Being a Better Writer: I, Villain

This post was originally written and posted June 9th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Advance Warning: today’s post is going to involve copious amounts of spoilers from everything from games to movies to books. Most of them will be fairly obvious and over a year in age, but I’m giving this whole entry an advance warning anyway. Spoilers be beyond here.

Villains.

I think it says something about us that while some can’t name a favorite hero, almost everyone can remember a favorite villain (or “not favorite,” as the case may be). Darth Vader. Truth. Smaug. Agent Smith.Brother Jon. The Lord Ruler. The Joker.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The point is, you can ask just about anyone who their “favorite” villain is, the one who gave them shivers as a child or as an adult, and most of them will be able to think of someone. Villains are just as much a part of a good story as anything else. They haunt our heroes’ nightmares and waking moments, stalk them from behind the scenes, threaten them and their loved ones. Or maybe they don’t even notice the hero at first, too preoccupied with their quest for power as they dominate nations. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re on the heroes’ “side,” carefully playing within the rules—but only just, all while smiling a sickly sweet grin that promises future darkness.

So today, I’m taking a request topic, and we’re going to talk about villains—good ones. We’re going to talk about how you make an antagonist that sits in your reader’s mind, that’s just as memorable as the hero is, who worries your fans every time they make an appearance. The kind that haunts your reader’s mind long after the book is gone, that sits in the back of their head like a song they can’t stop thinking about. So buckle up, because here we go.


Understanding the Need for a Villain
“You must be truly desperate to come to me for help.” —Loki

The first question you need to ask yourself with your story is do I need a villain? Not every story does. There are plenty of stories out there where the main character is their own antagonist, or where the character faces a rival rather than a true villain, a rival who might not be on the same side of the hero, but isn’t explicitly against them either. Don’t feel the need to shoehorn a villain into a story that doesn’t need one. Take a step back, look at your basic plot (because a villain is something you’ll be deciding on quite early) and ask yourself what adding a villain could add to your story, but also take away. Is there a theme in mind that would be weakened by a villain’s actions? Would the story be weaker if the spotlight were splitting its time between your main character and your villain? Stronger? Is your heroes’ portrayal going to be strengthened by their interaction with the villain, or dilluted?

Recognize that a villain is a fully fledged force in any story they are part of. Antagonists, rivals, opposition, these are all things that a hero can run into while keeping the focus on themselves. But a villain is a different story. Once you bring villain into your story, a true villain, they’re just as much of a character as the hero is, and they’re going to get a share of that attention. Electro and the Green Goblin (Hobgoblin?) in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are both strong examples of this. Once they’re introduced, they hold as much sway over the story, if not more, as Peter Parker does (look at how much screen time was given to Electro’s character, for example). Once you set out to include a villain, you’re ceding a portion of your heroes’ story and journey over to them. A villain is going to color most, if not all, of your entire work. Another great example of this is Loki, from the Marvel film franchise. How many of those films has Loki played a direct hand in to date? Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World … and you can see his hand in a few of the others as well, indirectly. If you don’t want that split and intensity of focus with something hanging ominously in the background, you don’t want a villain. At least, not on that magnitude.

And maybe you don’t need one. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your adventure needs a villain. There are some stories that work just as well without a villain. Inherit the Stars, for example, has absolutely no villain of any kind. Nor do the films Castaway or better yet Twelve Angry Men. Classic themes of conflict—man versus nature, man versus technology, man versus self, to name a few—exist for a reason. The moment you bring a villain into your story, realize that your conflict is going to change from versus self to versus man (or force/demon/whatever the villain is).

So, before you set out to make your villain, take a moment to sit back and determine if you need one. Check your themes, where you want your hero to go. Will a villain help that or hurt? If the answer comes up with the latter, then perhaps it’s best you save your villain for another day, in a story where they’ll strengthen the work, not weaken it.


The Memory
“Die, groundwalker!” —Raam

So, your story needs a villain. Where do you start with that?

The first place I like to begin is in thinking about what your audience is going to remember about this foe. What core image and emotion do you want them to fix in their mind when they think back on this character? This is the question you’ll want to answer, because this will determine much of how you approach your villain. Do you want your reader to feel uneasy and alarmed whenever the villain makes an appearance, or do you want them to feel intimidated? Maybe you even want to make them feel confident? Or respectful? These are all emotions and feelings that you can create a villain to evoke, but you’re going to have to work towards that angle from the very beginning in order to achieve that vision. Will your villain be a “hands-off” villain, hiding in the shadows and concealing their identity until they’re ready to show their hand? Or will they be an unstoppable force who actively interacts with the hero and shapes the breadth and depth of your story’s world, driving the story throughout the work?

Deciding what emotions and feelings you want your villain to evoke first is an important choice, because that choice will mean everything that comes afterwards. Let’s look at an example. One of my favorite villains is the Locust General Raam from Gears of War. Raam is interesting from a storytelling perspective because he’s one of the few villains who thrives solely on presence alone. He hardly speaks, unless you count actions as words. He gives no backstory. He does not monologue. Or grandstand. Instead, every facet of his design is themed towards one clear factor: intimidation. His introduction pushes this feeling hard as Raam casually walks right through a firefight and kills a main character who, until that point, had been calling the shots over the hero. Every one of his appearances is designed to intimidate the hero character (the player, in this case) and show just how ruthless and dangerous Raam is. As a villain he only appears a few times, but every time he does, the scene is written to imply to the viewer exactly how dangerous of a foe he is. Each of his appearances is designed to exemplify his menace. As a villain, that’s really all Raam is: A menacing force. But because the creators wanted the viewer to take away that feeling of intimidation, to remember it, everything that came afterwards was a part of that design.

So, when you sit down to start with your villain, think about how you want your reader to regard them. What feelings will your villain evoke? Will this help the story? Play to its themes? Or will it be a distraction from them? Does the villain need to change, or will the story work better with the new theme? This is a part of the creative process, figuring out what will stand out to your reader about the villain. The villain for Beyond the Borderlands went through a couple of personality iterations before I hit on one that combined the almost rag-tag feel I was going for with confident threat. Now, small segments of that will likely flex as I work on the story, but at the same time the core will stay the same, and the villain fits right in with the “mood” of the story. If all goes as planned, readers will remember that villain for their casual, almost playful mask just as much they will the cold, calculating and ruthless intelligence and power behind it.


Motive
“I can help you.” —Khan

Once you know what mood and emotion you want your hero to convey, now it’s time to flesh them out. And one of the first things you’ll need for your villain is motive.

Oh, how many seem to think that they can skip this step. The truth is,  creating a villain who has no real reason to be a villain is simply creating a forgetful, throwaway character who won’t stand out. You cannot simply explain to your audience that the villain is evil “because he is” or “because she wants to be.” True villains aren’t “villains” because they woke up and decided to slaughter a village. They’re villains for a list of reasons (circumstance, choice, perspective, personality) just as much as your hero is a hero for their own list. Weak villains simply exist to stop the hero. A strong villain, on the other hand, has a motive.

Take the most recent iteration of Khan from Star TrekStar Trek into Darkness does a great job at developing Khan as a complex character aside the main cast. He’s a villain with not only a plan, but objectives and motivations. These motivations have him playing sides and acting in complex ways, all to achieve his goals (which sometimes even the audience is unaware of). There’s an impressive line about halfway through the plot where Khan tells Kirk “I can help you,” which gets mirrored by Kirk a short time later when he makes the observation to another party that “I’m pretty sure we’re the ones helping [Khan].”

The best part? Khan’s motivation is something that not only the characters in the film relate to, but also the audience. He wants to save his crew, his family. “What would you do for your family?” he asks, and it forces the audience to think about it, to compare their own motivation to that of a known villain. The best villains have causes or beliefs that are in some way relatable to the audience, to the reader. Take a truth and put a single, different twist on it. These are the villains that stick with us the most, because they’re the ones that we see shadows of ourselves in, that remind us that villainy really isn’t that far removed from what we think of as normal behavior.

But that’s just part of it. A villain with a good motive, a believable motive, is one that we can relate to. We might not agree with them, but we can understand how they became who they were, and see the mentality that makes their worldview. Remember, a villain often doesn’t see themselves as a villain. To them, many times they’re the “hero,” willing to do what no one else will. If the reader understands this—and we don’t need all the gritty details, after all, the story is about the hero—then the villain will be that much more memorable and real to them.


Make them Powerful
“Seven minutes. Seven minutes is all I can spare to play with you.” —Albert Wesker

Now that you have a motive and a presence, it’s time to give your villain some teeth. They need to be powerful, a foe who can go toe-to-toe with your hero on some level and succeed. A villain who can’t threaten your hero isn’t much of a villain at all. No, you want a villain with teeth.

So how do you do this? Well, think about the obstacles that you want to place in your character’s path. Are they coming from the villain, directly or indirectly? What tools will your villain need to carry out such actions? Just as your hero is going to have a toolbox of skills, equipment, and abilities, so will your villain, and you need to decide what those are. More importantly, just as with your hero, you’ll need to decide how they interrelate. These abilities and skills will shape your villain’s character, who they are. If your villain is going to pilot an attack chopper down the streets of New York, firing missiles at the hero, well buddy, you’d best have some plan for how she knows how to pilot that, as well as where she got the helicopter itself. Put those tools into their arsenal and ask how else they can use them. Did they steal the helicopter? Buy it? Were they once in the military? A hint: this is one reason why arms dealers make such popular pop culture villains—it’s a simple explanation for quite a few villain skillsets.

But don’t misunderstand what I mean by power. A villain does not need to be physically impressive in order to be a threat. I’ll use some of my own works as an example, with the two sisters from Rise. They weren’t warriors. They’d probably never had a physcial fight in their lives. They were, however, shrewd, revenge-minded businesswomen who were able to successfully outwit a rival stockholder into carrying out a sequence of events that would leave them in control of the company they helped manage. Their power wasn’t in their brawn (they had golems for that) but in their brains and the industry connections afforded by their position. Dorati from One Drink wasn’t dangerous because of just her necromantic skill, but also because her job had put her in a unique position to exact her revenge. When you’re building your villain, consider what tools, skill and equipment you’re going to give them that will make them powerful.

Now, along with this, one question I’ve heard before is “how powerful?” A lot of young writers wonder exactly how much power they should give their villains. Should they be balanced with the heroes? Weaker?

Nope. I say, make ’em strong—somehow. A villain is a challenge, a monumental foe. Metaphorically speaking, you don’t want your villain to be a speedbump on the heroes’ road, you want them to be an oncoming semi, a powerful force that pushes your character to the limit and forces them to grow, develop, and be clever to win. Don’t make your villain a pushover. If your hero is a nine on your imaginary power scale, make your villain a ten. Or an eleven. Push your hero. Make a foe that’s smarter, or tougher, or faster. Something better that requires real effort to overcome. Again, I’m not speaking of physical prowess here. Whatever skills or talents your villain has, make them effective with them, regardless of what they are.

If you’re having trouble with this, think of a villain as another, stronger character. They have weaknesses and flaws, just like your hero. They have skills and talents, just like your hero. They have wants and personality. And all of these play into their “power.”


“Visual” Design
“You can check it out from, like binoculars, or something.” —Handsome Jack

Now, with all this, keep in mind that another thing that you want to consider is what this villain looks like. We’re writers, which means we’re helping our readers paint a visual image of our scenes, adventures, and characters. And our villain, make no mistake, is a character.

So, with everything that you’ve come up with so far (their impression on the reader, their motive, their strengths and weaknesses), what sort of look and descriptive words will make your villain stand out to the reader? How will their dialogue differ from other characters? How will you describe their actions? The way they move? Their expressions? Are they quick and liquid smooth with their actions? Or are they jerky and stilted? How does that fit their character? Their abilities?

This is all stuff to consider, as once again, as how your reader visualizes and perceives your villain matters just as much as how you perceive them. Your words must imply their design, not only their looks but also their personality and moods. Previously I’ve talked about how characters in my works have their own narration style that follows them around, the word choices of particular chapters and segments being determined by the character the story is currently following.

Villains can benefit greatly from the same treatment, even inside a character’s view. Is the villain described with words that would make a reader think of unyielding stone or concrete, or with words that remind them of something natural, organic? Your choice of words and phrases will effect how your readers envision your villain, so make certain you don’t inspire the wrong ideas. A villain who until now has been a willowy weakling physically overpowering a character, for example, might raise eyebrows.

Then again, that might be part of the plan. Plan accordingly.


Introduction and Growth
“Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans!” —Darth Vader

Now it’s time to put it all together. To take your villain and insert them into your world. But before you do, a few last things to make sure of.

First, keep in mind how you’re going to introduce your villain. A villain who makes a grand, bombastic entrance, like Darth Vader, is going to leave a clear impact on the reader. This villain is announcing his presence to all, and guarantees that your reader will be fixing on their every appearance after that.

But do you want that? What if you don’t want the villain to be suspected of actually being such, or want them to appear weaker than they really are. Again, in Rise, the first introduction of the villains happens quite early on, where they’re part of a stockholders meeting. Of course, since their actions are completely overshadowed by another shareholder, and even seem kind rather than self-serving, no one ever guessed that the villains of the tale where right in front of them. Even later, when they showed up again, they came off as somewhat snooty and standoffish rather than the dangerous, conniving threats they were. Meanwhile, the readers were left to form their opinions of the “villain” based on the events the characters encountered. By the time the reveal occured, most readers had already painted a mental picture of the villain’s personality based on the golems and their actions. Only when they find out who do they attach the face to the personality.

We talked about impressions. How you introduce your villain plays a large part in that, and should reflect in your design. A bombastic villain isn’t going to bide their time without good reason, while a stealthy conniving one won’t make a grand show that tips their hand unless they’re either sure they’ve won … or only want you to think that’s their hand.

Along the same lines, once you’ve introduced your villain, don’t neglect their growth. As the story moves forward and new events happen, they should react as well as act on the hero. Take Kung Fu Panda 2. The villain, Lord Shen, set out on his path as a result of a prophecy. Later in the film, he discovers that the actions that led to his exile (genocide, actually) were for nothing, and he’s given the choice to stop the pursuit of his path since the original purpose was a sham. He reacts by deciding that even if that is so, he’s come this far so why turn back now when he’s so close to taking over China, even if his original intent was a complete failure? When presented with something that changed his worldview, he adjusts along with it (although not in the way anyone hopes).

Likewise, your villain needs to adapt and grow as the situation demands. If they don’t, they’ll fail as a villain (and maybe this is how your’s will meet their downfall). Let them grow, develop new skills. Adapt to new scenarios as the hero changes the game. Don’t be afraid to have them change their motives, even.


A Few Things to Remember

Alright, there you have it! How to make a villain. But before I go, a few tips on things:

First—Don’t make a villain who is evil for the lulz unless you’re writing comedy or the Joker. And really, really know what you’re doing.

Second—Do know the Evil Overlord list. Avoid some common tropes!

Third—Don’t expect an incompetent villain to be taken seriously.

Fourth—Do treat your villain like a main character, not like a prop.

 

That’s all for this week! See you next time!

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: I, Villain

  1. […] I, Villain— The first question you need to ask yourself with your story is do I need a villain? Not every story does. There are plenty of stories out there where the main character is their own antagonist, or where the character faces a rival rather than a true villain, a rival who might not be on the same side of the hero, but isn’t explicitly against them either. Don’t feel the need to shoehorn a villain into a story that doesn’t need one. Take a step back, look at your basic plot (because a villain is something you’ll be deciding on quite early) and ask yourself what adding a villain could add to your story, but also take away. Is there a theme in mind that would be weakened by a villain’s actions? Would the story be weaker if the spotlight were splitting its time between your main character and your villain? Stronger? Is your heroes’ portrayal going to be strengthened by their interaction with the villain, or dilluted? […]

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