If you’ve ever studied any form of visual art, such as photography, you know that light and shadow are equally important to making a well-balanced image. A good photographer uses that knowledge of light and shadow to capture the image they see in their mind. That interplay of light, though, is actually a wonderful metaphor for good and bad—and for writers, heroes and villains. In order to create a brilliant story, light and shadow must be balanced. Your antagonist must be as strong as your protagonist.
But how do you create a good villain? Here are some tips to get started:
Character Analysis is Your Friend
Whenever creating any character, one of the best ways to get to know them is by doing a character analysis or study. In the case of the villain the backstory is vital to understanding them. A villain who is evil simply because they are “bad” is going to make for a flat and uninteresting character.
Most of history’s famous villains didn’t simply become villains in a vacuum—many had horrible experiences that caused them to go “bad.” It’s commonly said that the villain is the hero of their own story. But if that’s true, there should be a reason why they believe they are in the right. Just like the hero, the villain must have a core need, want, or desire.
In order for writers to communicate the core need of the villain, they have to know what that need is. Character analysis can help unpack what that and how the villain intends to go about obtaining their goal.
Make Them Worthy
Ever wonder why the stories where the villain skillfully frustrates the hero are the most compelling? There’s one easy answer: they are worthy. The villain should be able to navigate the narrative with intelligence, wit, and skills that match the hero’s. The better matched the villain is to the hero, the higher chance there will be that the reader will be riveted. The obstacles which a skillful villain creates have stronger chances of besting the hero, making the possibility of failure for the hero more realistic. That creates tension and conflict, which is necessary to push the story forward.
A Likeable Villain?
You can’t ultimately control if a reader will like the hero more than the villain. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Stories that have villains that are so likeable that some readers actually root for the villain are often a sign of the best villains. Consider Darth Vader, or the Terminator, the Joker, or Hannibal Lecter. These villains have all been so wildly successful that they’ve gone on to become the “heroes” of their own stories and movies.
Going hand-in-hand with the character backstory, giving your villain qualities which can actually make them likeable can have the effect of making the story even more compelling. If the hero has been drawn well, the downfall of the villain can be almost bittersweet for some. These villains are the ones that transcend—the ones that readers want to know more about. They might be charming. They might even occasionally show moments of kindness.
While your goal should (usually) be to make the protagonist’s core needs more compelling than the antagonist’s, if you manage to somehow sway some readers into cheering for the bad guy, it could be a good thing. (Note, you don’t want this to be because your hero is unlikeable.)
It’s all about balance, after all. Light and shadow. Good and bad. Hero and villain. And if the light and shadow are captured well, each will serve to strengthen the other.