Every writer prefers a certain type of villain.
Sometimes a dark, scheming figure is just what our novel needs to add a spike of fear. Other stories require a subtle, crafty fellow to deliver a shocking twist at the right moment. No matter what type of scoundrel we like to write, we all want one thing: for our readers to take our villains seriously.
We’ve all seen those mustache-curling, cat-petting, village-murdering villains that are as common as bones in a graveyard. Readers can’t believe or fear these villains. These flat characters drive away empathy because they lack complexity.
Think about the clichéd characters you’ve seen. The charming prince. The cruel stepmother. The blundering idiot comic. The hardcore assassin.
What do all these characters have in common? They each have one trait that is overemphasized so much it becomes the sum of their personality. The prince is charming. The mother is cruel. The comic is an idiot. The assassin is hardcore.
If we take a single trait and don’t expand beyond it, our villain will become an extreme bundle of unbelievability like the characters above. Our villain misses the multidimensional nature real people have because his single trait is highlighted too much.
The best way to make sure our villains are not the sum of one trait is to develop them. Since I’ve already discussed the four traits every dimensional character needs in a previous article, I’m going to work off the premise that we’ve already integrated these elements into our villain. But if you need a refresher on how to flesh out a character before continuing, read the article here.
Once we’ve managed to create the necessary elements for a realistic bad guy, we need to make sure readers actually see that side of our villain.
An introduction is what initially fascinates readers with your villain. It draws them to parts later in the story when they learn about the bad guy’s human side, a.k.a. his motivations.
In order for our introduction to catch reader’s attention, it must contain a hint of our villain’s layered nature. Something in the introduction needs to leave readers feeling that this bad guy is different from the boring, one-sided fellows they’ve seen before. It must contain enough dimension and mystery that readers find themselves willing to learn more.
For instance, Thanos’ introduction in Avengers: Infinity War, was both striking and informative. We knew from the start he was a unique character through his introspective wonderings, powerful face-off with the Hulk, and the adoration of his underling, Ebony Maw. We saw facets of his personality through his words, actions, and how others treated him. We too can take advantage of these tools to show readers that our villain is special from the moment his steps into the first scene.
Side note: a villain doesn’t always need to be introduced in person early on in the story. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, the main villain wasn’t seen by the MC for an incredibly long time. However, readers knew the Lord Ruler existed because his actions spoke for him. Readers knew him because of how he oppressed the people. While it is harder to show a villain’s complexity through the wreckage he leaves behind, actions can speak for a bad guy’s nature until he shows up.
This step doesn’t suit all books. Not every writer will want or need to concentrate on an antagonist with this level of depth, but if a POV will fit with the narrative and plot, it may be something to consider. Antagonists are (arguably) as important as protagonists and showing the insides of their head may bring readers a new understanding of their desires and motivations.
Villain monologues can be cliché, but we can’t fear them so much that we never let a villain talk about his motives. When our villain and protagonist meet, we have a golden opportunity to contrast their worldviews and reveal motivations.
To keep a conversation like that from boring readers, we need to make sure readers are fascinated enough with the character to want to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Once readers become desperate for the information, they won’t care if it’s hidden in a villain speech or scattered through multiple scenes.
Creating a dimensional villain comes down to where we place our attention. If we neglect our villain, that lack of effort will show in the story. But if we give our villain the time of day, readers will not only find themselves in the presence of a good villain but of a human one.
What do you think makes a well-developed villain? How do you show readers their humanity? Let me know in the comments below!
The Introvert (A.K.A. Gabrielle R. Pollack)