Now, just to clarify: we’re not talking about your garden-variety bandit or some misunderstood, tragic, brooding type. We’re after genuine bastards your readers will love to hate. This article is about crafting a Villain (note the capital V) worthy of the title. Having a strong antagonist elevates the tension in your novel; knowing there’s a serious threat to the protagonist means that every decision they make feels fraught with danger and that their actions have consequences.
But how do we get this tension and create this credible threat?
Simply put, Villains need to have the 5 Ms: Motive, Malevolence, Means, Moreishness, and Memorability.
Cthulhu isn’t a Villain. Neither is any incomprehensible elder god, Satan, The Ultimate Evil(TM), or other force of vague unpleasant naughtiness. This is because the most important thing a Villain needs is a sympathetic motive. Not necessarily one that the reader agrees with, but one that they can, at the very least, understand. Cthulhu et al. are beyond mortal ken and therefore have no such motive.
However, let’s look at some others. In The Hobbit, Smaug has a very simple motive: greed. He’s a big, evil dragon willing to eat any Dwarf that gets in his way. Likewise, Sauron wants to rule the world. He wants to impose his will and dominate all life on Middle Earth. There’s nothing wrong with going for the classics; greed, lust for power, revenge, and vanity all make great motivations for a Villain.
If you’re looking for a more complex motive, look at Artemis Entreri, the arch-enemy of Drizzt Do’Urden (of the Icewind Dale Trilogy and the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons). Entreri is basically an evil version of Ash Ketchum from Pokémon – he wants to be the very best like no one ever was. He seeks to kill Drizzt because he’s a better swordsman and because Drizzt didn’t have to ruthlessly murder everyone around him to get that good. Entreri will stab anyone in the back for his own gain, whereas Drizzt is motivated by a desire to protect his friends. Making your Villain into this kind of ‘broken mirror’ reflection of your protagonist is a great way to establish the two characters as a credible match, especially if they (like Drizzt and Entreri) share similar skills and powers.
The common denominator is that these motives are evil. A hero does good stuff for a good reason. An antihero does evil stuff for a good reason. A Villian does evil stuff out of an evil motivation. And speaking of Evil…
Malevolence (or ‘Embrace the power of the Dark Side!’)
A Villain has to be evil.
Now, that doesn’t mean complete and utter moustache-twirling depravity. But they should be willing to do things that the protagonist (and the reader) find abhorrent. Greed and ambition are classic villainous traits, but it is what a Villain is willing to do to achieve these aims that makes them evil.
A certain amount of evil can happen off-page. You don’t need to write a dozen pages of your Villain laughing uproariously while stamping on puppies. In fact, hinting at dark acts is often more effective, as your reader’s imagination fills in the blanks. ‘Lord Aramar was a man of strange, and terrible appetites’ can imply an awful lot of nasty things. That being said, your Villain does need to do evil things on the page at some point. Otherwise, there’s no payoff for the reader.
If you’ve built up reader empathy for your protagonist (you’ve done that, right?), then anything that hurts them or the things they love will have an impact on the reader. A Villain doesn’t need to directly kick the hero’s head in with spiky black shoes, but having them do things like attacking institutions the protagonist values, hurting their friends, destroying their reputation are good rocks to throw.
Cersei Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire would be a lot less intimidating if she was just the lass who emptied the privy. To be a credible threat, a Villain needs to have the power and resources to get the job done. Wealth, political influence, cunning manipulation, sneaky tricks, or just being big and tough are all means by which your Villain can further their sinister schemes and ambitions.
One of the cruelest things a person can do is treat others as a means to an end, using people like objects and tools. A hero would never do this, of course. But a Villain should have no qualms in outsourcing their thuggery to a third party if need be. If your Villain is a tyrannical despot, they probably won’t do their leg-breaking personally; that’s what minions are for!
Many iconic Villains hide behind social power, such as noble tiles or the law. This is a great way to get under the reader’s skin and undermine their sense of justice, leading to a bigger payoff when the hero gives them their comeuppance.
It’s worth stating that your Villain should not be an invulnerable, all-powerful Mary Sue. Arrogance, hubris, or even an ethical line that they refuse to cross can prove their eventual undoing. A Villain needs weaknesses, or how else will the hero defeat them?
Indeed, that question – ‘How will the hero defeat this monstrous baddie?’ – should be driving the plot forward. Once you’ve established tension by making your Villain a credible threat, every time they turn up on the page, the reader should be thinking something like, ‘What will this jerk do next?’ That tingle of excitement when the bad guy turns up, and the mixed feeling of relief and longing when they leave a scene, are what I call Moreishness. And having your Villain turn up to ruin the protagonist’s day is the easiest way to achieve it.
Your Villain doesn’t have to turn up in person. In fact, sometimes it should just be their influence and reach that messes things up for the protagonist. But their threat should be ever present in some way.
The other way to ramp up the Moreishness is to keep the reader guessing. Grand schemes and overly complicated plans are Villain cliches, but they’re cliches that work! They can share in the hero’s frustration as a sinister plot unfolds over the chapters, teasing the reader with every dark revelation.
Memorability (a legacy of evil)
This is the big one. When the swords are sheathed and the book is closed, will your reader remember the bad guy?
Good descriptions are only half the battle. The other half is leaving scars. If everything goes back to normal after a Villain is slain/banished/thrown into a volcano everything, did they really make an impact?
Look at Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Even after the One Ring was destroyed, he suffered from his wound and the lingering effects of Sauron’s corruption for the rest of his life.
I’m not saying that you should rob the reader of a happy ending, but rather that once your protagonist crosses swords with the Villain, they should never be the same again. Even if they defeat them, slain allies and the sacrifices made to get to this point should haunt the protagonist.
There’s no victory without cost. If a Villain is going down, you know damn well it’s not going to be without a fight.
And for the final fight – the epic duel between hero and Villain – don’t sell yourself short. Enjoy it, treasure it. This will be your reader’s favourite part of the book, so give it all the love and attention it deserves.
Do you write fantasy or science fiction?
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