How to write the perfect villain?
A villain done right tends to be even more memorable than the protagonist. This is evident from characters such as Ramsey Bolton, Lord Voldemort, and Hannibal Lecter that are quite scary even today. Readers are as drawn to villains and heroes and it is safe to say that writing a villain means you need to make readers feel passionate about them.
Crafting the antagonist is about creating the right mix of despicable and clever. This is because the downward spiral; from annoying to downright manic is very quickly achieved. The balance that you strike makes a villain believable and that is the trick to writing a good one.
Here are a few tips for writing memorable villains that your readers will love to hate.
Villain or Antagonist?
Understanding what the villain is, is quite important. The words villain and antagonist are used interchangeably and it is important to note that the terminologies serve their special purposes and are not synonyms.
The antagonist is a character that creates external conflict in the story, hinders the protagonist’s journey, and prevents them from achieving their goals. This doesn’t mean that they are evil or necessarily have a known agenda against the protagonist.
An antagonist’s actions or intentions aren’t necessarily evil by nature. An antagonist may share the same goal as the protagonist which compels them to go against the protagonist. There are antagonists that readers have mixed feelings about. This is because they commit both good and bad actions. They have good intentions sometimes; and sometimes they don’t.
What sets them apart from villains is the degree of maliciousness which is a part of the villain’s character. They commit evil deeds and they usually do so knowing full well what the consequences and moral implications of their actions.
They lack compassion and their actions are motivated by their disregard for justice. They are the hallmarks of an oppressive society and furthering this standard is exactly the purpose they serve in the story.
How to get it right?
Creating a believable villain is almost as important as creating a believable protagonist. This means you should avoid creating villains that fear nothing and have no weaknesses. If you think about it the worst thing you can do when writing a protagonist is making them too perfect and immune. The same logic applies to a villain.
Villains must be created with the right balance of evil ( sugar and spice and well, not everything nice). The villain must commit heinous acts and their cruelty should surprise the readers but they should also be met with surprise when the same villain gives you a glimpse into their humane side and better yet, when their actions seem relatable, even when they are not completely justifiable.
The readers should have questions and reservations about them. The best characters are the grey ones and as a writer, we are often drawn to the black and white. But that’s not where you find good stories.
Give them their own story
Villains don’t see themselves as villains they think they are the actual heroes of the story. Remember Ted, from How I met your mother. Many believe that he was the secret villain of the story and although this may be an open interpretation you cannot deny that he was insufferable in his quest to find ‘the One’ and he did try to pursue Robin long after it was evident that his best friend Barney was ‘the One’ for her. The character Ted is the narrator of the story and arguably so, not a reliable one which begs the question, was Barney as bad as we saw him or was he as bad as Ted wanted his kids to believe so that he could justify pursuing Robin after the death of their mother. It makes a whole lot of sense given that the writer had their minds set on an ending early on.
How does this tie in with giving the villain their own story?
Well essentially, the villain i.e. Ted, did get his own story and it makes for a believable and well-written character. The villains that are the most memorable have their own goals, motivation, and their worldview changes according to their development. And yes there are points for making sure that all ties in with the goals and development of the protagonist.
What if your Villain isn’t human?
The problem with writing a humane villain is that villains aren’t always humans. The supernatural series is a great example because time and again the Monster-hunting brothers, Sam and Dean come across villains that are non-human i.e. angels, demons, gods, and other-worldly creatures.
Writing characters that are not human and essentially forces of darkness can make for terrifying villains but that doesn’t mean they can’t be flawed or believable? An intelligent writer knows how to add the perfect chink in the armor, in fact, here’s a list you can use right now.
Writing a perfect villain requires understanding the purpose they serve, creating a rich back story for them, and giving them a goal. This could be as simple as finding ‘the One’ or it could be eating people to feel a sense of absolute power. Take your pick.