Craft a Convincing Villain
By: Donna Schlachter
So far we’ve talked about the importance of building believable characters and why that’s so critical to the foundation for any story. Last month, strong secondary characters were discussed, and we learned that not only do these secondary characters support—or oppose—our main characters, they also assist them—or deter them—along their journey of emotional, physical, and spiritual growth.
This month, we’ll talk a little about villains. The bad guys. Sometimes called the antagonist. These are the characters who have the most to lose if the main character accomplishes his/her goal. Or, said another way, they have the most to win if the main character fails.
We’ve all watched movies and read books where we hate the villain, where we cheer for his/her demise and leave feeling very satisfied and smug when they do lose. If they do, that is. Somehow justice seems to have been served, and when that’s the basis of the story, it’s the ending we want.
Then there are those stories and movies where we want to cheer for the character that we know is bad, has bad intentions, and makes bad choices because maybe—just maybe—there’s a little bit of a redeeming hope within them. We don’t really want them to change, but simply knowing perhaps they could is enough.
To craft believable villains, we must keep these things in mind:
- Nobody is all bad. Not even the worst villain you can think of. Just as nobody is all good, even bad guys have a mother they love, a dog they’d never kick, and a flicker of empathy occasionally.
- Bad guys don’t see that what they do is bad. It’s simply the way they view the world. Most are narcissists who believe they deserve to have whatever they want because they want it. Some are sociopaths, with little to no empathy for others, so they don’t understand that their actions are harming other people. In fact, most villains believe that their choices will make their world a better place.
- All villains have a story, a backstory, if you will, that explains their current actions. Figure that out, and you can find all sorts of ways to endear your villain to your reader. For example, if you decide your villain was sexually abused as a child, you can see why he progresses from pulling wings off flies to killing kittens to physical and sexual abuse of other characters. Perhaps your villain was abandoned as a child. Had a domineering woman. Read resource books about mental illness and personality disorders and come up with a unique combination of backstory and how your villain tries to diminish his pain.
As you develop your villain, you must make sure that his/her strengths equal but don’t exceed your main character’s. In this way, overcoming the villain is a difficult struggle for your main character, but it can be accomplished when your main character grows in their story arc, but not before that point.
Just as with your main character, reveal your villain’s backstory a little at a time. Your goal isn’t for your reader to like your villain—but to understand why they are they way they are.
A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both.
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