Readers love to hate villains – they like to boo the bad guy and cheer on the good guy. It’s human nature, a natural side-effect of our society. A great villain can make for a great story. There’s no one right way to craft the perfect villain, because each story will have different requirements and nuances in the traditional heroic tale, but here are a few general tips.
BALANCE. As in nature, the fiction writer should strive to maintain balance in the way the villain and protagonist are portrayed, so that neither has a consistently lopsided advantage in the story. If your hero seems to have everything going for him (or her), the antagonist must have some other kind of advantage that balances the hero’s attributes or skills. As the story progresses, for every gain the protagonist seems to make in overcoming the villain, there should be a setback so that the villain still has a good chance of winning the battle. This tinkering with balance naturally creates suspense.
THE UNDERDOG FACTOR. It may seem like a good idea to make your villain incredibly all-powerful and impossible to beat, so that when your hero finally does whip the bad guy, the victory seems all the more sweet. Readers will naturally cheer for the hero who appears to be victorious over impossible odds. However, if you forego believability to ramp up the over-the-top ‘oh-no’ factor, you may lose your readers. Danger must be balanced with credible details.
SYNCHRONIZED MOTIVATION. The background and motivation for the villain should be well-defined and evenly balanced against the motivation and background of the protagonist so they seem to be appropriately matched for the battle ahead. However, as a general rule, this match-up of motivation should not seem obviously planned or prearranged. Oftentimes, a mutual history can be built for the hero and villain so that the past plays a part in shaping their present conflict, and the story and the central conflict can be enriched when the hero encounters an old nemesis with whom he shares a dark past. But more important than anything else – the villain must have a good reason for being bad, and the hero must have a good reason for being the one to bring him down. As a general rule, these two central characters should be uniquely matched.
PERSONALITY DISORDERS. A believable hero is one who has flaws, but not so great that he/she is unlikable. The villain does not need to be balanced psychologically, but everything he does should make sense in within the rationale of his own psychotic world. A villain who is rational and logical to a fault can be just as scary as one who rants and raves like a lunatic. And it certainly isn’t necessary for a villain to be crazy to do bad things. Sometimes people with the best of intentions end up doing very bad things in the name of good.
The novelist who delves equally into the background of both the antagonist and protagonist gives a more thorough picture of motivation and development for the good-versus-evil flip sides of the story. Not every story lends itself to a deep character treatment for the villain, but that doesn’t mean the author shouldn’t use every opportunity to reinforce the villain’s character so that he comes off as real, well-rounded, and believable instead of a laughable cardboard cutout twirling his mustache. The author can’t just invent a villain and put him in the middle of a story, doing a bunch of dastardly deeds for no reason. Everyone acts a specific way for a reason, and villains are no exception. The author who’s most successful portraying a realistic villain is the one who is not afraid to get into the mind of his villain and find out what makes him tick.
DESPICABLE ME. Some authors are afraid to have anything really bad happen in their stories. And not every story calls for a villain whose atrocities reach the level of war crimes. The awful-factor for your villain should fit the story. If you plan to have your villain be a serial killer, then some murders are necessarily going to happen. Be prepared to handle the details with all the sensitivity and aplomb required for the style of story you intend to write. But as heinous as your villain’s crimes may be, you can go a long way to making your villain sympathetic and even likable. Just don’t make your villain so likable that he steals the spotlight from your hero – although if he comes close, that could spell a sequel if you play your cards right. The emotional intensity of your reader will be charged up if you create the tension of liking someone who’s supposed to be bad.
REMEMBER these simple tips – give your good guys a bad edge and your bad guys a likable edge to keep your readers on edge – and you’ll have a killer story that readers will love.
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing