Wicked snarls, cackling laughter, and goading, greedy intentions… Villains can be misunderstood and even evil. We all have our favorite bad guys, and we love to hate them. A few of the villains that have resonated with me in my lifetime are Maleficent (Disney’s Sleeping Beauty), Loki (Thor), Agent Smith (The Matrix), Hannibal Lector (The Silence of the Lambs), Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter Series), Gollum (The Lord of the Rings), and Darth Vader (Star Wars).
All of the villains mentioned above have a few things in common, and by taking a closer look at their universal bad behavior and evil egos we can get a better idea of how to write our own heinous antagonist. Regardless of the repugnance of cannibalism or the offensive nature of attacking children we are intrigued by these characters’ and their will to survive and desire to rule the world. Discovering their secret for capturing our heart (of course, by ripping it from our chest) can help us develop a memorable scoundrel.
When thinking on the best villains, I can’t help but be reminded of their own distorted past. Not only do they have a story tied to the protagonist, but they have their own tale of torture and pain. It’s how they got to be so bad, right? In each case, there are choices made during defining moments in their past that when puzzled together create a portrait of who they are today.
Writing exercise time…
Like any other main character, you need to work on a bio for your villain. In addition to what they look like, figure out where he/she/it is from, what is/was their family life like, and come up with 3-5 pivotal events in your villain’s life that molded them into who they are in your story.
One of the most notable characteristics of your villain is his/her/its relationship with the protagonist. Think about how Loki is brothers with the hero, Darth is Luke’s daddy, and Maleficent targets her nemesis’ daughter. It’s actually the people we’re closest to that we treat with the most disregard, and that’s why some of the worst villains have a deep rooted connection to the protagonist.
Writing exercise time…
Write your villain’s name next to your protagonist’s name on a sheet of paper and list their characteristics (Aim for at least 15 each). Some might be polar opposites and others identical, but knowing the essence of who each of them are will help you play them against each other in your story. And, if your protagonist can relate to your villain in any way that means your reader can too. That’s a very good thing for your bad guy.
What does your villain hope to achieve at the end of your story? If your villain’s only goal is to kill your hero, that won’t make for a very interesting story. Fascinating bad guys are all about taking over the Ministry of Magic and retrieving a long, lost ring they’d kill for. You have to take into consideration that your antihero could be a hero to some in the end if he/she/it wins.
Writing exercise time..
First, write out in a few paragraphs what your villain’s perfect ending (or Horribly Ever After) looks like. Are they alone, celebrated, in charge, rich, powerful, happy? Really take some time to figure out what would happen if they got everything they desired.
Second, write out how your villain’s end game contradicts what your protagonist’s perfect ending looks like. What you might find is that through the story there has to be some balance, and that may look like a beloved side-character dying or a detour to get to your planned ending. Playing with your outline to reflect wins and losses on both sides can make your story more compelling and thought-provoking.
By making sure ALL your characters are purposeful and fully discovered, you can add several layers to your narrative. So, take the time to identify, and identify with your villain.
Want to play a little more with your villain’s id? Here are some more questions you can answer in your bad guy’s POV…
What’s your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?
How would you react to your breakfast being prepared wrong?
What villain would be your BFF? Why?
If you could travel back in time, when would you go to? Why?
If you had a spirit animal, what would it be? Why?
What type of social media would you be addicted to? Why?
Is there an item or heirloom you hold dear?Why? If not, why not?
Write a conversation you would have with a toddler that has wandered away from her parents. She won’t leave your side, and her parents aren’t anywhere in sight.
If you have any other suggestions for getting to know your villain, please share them in the comments below.