Heroes and Villains: The Villain
Follows: The Hero
Heroes and villains. The good guy and the bad guy. The protagonist and the antagonist. A character or characters that’s stories are bound together until the very end. In this series of essays, we’re going to be looking at how to make interesting heroes and villains. For this second essay, we’re looking at villains.
Villains. The bad guy—or gal—the monster in the dark, the epitome of all things evil. A good villain is much more than this, however. The villain so evil that the ground does beneath their feet is alright, but it’s not particularly memorable. If we take a look at The Joker, from DC Comic’s Batman, he creates chaos for the sake of creating chaos. This is fine, but gets boring quite quickly, to me anyway. My main issue with it is that it isn’t how the real world works. Sure, there have been a couple of evil people throughout history but the vast majority of villains are doing something because they believe it to be the right thing. They’re the heroes of their own story. The Joker is evil because he wants to be evil. While that does create a character that’s hard to predict the next move of, I find that they become too unpredictable. So, what can you do to stop that?
When your villains have that streak of goodness in them it creates a true sense of “what will they do next?” Are they going to kill the hero or are they going to help them? I think my favourite example of this kind of villain, if not my favourite character generally, is Magneto. He’s definitely a bad guy but he’s donned his cape to help the rest of the X-Men fight against a common foe on more than one occasion. He fights for his goals but, at their core, those goals are to provide a safe place for mutants where they aren’t hunted or persecuted for the way they’re born. That sounds like a pretty noble cause to me. He just goes about it in an evil way.
In Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, Lestat does quite a good job of being a villain with morals. He will often be doing what he does to satisfy the classic set of evildoers’ emotions—pride, jealousy, greed, anger. But he also has a moral compass. He cares for his father when there’s nobody else to do it; he helps Renaud, his old manager and tries to feed from criminals instead of innocents. What makes him an interesting villain is the fact that he doesn’t always use this moral compass. He isn’t against doing the right thing, but he isn’t going to do it all the time.
What I love most about these types of villains, however, is the fact that I’m inclined to agree with them. Much like a hero with a dark side, I end up asking myself the same questions: “Are they right?”. Is Magneto right to kill people who hunt and persecute his kind? Is Lestat’s disdain for humanity appropriate? I have my own personal feelings on these issues and I’m sure you will too. They may be the same or they may differ. But the characters are memorable and I end up sympathising with them. You will put the book down and, hopefully, think about the moral dilemma it raised for some time to come. You don’t just stop reading and move onto the next one. The characters and the story stay with you.
How do you make a character that memorable? There are two things that you need to make sure that you have to make sure are spot-on: motive and backstory.
When you have a villain who is doing good deeds you have to make sure that you have their motive locked down. A villain who’s doing good because they want to do good is a hero. If they’re going to be committing good you need to make sure that it serves their purpose, not the greater good. The serial killer who leads the police to another killer in the area so they can hunt unimpeded by someone invading their turf. Their acts of evil will be to satisfy their own agenda or their own core needs; the acts of goodness have to satisfy this too. Much like heroes, the good needs to be proportional to the evil. The villain who spends half your book burning down orphanages but has the odd habit of saving kittens from trees doesn’t really count. But if they were burning down the orphanages to try and get the worker who abused them as a child, that could work. They’re still a villain, but you can sympathise with their plight, even if it’s just a little.
A villain’s backstory doesn’t always make it into the book. Whether you are going to write it in or not, you have to know their story as well as you know the hero’s. Without a backstory neither you nor the reader will care for the villain, or sympathise with them. Ultimately, you need to make your readers sympathise with the bad guy. This is almost completely done through their backstory. I don’t care about a serial killer. They’re a killer. But a killer who targets people as an act of revenge for what happened to them in the past I can sympathise with.
It certainly isn’t an easy thing to do to create a villain that dabbles into hero territory. It’s also very easy to slip into creating someone who is essentially a hero. The hero who commits evil and the villain who commits good are extremely close together and you need to make sure that you don’t slip to the other side of the line. You need to make sure that you have right balance of backstory, motive and character so that your villain is relatable, understandable and something that your readers can sympathise with. Keep practicing, keep going until you get it right. It really is worth it in the end.
Next: The Relationship
© 2016 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.