I managed to read an entire book the other week and enjoy the main male character, even identify with him, just to find out he was a terrible person. That’s what makes good bad guys so intriguing: they’re human. And, is it just me, or is it really fun to mess with your reader? I know I enjoy books that manage to lure me in to that extent. To me, that means you created a truly well rounded character that is worthy of your protagonist and overall story. And, in a sense, you’ve made the reader a part of that story; I think that’s a true sign of success. In order to create a truly great villain you need to…
1. Put Yourself in His or Her Shoes
You want your reader to know this person, which means you need to know him or her just as well. If you put yourself in your character’s shoes, you’ll notice that people can convince themselves very easily that they are in the right. After all, we all have our bad moments, and we all have our blind spots to our own failings. Remember those thoughts you have when someone screws you over? Allow your character to not only have those thoughts, but indulge them.
I remember thinking, during this aforementioned, unnamed book (that you can see here) that I could see how this character convinced himself that these (HORRIBLE) choices were necessary. Because that’s who he was. You don’t necessarily have to justify their actions, but you do need to make them believable, even sympathizeable (I know that’s not a word) if that’s the type of character you want.
One such example that comes to mind for me is that of Dexter. And I thought of this because it was brought up on this Quora question feed. What C.S. Friedman says here is genius, and I highly encourage you to read it. One of the things that Friedman says is that Dexter has suffered so much that we understand and excuse what he does, which brings me to my next point.
2. Create a Rich Backstory
It is my belief that you should spend as much time on your antagonist (or antagonists—you never know) as you do on your protagonist. After all, your main character deserves a worthy opponent, no? Consider how he or she has come to this place. Like with Dexter, did he or she suffer horribly? Maybe they don’t think the way others do. Is it a mortal flaw they were born with? Something that was beat into them? A way of coping? Whatever their past is, make it so thick it can stand on its own.
And maybe you don’t tell us what it is. Perhaps your character’s backstory is one that is only known to you for 90 percent of the book, but it will still influence how we read him or her on an individual level. Regardless, people love someone with a little bit of darkness to them. One of my favorite characters in literature is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. He’s dangerous, he’s vindictive, and he is intriguing. Even after years of reading that book, I still can’t land on what I think of him, but he has the pull to keep me coming back, which is exactly what you want from your villain.
3. Give Them a Weakness or Soft Spot
But, as everyone who has read Wuthering Heights can tell you, it is important for your bad guy or woman to have a weak spot. Maybe this means they love one person (their mother, a child even), or maybe it means they care for no one. Either can be viewed as a weakness, but in order to be viewed as human (and therefore, relatable), they need to have vulnerabilities. Heathcliff had Cathy, and I really do think these weaknesses can be both the character’s saving grace and the thorn in their side.
4. Make Sure She/He is On Par With Your Protagonist
I know I’ve already mentioned that you should spend plenty of time with your villain, but I feel this can not be stressed enough. While your protagonist may have the weight of the story, the antagonist is the backbone on which he or she is resting. Without a good bad guy or thrilling want-to-love her bad girl, who is your main character fighting against (or maybe even for)? That complexity and tension is vital to a good story. While this article isn’t focused strictly on development of villains, these are some things you should consider for any well rounded character.
5. Avoid Tired Stereotypes
If you follow the above steps and really focus on seeing your villain as a person, you will hopefully avoid creating a cookie cutter bad guy. What I mean by that is a one-dimensional, purely evil, caustic character. In my opinion, you should also avoid certain stereotypes like the femme fatale and the type of flat villains that live in superhero movies, The Joker excluded. By becoming aware of what types of bad guys exist and their telltale signs, you’ll be able to avoid creating a villain that is easily found out and dismissed by page 13. I loved this article on other things a remarkable villain should be. And, as with any kind of writing, once you’ve learned the “rules,” go forth with my blessing to break them!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my fascination with bad guys and gals in literature. Please let me know in the comments below who your favorite villains are or how you enjoy conceptualizing your own.
For further reading, I enjoyed these articles:
6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys
The Secret to Creating a Really Good Bad Guy
What Makes a Great Villain? Your Checklist for Writing a Good Bad Guy