Villain. Anti-hero. Mischief-maker. Miscreant.
Most stories have one. Some of them are subtle antagonists, such as Crispin Yates’ father in my most recent novel, The Loch. Others are true villains in every sense of the word. Evil. Determined to undermine your hero at every turn.
The Daleks to Doctor Who.
Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker.
The Joker to Batman.
Thanos to…well…the entire Marvel Universe.
You get the idea. Villains are an important part of your story, just as important as the main character. They provide definition to your hero, help keep the conflict going to its ultimate resolution, and gives the reader something to focus their attention on. The villain is usually compelled with a desire to be cruel and immoral to varying degrees. To that end, understanding who your villain is and what they are trying to accomplish might be more important than knowing your protagonist.
What makes a good villain?
Every villain shares a set of common characteristics. When you start planning your cast of characters for your next novel, keep these in mind so that you can incorporate them into your villain.
The villain has a strong connection to your hero.
How is your villain connected to your hero? Think about your favorite villains in movies and in literature. Most of them are connected to the hero through some event that has bound them together. For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Aragorn is tied to Sauron through his bloodline. His ancestor, Isaldur, was the one who cut the ring from Sauron’s hand, temporarily defeating him. Aragorn, with the help of Frodo Baggins and other characters, defeated him for good by destroying the ring Frodo’s cousin Bilbo found. Aragorn and Sauron are dependent on each other throughout the book in a fight between good and evil.
Every villain has his or her own moral compass.
Villains think they are on the side of right and everyone else is against them. This could stem from how they were raised to how society treated them. Let’s look at Anakin Skywalker – Darth Vader – for this one. Anakin was plagued with dreams of losing his wife, Padme, in childbirth and was determined to save her. Even though he was a Jedi Knight, he was influenced by Darth Sidious that the Jedi were keeping Force techniques from him that could save Padme and his children. In a clear swing of his moral compass, Anakin rejected everything he was taught as a Jedi and turned to the dark side of the Force. He considered the killing of the Jedi – even the younglings – necessary to keep him from losing the love of his life. (And we know how that turned out…Obi-Wan did have the high ground, after all.)
A villain should be a worthy adversary.
This is a no-brainer. A weak villain that can be easily beaten is, frankly, boring. So is one that is too powerful and can only be beaten by luck. In this case, the best example is Moriarty from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Even though Moriarty is a criminal mastermind, he can keep Holmes on his toes because they both possess the same level of intellect and skill. There are many times we have all wondered if Holmes and Watson would be able to defeat Moriarty when they came face to face. A worthy adversary keeps the reader guessing and helps keep the villain credible.
A compelling backstory makes your villain interesting and credible.
What happened to your villain to make him or her so nasty? And why are you sympathizing with them? Author F.D. Gross creates an interesting backstory for villain Joachim in his Wolfgang Trilogy. When you first meet him, he’s the manservant to Tenor Wolfgang, a vampire hunter. But he suddenly turns on his employer, kidnapping Wolfgang’s son. As the narrative unwinds, you learn more and more about Joachim, his motivations, and what drove him to kidnap the boy. You also learn just how much that betrayal hurts Wolfgang and how they are tied together, reliant on one another to the conclusion of the trilogy.
Villains are just fun.
Erik Killmonger from the movie Black Panther is one of those villains that we love to hate. He is interesting, has a great knowledge of Wakandan artifacts, and is just downright sassy. In the movie, he is also T’Challa’s cousin, which makes viewers sympathetic to him. We want to see him makeup with his cousin and take his place in Wakanda, yet we also secretly hope he comes out on top because of the interesting backstory.
A Villain Checklist
When you start fleshing out your villain, keep this checklist in mind to help you create a three-dimensional villain that gives your story substance and credibility.
1. Did you base your villain on a real-life person and differentiate the fictional character enough so the real-life person is not recognized?
2. Can you put yourself in your villain’s shoes when determining how they act in situations?
3. Can you clearly identify your villain’s motives?
4. Does your villain come into your story in an unforgettable way that sets them up as…the villain?
5. Is your villain convinced that they are the good guy?
6. Did you give them likable qualities that make you and your reader excited to see them in the chapter?
7. Is your villain clever, accomplished, persuasive, and occasionally kind enough to be begrudgingly respected?
8. Is your villain also merciless, proud, deceitful, vengeful, and jealous of your hero?
9. Did you make your hero a worthy enough opponent to make your hero look good even though they have similar qualities?
10. Will your villain stop at nothing to achieve their goals?
Villains are fun to write. A good, three-dimensional villain can drive a story just as well as your hero. Consider all your favorite villains and use them as a guide to building your own. Who is your favorite villain?