V is for Villainy!
So you’ve decided to create a villain. Congratulations! Villains are great fun to write. You can experience the worst of humanity, do really horrible rotten awful things, and wallow in depravity, muck, and vice. All vicariously, of course.
Villainous characters rarely come in one flavor. There are several types, including the following, and different tactics for dealing with them.
This one is hard to do without lapsing into antihero status. He’s a villain because something bad happened to him, or maybe his circumstances forced him into doing the wrong thing (or the right one, but in a convoluted and awful way). Either way, he chose his path, and he might even have grown to enjoy it. We may not like him, but we understand him.
You might be able to reason with this villain, especially if you lean toward giving in to him. If you can do that without hurting anyone, he might just shut up and go away. But you better have a contingency plan for his return, because he’s learned that villainy will make you cave.
Examples: Khan in the film Star Trek: Into Darkness, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books.
This is somebody who never set out to be a villain, but she ends up one anyway. Through her actions, she hurts and threatens other characters. She doesn’t mean to be bad and may even be puzzled by other characters’ reactions to her behavior. An unintentional villain may also be someone who causes an accident or incident and then, terrified of the consequences, proceeds to make the situation worse with every subsequent move she makes. Or she might just be so stupid that she’s dangerous.
You can distract this villain long enough to escape or perhaps to push her down another path. If she’s lashing out from blind fear, you’ll have to placate her somehow. Show her you’re not a threat, that you’re on her side. Maybe you can talk her down by making her feel safe.
Example: Rhoda in The Bad Seed, Elmyra Duff from Tiny Toons
Pure evil villain
One of my favorite characters to write was the baddest bad guy in Rose’s Hostage. Dale Conroy is Joshua’s second-in-command in the bank robber gang. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I did get inside his head, so you see his anger, his posturing, and his motivation. But even though you understand him, you still hate him. Everything he does is only to benefit himself.
Dale isn’t very clever on his own—he needs help to pull off his dastardly plot. Unfortunately for everyone in the hideout, he knows where to find it.
Superior strength may defeat this villain, but if you don’t have an army behind you or you can’t outfight him, you’ll have to be clever enough to find his weakness. Everybody has one and if you can figure it out, you can take him down.
Examples: Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit, Charles Augustus Magnussen in the Sherlock episode “His Last Vow.”
Pure evil villains are the ones most likely to laugh maniacally and spend ten minutes explaining their wicked scheme to the hero while simultaneously buying him a chance to figure out an escape. Seriously, this has been so overused. If you have sufficiently shown your evil bad guy’s machinations before the final showdown, you won’t need to do this because your hero will already know about it.
Now what are some of the things that make a villainous character great?
- He has to present a challenge to the hero. An effective villain forces the hero into a corner. He may actually push the protagonist so far that he’ll do something bad himself just to stop it.
- He has to have a purpose. Even the most terrible villains in history have reasons for what they do. They may be twisted and stupid, but they can still end up perpetrating great evil, like Hitler with his Final Solution. Why would a person go to so much effort unless he really believed his reasons were sound?
- He has to be someone to whom we can relate. The most frightening villains of all are those who walk among us and are just like us. We all know someone who would tip over the edge if the situation were just right. Even more terrifying is the thought that we might do the same. When we see ourselves inside a villain, it makes us shudder. And if he’s attractive to us somehow, desire might even tempt us to take his side.
Whether we understand his motives or not, a good villain should have traits that make him human. If he’s just an unreasonable monster, like Freddy Krueger, we look on him as a force of nature, the same way we see a tornado or an earthquake. Sure, those things are destructive, but they aren’t that way out of spite or pain.
Take time to develop your villain as thoroughly as you do your hero. After all, they’re two sides of the same coin.