Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Creating a convincing villain

So, one of the things that bugs me most about stereotypical fantasy is the use of the "UBEREVILBADGUY." We've all read stories in which the uberevilbadguy comes up with uberevilschemes to take over the world - Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings come to mind - and while I thoroughly enjoyed these stories, this fantasy trope sort of gets to me. I mean, why do these uberevilbadguys want to take over the world? What is their motivation? Do they not have any redeeming qualities hidden behind those masks of uberevilcruelness?

(I bet you're getting totally annoyed with my uberlackofspaces. Okay, I'll stop now.)

My point is, creating a complex villain is just as important (and as difficult) as creating an intriguing and relatable protagonist. Your characters, like people in the real world, should not be black and white - just as your protagonist needs to have flaws, a good villain should have positive attributes to their persona while still remaining scary. Creating a nuanced villain is far more difficult than writing about an uberevilbadguy who simply wants to TAKE OVER EVERYTHING AND CONTROL THE WORLD MUAHAHAHAHAHA. (Note: Insanity doesn't count as a motive. Unless you came up with Heath Ledger as the Joker, because he was brilliant.) So I challenge you: come up with ways to make your villain a character, rather than a caricature. What does your villain want? If they are willing to kill people to achieve their goals, they better have a pretty damn good reason. What good qualities do they have to offset the bad ones?

Motivation is a huge issue with villains, and I think it's important to map out character arc and history before attempting to solidify your story. I think one of the best examples of a complex villain is Captain Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean. Sure, he was kind of an ass (for lack of a better term), and he's definitely the bad guy, but in the end you felt sorry that he never got to eat that apple.

When developing villains, I ask myself three questions: what do they want, why do they want it, and how do their actions oppose the protagonist?

These three questions also work for many novels in which the villain is not a specific person...for instance, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary Pearson (which happens to be one of my favorite books EVER). In this book, Jenna's main physical opposition takes the form of the government (a common theme among dystopian works - also, SPOILER ALERT).

What do they want?
The government wants to prevent widespread controversy and protest over a moral conundrum - whether or not to allow the use of bio gel, a substance that can interact with human neurons and thus rebuild damaged organs. Jenna is technically illegal (after a near-fatal car crash, her scientist father used bio gel to reconstruct roughly 90% of her body) and the government is trying to avoid the debate over artificial intelligence and whether or not a person who is 90% synthetic can actually be considered human.

Why do they want this?
Again, the government simply wants to avoid the heated political upheaval that would follow the use of bio gel to create 90% of a human brain. It is an ethically gray area, and the cultural/political repercussions could be catastrophic, particularly for the scientific community.

How do their actions oppose the protagonist?
With her reconstructed body, Jenna's existence in the US is illegal. If the government were to find out about her she could face permanent incarceration to keep her hidden from the public.

As a villain, the government has discernible, understandable goals that could have negative consequences for the protagonist.

I think we can all work on character development. It's something I've struggled with over the years, and I am constantly striving to get better, particularly when it comes to villains. Your protagonist and antagonist are, arguably, the most important characters in your story, and creating complex opposing factions gives your manuscript multiple layers and depth. I'm not saying good vs. evil stories are bad (total Harry Potter nerd here) but there's no such thing as excessive character development. For the most part, developing your villain will only make your story better.


  1. Yeah I agree. And an important thing to remember is that complexity for a villain (a non-POV character, generally) can be added in a line or two. As long as the author knows why, it will show through.

    Also, I just noticed "Island of Dragons and Fuzzies." And LOL.

  2. Nice questions. I always struggle when creating a good bad guy :)

  3. Awesome post, and great questions! I'll have to work on developing my uberevilbadguy. :)

  4. that is very interesting. in my novel, I have the main uberevilbadguy, but then there's his apprentice, who has a VERY confused past, and owes uberevilbadguy a debt...I'm planning a squeal, and its about whether or not they can trust the apprentice, after he killed one of the main characters. Is this any good?

  5. @Annabeth sounds interesting to me! It's really hard to tell from just as synopsis, but as long as your characters are interesting you should be fine!