“Bad Guy” shouldn’t be synonymous with “bad character” – unfortunately, it sometimes is! Your villain is how we measure the mettle of your hero – which means your villain better make an impression. Here are four ways to make sure your villains are people, not plot devices.
…It’s not a secret that I like heroes!
What gets me excited about a project is getting to tell the protagonist’s point of view. Although I do pre-writing before I begin a new story, I discovered that I would often shirk the time required to build a compelling villain, because I simply wasn’t interested in spending time getting to know them. Unfortunately, a lacking villain makes for lacking conflict, and as we talked about in this post, without conflict there is no story!
Here are four things that have gotten me excited about my antagonists’ points of view – elevating my villains from two dimensions to three. And if you have any tips for beefing up bad guys, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
1) Think of your antagonist as a foil or duality of your protagonist.
This one is especially helpful if you’re stumped trying to create the perfect antagonist for your character.
What would the protagonist become if he embraced his flaws or refused to transform over the course of the story? What would she be if her worst traits were magnified?
Thematically, your antagonist can help reinforce the protagonist’s arc by externally embodying the protagonist’s internal conflict. In my novel, Raptor Uprising, each of the point-of-view characters (including the ones we root for!) share the same fatal flaw: an unchecked hunger for power.
We get to see how this flaw plays out in different ways, and the villains the protagonists face represent people who have allowed their lusts to alter the course of their lives.
2) Think of the antagonist as a protagonist in their own world.
Why are they compelling? Sympathetic? What’s their good quality? How do they justify their actions?
I’ve started approaching my antagonists backwards – figuring out what their good qualities are first –
so that I can empathize with them. Then I apply circumstances to them (either in backstory or present story) that forces them to make increasingly divergent choices.
In Raptor Uprising, Rafe is a sometimes ally, sometimes antagonist. Although he begins the story as nothing worse than a petty thief, unfair circumstances challenge his moral compass. I love writing Rafe’s POV because he’s a sympathetic character who can also be extremely dangerous. We’re not quite sure which side he’ll be on when the dust has settled – is he truly an antagonist or just an antihero?
You don’t necessarily have to build a “villain”; build a compelling and sympathetic character who has goals and ideals that directly oppose him with the hero.
3) If you are a plotter, make a separate outline from the villains POV.
This is something I fail to do and it always puts me in a bind because halfway through I’m like “well villain needs to do X so that plot can get to Y, but … wait a second, why is the villain even doing that? Isn’t there a simpler, smarter way to for her to get what she wants?”
The villain’s POV doesn’t have to be shown, but knowing what he wants and how he plans on getting it will make him formidable (and force the protagonist reactive).
Give the villain autonomy and intelligence – don’t just treat him/her like a plot device, treat them like characters.
4) Let them menace. (With intention).
Why is your hero the one we should be rooting for? Hopefully, he demonstrates qualities his antagonist doesn’t have – which means we need to see and understand this contrast clearly.
In horse racing, there’s a term called Failure to Menace, which means the horse didn’t challenge his competitors but was just along for the ride.
A villain that cackles evilly, rubs his hands together a lot, gives big speeches and continually plots evil, but doesn’t actually accomplish anything is a villain failing to menace. Your antagonists should win sometimes. In fact, they should probably win most of the time.
But what do I mean by “with intention”? Running at this wall from the opposite direction is the author that feels the need to really hammer it home about how truly, absolutely, positively, repulsively evil a villain is – typically by having the villain commit onscreen acts of brutality… constantly.
You should be careful, because this kind of “realism” easily skates into the same absurd territory as a villain who doesn’t do anything. As with any other character, the purpose of every scene your villain is in should be to reveal something new about them. If we’ve already seen that he kicks puppies, we don’t need more gratuitous puppy-kicking scenes. What can you tell me about him that I don’t already know? What can he accomplish onscreen that alters the status quo or advances the story?
(Actually, if your villain literally kicks puppies most people have probably already tuned out, cause Don’t Hurt the Dog™ is the golden rule. But you get me.)
So, there you have it! 4 ways to evolve your villains – and simultaneously help your story! If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check out Conflict, Stakes, Clock, because these two topics go hand in hand!