Being a Better Writer: Developing Villains

This post was originally written and posted December 8th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Villains.

Let’s be honest with one another. We love villains. Even when we despise them. Darth Vader’s labored breathing is iconic. Dolores Umbrage’s fascination with kittens an understood attempt at sinister camouflage. The Joker’s fashion sense catches the eye of any comic reader.

We can admit it. In a way, we like villains. Villains are a flavor, a spice, to our worlds and universes, an intricate part of our plotting and scheming for the story at large. And … we know this. This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed villains on this blog. Nor will it be the last. A villain isn’t a needed requirement of any story, but in the event that the story requires one, having a good villain is a key factor, and so understanding how to write a good villain is going to be integral to making sure that whatever you write is as good as you can make it.

Today, though, again, we’re going to discuss a specific topic: Developing villains as a character for the reader. Which right away should tell astute followers of this blog several things. First, that—assuming our villain is the driving “force” behind the events of the story like normal—we’re writing a character-driven story. Knowing that, this means that secondly, our villain is going to be a character in this story in their own right. In other words, you’d better be giving them almost as much character work behind the scenes or in advance as the rest of your characters. After all, just because they’re the villain doesn’t mean you can skimp out on the who, what, and why of their design, even if the reader will never know about it.

Well, actually that isn’t entirely accurate now, is it? Not that last bit, but one of the first things I said. The part about plot driven versus character driven. Because today we’re talking about character development, specifically the development of villains, and that means that the lines between plot-driven and character driven are going to blur a little bit.

Why? Well, because developing a villain is not the same as developing a hero. With our heroes, development is admittedly fairly straightforward unless we’re trying to hide something. We introduce character and personality with every page of our book, every moment of action. Generally, by the end of the first chapter the reader will usually have an idea of what the main character is like and what sort of behavior—or character development—they can expect for the rest of the story.

Villains, on the other hand, aren’t quite as … accommodating. Sometimes the villain is given an elaborate introduction that explains much of their character and motivation. Sometimes they’re just given a token name, or a single action. Sometimes the villain doesn’t show up at all until more than halfway through the story. Or maybe they show up right away and then take a gradual curve from serving as a force archetype to an actual character.

Case in point for that last one, let’s take a quick look at Star Wars and Darth Vader. In the first film, Vader is little more than a force. There’s character there, to be sure, but the viewers hardly see it. Vader is more of an archetype to represent the might of the Empire and serve as a vehicle for the heroes than a well-developed character in his own right.

At least, until about partway through the second movie, when the viewer finally gets some stunning revelations that throw Vader’s character and motivations into an entirely new light that give him a bit more personality.

All right, this is meandering a little, but this my point: Developing a villain as a character is hard. That’s why so many people ask about it, and why so many novice authors will generally treat the villain as either a force or dump everything about them in one go like a primary character (we talked a little about that last week).

So, if we’re going to go about developing a villain as a character, how should we do it? Well, the first thing you should do is know what you want to do with your villain. Now I’m not talking about what their plans are or how they’re going to go about getting in the hero’s way—although that’s important as well—but rather that you know how you want your villain to be a part of your story. Do you want them to be a character or a force? Which will serve your story better? Because there’s nothing wrong with a villain who serves as a force—look at the aforementioned first Star Wars film. Darth Vader was just as iconic when all you knew was that he was an evil heavy breather who’d betrayed the Jedi order, murdered Luke’s father, and seemed to ominously appear whenever things got real.

Once you’ve decided exactly what you want to do with your villain, and what role they’ll serve your story best in, then you can start worrying about how to develop them. For the reader, of course. If you’ve done your work properly, a villains should already be worked out, just like any other character. But now, when it comes to developing their character for the reader, what options do you have?

Here’s where things get really complicated. Because a villain is more than just a character. A villain is also an opposing force. So how you choose to develop them actually does a lot to change the overall feel of your story.

Let’s look at The Dark Knight for a moment. How does it open? With the Joker pulling off a bank heist in which he kills his own men one by one so he doesn’t have to pay any of them—a heist in which none of the men who are working for him know he’s on. It’s a very striking introduction to the villain. We’re seeing him before the hero, getting his own word and actions on how he sees and views the world, and seeing the results of his efforts.

But … how does this change the storytelling of the rest of the movie? Well, compare The Dark Knight to its forerunner, Batman Begins. In Begins, the villain of the piece—Ra’s Al Ghul—was a force who only appeared/revealed his hand in things near the end. As a result, look at the film’s focus. How many scenes starred Ra’s alone, without the interference of the hero? Now compare that back to The Dark Knight, where we’re given scene after scene about the Joker that are solely about the Joker, scenes which serve only to build his character and his part in the narrative.

It’s quite a different feel, overall, for the story. It makes the Joker a character, yes, but at the same time it could be rightfully said that it changes the narrative structure of the entire piece. The Dark Knight isn’t just about Bruce Wayne anymore, it’s as much about the Joker and as the film progresses, about the dichotomy and interaction between the pair of them as an unstoppable object and an immovable force (where Begins was about Batman/Bruce Wayne alone).

There is nothing bad about this … Unless you as the writer of such a story did not want that comparison, that equivalent amount of time to be spent on the villain. And even then, if you did, such a narrative tool means that your villain must be strong enough to stand on their own feet, so to speak, because a large amount of the narrative weight will fall to them. Which means that if you want to develop your villain in this manner—by making them a character with their own scenes and chapters much like a hero—you’re going to have to be prepared for both the narrative weight that your villain will wield, and the differences in the story that will create.

Effectively, what you have with developing a villain is a seesaw—a weighted balance of focus across the narrative that can tilt either towards the villain or the hero. With a story like The Dark Knight‘s, the balance is pretty equal, and a lot of narrative time, effort, and strength is given to the villain. The more development you give or don’t give to your villain, the more that seesaw is going to slide one way or the other.

Alright, so we’ve quite thoroughly discussed giving the villain an equal amount of time and treating them like a character in the story, and that’s a pretty straightforward method for developing a villain. But what if you don’t want to make the villain as much of a centerpiece of the story as the hero, but still want to develop them, what do you do?

Well, you can gradually introduce the villain. Among the most common methods of developing villains, this is usually the most common. Used everywhere from Star Wars to Harry Potter, this is a technique that strikes a balance between having a villain who can be a force and a villain who steals as much time as the hero. It’s a villain who starts out as little more than a force, but then gets developed as the story moves along. It could be a Darth Vader scenario, where the villain holds details about the hero’s past. Or it could be a Voldemort scenario, where the main character goes on a specific quest to learn about the villain and along the way grows to understand them. Or it could be another scenario entirely, say for example a war where the hero and the villain are on opposing sides, and what begins as the opposition, with time and communication becomes a war of character instead of soldiers.

There are a million ways to do this. Maybe more. Some are subtle. Some are obvious. Video games have lately really explored this in an optional, obvious method with audio logs, allowing the player to experience a little of the villain at a time. Books might have a villain who monologues. Others can have a scene where the hero has dinner with the villain (sometimes before the reader or the hero even know it’s the villain).

Ah, but before I forget, there is a key feature to remember with this method: make the most of the scenes where this happens.

What do I mean by that? That you can’t afford to waste space or words when you’re giving your villain development. With your hero, you can beat around the bush a bit. You can take your time to let certain traits, ideals, or attitudes come to light.

If you’re developing your villain over the course of the story, you can’t afford to do that. At least, not when you’re directly spending time on the villain. In moments when your characters muse about their antagonist, sure, maybe. But in the moments when that villain is on display, either as the recognized villain or not, you need to make certain that every movement, every word, is calculated to some purpose. You have make the most of their appearance in order to convey the character and purpose you want them to have.

This is not easy, and that’s why I mentioned the importance of working your villain out beforehand. You’ll need to know your villain in order for such scenes to be effective uses of your time. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a scene that works at cross-purposes with your hero.

Now, what about moments where the villain isn’t the spotlight? What if you want to develop your villain without them being in the scene? Well, there are ways you can do that as well. Reactions from the heroes—or better yet, heroes attempting to understand the villains—can be a very subtle way to develop a villain.

You can also use the results of the villain’s choices to help the reader understand them as well. Joker’s casual, one by one slaughter of his own men in The Dark Knight, for example, develops his character. A villain who carefully plots out each action and only acts when absolutely necessary versus a villain who lashes out at the first moment. Or even a villain who puts on a show of doing one of those things while actually they’re carefully concealing their true actions …

Right, I’m getting a little off topic here. At it’s core, developing a villain isn’t much different from developing any other major character. You’ll have a history, ideals, traits. All that good stuff.

But where it will all change is the presentation. Giving weight to the villain, scenes to the villain, can shift the narrative tone of your story, even take it in directions you neither wanted nor expected, and you have to be careful of such choices. Will you make them a character up front who operates in their own chapters alongside the hero, or will you allow them to grow over the course of the story?

As with many things, the choice is up to you. And it may take some practice to get right, maybe even a few false starts. But in the end, when your villain becomes a beloved “love-to-hate-them” character, it’ll be worth it.

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