Some of the greatest characters in literary history are villains. Think of the tyrannical lord bearer Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. Where would the story be without him? Would there even be a story if he had not created those rings and poured “his cruelty, his malice and will to dominate all life” into them?
There would also be no Harry Potter without the fearful and evil Lord Voldemort against whom Harry comes up against time and time again. Famous author Arthur Conan Doyle also recognised the importance of a good arch-nemesis for Sherlock Holmes, creating Professor Moriarty working in the criminal underground.
Not only does a villain help drive the plot with twists, turns, suspense and conflict, but they often define the character arc of our hero or main protagonist, capture the reader’s attention and just make for a good story.
Where would we be without them? So, let’s look at how you write a good villain character into your story.
Understanding the role of the villain
The villain is the counterpunch to our hero, or the opposing or antagonistic force. They might be compelled to commit acts of violence, cruelty, or criminality where our hero seeks to bring truth, light, or justice.
Some writers advocate the writing of the villain before the hero, as sometimes it is the villain’s actions that make the protagonist heroic. An interesting idea in itself.
It’s important to define who the villain is, but making them just all bad doesn’t help create the kind of multi-dimensional role that can make them so interesting. It’s also good to understand that the villain doesn’t see themselves as bad. They have their own goals and motivations; it just happens that their pursuit of them continually thwarts the protagonist.
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Developing a complex and multi-dimensional villain
If we start with the idea that the villain might actually see himself as the hero in his own story, we can begin to create a rather complex character. Or we might even create a character that is really only a villain because they thwart the desires or motivations of the main character. The reader might even relate to and understand the villain’s motivations.
For example, in a love triangle, perhaps the villain is just acting out of their love for a person who is now involved with the hero of our story and thus seeks to thwart the hero at every turn. Or perhaps, like in Pride and Prejudice, one person can actually inhabit the villain and hero role. Mr Darcy thwarts Elizabeth’s marriage plans for her sister Jane, playing the villain, and is accused of poor treatment of Mr. Wickham before he overcomes his pride, proves useful in both situations and eventually wins Elizabeth’s affections.
Creating a fascinating backstory for the villain
Like the hero, or any main character in the story, the villain should have a good backstory. Understanding where they have come from and what has happened to them along the way can also make it clearer why they are now engaged on their own particular quest. A good backstory can help the reader identify or even sympathise with that journey. Often, in the villain’s case, that backstory is one of tragedy or even events beyond their control.
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum’s backstory shows us how he was tempted by the ring to commit unspeakable acts and how the ring continued to poison his mind for five hundred years. He is still working against our hero, Bilbo Baggins, but as Bilbo faces some of the same temptations, perhaps we then begin to understand how difficult it has been for Gollum, who carried the ring so much longer.
Giving the villain believable motivations and goals
Any character with believable motivations and goals gives the reader someone they can connect with. The more we can understand those drivers, the more we resonate with any character. It may also help unlock other aspects of their personality.
All villains have their own moral code, twisted as it might be. This code of living, or goals and motivations, gives the villain a framework to operate within. That motivation or goal might not actually be to thwart the protagonist, it’s just that his/her goals do not align.
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Crafting a unique and memorable villainous personality
Good villains are usually a bit of fun or quite likeable. For example, who can forget how likeable the vulnerability and inadequacy of sociopathic murderer Tom Ripley was before he clobbers Dickie Greenleaf to death and takes over his identity in The Talented Mr Ripley.
In some cases, villains can be very interesting and even offer value for money. Critic Roger Ebert wrote of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, “One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter … He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie.”
Establishing a strong and personal connection between the villain and the protagonist
The best villains in literature have a strong connection to the protagonist. In the Harry Potter series, when Lord Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents and then tried to murder him, it left behind a magical scar on Harry’s forehead. That scar becomes a physical and symbolic reminder throughout the series about the connection between the two. The further twist is that it is the act that created the scar that also gives Harry his powers that he in turn can use against Voldemort.
Incorporating moral ambiguity and shades of grey in the villain’s character
As mentioned above in the case of Mr Darcy, characters are not always black and white. Sometimes the protagonist can be both hero and villain. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone uses murder and extortion to continue his family business. Even Hannibal Lecter proclaims to kill rude people in Silence of the Lambs.
This kind of moral ambiguity, or a character who has a code to live by, even if it’s quite misplaced, can make for yet another dimension to who they are.
Just remember that stories are often remembered as much for the villains as they are for the hero. Create characters that leap off the page and are memorable, and you could be halfway to creating the next literary villainous masterpiece.