By David E. Sharp
Every Batman needs his Joker, every Cinderella needs her wicked stepmother, and every tortoise track-and-field athlete needs an obnoxious hare. Your hero is only as good as your villain.
But it’s easy to get villains wrong. That’s why I have asked the advice of notable villain and nefarious schemer, Professor Malevolent. Take it away, Professor!
Thank you, it’s good to be here. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that weak villains make weak stories. You can spend pages and pages obsessing over your protagonist, but do we get a back story? Do we understand proper motives and humanizing character traits? Often, we do not.
START WITH MOTIVATIONS.
Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I think I’ll be evil today. I have a sudden urge to tie maidens to railroad tracks and tweedle my mustache.” If you want a strong villain, you’re going to have to start with strong motivations. Big bad wolves are for fables. Far more interesting is an antagonist who lives by a skewed moral code.
A hulking thug believes in the survival of the fittest. A crime lord feels the laws he violates are unjust. A cutthroat rival thinks the end justifies the means. These ideals are essential because they must contrast with those of the protagonist in a thematic way. This will provide layers to their conflict, and we know every story needs conflict.
WHAT IS YOUR VILLAIN’S GOAL?
Antagonists work just as hard at their goals as protagonists do. They should want something that, at its core, is not a bad thing. Consider a villain who is trying to save the life of someone he loves, perhaps a child or lover. Maybe your villain tried all the proper avenues to correct a societal problem, and they didn’t work. So now she’s taking things to an extreme and it spells bad news for folks in the “collateral damage” zone.
Whatever the case, if your villain is getting up in the morning to get an early start on hero-thwarting, there better be a good reason. And world domination doesn’t count. What a crappy job that would be.
Villains are the heroes in their own story.
We all know there are people in the world who are just jerks. But they make boring villains. They’re flat and predictable. If you want a villain who draws in readers, you should offer some dimension. Not every “Mwa ha ha!” has to be nefarious. Maybe one of my cronies just said something funny. Is it a crime to laugh?
Consider antagonists who operate heroically in other arenas. Maybe your bank robber is a devoted parent. Maybe the oafish bully is protective over a smaller sibling or cares for an aging parent. Maybe that hitman volunteers for a soup kitchen on weekends.
An antagonist with dimensions is far more likely to draw in readers because they feel like people. And people is what storytelling is all about.