. Have them kill characters more skilled than your hero. Make them a true threat!
Think about their Backstory
All characters need a backstory, and your villain is no different. The backstory is where you can really cultivate a compelling motivation for your villain. Were they abandoned at a young age? Were they exploited in a moment of weakness?
This biography doesn’t have to be completely revealed to your reader. Some of the best villains have no backstory at all in their original canon, but you’re the author. You should know what makes your bad guy tick.
So, go out there an write a villain that we can feel sorry for.
Or, get in the comments and tell me who your favorite villain is!
Mine is Ivan Ooze from the 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie.
I have my reasons.
Also, check out these great articles on villains: