There’s all kinds of talk about how to make a great hero, but nobody really advises about the villain. But he’s the peanut butter to your hero’s jelly! His shadow on a sunny day, the yin to your hero’s yang–you get the idea–the villain is so important! Without him, your hero would be nothing. The plot, the conflict, the emotional depth, and character arc all depends on the bad guy. So why is he so often ignored?
You should spend just as much creative energy on the villain as you do the hero.
A powerful villain should have a character arc. Show your reader how he became the bad guy. Give him his own story. Doing this will make him much more relatable and formidable, thus making your hero more heroic. No villain is bad just for the sake of being bad. He’s got reasons. He may even believe he’s the good guy!
The villain/hero dynamic is far deeper than evil versus good, people. The opinions, ideas, and beliefs of both villain and hero need to strongly contrast. If your hero loves puppies, the villain should kidnap (dognap?) the hero’s puppy. If your hero supports economic protectionism and local trade, the villain should be a pitiless industry tycoon who swoons the hero into selling him his late father’s struggling business with the intent of lowballing the value of the hero’s father’s product in order to distribute globally. YIKES. What a mouthful. (Most loglines are.) But believable, yeah?
Point being–It doesn’t matter what the conflict is. If you truly believe in it, you’ll pull off the dynamic between hero and villain in a very organic way and really ramp up the tension for the reader.
I’ll help you build a great villain shortly, but let’s get literal for just a minute before moving on to the more figurative side of this topic.
HOW GRAPHIC CAN YOU GET? Genre dictates much of this. Younger YA or romance readers wont be as eager to read gruesome details as someone in the crossover age group. If the lines are a little blurry on just how much is too much, Richard Hacker details where the lines are as far as sex and violence goes for genre and age brackets.
Now, back to the figurative…
Villainy isn’t always violent.
There are so many other ways to terrify your readers! The trick is choosing a villain type who best compliments your hero. Your readers know who to root for, and you already know your hero through and through (right?). If you don’t know who your hero is yet, read my post about hero types and their characteristics. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
There, now. You’ve got a fantastic hero. Good Choice. Enter the next step: Villain Building.
Grab yourself a piece of paper and writing utensil then answer each question below. Once you get to the end of the list, you should have a skeletal villain. Maybe a few muscles.
- Male? Female?
- Scars or tattoos?
- Associations or clubs?
- Geographical location?
- Blue or white collar?
- What are their pet peeves?
- What is their weakness?
- Any strange habits?
- Do they have family?
- Any traumatic experiences?
- What do they hate?
- What do they love?
- Religious views?
- Any hobbies?
That should be enough questions to get to know your villain pretty well. But he can still fall flat at this point. You really gotta dive into his head. This is where you put the rest of the muscles, nerves, and organs in your villain. The tinier details are where the authenticity lies. The tinier details are born from the mass (skeletal stage). You’ve got to know all the little “why’s” in order to know the BIGGEST “WHY.” As in: Why do your hero and villain hate each other?
Read the 15 questions above and ask yourself “Why?” after each answer you penciled down earlier. Why does he have that habit? Why does he live there?
Try this: take your villain and walk him down the street. Let’s say he takes a seat on a park bench beside your hero. They start to chat…
I want you to be the villain. Converse with your hero. Go deep enough you find conflict. Argue with your hero. Get mad at him. Get frustrated because your hero doesn’t understand “why” you think the way you do. Focus on the core conflict and dredge that ugly beast to the surface where everyone on the park sees.
NOW YOU HAVE A VILLAIN. ‘Grats.
IN A NUTSHELL, THE VILLAIN SHOULD THREATEN THE HERO’S CORE VALUES.
Want more examples? Here are some of the best villains in literature.
FINAL WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t fall into the “mirror image” trap! If your villain and hero are exact opposites, the effect will come across as hokey, cheap, and lazy. The two should definitely contrast, but not in such a way that they become polar. Giving them commonalities can combat this polar effect and can also help build a more natural conflict.
Go ahead, take the restraints off your villain. Set him free. Your readers will be thankful you did. Your hero will hate you, but that’s okay. That’s good conflict.