Six Tips for Creating Villains That Drive Better Stories
There’s nothing like a good villain. There’s nothing that drives a plot or builds great protagonists like a bad guy that we love to hate. Think of your favorite characters in any book or film, and more than likely, they have an equally awesome antagonist working against them. The heroes become better heroes because of great villains.
A writing book I enjoy is Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Morrell. I like her take on bad guys because she stresses the importance of them being realistic and complex, while still instilling fear. I think you can have villains in many contexts that don’t invoke fear, but I love the idea of the bad guys instilling some sort of visceral reaction in readers.
Think Amy Dunne from Gone Girl who is clearly a sociopath, but we kind of root for her because, duh, cheating husband. President Snow from Hunger Games who instills dread. Think Narnia’s White Witch who killed Christmas. Or Misery’s Annie Wilke’s whose fangirling turns creepily obsessive. Heck, even Miss Trunchbull who makes us laugh, feel sorry for her, and hate her because she targets Matilda.
Morrell, says: “It cannot be said too often: Antagonists—and Villains, in particular—are complicated, three-dimensional, and robustly knowable people. After all, it is the process of learning about fascinating characters in terrible difficulties that draws readers in. Readers especially want to learn about what makes a bad ass tick” (197).
As I’m thinking through my own villain lately—a person who isn’t bad, just opposite of my MC—I thought I’d share a few thoughts on what makes a great antagonist that we’re dying to read more about.
First, I’m using bad guy, villain, and antagonist interchangeably, but that’s not always the case. Which brings me to point one:
1. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil—they’re just what’s standing between the protagonist attaining his/her goal. Batman wants order; Joker wants chaos. The Martian’s Mark Watney wants to go home; Mars wants to be Mars and suck the life out of all things. Mars’ entire makeup is fundamentally opposed to what Watney, our hero, wants. The joker’s goals are opposite of Batman’s. Neither is inherently bad for the sake of being bad.
2. Create a visceral reaction. Brandon Sanderson says to set up our bad guys early by doing something simple, like kicking a puppy. Nobody likes the guy who kicks the puppy. Darth Vader's character debut is him entering the scene in a cloud of smoke, walking through a pile of dead bodies. Give your villain a scene that causes a physical or emotional response in readers, and build on her/him from there.
3. Give them believable motives. Our villain needs a motive or goal, just like our main character. Professor Snape hated Harry because of his past with Harry’s parents. He was bullied. He felt wronged. Occasionally, we catch glimpses of his actions being justifiable. We feel for him and understand why he would hate Harry. He’s such a great character because we find ourselves wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, even while hating him for how he treats our beloved protagonist.
4. Make them relatable. Villains are so much stronger when we understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if we can’t like them. One of my very favorites is Cersei Lannister from the Game of Thrones HBO series. I love her because she’s kind of a horrible person, but she’s a good mother. She’s loyal and defends her kids at any cost. She’s also a woman who is smart and capable, but the men around her always put her in her place. She’s sold off for marriages. She’s ridiculed. No matter how hard she works to get ahead, it never quite works out for her. I can relate to her feelings, if not the way she acts on them.
5. Villains can be internal or external. Sometimes the scariest stories are about fighting against our own inner demons. Think Rapunzel from Tangled and all the time she spends arguing with herself about whether she should or should not be obeying Mother Gothel. She continually has to fight against doubting herself and her choices, before she realizes who the real bad guy is. Often having an internal and external antagonist can make for a more layered story.
6. Villains don’t have to be people. Think Mars in The Martian. Triss or Katniss against the establishment. Jaws, where the villains are sharks. In Everest or The Perfect Storm, the antagonists are nature. Here’s a great post about different types of conflicts that don’t necessarily involve a person as the evil villain.
Multi-dimensional villains are just as important as any other aspect of our stories, otherwise all we have are flat, fairy-tale archetypes of black and white, good and evil. If villains lack depth, we take away the emotional impact they might have on readers. We make them caricatures instead of interesting and believable themes.
By creating a smart, believable, occasionally sympathetic antagonist, we create more compassion for our MC. We force them to be a better “hero” in order to beat the forces against them. A great antagonist will up the game of our entire story.
Though there are many different types of antagonists, the good ones succeed because they create a physical or emotional response and we understand what drives them.
In the words of the great L.M. Montgomery's Anne of the Island: "If I had to have villains at all, I'd give them a chance, Anne—I'd give them a chance. There are some terrible bad men in the world, I suppose, but you'd have to go a long piece to find them... most of us have got a little decency somewhere in us."
What are ways you create great villains? Can you think of any that stand out as favorites?