Creating the Perfect Villian-Author Toolbox

Tips for creating the perfect villain

I’m in love with one of my characters. He’s powerful, driven, and disciplined. He knows exactly what he wants and is willing to make the effort to get it. Whatever it takes. He has risked his position, his influence, his wealth, and even his life for his ideals. He’s not afraid to be unpopular, or even despised because he knows he is working toward something greater, something that will save so many lives. And though many would question his tactics, to him, the ends justify the means. He is deeply devoted to his task, and still more so, to the woman he loves, and the son he is not allowed to acknowledge. He is my perfect creation.

He is my villain.

One of the major pitfalls I see in novice writers is the dead-dull villain. The black coat in the thriller, the overbearing father in the YA, or, from my genre, the dark wizard who does nothing in the book except to sit in a black tower and think evil thoughts.

I recently read a novel whose villain had a vile mind-reading power. Poised as a child psychologist, he delved into the minds of his victims/patients during their therapy sessions. This predation on children by a person in a position of trust sent my spine into an eel-ish coil. I was hooked. Let’s take down this A-hole. How could anyone do this to a child? My mind flew through possibilities. It takes 7-10 years to become a licensed Psychologist. Whatever this guy is up to, he’s devoted a 1/3 of his life to getting it. I needed to know

Turns out he was just evil. I was devastated. All that preparation amounted to nothing.

What a waste.

Beware of cardboard villains

Stock villains are not only cliché, they are dull. They add nothing to the story. Seventy-five years ago villains were expected to be the embodiment of evil. They were separate, other. A war had a clear purpose: defeat the Nazi snake with a single villain at its head. Literature from the time reflected this ideal, but today’s worldview is different. People no longer accept the simplistic reasoning: he just chooses to be bad.

The modern villain must have a fully realized backstory. The writer must know the process by which the villain came to hold his beliefs. She must know what the villain wants, and how far he is willing to go to get it. His motivations must be clear and logical (even if it isn’t the logic you would follow). Villains can no longer be the black cape and the handlebar mustache. Villains must be fully realized characters.

What to do instead?

Treat your villain equally to your MC.

Your villain is half your story. Without Voldemort, Harry Potter’s just another kid with a crappy home life starting a new school. Give your villain the respect he deserves. Start by making a character sketch. If you’ve never done this there are dozens of examples online. Scrivener has one built in. Find something that works for you. This is where you can give him mannerisms, as well as physical descriptors. Find something to make him memorable.

Write your villain’s backstory.

Even if it never makes it into your MS, knowing more about your villain will allow you to breathe some life into him. Delve deep here. Make sure you understand his motivations. Once the motivations are established, make sure they are balanced with the effort the villain is making to accomplish his goals. If your villain is angry at your MC for breaking his toy when they were kids, he won’t spend the next 30 years perfecting a serum to give himself mutant powers so that he can take over the world and exile the MC to the moon. Make sure the motivation and the effort are in balance.

What influenced him to develop his particular set of beliefs?

Villains hold mistaken views. They believe something that isn’t true, but the journey to that belief must be realistic. Why does your villain think sending his brother to the moon will make him happy? Perhaps while he was developing his serum he had to watch your MC continue to get all the attention, fame, fortune, all while listening to your MC be an obnoxious braggart? Sending him to the moon might not be so unreasonable.

How does your villain reinforce these beliefs?

People tend to seek out like-minded people or choose to emphasize experiences that reinforce their worldview. Is he surrounded by lackeys, or is he a loner? Does he attend a weekly antagonists anonymous meeting? What do the people around him want? How do they benefit from his mistaken belief?

How does he react when life events conflict with his worldview?

Mistaken views will be constantly challenged. How does your villain react to these tests? This will define his character. Does he just start shouting louder like a cable news talking head? Does he resort to elaborate conspiracy theories? Maybe he has a moment where reform seems possible, and then anger resurfaces.

What’s next?

Once you have these finished, write a book pitch as if your villain is the MC and see how well your choices fit together.

Example: Voldemort knows the name wizard once meant something in the world, and only he knows how to bring that meaning back. He’s studied relentlessly, forsaking friends and family to perfect his craft. He’s searched the world to find the best spell-casters to stand with him. He’s even split his soul into pieces, all so he can restore the ancient legacy of his people. All the pieces are finally in place. Nothing is going to stop him, especially not a 10-year-old orphan from Privet Drive.

We know what he wants, what he’s willing to do to get it and who is standing in his way. Make sure your villain is a fully-realized character and one who actively affects your MC. Otherwise, your story might start to read like a video game with a boss battle at the end. Remember villains are people too.

So have dinner with a bad boy tonight.

Your readers will thank you.

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