Maleficent. Hannibal Lector. The White Witch. Literature and movies are rife with villains. Villains keep your protagonist on their toes. They keep the story moving. They make the good guy look even better and help turn pages. Stories owe a lot to villains. The question is: what makes a good one?
No Cardboard Cutouts
The best villains are ones readers love to hate…or better yet…hate to love. They are fully three-dimensional characters with backstory, an arc, and motivation that makes sense. Sure, maybe they’re totally demented at this point, but they have their reasons. Or, if your character is content to be evil, they must nonetheless have a certain bit of likeability.
Let’s take Hannibal Lector as an example. Yes, he’s a cannibalistic serial killer. That certainly goes in the “con” column. But, he has no tolerance for the gross behavior his cell block neighbor shows toward Clarice. A man does draw the line somewhere. Finally, he’s a homicidal maniac, but he’s also a brilliant psychologist with years of experience. He can help Clarice—be a mentor to her—and he is. I certainly don’t want to have dinner with him, but the character manages to be relatable in his own way.
Villains are best when they’re not abstract but rather they’re a person. Yes, the person can stand in for greed or lust or envy, but your story will go smoother if the evil is personified. Abstractions are often just that: abstract. It’s more fun for readers to really hate someone. It’s also better for constructing a plot if your hero is up against a greedy banker rather than “greed” itself.
Hero of His Own Story
A villain isn’t a villain in her own eyes. She’s the hero. Albeit, she’s a misunderstood one, in her own story. Take the stepmother in Snow White. In her mind, she’s an aging beauty who needs to do what it takes to maintain her status in a looks-and-youth-obsessed world. The closer I get to forty, the more I get it. The key is for your readers to get it too.
Make sure your villain has a backstory. We want to know why this person is acting so evil. We want to understand the motivation behind it. Just as my first tip is to flesh out these characters, you have to spend time in the villain’s shoes too. The villain is more than just how he compares to the hero. Understanding him—and getting your readers to do so too—will depend on how well you show the way the villain sees himself in the world.
A Worthy Opponent
While it’s more likely that the hero is the protagonist of your story and the villain is a secondary character, make sure your villain is a worthy opponent. Yes, the villain is there for some technical purposes, like providing plot points and as a foil to showcase your hero’s qualities. However, don’t short change the villain. Make sure she is as bad as your hero is good. Make sure she gets to win a few rounds. In fact, your villain might win throughout the book until your hero eventually pulls out a victory in the end. People turn the channel or leave the stadium when it seems like a game is a blowout. Why? It’s not just triumph that the fans want to see. They want a fight too. Be sure your villain is up to the task.