A hero is no hero at all unless there is something to stand against. That’s where villains come in.
We love to hate them, but they serve a critical function within the anatomy of a story, the yin to your protagonist’s yang. This might say something twisted about me, but creating villains is one of my favorite parts of writing.
What My First Novel Taught Me About Villains
As I wrote my first novel, I learned a lot about what makes a villain work, and what makes a villain flop. As I prepare for its release this month, I’ve been reflecting a lot about how I got my manuscript to this point.
And I want to share what I’ve learned. So here are eight things I learned about creating villains from my first novel:
1. The villain believes they’re the hero.
Regardless of how terrible or twisted your antagonist is, there is still a reason behind their actions. Every character needs their own ethical code, and this is especially true for your villain.
Consider the cold rational behind Ozymandias’ plot in Watchmen, or that of Amy from Gone Girl. Even the Joker has his own internal mission to create as much chaos as possible.
Sure, these codes are, at best, terribly misguided, but each of these villains stands for something they believe in.
2. They need their own plot arc.
It’s tempting to pull your villain in and out of the story as they’re needed to face off with your protagonist.
But even when they’re out of sight, a story’s villain is at work. What are they doing? Factor it in.
3. Careful with the slinking and creeping.
By which I mean, watch the clichés.
You shouldn’t need to whack your readers over the head with your villain’s evil. The character’s actions, and how the other characters respond to them, will speak for itself.
4. Be despicable
So if your villains actions need to speak for themselves, make those actions utterly, horribly terrible.
Go big or go home. Make your villain worthy of your readers’ hate.
5. Give them their own motivations.
Your villain isn’t only there to stop your protagonist. Just as important as their own plot arc and their own code of ethics, villains need their own agency within the story. That means giving them their own motivation.
There is a reason why your villain is clashing with your protagonist—what is it?
6. Make it personal.
Like everything in your story, your villain’s got to offer a personal challenge to your protagonist. It doesn’t have to be direct necessarily, but it’s got to be significant.
For example, in The Hunger Games the villain is President Snow, and his actions are deeply personal to Katniss, whose life is on the line because of his actions—and yet he’s hardly in the first book, because his role is largely out of sight.
6. Make it epic.
Because in a story, there are layers. Your hero’s personal world is critical, but it’s also about the story’s world at large. Your villain needs to impact the world, too.
There’s got to be something big and serious on the line. If you don’t have this in your story already, take a careful look at the stakes.
7. Be sympathetic.
As the author, it’s your responsibility to understand and sympathize with every single one of your characters—even if you don’t agree with them. If you can’t, take it as a red flag that your character isn’t working.
Don’t be afraid to make your readers sympathetic to your villain, either. It can make for some of the best, most complex stories.
8. Don’t rig the game.
Obviously, (usually) we want to see our heroes triumph. Because we know that going in, this can sometimes leak into the plot development, which leads to a deck stacked in the hero’s favor. Don’t think your readers don’t notice.
When this happens, your readers get comfortable assuming your hero will prevail. And that sucks the tension—and fun—right out of it. So make your hero work for every inch along the way by creating a villain who can go toe-to-toe with them.
Your Villain MattersIf your hero is the tentpole that holds the story up, the antagonist is the support that keeps it in place.
So give them their due with careful forethought, so they are full characters with likes, dislikes, and histories. Give them your understanding, so they have their own moral code and a little sympathy. And give them a hearty dose of evil, just for fun.
Who is your favorite villain and why? Let us know in the comments.
As an exercise in character development for your antagonist, rewrite a key scene of your story from your antagonist’s perspective for fifteen minutes. What are they feeling? Why do they act the way they do? When you’re done, share your work in the comments!
By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.