Welcome back to the second installment of our October mini-series on creating irresistible heroes and villains. Today, we're diving into the great villain debate, a.k.a. how to create villains that are realistic and believable rather than stereotypical.
Picture this for a moment:
The tall creepy man, twirling his mustache or twisting his hands, cackling as he looks down at the captive hero and begins to reveal his evil plan. "But why?! Why would you do such a thing?" our hero shouts.
And the villain launches into his epic monologue, sharing his sad backstory and his plan for getting vengeance on all those who have hurt him...
That's quite the cardboard cutout of a good villain, isn't it? Flimsy, no substance, no realism.
And yet, that image is just a stroke away from many of the villains we see in novels today. The cold, unflinching bad guy who will stop at nothing to see their backwards, twisted plan play out. You've seen it time and time again. And it's pretty boring, right?
It's our jobs as authors to put an end to it, to create interesting villains whose actions keep readers on the edge of their seats. But how? By creating believable villains. Villains of substance and grit...
So how do we go about crafting believable villains?
The answer to that question is both incredibly simple and unbelievably complex.
The simple answer? By treating our villains as human.
Oftentimes, authors spend so much time propping up their heroes, fleshing them out, making them rich and complex, and so on, that they forget any hero is only one half of a good story.
That every hero needs a villain, and those villains need to be just as complex and fleshed out–even if they're sharing less screen time than their noble counterpart.
But how does one go about creating a human character from scratch?
This is a question that writers struggle with all the time. We're constantly trying to learn more about our heroes, from their appearances to their backstories, from their likes and dislikes to their dreams and fears. We constantly work on getting to know our heroes better and better.
But for some reason, we have it in our head that creating a good villain is somehow different.
And that's just not true!
It's time for Crafting Villains 101...
Though there are plenty of ways to go about the characterization process, here are a few steps that you should absolutely hit as you work. In no particular order, of course:
- Give them a goal. This is a rather basic question that you probably ask even if your villain is just a cackling, mustache-twirling maniac, but it's a vital one nonetheless: What does your villain want?
Do they simply want to stop the hero from achieving their goal? Do they have an alternative goal of their own? Do they want the same thing the hero wants? Finding that goal is one half of creating your story's core conflict.
- Give them a motivation. Why is the villain chasing down their goal? Is it out of selfishness or self-preservation? Do they want to protect or gain power over their loved ones or a people group? What drives them to take action?
Sometimes villains do bad things for good reasons. Other times they do good things for bad reasons. It's your job to figure out what those reasons are.
- Give them a personality. "Evil" is not, in fact, a personality. And "cruel, brutal, and arrogant" is also not a complete, fully-developed personality. People are complex. Your villains should be, too!
Click here to work through my favorite personality-building technique.
- Get to know what matters most. And finally, don't forget to get to know your villain. Not just what they want and how they act, but who they are. All of their hopes, fears, regrets, etc. This is what makes your characters believable and human, no matter their role in the story.
Where do you even begin with such a task? I recommend this She's Novel guide.
This is the same characterization process I put each of my heroes through. Because at the end of the day, heroes and villains alike believe they are the good guy. Treat them like they believe it, like they're the heroes of their own stories, and you'll create characters readers can believe in.
But we're not done yet!
There's one last thing we need to talk about, one last thing that will help you create a believable villain, and that is this: the epic villain monologue. Or rather, ditching the epic villain monologue.
Let's face it...there is nothing epic or realistic about the villain spilling their entire plan to the captive hero instead of, you know, actually acting out that plan.
So why is the epic villain monologue even a thing?
Well, usually because writers are trying to make the villain seem well-rounded by letting them talk about themselves. But the problem is that, because villains often only pop up to fight the hero and then disappear, they don't get much screen time.
So writers tend to think that the only time they can let readers catch a real glimpse of what their villain is like is when they're on the screen but not fighting anyone...such as when our precious hero is captured and the villain can finally get a word in.
Enter the monologue...
But in all honestly, that's poor writing. By infodumping your villain's characterization instead of working it naturally into the narrative, you're doing a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing.
I mean, imagine being at a party and meeting someone, only to have them say:
"I'm Kyle. I want to move up the corporate ladder and get myself a nice wife and some kids. I have a bit of a temper sometimes, but I'm very compassionate and I have a great sense of humor. And by the way, I really like dogs and country music, and the reason I work so hard is because I never felt good enough for my strict parents. Shall we go on a date?"
Um, no. No, we shouldn't.
But that's essentially what an epic villain monologue forces on your hero–and your poor readers.
So how do we avoid the monologue?
Well, the details will differ for each story, but here are a few ideas for you. Keep in mind, you don't have to hit all of these marks. They're just to fire up your inspiration:
- Have the hero and villain meet early on, perhaps before the hero (and readers!) realize the villain is, in fact, the villain.
- Show the villain interacting with people besides the hero.
- Put the villain under different kinds of stress each time they and the hero interact.
- Have characters talk about how they view the villain.
- Have the hero come to conclusions about the villain based on the information they gather throughout the story.
- Have the hero meet someone that views the villain with pity or love.
- Take something away from the villain and show their reaction.
- Show the villain at their comfort or outside of an instance of conflict.
I think the biggest weapon that authors forget they have in their arsenal is, in fact, the hero's own thoughts.
People are constantly gathering information about their surroundings and drawing conclusions from that information, and those surroundings include people.
As your hero interacts with the villain, people who know the villain, and people who have been affected by the villain's actions, they are bound to draw conclusions about who the villain is, what they want, and why they want it.
Sometimes, the hero may be wrong or misled in their conclusions, but I think it's safe for their conclusions to, in most cases, be treated as correct so you can avoid making your readers suffer through a boring monologue later.
Don't you agree?
Have you struggled to create believable villains in the past? How do you feel about the information and techniques I laid out in today's blog post? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Share your opinions and questions in the comments below, friend. I can't wait to hear from you!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!