There are so many blog posts out there about how to get to know the hero of your story. Interview him, they say. Sit down and have a chat. Spend time learning his secrets and past hurts. So much time is given to the hero but know what? No one thinks about the poor little villain. The truth is the first step to writing believable villains is to brew some coffee/tea and pull up a seat at a secluded table to visit with the villain of your current manuscript. Just maybe go into the meeting with a knife tucked in your boot….he IS the villain after all.
Warning: This post includes spoilers for Disney’s Frozen and Star Wars, although if you haven’t seen the later, I urge you to come out from hiding in your bunker. Anyway. Continue reading at your own story-spoiling risk.
Everyone has been Frozen crazy lately (I promise not to burst into song. Okay, I’m singing about a snowman. But you have my permission to press mute). One of the aspects of the movie that I really loved was the villain (Hans) was not the normal obvious badie. At first we have a hard time not liking Hans. Sure he’s a bit cheesy (someone else tell me he reminded you of Donny Osmond … just me? Um, I never said that then) but he’s perfectly supportive of Anna until we see his true colors very late in the game. While we end up disliking him greatly, Hans is a great villain because he has motivation and layers that many of the other Disney villains lack. Which got me to thinking. What makes a really great villain?
When my debut Home for Good released one of the things I wasn't expecting to hear feedback on was the bad guy. But again and again, readers wrote to me and said they loved that they couldn't figure out who the villain was until the reveal. Crafting villains doesn't have to be difficult. I always keep these five rules nearby when I'm writing:
1) Do not make them cartoonish.
Twisting their mustache and cackling whenever things go according to plan is not allowed (embroider that on a pillow if needs be). Evil for the sake of being evil is incredibly difficult to write without the character becoming a cardboard cutout. It’s far more chilling to make an vile character that has actions and behaves in a way a typical person would react given the right set of circumstances and a hard enough push. Think about it, what’s more scary: some pure evil abstract character who is trying his hand at world domination for no reason in particular or the-neighbor-you-have-bbq's-with-who-really-is-a-murder-type who just walked past you in the grocery store?
2) Play on real/current fears.
Why did the Joker in The Dark Knight chill us to the bone? Because even though Gotham is a fake city it feels like we’re watching a post-9/11 world much like our own. It terrifies us because it could become possible. Look at global news stories and take them a step further (hijacked planes, biochemical warfare, engineered food, the list goes on).
3) Make your villain intelligent and challenging.
A stupid and easily overcome villain just means that your hero was equally stupid. It’s just says your hero can’t handle anything harder. Craft a villain that makes the reader think there is no hope for the hero. When a hero is forced to go above and beyond to overcome a villain it makes your hero more credible in the end and his journey worthwhile. Along the same lines, give your villain interesting and meaningful things to say. Make them both compelling and convincing. One of the greatest things you can do as an author is to have the reader believe that the villain has a valid point in his motivation.
4) Give them qualities that are sympathetic.
The best villains are the ones we as readers—despite everything—feel a connection with. Remember, no person is all good or all evil. Just as much as your hero should have flaws, your villain should have some admirable qualities. Does your villain, like President Snow from the Hunger Games, enjoy cultivating roses? Or does he provide care for his sickly sister? Rescues abandoned pug puppies? Possibly he’s like Darth Vader and the love of his children holds him back in the end. Give the villain some secret like this that the hero can discover—then you can explore if your hero is the type of person to use the villain’s vulnerability as leverage or not.
5) The villain should have sufficient motivation.
The villain wants something, or needs something to occur, and they have a belief that what they are doing is necessary in order to accomplish their goal. I once heard the saying, “Everyone is a hero of their own story” and that thought has stuck with me. See, no one views themselves as the villain. Repeat that.
No one—not even your villain—thinks they're the badie. Your villain thinks he’s the good guy!
Remember that as you write. In his head he has formed justification for why he does what he does. His reasons may be completely delusional but to him they’re very real. And these motivations must come across on the pages. As a reader I must be able to process that maybe I would have chosen a different path than your villain has, but I understand why the character is the way he is and feels the need to take the actions he does.
If you master these five, then you’ll have one excellent and compelling villain. After that, you can play around adding deeper layers. Think Darth Vader (in the original trilogy) his character arc serves as a lesson for what will happen to Luke if he doesn’t get his act together. Or, the musical and book Wicked serves as an excellent example of seeing your villain in a different light. One of my favorite examples of this is the show Once Upon A Time where the viewers have been able to see fairy tale villains in a new light and root for many of them to get happy endings (FYI: I’m 100% Team Captain Hook). Constantly ask yourself while writing: if given different circumstances to view them through, would my villain still be a villain?
Who is your favorite (or the best) villain in a movie or a book? What makes them stick with you? What have you found most annoying about villains in books? Did I miss an ingredient to a good villain? What would you add to the list?
I'm currently working on book two of my TimeShifters series (which includes massive amounts of time spent with the villain to end all villains) but want to give away a copy of the first book, Saving Yesterday to someone who leaves a comment today. Here's the back cover:
Her blood holds secrets she never knew existed.
Despite the fact that she acts as a parent to her alcoholic father, Gabby Creed feels pretty normal. But her life is turned upside-down on her seventeenth birthday when a bracelet appears on her wrist and sucks her back through time.
Turns out she’s not even a little bit normal. She’s a Shifter—a protector of humans and of history itself. And she’s not alone. The other Shifters believe Gabby is special, even more special than the mysterious Michael Pace. Oh, and the Shades—seriously creepy creatures who feed off of human despair—are determined to capture her.
It’s all a lot to absorb. So Gabby’s grateful to have Michael as her Trainer—or she would be if she could get her rebellious heart under control. Then again, if the rumors about her blood are true, saving yesterday will be the least of her worries.
Jessica Keller holds degrees in both Communications and Biblical Studies. She is multi-published in both Young Adult Fiction and Romance and has 100+ magazine and newspaper articles to her name. Her latest release is a Young Adult Fantasy - Saving Yesterday. You can find her at www.JessicaKellerBooks.com, on Twitter @AuthorKeller, on Tumblr, or on her Facebook Author Page. Jessica is also a contributor to writing focused blog: The Write Conversation. She lives in the Chicagoland suburbs with her amazing husband, beautiful daughter, and two annoyingly outgoing cats that happen to be named after superheroes.