Crafting Villains

If you’re crafting a story, you’re creating conflict for your characters. Without this conflict stories turn into journal entries, the boring stuff most people don’t even bother posting on social media. Conflict creates worry, which keeps the reader turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. It makes them ask, will the hero live, find love, figure out the mystery, beat the clock, graduate, save the world?

Where does this conflict come from? Lots of places, but in many stories the biggest source will be your antagonist. Let’s look at Harry Potter. JK Rowling created a huge adversary for Harry to face, one so scary no one would even say his name. She also crafted him in a way that made the story stronger. As people who study craft, we always ask how? What makes a villain real and terrifying? This is the question we’ll explore going forward.

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Step 1: Objective

When you’re crafting a villain for your hero to face, start by figuring out what his objective is and how it contradicts the hero’s. A villain’s objective can be…

  • The same as the hero’s –athletes racing for the same prize, a race to the top of Mount Everest, or students vying for the same scholarship
  • In opposition to the hero’s – offense and defense in sports, Frodo & Sam versus Sauron in Lord of the Rings
  • Impersonal – the Replicators from Stargate SG-1: These are robot spiders whose sole purpose is to consume raw materials and replicate. They destroy all life in their path as a byproduct of their function

The trick with your objective is to connect the hero and the villain in such a way that neither of them can walk away. In Stargate, the replicators are on a path toward Earth and SG-1 is the front line of defense. Harry and Voldemort are connected by a prophecy and the past. A class project, a locked door, or personal stakes are all great ways to keep your hero and villain at odds.

Step 2: Motivation

The best villains think they’re good. They create a sense of sympathy in the reader. They move with purpose and act out of their own moral code. Most villains don’t realize their destructive forces.

A great villain is one we want to get caught, to lose to the hero, but one we can also understand. The reader must understand your villain’s motives, which means you should. Ask yourself why the villain feels it is imperative he or she wins. Is he protecting a loved one? Righting a wrong? On a path of revenge? A pure evil villain whose sole purpose is to destroy the hero without cause is neither original nor engaging. Without motivate, your character’s are cardboard boxes.

The key is not to treat your villain as a villain but as a human. Pour as much time and energy into him or her as you would your hero.

Step 3: Background

It isn’t surprising to see an antagonist’s backstory on many authors’ character lists. Even though you won’t use all this information in your story, knowing your villain just as well as your hero will naturally create a more realistic villain as you write.

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Not sure where to start?

Ask yourself who the negative influences were in the character’s life. Why does he or she make evil choices in their pursuit of their objective? What’s going on in her mind to send her down the path to villain-hood? What about the villain mirrors the hero?

You should spend as much time creating a well-rounded villain as you should your protagonist.

Step 4: Skill

Your villain must be competent. To avoid the incapable villain, ask yourself what he is good at? How does this help him? More importantly, what is your hero lacking? Create a villain that addresses your hero’s weaknesses.

the-joker-movieHeist novels include skilled thieves and detectives. Voldemort and the Evil Queen were skilled with magic. Your villain should be crafted out of necessity. Remember he or she is what makes your hero grow, who challenges your hero in ways no other character can – and who, ultimately, causes your hero to change.

Whether you’re working with a smooth-talking con artist, a mad psychopath or a bloodthirsty wizard, crafting your villains with your hero or heroine in mind will help you create the three-dimensional story you’ve always dreamed of telling. While it’s always important to make your reader root for the hero of your story, your villain is what pushes the story forward, forcing your hero to respond and take actions that unravel the greater meaning of your plot.

Step 5: Dialogue

Our last step is creating dialogue that engages the reader and reveals your villain’s true self. As you may know, dialogue plays a powerful role in novels and villains always seem to have the worst. Though we can’t speak for every spooky antagonist, the cliche “Muahahaha!” is, unfortunately, popular for a reason.

To create a better villain, you must create better dialogue. This rule applies to your entire novel, but in particular to your antagonist. Don’t play into the stereotypes of what you think villains should say. Instead use the above traits – objective, motivation, background and skill – to determine how your villain speaks and what he or she says.