Who’s your favorite bad guy? Do you love to hate Darth Vader (or Anakin Skywalker?) Does Heath Ledger’s Joker strike fear into your heart? Or are you more attuned to the Borg Collective?
All three (four?) have their strengths and weaknesses.
Anakin turned evil because of love. The Borg are victims in their own right, no longer having any individual thoughts or emotions. And the Joker! Did anybody ever find out what really happened to crack that man’s melon?
What is it about these bad guys that make them tick? Why are they memorable?
Most importantly, how can you write a kick-ass villain that lingers in your reader’s mind long after the story has ended?
Conflict is a major driver in any fictional account. (It’s good to have in biographies, too.)
A good villain drives conflict. Keep that in mind as you began brainstorming what type of person you need for your plot.
According to Wikipedia, conflict is classified as:
Man Against Man (or Woman against Woman);
Man Against Society;
Man Against Nature; or
Man Against Self.
Depending on your storyline, use one of these classifications upon which to focus your attention. One of them should yield up an idea or two.
You know the type of person you need for your villain. Now define him or her.
Is evil required? Insanity? Do you need an omnipotent being to torment your protagonist, or will a bitchy boss do just fine?
What role will your villain play? Remember that the villain drives conflict, therefore s/he should stay one step ahead of your main characters throughout the novel.
Or lack thereof
Okay, so why does your villain act that way? You’ve decided you need a bitchy boss with the added mental facilities of a Mensa member. Why does s/he detest and/or interfere with your main character?
I know, I know. In life you sometimes run across people who you just dislike or rub you the wrong way. Everybody has had that happen.
That doesn’t work so well in fiction.
Automatic dislike isn’t good reading material without something more visceral backing it up. People read novels to escape from their day-to-day existence — while realism is awesome in most circumstances, try to keep the level of mundanity (is that a word?) to a minimum. Consider the cause of the hatred your villain displays.
(Goals again! I can’t get away from this blog topic, I swear!)
You know what you need in the story, you’ve defined a role for your villain and determined the reason s/he acts the part. You might even have an idea of what sort of goal your bad guy wants to attain.
That’s not what I’m talking about here. In this case, it’s not what your villain is striving for so much as a reminder to you, the writer, of what your villain represents:
That’s it. Nothing more.
That is the reason why all bad guys exist. Neo would have been so vanilla without Agent Smith in The Matrix. Darth Vader ramped up Luke Skywalker’s desire to become a Jedi master (both “as my father before me” and as a need for the skills to defeat his enemy.)
So consider how your bad guy will disrupt your main character’s life.
I’d say this is pretty traumatic…wouldn’t you?
All right, we’ve got the broad strokes down. This overall and amorphous being is beginning to take shape in your imagination. It’s time to narrow things down, fine tune your villain a bit.
Hopefully, by this point you’ll have more than just a vague idea for your antagonist. Even if you do, keep reading. There might be something else you can use below.
There s/he is, a general blurb on a piece of paper. You’ve chosen how s/he’ll conflict the main character, you’ve defined the type of villain (bat-$**t crazy versus jealous lover, etc.) and you’ve created a reason for this person to interfere in the lives of your protagonist.
Now, create a single traumatic incident in your villain’s life.
Yeah, the story is about your main character, but a serious trauma in your bad guy’s history makes serious sense.
It’s one thing to have living, breathing protagonists in your novel. Everybody enjoys an excellent character-driven story-line. If you have that type of main character, good on you!
But with a two dimensional villain, the novel falls flat. (Pun intended.)
Who would ever believe that you’re rockstar main character would ever fall for the cheap tricks of a lamely written bad guy?
What traumatic incident has your villain survived (or maybe didn’t really survive)?
Counter the Trauma
Next up, counter that trauma with something lovable. Anything lovable.
It’s expected that villains (especially the bat-$**t crazy ones) have some sort of traumatic childhood that caused their malicious insanity. But that’s not what makes them human.
Having something they love humanizes your bad guy better than anything.
Callisto on Xena: Warrior Princess is a prime example. Her village was burned to the ground by Conqueror Xena, and she lost her entire family. She adored her family, a love that twisted her into the insane woman that she became.
(Heck, it could be argued that Callisto eventually came to love Xena, the person responsible for her insanity. If that ain’t conflict, I don’t know what is!)
Your villain has endured a trauma and also loves something unconditionally. Let’s add one more thing to round him or her out, shall we?
Add a fear – spiders, the great outdoors, canned hams, whatever.
Nothing shows vulnerability better than a fear of snakes (or what have you.)
Why would you want your bad-ass bitchy boss villain to have any sort of vulnerability?
So that the reader can empathize with the character.
Tell me that you didn’t watch the Joker’s first explaination about his scars without the least amount of interest. “Ah, that’s what happened! How tragic!”
(It was only after he gave a completely different explanation the second time that you realized he was more screwed up than you’d given him credit for!)
Giving the reader that “Ah, how tragic!” moment is the best thing you can do. That means your villain is no longer a cardboard cut-out, your reader is deep in the mythos of your novel, and when your main character wins the day, your reader will cheer aloud!
Tell me, what’s your main character like? Beautiful, driven, ambitious? Probably pretty intelligent, too, right? I mean who wants to read about an idiot stumbling around, know what I’m saying?
What about your bad guy? Beautiful, driven, ambitious? Dumb as a post?
Remember that conflict drives the story. Remember that the villain drives the conflict.
An idiot isn’t going to be much of a foil for your awesome protagonist. In fact, a stupid villain will make your main character look ridiculous in return.
Villainy = Heroism
So, which one of these is the good guy again?
A well-rounded out bad guy is a hero in his or her mind. They have every valid reason to pursue the course of action they’re following.
It’s just that their methods aren’t always as moral or upstanding as other people.
I’ll leave you with this article by screenwriter John August. It’s short, sweet and so very true.
Now you have a solid background and knowledge of your villain. As you outline your book (or figure out the next scene for you pantsters,) keep your villain’s background and vulnerability in mind.
And give your main character hell!