Everyone Thinks They Are The Hero (Particularly The Villain)
No one thinks they are the bad guy. There are bad people in the world, but they don't wake up thinking they are bad people. Oddly, I know a lot of lovely people who, due to depression and mental illness, do wake up thinking they are bad people. However the more you are out there, affecting other people, changing the world around you, the more confident you have to be in your motives and justifications.
Racists genuinely believe there is a conspiracy against them. They actually believe they are protecting their families and defending their nation when they harass and beat innocent women and children. Paedophiles genuinely believe children want to be in a relationship with them, or that they won't remember the abuse. The worst things you or I can imagine a person doing, someone has an excuse and justification for.
To write a villain well, you have to know what lies they tell themselves. You have to know how they justify their beliefs and actions. You probably don't agree with them, but you have to understand. Because if you don't know and believe, the reader won't either.
Everyone Antagonises Someone
You are the antagonist in someone's life. Right now, someone thinks of you as a villain (or just an asshole). Even if you work very hard to be nice to everyone, your gender, your race, your age or your political beliefs mean there are people who disapprove of you, people who think YOU are what is wrong with the world. Hopefully, you are also someone's hero too.
The hero in your story will be someone's villain too. Most likely, your hero will be your villain's antagonist.
When developing your villain, it helps to come at them from a place of empathy. Realising that there are people who hate you too, realising that everyone in the world is both hero and villain, allows you to see from the villain's point of view easier. No doubt you see yourself as a hero, or, at least, not a villain. But to someone you are. Your villain in your story will probably feel the same way you do. Or, at least, have comparable excuses to your own: Those people who dislike me are wrong. They don't understand me. They wouldn't feel that way if they knew me or if they were in my situation. I'm doing what has to be done. I can't help being this way.
Yeah, you and everyone else, buddy.
Resonance And Empathy
I think we empathise with the best villains. We don’t agree with them, but we still empathize with some aspect of their motivations or back story. Remember the most powerful stories make us feel things strongly, but abject terror is virtually impossible to maintain over long periods. You can’t rely on your villain making people feel afraid for long periods, they have to invoke other emotions too.
Resonance in villains can be powerful, if done correctly. You’re not trying to ‘copy’ someone else’s work, you’re trying to invoke echoes of the same feeling, the same excitement and passion as when they read or watched something else they loved, and also make them feel like they are in familiar territory.
Its why we us comparisons so much when recommending books, movies and games. If you loved X you will also love Y. Resonance is the reason.
When I was planning a YA novel recently and began doing the character profiles, I asked some of my teenage friends who their favourite villains were. I made a list and sorted them into archetypes. There were clear preferences. Teenage girls have a type, apparently. Which was fantastic, because I knew exactly what sort of villain I had to write to appeal to them most.
What Makes A Villain Compelling?
Villains are compelling if they feel threatening to the reader and the reader should want to know more about them. The more intense these two feelings are, the more compelling a villain will be.
I have talked about villains needing to be more powerful and have more resources than the hero many times. It's hard to be scared of someone who is less capable than we are. However to make them both compelling and more interesting to learn about, it's time to go back to the profile.
Your villain's motives are going to make them interesting. They need to have a good reason for what they do. They have to want something, a lot. They have to be driven by a powerful need. The villain themselves doesn't always have to be completely aware of this, but it should be clear to the reader. It's even better if the reader empathises with the motives, if not the method.
What if the villain is getting revenge for the death of his child? We would all feel that compulsion, even if we didn't act on it. Maybe some of us would act on it, but maybe this villain is so driven by his need for revenge, he is willing to kill innocent people, maybe even other people's children, to achieve it.
Or perhaps consider a villain like Draco Malfoy. Here was a child who was raised to be a villain. Raised to be racist, violent and competitive. If he had been raised differently, perhaps he would have been a very different character. However he was driven to continue his cruel ways, because he was seeking his father's approval and wanted to feel a part of his family and their traditions. We can all empathise with that. We all want to feel accepted by our family, even if our family is terrible. To Harry, Draco seems like a powerful adversary. However as readers we can see, particularly in the earlier books, that he is just a little boy who has been raised terribly. That empathy allowed many readers to really enjoy Draco as a character, and I think many of us wanted a lot more for him.
Weaknesses and strengths (are still the same thing)
Remember when I said most weaknesses are also strengths? This applies to your villain too. Confidence becomes over-confidence. Leadership becomes pride. Beauty becomes vanity. Thwarted hope becomes bitterness. When you are considering their weaknesses and strengths, flip both. Which weaknesses do you want to also be strengths? Maybe they are old, but since people pay less attention to the elderly, it allows them to move around, unnoticed and underestimated. Maybe they're in a wheelchair, which allows them to sneak weapons through a metal detector? Maybe they are breathtakingly beautiful, but at a critical moment they shy away from a fire that would scar them, allowing the hero to get the upper hand?
Where a hero's weaknesses are designed to make them relatable to the reader, a villain's weaknesses are often designed to foil them at a critical moment. A hero overcomes her weaknesses, a villain succumbs to his.
Remember though, a villain is most effective when they seem to posses more resources than the hero. If you villain is ugly, weak, sick and unintelligent, it's not very impressive when your hero defeats him.
I think it is easier to get away with wish fulfilment in a villain than in a hero. The villain can be smarter, prettier, richer, more talented, wittier and all the things we wish we were. The villain, in short, can get away with being a bit of a Mary-Sue. Loki from the Marvel movies, played by Tom Hiddleston, leaps to mind. He is larger than life, effortlessly confident and bold, capable, sexy and evil in all the right ways. Could he be a protagonist? No, as much as many of us wish he could have his own movie. We may love Loki, but it is difficult to side with him when we've seen him kill innocent people, people who did nothing more than refuse to kneel for him.
If you are compelled to have that character who can do everything, is perfect and awesome and loved and impossible cool, make them your villain. It's what I do.
Relationships With Other Characters
A villain who exists in a void is a bit... boring. Seeing how villains interact with their families, their loved ones, their underlings, their superiors--it makes them much more interesting. A villain who can show compassion to the people she cares about causes a sort of cognitive dissonance. How can he love his own daughter so deeply, yet allow these other little girls to die? How can she run into the road to save a kitten, then torture another person to death in front of their family?
Its these relationships that allow you to show your villain's depth of character. That they are not just one dimensional evil entities. It allows you to make them human. Flawed and beautiful. It makes it easier for you to blur the moral lines.
However you villain will have other relationships too. Relationships with their other victims. Relationships with your hero. Relationships with themselves. Be aware of these. When you are planning your synopsis, map these out too. How they change, how they grow, how they fall apart.
Your villain is on the same journey as your hero, but when one rises, the other falls.
Failure And Darkest Moments
You villain's highest moment will probably be your hero's darkest moment. It is the moment it looks like the villain will win and is at his strongest, but the hero has failed and been abandoned by his friends. In contrast, your villain's darkest moment will be the climax, when all their success is ripped away from them as the hero triumphs.
Since the villain is the bad guy, he will likely end up defeated, possibly dead. In the case of series, sometimes he will live on, manage to escape and crawl away to lick his wounds and muster another offensive. But the story isn't over until the evil is vanquished somehow, unless you are going for a very unsatisfying ending.
The worst bad guys are the ones who just sit around, waiting for someone to stumble into them. Tell me what is worse:
1. You're in a maze and you know there is a minotaur guarding the exit
2. You're in a maze and you know the minotaur is hunting you as you desperately try and find the exit?
I know which one would scare me more. The minotaur with agency. The minotaur who is actively looking to hurt me, not just standing around, waiting for me to come to him. Your villain should be active. A threatening villain is always a few steps ahead, with your hero desperately trying to catch up (using her own agency, not just passively reacting).
A good tip I have heard from a lot of authors is: If you get stuck and don't know what happens next, ask yourself, what is your villain doing? Usually their goals and actions will serve to move the plot forward.
The Difference Between A Hero And A Villain
The key difference between the hero and the villain is at the critical juncture, the hero chooses to do the right thing and the villain chooses to do the wrong thing.
Voledemort and Harry had a lot in common. A rough start, a magical school, access to unnatural power. By the time they met, Voledemort was already past the point of redemption. However through the series, we learn about him as a child. Where his path branched, over and over and each time he chose the wrong one. Meanwhile, Harry chose goodness. Despite being an orphan, despite his abuse at the hands of his own family, he chose to protect others. To be brave. He didn't always get it right, but he tried to get it right. Tom Riddle did not.
If you're still wondering who you are a villain to, you should keep this distinction in mind. When you choose to do the right thing, the brave and compassionate thing, the unselfish and generous thing, you are being the hero.
And, well, none of us are the hero all the time.
NEXT WEEK, we look at character consistency and wrap up the character series.
The previous parts of the character development blog series can be found here:
5. Characters: Gender and Gender Roles
6. Characters: Conflict, Conflict & More Conflict
7. Characters: Motivation & Stakes
6. Characters: Conflict, Conflict & More Conflict
7. Characters: Motivation & Stakes