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? How can you avoid the pitfall of the melodramatic villain? Apart from cutting all instances of “Muahahaha!” of course.
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 – offence 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 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 prophesy 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 heroes. They create a sense of sympathy in the reader. Sure, we know they’re evil and that their logic is totally twisted but… they’re trying to do good, right? We want them to get caught, to lose to the hero, but we also can relate to them on a basic level.
Ask yourself why the villain feels it’s imperative he or she win. Is he protecting a loved one? Righting a wrong? On a path of revenge? Does the villain have a twisted sense of honor or selflessness he’s bringing to the table?
What I consider one of the most gut wrenching episodes of Criminal Minds comes to mind here. A killer is kidnapping innocent men at a rest stop and torturing them to death using sleep deprivation. Why? Because he believes he’s on a valiant quest to save his daughter and they have the information he needs to save her. He also blames himself for her disappearance because he stopped at a rest stop where she was taken to sleep. His sense of honor and selflessness is heart wrenching. Especially when we learn what these past events were that caused him to suffer a psychotic break and what was honorable to him was what made him a serial killer terrifying enough to call in the FBI.
Step 3: Background
With Disney’s recent venture into the origin stories of their villains, it probably isn’t surprising to see backstory on this list. 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.
Not sure where to start? Ask yourself who the negative influences were in the character’s life. Why does she make evil choices in her pursuit of her objective? What’s going on in her mind to send her down the path to villain-hood. What about the villain mirrors the hero?
My favorite example here is Regina from Once Upon a Time. She used to be a good person who wanted to be with her true love, and she grew up constantly fighting against her mother’s attempts to darken her worldview. It was when her mother murdered her love, Daniel, that Regina started her descent into becoming the truly terrifying Evil Queen.
Step 4: Skill
I cannot stress this enough. Your villain MUST BE COMPETENT! When my younger brother was a kid, he was obsessed with Phineas and Ferb. I couldn’t stand the villain from the show. He always screwed up his own plans and Phineas and Ferb won despite hardly trying.
To avoid the bumbling idiot villain, ask yourself what he is good at? How does this help him? Heist novels include skilled thieves and detectives. Voldemort and the Evil Queen were skilled with magic. Or you can look at con artists such as Neil Caffrey in White Collar. Ask yourself if other characters are drawn to your character and if he has that charming personality that makes him even more dangerous.
Whether you’re working with a smooth talking con artist, a mad scientist, or a blood thirsty wizard, crafting your villains with these things 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, crafting a realistic and sympathetic villain will bring your story that sense of realism and suspense we all crave.