Playing the Villain (Well)

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We love to hate them. Maybe we also – secretly – just love them. They stalk in the shadows, twirl ugly mustaches, and make the story interesting. They are the villains. What is a villain, though? Are they doomed to fight on the losing side in every story? Most importantly, why do we like them so much?

What Is a Villain?

You know them when you see them. They may be nefarious, cruel, or generally unpleasant. Many only reveal their true colors in a twist ending, and some redeem themselves, transforming into heroes. Villainy is just as complex, if not more so, than heroism, and people have various definitions of what it takes to make a true “villain.” That said, in fiction a villain is most easily defined as a character driven by motives that go against the common good or against the recognized hero’s objectives. A villain is more than just a foil for your prince charming, though.

Villains and Antagonists

Remember, your villain may not be your antagonist. Although in a traditional saga, adventure, or drama, the villainous antagonist works against the heroic protagonist, that doesn’t always have to be the case. Your villain may be the protagonist, and your hero may be the antagonist. Essentially whenever your villain is your primary character, they serve as the protagonist. Even if they are notably evil, your audience will, or should, empathize with them to the point that they want to cheer them on. They may feel guilty for cheering against the apparent hero, but if you spend enough time in a character’s head, readers will inevitably feel some level of kinship with them.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Humanity

To write a great villain, you have to remember one, simple thing: your villain is human. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but they should be few and far between. Exceptions also drift away from being a villain and turn into a force of nature that serves as an antagonist rather than a character that plays the villain. For example, lots of paranormal and fantasy narratives utilize demons as villains. The show Supernatural gained popularity in part because of its humanization of demons. Yeah, they’re still bad, but you, guiltily, like having them around. Crowley is a prime example, but he isn’t the only one. Other stories use demonic entities as literal reflections of the hero’s inner demons, treating them more as nuances of the heroes themselves or elemental forces, reducing them from true villain status.

A villain needs to be a character. Give them everything you give the hero. Where did they come from? What do they want? Who do they care about, and who do they dislike? How do they spend their free time? Make them real by giving them context, and complexity will follow. In real life, most questions of morality boil down to shades of grey, and pitting two fully developed characters against each other – good or evil – will create a much more nuanced plot.

Villains make your story interesting, and they don’t have to concoct dastardly plans to blow up the world in order to fill the role. Close ties with your hero, painful misunderstandings, and other human interactions will do as much to cement their status as a grandiose mustache.

Look at what scares you. Then think about what makes you sad. Those are the roots of your ultimate villain.

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  1. Thank you. An interesting post. Many women are drawn to rogues, I understand… but are wary when it comes to out and out villains. I suppose It’s all a matter of taste and whether they enjoy living on the wild side! (Great in literature.)

  2. Great article Mindy!! Keep up the good work! Though I personally feel that the more successful the novel, the more two dimensional its characters (both villains and heroes) tend to be! Which is why I rarely read fiction these days! As almost all the writers and novels with Depth, seem of recent decades to get screened out by publishers! To the point libraries have become (at least in my eyes) tombstone filled Tombstones to Literature! Of course I am mere a wannabe writer who cannot write well, so . . .

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