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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2021

How to Write a Relatable and Authentic Villain

Inks&Edits

A novel's protagonist might get top billing, but in reality, they share the proverbial stage with their antagonistic force: the villain. Not only does this "bad guy" drive the conflict and allow the reader to engage in taboo thoughts without real-life consequences or guilt, they also define the main character and their journey throughout the story.

Without an opposing force to battle, a protagonist is simply a character existing in a vacuum, resolving no conflict, rising to no challenges, and completing no arc.

Considering the significance this character holds in relation to the plot, it's vital that every author expends as much energy in developing their villain as they do in creating their protagonist. Follow these seven steps to craft the relatable and authentic villain that will do your story justice.

Establish clear motivations

Conflict is at the heart of any good story. Your protagonist will face off with your villain as conflict and tensions boil over, so the motivations that drive both characters along their respective paths to this inevitable faceoff must be strong and realistic. Rarely do villains, fictional or otherwise, do evil things purely for the sake of it. If your villain commits malevolent acts simply because they are evil, with no clear goal or objective established, you've got a fairly one-dimensional villain on your hands.

If you're aiming for an antagonist who commits such acts simply because they want to watch the world burn, remember that even the Joker had a clear and defined goal: chaos. Every act committed by him, each twisted social experiment he carried out, was intended to wreak havoc and sow division and discord. As unhinged as he was, the Joker had a point to make and an objective to meet. And if he can establish a goal, any villain can.

Everybody makes mistakes… even villains

An infallible villain is a dull villain. Your antagonist's character traits and attributes are established through the struggles they face in achieving their goals, and removing that struggle robs the reader of an opportunity to learn about the "why" behind their actions.

Perfection is boring, and since no reader could ever be regarded as perfect, how could they possibly relate to a perfect, flawless villain?

Create a multi-faceted, realistic villain by developing setbacks and roadblocks that knock them off their established path. Force them to face the prospect of failure and scramble, however gracefully, to gather their strength and forge ahead once again, just as your protagonist would.

The mistake itself is often not the point being made. Sometimes, it is how a villain addresses their own failure that illustrates their character.

Your villain might be a menacing mafia boss who instils fear in his subordinates, but that doesn't mean you should be afraid to show his emotional reaction and vulnerability in the context of his failure. Mob bosses are people, too.

Even the craftiest villains make mistakes. Hannibal Lecter, in his infinite wisdom and sophistication, stumbles at times, his minor blunders becoming major plot events. If a historical villain like Lecter can err, then your villain certainly can.

Use their past to explain their present

Little more can provide insight into the "bad guy's" motivation than a glimpse into their past. Just as villains rarely commit evil acts for the sole purpose of being evil, rarely do they become villains in a vacuum. As with real-life antagonists, an ugly upbringing or severe set of circumstances can explain a character's downward spiral into a life of degeneracy. Delving into a villain's origin story allows the reader to see aspects of the character before they become the antagonist of your story, when their villainy was mere potential.

That being said, basing that character's all-round motivation on a childhood event 20 years in the past may read as convenient or even contrived. Villains act as an opposing force to a protagonist, playing a powerful role in the overall plot.

Given their importance, they deserve as solid a set of goals and motivations as your protagonist. Tie your villain's past life into the present to anchor them to the story.

Kill the stereotype of the typical villain

The most complex and frightening villains are the ones you don't see coming. If every outlaw dressed in black, twirled their moustache, and stroked a fluffy white cat, villain-revealing plot twists wouldn't exist. Avoid the temptation to resort to stereotypes, no matter how ingrained that urge might feel.

These obvious villains are often plot devices and nothing more, ceasing to exist outside of their specific plot function. A villain whose goals and motivations can be determined almost intuitively by a brief insight into their character can read as though they're cardboard cutouts whose shoes could be filled by almost anyone.

When you apply a formula to your character, you limit their ability to affect the plot because they can only act in a predictable way and predictability can kill a reader's interest in a story. Just as we're not supposed to anticipate the punchline of a joke, we shouldn't be able to accurately predict a villain's actions or behaviours. Steer clear of stereotypes and cliches to provide your antagonist the freedom they need to act and behave organically.

This doesn't apply to only aesthetics. The most common villain cliché that needs to fade away into the background is the long speech explaining in detail their master plan, giving the hero just enough time to free themselves and deliver that story-ending blow. At times, a story's sequence of events renders this type of revelation necessary, so handle such a scene with care and without cliché.

Set up boundaries, then have your villain struggle with them

When you create a villain so depraved that nothing is taboo for them, when there is no line that they won't cross in order to achieve their goals, you run the risk of desensitizing the reader. Overexposure to even the most abhorrent acts tends to elicit more yawns and eyerolls from readers than it does fear and horror. The villain becomes, in a way, predictable. The unspeakable acts committed are diluted by the repetition, and you as the author quickly run out of ways to illustrate their villainy.

The most interesting and frightening villains capable of extreme violence and bloodshed have established lines they (initially) refuse to cross. Instead of getting caught up in the potentially endless list of evil deeds your villain can take part in, ask yourself what their boundaries are. Know what they are so you can force them to face them later to ratchet up the stakes and tension.

Once their boundaries have been established, put them in a situation that forces them to violate, or consider violating, their self-imposed set of morals, justifying their behaviour in a way only a villain can.

Black and white is overdone

Good and evil exist on a spectrum. This gives authors the freedom to allow "good" characters to do "bad" things for the right reasons. And it gives them the chance to establish a glimmer of humanity in even the foulest of villains.

Nobody is one thing all the time; that would be tiresome for any reader. Complexity is key in creating authentic villains, and complex people don't fit into sharply defined categories. The authentic villain – the one who isn't evil "just because" – will likely struggle with their nature and may even attempt to evade that label at times.

Black and white are extremes, and extremes aren't realistic. Allow your villain to exist, now and then, in the grey. There will be times when their wickedness is too strong to be overcome by any force of good. And that's fine. But, on occasion, let what humanity that still exists in them shine through.

Try on their POV for size

While we may not be capable of the evil acts committed by our characters, those same acts stem from feelings of anger, resentment, and frustration – something to which every author can relate.

Make use of these feelings and draw on those emotions. Reflect on the times you felt a sting of betrayal, a pang of loneliness, a twinge of bitterness. Utilise those sensations. Remember the intensity of each feeling, each reaction, and live with those emotions as you create and develop your villain.

We all have villains in us to some degree, though some may be tamer than others. They're present and waiting for you to tap into them. Put yourself in their shoes as you move through the story for an authentic approach to writing villainy.

Complexity is key in crafting an authentic villain. And complexity doesn't just happen. Remember, your villain requires as much time and devotion as your protagonist. These opposing forces can't exist without the other, so don't make the often-fatal literary mistake of overlooking the villain to overindulge the main character.

Follow the above steps to create and shape the unique villain your story demands, and then send them to war with your protagonist.

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